Our adventure continues on a horrendous three hour bus journey from Chiang Mai to Pai. The drive involves a lot of hairpin bends up staggered mountains and requires a CAREFUL driver. Unfortunately, no one told the Aya driver that, and I was a ten minutes longer drive from using my holdall as a sickness bag.
Having scrapped our original plans to go straight to Chiang Rai from Chiang Mai, we decided to detour slightly into Pai, a “little hippy commune” village hiding in a valley. In contrast to Chiang Mai, which is popular because of the myriad of Thai-style activities, Pai is popular because it’s quite the opposite. The lack of attractions and laidback sloth state of things make a short stay in Pai a backpacker hit. Our stay was during the low season, when the high end of accommodation costs can be slashed by more than half in price. We found a small complex of bungalows set in the hills owned by a great guy with a liking for lychees. From here, the town centre was a ten minute trek to the river and across a bamboo bridge.
A trip to Pai consists of a lot of shuffling from bar to bar for anything from Indian masala chai to a Harvey Wallbanger. The nightlife is more promising than a lot of places in Thailand, where things have a tendency to shut at 10 p.m. We caught a few open mics with dreadlocked wanderers whining over the sound of their ukes, but there are regular shows and small festivals – you just have to know where to look or who to ask, it turns out. After talking to a smooth-looking older fella, we found Be Bop bar just off the main nightlife strip of late night boutique stalls and bars hosting The Return Of The King Kong Band. This was the closest I’d been to a good night groove since being in Thailand, with a great original band with original songs (as a big believer in karaoke, this is bit of a rarity in Thailand) and a cool audience who weren’t afraid to move. I think Pai’s vibe is captured pretty well when a dazed out girl we were chatting to said “I think this is like, maybe… my… 6th day here?… I can’t be sure.”
During the daytime, Pai is pretty quiet as most travellers will explore the outskirts of the town. It took a morning to have a look around the main spots we wanted to see that we knew we wouldn’t get the chance to do so elsewhere. For instance, yes there are waterfalls, but anyone who’s been to anywhere else in Thailand knows that Pai isn’t the prime spot to go for a waterfall. Instead, Bilbo had her first hot springs encounter in Huai Nam Dang National Park. The park has the expected foreigner fee of 300 baht, and while I recommend going here, I would also recommend against putting your foot in the 80°c pool. Not that I was foolish enough to try, or anything… There are some at more reasonable temperatures that are little more of a soothing (not scalding) temperature.
We followed a really badly designed map across the bottom of the town and found Pai Canyon, which isn’t particularly grand, but it is an interesting landmark. It’s a bit of a climb to the start of the canyon, there’s no shade in sight and to add to my incredibly dumb day, we tried to trek it at 1 in the avi. Still, the valley-overlooking scenery is nalat (lovely, pretty) – it makes a sweet picture, too.
Completing our slice of Pai, we managed to fit in a cooking class. Having booked the night before and sharing a bottle of whiskey with some Thai folk and the owner, Gaew, we were psyched for our own class. Gaew’s hangover for our course told us not to expect a whiskey dinner party after the course after all. We ended up all doing the same course (regardless of tactically choosing different ones) but the food was tasty and at the end of the day I thought my side were going to split, just like a Thai special of Christmas Day. Some of faves were covered – (vegan) pad Thai, (vegan) tom kha, (vegan) red curry, stir fried veg, and the mango flavoured icing on the cookery school cake was making khao niao ma muang (mango and sticky rice) for mid-way-course dessert.
Pai for us was a sweet 2 day rove through a different aspect of Thai culture to what we’d already seen. Some travellers we’d met seemed to view Pai as the best place to ponder life and give into a slightly indulgent bubble of forgetting what happens outside of Pai. It’s not just the travellers, but some of the locals too – who, interestingly, most of the Thais we’d met had actually shifted from “the city that never sleeps” and had a mental attitude of “f*ck Bangkok”.
The last leg of our Northern Thailand ramble started at the main attraction of Chiang Rai with an unexpected detour to Wat Rong Khun. Often known as The White Temple, Wat Rong Khun is a fairly new rebuild of the original vastly degrading temple. Its purposes are predominantly to exhibit art and to teach Buddhist values to visitors. It’s said that local artist Chalermchai Kositpipat has dedicated his life’s work to this Wat Rong Khun, paying around 40 million baht for the reconstruction of the temple and its grounds. As with many temples, each prominent structure in the architecture represents an aspect of Buddhism. To access the building, a bridge flows over a lake and hundreds of hands sculpted towards the sky. This symbolises the unkept desires in a person, while the bridge that glides over represents the path to happiness, only achievable by separating ourselves from this greed and temptation. The naga serpent coils by the main ubosot and though the inside was still being painted when we visited, the faces of fictional characters scale the walls in flames and a dark, hellish mural. Just across from this building is designed to be a meditation centre for further, more overt learning about Buddhism.
Of our three main stops, Chiang Rai was definitely the most similar to my own province’s habits. The streets at night for instance become almost eerily quiet in some areas, with the main night bazaar closing at nine and with that many of the main restaurants. Culinary wise, there’s a good selection of tasty veggie buffet cart restaurants (hurrah!). No visit to Northern Thailand is complete either without the well-renowned khao soi, a curried egg-noodle soup that commonly comes with chicken; fortunately we found a sweet little place called Barrab by the clock tower that made a vegan special.
Music is a rarer spectacle here than in Chiang Mai, let alone Pai, where it was such a huge aspect of the place’s identity. The are barely any cars, any tourists, and only a few straggling locals. Atmosphere does somewhat lack, but it’s a great place to base yourself for daily adventures.
Everything is quite spread out from the town, but pick (tactically) a few spots you’re keen to see and they’re easily doable in a day. The way to the nearby mountain range Mae Salong is easy to momentarily stray from and a short detour led us to Baan Dum (The Black House). The Black House hosts a collection of weird (some are also wonderful; some are just plain weird) artefacts collected by one Thai artist (Thawan Duchanee).
Stepping into the house is a little like sneaking into a villain’s lair. The skins of snakes, crocodiles and fiendish mammals lay across stunning dark wood tables, to which the chairs are made of animal carcass and at the top of sits the horned skulls of several different animals.
In the morning light, the artefacts feel colder still. Almost all of the artefact are souvenirs of death displayed in a personal, interactive space. Just to get the idea of how much Thawan Duchanee has collected, there is a smaller compact space in the grounds that is bursting with sinister antiquities waiting for their day in the Black House.
There are two ways to Doi Mae Salong: on a map, one road seems direct and easy to navigate, while the other looks like a child drew all over the mountain with a black Crayola. A local’s recommendation left us skeptically taking the Crayola route when he said the easy-looking road is an almost constant hill so steep it would take a lot of getting-off-getting-on-the-bike action on my behalf, just so that Bilbo could get it to the top. The roads actually make a complete circuit around the mountain, so we got to see for ourselves what the road was like coming back down… And, funnily enough, the guy knew what he was talking about. Always pays to ask.
The village tucked into the Mae Salong mountain shows a very different scene to a lot of other treats in Northern Thailand. Once dominated by settlers from Yunnan, Mae Salong shows Chinese scripted signs to its shops, stalls and restaurants, which in turn provide Yunnan-influenced food. Though it was incredibly quiet during our visit, like a lot of places in Thailand, the village is now very aware of its presence and its favour with tourists in the region, so we were unsurprisingly mobbed by two women in traditional hill-tribe clothing as soon as we hopped off the bike. They were a pretty insistent pair, clearly used to waiting in the bushes to pounce on travellers stopping for a nosey.
Along with traditional Chinese-style dried fruits, the product of all the tea plantations that surround Mae Salong is the various amounts of tea stalls set into the road. There’s also a patch of tent stalls showing the “same-same” as every other market in Thailand that just don’t seem to settle into the rest of the village. Restaurants are limited and as a result, know that they can charge whatever they want. For meat eaters, it’d be worth grabbing some Yunnanese-style meats and specialised noodles anyway.
Of course, it’d feel wrong going to the centre point of tea plantations and not actually grabbing any cha to take home. Just as we’d started our descent down the other, much steeper side of the mountain, we stopped at a centre where the process of drying out the leaves is done just in front of the doors; inside are teas that even as an avid tea enthusiast I’d never heard of before.
One last stop on the road back to the city was in pursuit of caves. After asking almost every local we passed, we found the Wat Tham Pra, a little-known cave reached by a half-constructed staircase going up a flower-covered hill. Inside the cave is a golden Buddha, a few monk effigies, and a fireplace surrounded by burnt out incense sticks.
Completing our trip of the north was a 3am kick off with the nicest taxi driver I’ve had the pleasure of handing my baht to, to Phu Chi Fa, a mountain that offers a super special sunrise view of Laos… well, apparently. From the thickly opaque fog stopping us seeing anything out of a four metre radius, we wouldn’t know…
Taxi man made sure we didn’t leave Chiang Rai with a briau taste in our mouth. On the recommendation of a school teacher and a group of kids from the British International School of Chiang Mai, who’d had the same bad luck as us with the “view”, we went a little further out to the Mekong river, which separates Thailand and Laos. An informative little fellow from the school told us the Mekong is the 12th longest river in the world; the 7th longest in Asia.
Throw in a super tasty veggie breakfast at Oasis restaurant and our frowns were turned upside down, ready for the 14 hour bus journey back to Korat (eep), where we finish our adventure.