One hot Saturday we decided to book flights to Chiang Mai, and then onto little Pai town. It was another adventure on the list without a tick by it’s name. We had heard so many good things about this idyllic-sounding town, despite the incredibly long journey from Bangkok to get there. We set our hopes high and dreamed of our cheap, rustic and romantic getaway where we could wake with birdsong and fresh air. Three Saturday’s later, our romantic Pai trip became a heavy load of four, ready to adventure the long-weekend away. Romantic Pai became ‘rollicking good time’ Pai and that, it was.
I received an email from ‘Air B’n’B’ to tell me that our booking was complete. Not only did we find somewhere cheap, but we found our own villa that was big enough for all four of us. We paid less than twenty pounds each for two nights. With thirty-two five star reviews this place sounded like we had hit the jackpot, complete with it’s own private pool, BBQ area and open-air lounge.
After the longest, windiest road into Pai we arrived at the ‘strip’. We were dizzy, dehydrated and absolutely starving. More importantly, we did not have the address of our shiny private villa, or a phone number for the owner that would work. Looking back, this was the first strange sign. Abundant with coffee shops and juice bars, we dived into the closest one and ordered coffees, smoothies and salads. After half an hour we managed to shed some light on our strange situation and we were picked up by the villa manager. The manager didn’t arrive in a car though. She arrived on a bike, with space for one, small bag. Laughing, we hired bikes next door and followed her up the road, which seemed to be taking us further out of town. After ten minutes, we were still driving, gazing out onto field after field and at the odd field forager. Slowing down, we pulled up at at sign: XPAI GUESTHOUSE. This was it, our haven for the weekend.
“The air condition not working” she said. We thought she was joking. “No electric, ka. Big storm. Sorry”. We had obviously arrived at a bad time, but having a pool made it all okay. Other than that, everything seemed wonderful. We had two big bedrooms, two en suites, a kitchen area overlooking these views and some bread and jam. There were chickens clucking around the fields and little frogs jumping overs pathways. It was a nature lovers paradise. After some jam sandwiches, relaxing by the pool and driving lessons, we were ready to hit the town again.
We talked about the guesthouse over beers and some things didn’t seem to add up. Why the other guesthouses on site were empty, the invisible owner and the lagoon feeling of the pool. It was like the place had been closed down but only one unit remained for rent. Another burning question was when the electric was going to come back on, as it had started to get dark and we only had one phone charged. Stuffing down our falafal pittas, we decided to put our doubts at ease and drive back to see what was going on. Will warned us that it would be a little eerie. He had dropped candles off an hour earlier, just in case we were cloaked in darkness when we got back. We decided to brush off his scardy-cat views and told him it would be fine.
After leaving the town, the roads become quieter and the emergency electric supply seemed to have ran out for this part of Pai. Shops were lit with candles, and families were huddled around fires. We took a sharp right at the airfield and carried on driving. Going up the hill, we realised that there was nobody else around. There was just the four of us on our two bikes, driving at snail’s pace with two dull headlamps to light our way. We felt the cool breeze of the night whistling in and out of our ears and the midst creeping off the fields and onto our pathway. To say it was creepy was an understatement. Nobody felt at ease. As we parked up, we knew what was coming; the long walk down past the empty guesthouses and into our one at the end by the field. The procession began, each of us with a candlestick tiptoeing our way through the darkness, our candlelight casting tricks as it reflected off empty windows and doors. Too scared to open our bottle of Sangsom, we stared out onto the fields and into the pitch black. It was extremely unnerving, especially with the rustles of nature that we were acutely tuning into. Or was it? Jess had her headlamp in her bag so spent an hour wearing that, while Will lit candles in pots and pans. We rode it out for an hour before Hollie shouted “that’s it, I am not staying here!” With no disagreements, we packed our bags, throwing in anything we could find in the dark. As the key turned in the lock, the bedroom lights flashed back on. We had electric! Conditioned by our city lives, our first night in Pai was as back to nature as it could have been. I don’t know what we were expecting, but we were not prepared. The experience was gold-dust.
Pai Canyon is fifteen minutes out of town. Of all our experiences in Thailand, this is near the top. The scenery is totally stunning and, compared to the usual lush greens of this land, this setting blazed oranges and reds.
If you rent a motorbike, you can get to most sights in Pai in one day. After visiting the Canyon, we went over the memorial bridge and onto the hot springs. We decided to decline the springs in the end, as we were already hot and sweaty. The next stop was the waterfall, even though it was ‘hot, hot season’ and there was barely any rain. The road to the fall was bumpy and uneven. I put my trust in Will to maneuver all the tricks of the road, watching Jess and Hollie’s motorbike simply plummet into some of them and carry on. Surprisingly, we all arrived unscathed and hiked up to the waterfall with our fellow backpackers of Pai. One backpacker decided to be like Leo and his French friends, take off his vest and rock climb around to the waterfall in bare feet and his elephant trousers. It was a sight and so unnecessary. I call it showing off.
On the way back we found a little gem: ‘The Land Split’.
We gave a hefty donation each, proving to others that we were not really backpackers, but Thailand residents. We lay in the wicker hammocks and, to our surprise, were laden with delicious snacks and drinks. Our donation went a long way and was clearly appreciated by local residents farming around the split. “This for you. All grown here… ” said the man bringing our treats to the hammocks. He also brought a tray of red juice and four shots. “This is roselle juice. A little alcohol.” Three, two, one, down the shots went and we feasted on sweet potato, nuts, banana, roselle jam, banana chips and dried tamarind, which is moorishly sour.
We found some other home-grown things around the split too, and Hollie got attacked by ants, who managed to crawl under her top and into her swimwear! Luckily, we always carry tiger balm these days for these kinds of situations.
As the afternoon began to unfurl into the early evening, we climbed up the stairs to the white Buddha on the hill. It was still scorching, but we made it and the views of Pai seemed to go on forever. Showing respect to Thai beliefs and traditions we took our shoes off and lay looking at the Buddha with some random scaffolding around his head. It was a shame that some of the backpackers didn’t take off their shoes and one guy even ran to the top and walked all over the place in his silly, shiny Nike black trainers. It was so rude and I was so cross with him. Go back down!
Speaking of backpackers, this is what angered me the most about Pai. I write about our falafal wraps, salads and coffee’s because this is what is on offer. The town is made for Western tourists and the sign ‘avocado and poached eggs’ is everywhere. We even saw tofu kebabs and met a wheat free, gluten free, dairy free raw-vegan dog, who we named Susie, for goodness sake. It is not your rustic Thai town. I am sure that years ago it was, but it is no longer a secret and you see the ‘I’ve found myself’ type in every nook and cranny. Shoes are out of fashion and bare feet are in. If you want to go somewhere that’s really Thai, Pai town is not the place. Thank you for letting me rant.
The little towns around Pai are home to some of the most beautiful scenary we have ever seen. One of our favourite things about this trip was driving around and getting lost in it. This is the real Thailand. It is unspoiled and unpretentious, wearing it’s heart on it’s sleeve.
In all the beauty, the frustration and the fear of Pai at night we laughed until our tummies hurt. Not only at Susie the vegan dog, but also at the night that Jess and Hollie ran out of petrol and conked out at the roadside, with Will and I returning clutching a bottle of gas like AA roadside assistance. We also laughed at our naivety of our accommodation conditions, labeling the pool as the ‘dengue dip’ and our first night as the night we toileted by candlelight and were nearly happy to join the backpackers in town. Will sarcastically shouting “I bloody love Pai” at the top of his voice in a bar and a bare-footer high fiving him in her tank top and baggy trousers, was another highlight. Truthfully, we do love Pai, but not for reasons some might. The adventures we had off the beaten track were the best part and one day we might tackle that windy road to Pai once again.