Pai had come highly recommended from many of the backpackers I had met in SE Asia. It did not disappoint.
Pai is a small town set in the mountains of Northern Thailand with a slow, easy-going atmosphere. The once-hidden gem is now overrun with tourists but the laid back and friendly vibe has remained, making it my favorite place that I visited in Thailand.
Pai is accessed from Chiang Rai by taking a winding road that has 762 curves.
If you ever came to Pai you would know this random fact too because 90% of the T-shirts sold in Pai’s street market have “762 curves” text written somewhere on them. The lack of originality is disappointing – I wanted a Pai T-shirt but ultimately didn’t end up getting one because nearly all of them had the “762 curves” text.
The minivan ride from Chiang Rai was long and involved exactly 762 instances of me leaning on the passenger next to me or her leaning on me. My first night in Pai I haggled for a nice hotel room and headed out to a the Rasta Art Bar, a bar with graffiti art on every wall.
After a few games of pool with some fellows from the U.K. the police “raided” the bar and shut it down but I was not sure of the reason.
My first day in Pai I wanted to hike to the Mae Yen Waterfall, purportedly a pleasant 6-km hike. My hike started with a walk through the city center’s “walking street”, which led me past Pai’s sole temple, simple and elegant.
Some sort of weird political procession was also making its way along the walking street.
These truck-with-loudspeaker drive-bys occur all over SE Asia. In Sam Neua I had seen one spouting Laos communist propaganda in the morning. Its not such a bad thing, just a minor annoyance. Most people pay them no notice.
From the city center I crossed the only bridge in Pai, which provides transport over the Pai river.
On one side of the river there was a long row of tents set up – these folks had no problem with sleeping in a tent sans shower for a few days, particularly in light of the Job 2 Do reggae concert that would happen the following night.
After crossing the bridge I saw the bar I had visited the night before – the art on its walls was local and colorful.
The hike to the Mae Yen Waterfall trailhead was pleasant, leading me past rolling farmland that I grown used to seeing all over SE Asia.
The hike to the waterfall was a different story. Five minutes into the hike I was forced to take off my shoes off and wade through the stream fed by the waterfall.
The trail to Mae Yen Waterfall is overgrown, disappears at points, and crisscrosses over the stream every 50 meters, making it impractical to keep taking off and putting on your shoes. This meant we were walking barefoot through nettles and sharp rocks whenever were not wading through the stream, which at certain points got high as my thighs.
After about 45 minutes I had had enough of this. I told the group I was hiking with that I was heading back. I did not mind looking like “the quitter.” I was simply not enjoying myself. Later that night I ran into one of the folks I had hiked with, Alejandro Nunez, and asked him how the hike had finished up.
He told me that they had walked for another two hours, continuing the uncomfortable process of stream-wading and barefoot trekking, before giving up and turning back. He told me that I was smart for turning back earlier. Just goes to show that depending on the activity, sometimes it is smart to be the first “quitter.” To anyone coming to Pai I would thoroughly recommend against hiking to the Mae Yen Waterfall.
Pai’s street market lights up at night with lots of entertaining street performers, tasty street food, and t-shirt shops, all there to catch the eye of the growing tourist population that visits Pai each year.
As I’ve mentioned before when you are traveling in a certain region you inevitably run into travelers that you’ve seen in prior places in that region. The best example I have of this is a guy named Yehuda, a backpacker from Tel Aviv that I ran into for a third time in as many countries at the street market in Pai. Among other things, Yehuda is intelligent, easygoing, extremely fit, and a genuinely nice guy.
I met Yehuda for the first time on a beach in Nha Trang, Vietnam. We exchanged information and he encouraged me to visit him in Tel Aviv when I have a chance. When we last emailed each other a few days ago he kept that offer on the table and I assured him that within a year I will be taking him up on it.
A month after running into Yehuda in Nha Trang I ran into him in the street market in Loang Prabang, Laos. I asked him how his travels had been since then and he responded with a tale that most backpackers could never tell. It turns out that right after we ran into each other in Vietnam in early November Israel called up 75,000 of its reserves, Yehuda among them, in preparation for an imminent war in Gaza. Days after I met Yehuda he had to buy a flight home and get straight to his training facility in Israel to begin exercises in preparation for a war that looked like it would start within days.
After a week of training Yehuda was ready to go to war for his country and then, all of a sudden, cease fire. As an aside, it appears that calling this cease fire was not a perfect way to stall or end this never-ending conflict but that is not a subject for this blog post. Once the cease fire had been agreed upon, Israel told Yehuda he could go back home – they would no longer need him (at this time).
Yehuda didn’t want to simply go back to his apartment in Tel Aviv. His backpacking trip in SE Asia had been interrupted and he figured why not continue it? So he bought another ticket back to SE Asia and then, in mid-December, I ran into him for a third time in a third country, at the street market in Pai, Thailand.
A smart decision, Yehuda is pursing what he loves and making the most of it, despite being on the verge of getting thrown into what most certainly could have been a violent conflict. Meeting people like Yehuda and hearing his story, always told with a warm, cavalier, smile on his face, is one of the main reasons I love backpacking.
Little did Yehuda know that after avoiding violence in the Gaza Strip, later that night he would be getting involved in violence at a bar in Pai. Don’t Cry Bar was celebrating an anniversary and with it, a free barbeque and a live band. The bar was absolutely packed around midnight and right about then an Aussie who had been a little too obnoxious to three Thai guys for a little too long finally got his comeuppance.
All of a sudden, about five meters from Yehuda and I one of the Thai guys (all half the size of the Aussie) came up and broke a bottle over the Aussie’s head. The Aussie didn’t go down easy though – for the next sixty seconds he fought them off as they proceeded to punch him and break another object, this time a chair, over his head.
Did I mention Yehuda was a good guy? While my jaw was still on the floor from witnessing the carnage Yehuda had sprung into action, attempting to break up the fight and help the Aussie from the gang beat down he was (probably deservedly) suffering. It is difficult for a victim in a fight to differentiate between friend and foe and the Aussie mistook Yehuda for an enemy, shoving Yehuda off into some broken glass from the bottle. Unfortunately Yehuda was wearing sandals that night.
Sometimes it is just better not to be the good Samaritan, a lesson I had learned years ago in Lagos, Portugal. But Yehuda is a better man than I. Ultimately the Aussie had to go the hospital but one of the Thai guys didn’t make it out unscathed either.
He kept telling me “I’m fine. I don’t need to go to the hospital.” While I observed the girl’s failed attempts to suture his head shut I kept arguing with him and telling him that he needed to go to the hospital. When the girl joined my attempt to convince the guy he needed stiches he finally relented and agreed to let someone take him to the hospital to get his profusely bleeding head shut.
Just another night in Pai….In reality Pai is a very peaceful, laid back place. That night was an anniversary-party-obnoxious-Aussie-induced anomaly.
The next day I decided to conform to Pai’s normal mode of transportation, the moto. To access most of the sights around Pai it is easiest to simply rent a moto, as is the custom around many other places in SE Asia. But unlike other places in SE Asia, in Pai renting a moto to get around is the way all the backpackers (and locals) do it.
You rarely see someone walking unless it is at night on the “Walking Street” (its technically called Chaisongkram Road but most of the signs just read “Walking Street”). I went over to aYa Service, the most popular place in Pai to rent a moto, and rented a moto for the next two days at $5/day.
A big map near Pai’s bridge shows all the opportunities and sights that are available to you with a moto.
I started the day off by heading down to the Pam Bak Waterfall trailhead. Seconds after getting off my moto three Spanish backpackers suffered a dominomotos mishap….
I was glad I had parked my moto a fair distance from theirs. The hike to the waterfall from the trailhead is pretty easy – the toughest part is crossing a bridge in notable disrepair.
From the bridge you can see people getting ready to take a dip, or redressing after taking a dip, in the pool at the base of Pam Bak Waterfall.
You can see the waterfall from the rocky outcrop near its base.
If you take off your shoes you can get as near as you want to the small waterfall.
When standing near the base of the waterfall the water splashes on you and the sand is surprisingly soft.
After the Pam Bak waterfall I headed down across the World War II Bridge to the Pai Hotspring.
A natural hot spring to the south of Pai trickles downstream and offers patrons a chance to get the hot tub experience, au naturel.
Guess who I ran into again at the Hot Springs? But of course, it was Yehuda again, dipping his injured toe in the hot springs for some natural healing.
At the top of the springs the water is too hot to bathe in but it is just right for boiling an egg.
I had noticed at the bottom of the hill leading up to the hot springs that they had been selling baskets of eggs for 20 Baht (roughly 60 cents).
I had failed to put two and two together until I got to the topmost spring and saw people boiling the eggs in action – they used long poles with hooks on the end to hook the baskets once the eggs had finished boiling. Then presto – delicious boiled eggs!
After the hot springs I headed north back towards the city center. As I was driving I suddenly passed two elephants calmly standing about ten meters from the side of the road. Naturally, I parked my bike to investigate.
I asked the woman sitting across the street from the elephants if they were her elephants. She replied in the affirmative and I asked her how much it would cost for a ride. “400 Baht”, a little over $10. I said “ok” and two minutes later the woman’s male guide was helping me board my massive mammal transport, without any sort of saddle/seat.
My earlier ride on an elephant in Pak Chung, Thailand had involved the use of a saddle. It was not until I was riding this elephant’s neck bareback that I could truly appreciate the power of the largest land-dwelling mammal on the planet.
With each step I could feel the elephant’s large shoulder blades moving up and down. Just one of the elephant’s legs probably weighed four times as much as I did.
My guide led the elephant down to the river and we started wading downstream.
The elephant was hungry. We never walked for more than two minutes without it needing to take a food break. Thankfully these guys eat just about anything that is green…
The walk down the river was a blast. I felt a little like Tarazan on the massive beast.
The guide had the elephant stop at a deeper place in the river and without warning me, issued a loud verbal command to the elephant. The elephant responded by shaking his powerful shoulders and like a bucking bronco tossed me from his back into the water. My guide thought it was an absolute riot but I was a bit shaken – this animal could crush me like a pop can if it wanted to.
The guide had me come around to the front of the elephant and positioned me directly in front of it so that I was staring it right in the eyes. It was an intimidating experience. Again, without warning, the guide issued another verbal command which prompted the elephant to lift its trunk between my legs and toss me like a ragdoll over its back and into the water behind me. The ease with which the elephant could do this was scary – these are some powerful creatures. Suffice it to say it was one of the best “water rides” I had ever been on.
After about three times of letting the elephant toss me I had had enough and hopped back on the elephant for the ride back to the camp.
The ride back to Pai on my moto was like something out of a movie.
Never-ending fields of vivid yellow indian heam on either side of the road, with rolling mountains covered by trees just starting to put out their red fall colors in the distance.
It was a great way to finish my first day of moto exploration in Pai.
That night I got back to my hotel and was invited to share some dinner with some Thais on vacation in Pai, among them a young guy named Surachai Junruang.
The man sitting to my left was a Thai police officer and spoke pretty good English. All of them were friendly and we had a great dinner together.
That night I went to the Job 2 Do concert near the bridge in Pai. Job 2 Do is one of the most famous reggae performers in Thailand and he did not disappoint in Pai, one of the most “rasta” places in Thailand.
The turnout was surprisingly good, about 800 people, mostly backpackers. I like reggae but I have to say the songs don’t vary all that much. That said, reggae music does promote a “good vibe” buzzing social atmosphere.
I didn’t stay to see the end of the concert but I did see Job 2 Do play his most famous song, aptly titled “doo doo doo.”
Ha. I like Pai.