27 years ago we made our first visit to Thailand. We explored Bangkok, then flew to Chiang Mai, spent some time there then boarded a bus to the city of Mae Hong Son. It was there that we met two people who influenced our future travel plans. One was a photographer by the name of John Wall who told us that for birdwatching we must go to Costa Rica. And we have thanked him ever since because we’ve been back there time after time. It is the best birding destination.
The other person told us that we should get on a bus and go to Pai, a place which warranted less than a page in our Lonely Planet guide. So we got on the public bus for the 4 hour journey and, after a few interesting little incidents, hove into this tiny settlement which consisted of a few, mostly mud topped, streets, with the odd restaurant and places to stay. We intended only stopping for a couple of days but ended up staying almost a week as we loved it so much.
Fast forward 27 years and we knew that Pai had changed – a lot. That it was much, much bigger and would be noisier and crowded. But it was a convenient stopping point on our road trip so we thought we could manage one or at most two nights to break the journey.
But whilst we were searching for a place to stay we came across a wonderful looking house on AirBnB comfortably outside of Pai and so we booked it. The journey there was very interesting. For one thing, Route 1095 which takes you from Mae Taeng winds up and up via a series of hairpin bends into the Huia Nam Dang National Park. The views are glorious but, if driving, you cannot for one moment afford to relax as you will have bikes and cars passing you on almost non-existent straights which don’t last for more than a couple of car lengths. And it’s so steep that buses, trucks and lorries will inevitably be crawling along and it gets very frustrating waiting for one very slim chance to make a pass.
When you reach the saddle there’s still no relaxing as you are faced with the same situation going down the other side, only this time you are stomping on the brake pedal. In Pai you see on sale at all the stalls t-shirts bearing the legend ‘Pai – 762 curves. This is reckoned to be the number of bends on the 1095. Quite who counted them I’m not sure and whether it’s an accurate number I don’t know but I can tell that by the time you wind down into Pai you feel like a limp lettuce.
The owner of our new house, Apichart, had sent us a Google map link plus a series of photos of landmarks we would pass on the way in. The only thing he hadn’t taken into account was GiGi’s propensity for taking main roads where possible and, whilst we didn’t know it at the time, she took us on a route which missed every single one of his landmarks. If we were confused and lost GiGi was even more so. She bid us turn down a series of narrow, dirt roads until she announced that our destination was on the left and we should walk from here. ‘Here’ was the bank of the Pai river with no house in sight. GiGi clearly thought we should wade the river and find our house on the opposite bank.
At this point we gave up on GiGi and, by some trial and error, worked out what had happened and eventually found the right hand turning across the bridge which was clearly illustrated in the photos we’d been sent. We bumped along down a rutted track and at first thought we had again come to the wrong place as we seemed to be heading for an agricultural building. But this turned out to be the less than appealing rear of the property. Swinging into the drive and carport it’s full magnificence opened up before us.
Once Apichart had arrived and given us the key to get inside the place was even more impressive; a large open space with massive windows and a very modern looking kitchen, an outdoor deck area which Apichart told us was our yoga platform (the house came with yoga mats); up a spiral staircase to a glassed in master bedroom which had its own balcony and a rope netting affair which he told us was for lying on (cushions provided) whilst gazing at the stars. And all this at the edge of the river.
We loved our new place so much that, once again, we became stuck in Pai – or at least 7 klms outside it! At night we would sleep with all the windows and curtains open (but with the insect screen firmly shut to keep out the nasties). We could see the stars, we could hear the owl and the bells on the cows, we could hear the river but very little else. It became our peaceful haven.
We did, of course visit the town and whilst it had grown enormously and much of the old Pai, the teak building, the dirt streets, the rickety bamboo bridge, had been lost we found that the town still had a relaxed, gentle atmosphere. And there were still young backpackers in town which was great to see.
We did have a Thai massage which was very needed by that stage after many hours spent travelling in the car. We also joined a Thai Cookery class which was great fun. There were six of us on the course, a German couple and a French couple on their honeymoon and we all got along well. We were soon immersed in conversation which mostly consisted of travel tales. It’s always one of the pleasures of travel – swapping travel stories, plans, tips with other, like-minded people.
Our teacher, Min, first of all took us to the day market, there to stand amongst the stalls and explain all the various ingredients on sale and how they would be used.
We learned so much from her before we had even donned our aprons. I was very relieved to see that aprons would be provided because even I will admit I’m a very messy cook and if a tomato can find its way onto my (semi) clean t-shirt it will. And with two and a half weeks holiday still to go I needed all the t-shirts I could get.
When booking the course we had been given a list of dishes which we could try our hand at and asked to choose a curry paste and curry, a soup, a stir fry or noodle dish and an appetiser or dessert.
It was a very well thought out school. We each had our own little station with a gas burner, a wok or a pan, a wooden chopping block with sharp knife, a pestle and mortar and various other necessary implements. The girls in the kitchen prepped all the veg, spices and meat and put it into little containers and then our teacher, Min, told each of us how to prepare their particular dish.
Each dish usually started with chopping chillies and garlic, tearing herbs, etc and pounding them in the mortar. I was quite surprised at how much garlic is used but also at how a few ingredients could go a long way.
Once we had all cooked one dish and served it up to Min’s satisfaction, the girls whisked it away and put the dishes on a long table with rice and other side dishes they had prepared and we all tucked in, trying one another’s efforts, whilst the girls cleaned up our stations for the next round.
It was a great morning and I learned a lot about preparing the food. And I think most of the food we produced was tasty and authentically Thai, though perhaps we all held back a little too much on the spicing. It is a difficult balance to get right but we left the class considerably fuller than we had begun it and not needing dinner that night!
Other than this we were content to spend our days in Pai not doing too much. Our garden and the river provided some great birding with views of Kingfisher, Bee-eater, Indian Roller, Magpie Robin and more besides. We did consider driving about a couple of hours to Sop Pong where there are some caves which the locals will punt you down on a bamboo raft. But somehow we couldn’t summon up the energy to drive there.
We did, however, search out whether there might be an alternate route back to Chiang Mai as we couldn’t face the 762 curves again. So we took a back road out to a village called Wat Chan, going through some glorious countryside on roads with hardly another vehicle in sight and passing right by a hot spring. It was bubbling away right at the roadside with scalding hot water running onto the road. There was a rudimentary fence around it but I can’t imagine the authorities in many other countries allowing such a potentially dangerous feature not to be restricted somehow. You could see that one touch of the water and you would be scalded instantly.
We made it safely to Wat Chan and visited the rather lovely Wat there. It was a simply built teak building but there was none of the usual ostentation and only one very small box asking for donations. It was a lovely place.
It was clear that we could follow this route to Chiang Mai so when we finally bid a fond farewell to our lovely home we retraced our route to Wat Chan and thence onward. The road continuously wound up and down the mountainside and whilst it was true there were fewer bends and much less traffic it was a tiring drive.
We spent one night in the city before taking our car back to the hire company. Our road trip around the north had come to an end. In the main it had been a brilliant few weeks and we certainly saw some things and visited some places we would not have done otherwise. Yes, we could have made it easy on ourselves by hiring a car and driver and probably for the same cost. Be we like to be independent, go at our own pace, be flexible and, yes, even end up on the wrong side of a river sometimes.