Pai Scenic Route

No matter how hard I try to travel like a normal person, I just can’t do it when I see a map with a road like the one leading to Pai. I’d been instructed to go to Pai by several people and it was most definitely an instruction. Fitting all these places in its now becoming a problem, but an interesting one. 

I decided to get a decent motorbike and blast the road there and back in the 24 hours the rental afforded me. The shop had loads of bikes to choose from, and new bikes too, not just grotty old ones as you’d expect. You could have a grotty old one and they would practically pay you to have it or you could have a brand new Honda Africa Twin 1000cc!! I spent 20 mins just sitting astride all the nice bikes and finding one that fit me and i liked the weight of. Eventually,

I settled on a Yamaha MT07, the same bike my brother has in the UK. I’ve ridden it before and while it’s a bit short in the leg for me, it’s light and plenty punchy enough to tackle the mountain roads I was expecting. It also had wider bars than most other bikes and an upright riding position that I’m used to so felt relatively familiar.

Passport handed over and safely stored in a piece of paper and a basket with everyone else’s (does safety in numbers work for objects?) I took off into the city. Literally the other side of the street, I was pulled over by the cops. A bit too convenient a happening for it to be random, they were stopping all Farangs (western people) and asking for their driving licence. I proudly displayed mine showing my qualification to ride motorbikes, and was presented in return a laminated flip chart of driving licences from across the world. The one with GBR on it didn’t look anything like mine and so it was confiscated till I paid a fine of 400b at the police station. Turns out it wasn’t meant to look like the chart because they were showing International Driving Permits, something I should have picked up from the UK before coming here. Oh well, tax the tourist £10 and move along.

That had cost me an hour and the scenic route I was taking would be about 4 hours. Add an hour for lunch and and hour for various stops for photos and it would be getting dark so I couldn’t hang around. I made it out of Chiang Mai stopping frequently to check the map. At one point it indicated to drive into a gated compound with a security guard. I double checked and it was indeed the correct way so through I went and out the other side into a nice leafy valley. I had only come 20 mins of of the city but already the road was flowing and twisty following the valley floor.

This is how it continued for the next few hours, wandering its way up and over hills and down valleys. It always takes maybe 20 miles of spirited riding before you get the measure of a new bike and can feel confident handling it. This was also the first bike I’d ridden hard with anti-lock brakes, something that feels very strange when it cuts in. Especially when I didn’t feel like I was pushing it to perform. The rear just was very slidey and didn’t feel very planted. It was like some sort of low grade rubber that had been used to make the tyres and it squirmed under power and squealed under breaking. This limited how hard I could push the bike and means I didn’t really get the best out of it. But maybe going slower was a blessing in disguise as, whenever riding quickly you occasionally over cook a corner and have to pull up hard.

I made it to an amazing lookout point where I took a 360 degree photo. I was above everything in the area and could see miles into the distance. Looking through the humidity at the stepped mountain ranges, the further they were away the more they were obscured such that each level of hills had their own distinct shading. It was awesome to be able to see that far on such a clear day. The colours seemed so vivid, deep smooth blue of the sky, brilliant lush green of the forest and crumbly powerful red of the earth. They filled my eyes and I drank in the view for 10 mins just enjoying.

Conscious of time, I moved off and had my progress wonderfully interrupted by a hot spring. I had to stop and take a look at the alien colours of the water coming from deep in the earth. It was strange to see this steaming hot eruption of water bursting from the ground just randomly next to the road. One industrious local had set up a refreshment stand, but otherwise it was completely isolated. Not a single development had cornered this natural resource, which was nice, for a change.

One thing I did happen across which was frustrating was a herd / school / trumpet of elephants. (whatever the collective is I quite like trumpet of elephants) it was cool to see them up close so I killed the engine off the bike to watch for a while. The thing that frustrated me was they were being ridden by tourists. And this just screams mistreatment to me. Not the riding, elephants have been ridden and used for moving the forest around for hundreds of years. What I was disgusted with, and the main reason I won’t be attending any elephant tours, was the way they were being controlled. The guy leading one of the elephants stopped it from crossing the road, good, by punching it between the eyes repeatedly, bad. I know there are sanctuaries that treat elephants well, and rescue them from places like this. But surely this is just another cycle where ever more elephants are kept in captivity for tours? If one of these poor creatures is rescued, it can’t be released, so has to be cared for, which costs. So they “work” in the good sanctuaries but aren’t ridden or mistreated, fine. But the place the elephant came from will just get another one from the wild or illegally and carry on because there is a lot of money in it. I’ve just decided not to be involved with any of the tours, one day I’ll go see elephants in the wild in Africa.

Arriving in Pai itself was uneventful. It sort of grew into existence as you approached, much like any other town. Houses getting closer together and more frequent until you found yourself at the centre. I randomly chose a few streets to follow and found some Spanish people with what looked like tractor tyre inner tubes around their waist, astride mopeds. This was worth stopping for, so using my limited Spanish I found out they planned to go down to the river and float along it. They very kindly invited me to collect a tube from the hostel and join them. So I did, and this is where it all went wrong…

They hadn’t paid for the tubes, just assumed they could be used, as had I. Now I looked like a random guy turning up, grabbing a tube and riding off with it, so the hostel owner ran out and demanded payment for the tubes, which the Spaniards and myself thought was a bit steep. Inadvertently I had crushed their plans and gotten them in trouble with the hostel. They were still nice enough to invite me along to the river, but I felt awful, not matter how many times they said “no pasa nada”.

At the river, without the floats, we just sat and chatted. I couldn’t do anything about the situation so I just tried to get over the awkwardness. I asked about their travels, trying to remember all my Spanish in an effort to mollify any bad feeling. After a while, one of the guys went off and returned with a volleyball. A few more Spanish people arrived and we played a great game of keepy-uppys. Being a football pro, i joined in but didn’t want to upstage anyone so let them have most of the fun, haha!

Now dark, we all dispersed back to our hostels. I was quite hungry and had imposed myself on them enough, so walked into town to find some food. Each night the main road leading away from the river is crammed with food vendors and trinket stalls. All of them smelt amazing, including some of the trinkets strangely, as I wandered amongst the crowd. Over my time in Thailand my appetite has shrunk, but now I needed a big belly to be able to comfortably try everything. In the end I settled for uncomfortably full but fully satisfied.

I thought I was finishing the night, standing outside a bar listening to the live Motown band playing. But as I was enjoying this with a tasty mojito a girl came up to me and asked if I remembered her? She looked familiar but I didn’t recognise her until she reminded me she had given me directions when I first arrived looking for hostels in Chiang Mai!

Her name was Kim and was here drinking with a new friend she’d made on the bus to Pai, Cat. We had the usual exchange of travellers information and then followed Kim to a hostel where she had been told there was a jam session happening. Now 23:00 and having ridden all day and played football, I was knackered but didn’t pass up this random opportunity. This is what traveling is all about anyway, and as always, this random adventure was really fun and enjoyable. There were 5 people sitting in a circle with 3 guitars and a saxophone. They just jammed, playing a collection of known songs and improvising bits here and there. One guy had written a really nice, relaxed Spanish song. He got a few minutes in, enough for the others to get the tune and they started embellishing it with their own twist. It was magical listening to them under the soft light of lanterns and starlight. I happily succumbed to sleep that night fully content with the content of my travels.