When we first arrived in northern Thailand, we didn’t really have any idea of where we wanted to go. We knew we wanted to go somewhere else besides Chiang Mai, but we hadn’t yet made up our minds on where that might be.
That’s no problem in Southeast Asia, though. You can pretty much get anything you want, anytime, for a very reasonable price. The tourist infrastructure here is easy to navigate, and it’s everywhere. Some people complain that it’s hard to get off the beaten track, and I sympathize. The endless rows of guesthouses, travel agencies, massage parlors, and hybrid Thai-Western restaurants gets really monotonous. And if I need a taxi, I will find you. But you can’t deny that’s it’s really convenient.
We kept meeting people who had just been to or were going to go to Pai, a small town near the Thai-Burmese border. It’s popular with both Western and Thai tourists. To be honest, we had no idea what was there, or where it was located on the map- but we were intrigued, and it seemed like the universe was pointing us towards Pai. So one day, we went into a travel agency, bought a ticket, and within two hours, we were on a minibus, heading towards a town that was a total mystery to us, but knowing that we’d find cheap accommodation and food at our destination.
What is there to do in Pai? The town is so small that there’s no public transportation (only public long-distance buses to and from Pai) so the first thing many travellers do is rent a motorbike. Bob and I are experienced cyclists, after three years in Japan without a car, but we’d never driven a motorbike before. We were nervous. Our friend Adam, who’d been to Pai a couple of years ago, said that it wasn’t too hard, but he did note that he had seen several foreigners walking around town with bandaged limbs. Hmmm.
So the first and second day, we stayed near the city center. We relaxed by the river, sketched a temple, watched the sunsets, visited the night market, and after dark, checked out the many bars featuring live music. Our favorite place was called “Edible Jazz,” which not only has good music but also an effusive owner named Tom and a gaggle of friendly dogs.
The third day, I decided it was time. No more fear. Motorbike rental is ridiculously cheap in Pai- we paid 100 baht, or about $3.30, for a 30-hour rental (helmet included.) Plus, the traffic round Pai is really light. Conditions don’t get much more perfect than that. I reasoned that if we just couldn’t get the hang of it, we’d return the bikes and go back to relaxing by the river.
The rental agency asked if we had ever been on motorbikes before. We said no. They gave us automatic bikes, 110cc, and then got two of their staff to take us out to a quiet road where we could practice. Our cycling experience proved to be handy. It was like riding a big, clunky bicycle, without having to pedal. The only problem I had was that my palms were sweaty (due to both my nervousness and the heat,) and kept slipping. Other than that it was actually pretty easy.
We went up to the Yunnanese village, where some ethnic minorities from the Chinese province of Yunnan reside; then went to one of the many waterfalls in the area. The Yunnanese village is very touristy, but it was a nice place to take a break and have some lunch and tea. Due to the Thai kids currently being out on summer vacation, the waterfall was packed with families and school-age children playing in the water, but we were able to find a peaceful, secluded spot. The best part, though, was the mountain scenery. The whole area is quite mountainous (this is the foothills of the Himalayas, after all) but the area directly surrounding Pai is in a valley, so the riding was all pretty flat. There were more attractions we could’ve gone to, but we decided that was enough for one day, plus we didn’t want to be biking at night, so we took the motorbikes back.