On the arrival to Pai I instantly felt relaxed – what a nice feeling. We had expected the journey to be much longer, but with a new and faster route since the guide was written it only took us about three and a bit hours as opposed to the five hours according to the Lonely Planet. For once we’re happy that Lonely Planet got it wrong. We’d been a bit worried that there would be difficult to find accommodation on arrival due to it being high season (Christmas Eve), and our search online for places had only returned with hideously expensive resorts, or told us the guest houses were all fully booked. To our relief we find there are lots of places with spare rooms, which gives us the ability to shop around a little bit. Hannah remembers the location of one of the places she stayed when she were here last in Pai – a tranquil little place with nice bungalows called Mr. Jan’s, and we find they have a reasonably priced room available. The room is originally meant for four people, but they charge per person – the good thing about this is that we can enjoy the extra space for spreading all our detritus around – feels less like living out of a backpack this way.
Hannah is initially disappointed with Pai as it has changed so drastically since she last was here, but as I have no prior expectations of the place I instantly feel home and enjoy the laid back atmosphere. Although there are many tourists flocking to this place it doesn’t have the over-commercialised feeling here yet, and hopefully it will remain in such a way. There are lots of new built resorts all around the town though, where Hannah remembers it being just fields and nature, and the hippy crowd she remembers have moved out – some traces of them can still be seen and we find there are some small hippy communities further out in the countryside.
We go out on the first morning looking to hire a scooter so we can get to some of the waterfalls, temples and other sites outside of Pai. We’re a bit late and most places are already out of motorbikes, but as luck would have it – as we’re about to inquire in one of the shops about bicycles instead – one customer comes to return his scooter, and we’re quick to grab that one. After a hearty breakfast we start our adventure of the day and go to visit some waterfalls – Pembok Waterfall, and then Mhor Phaeng Waterfall. We continue to Wat Phrathat Mae Yen, also known as the Temple On The Hill, and then the Pai Hot Springs for a good soaking in the warm pools. Finally as the sun sets (or a couple of minutes after it’s gone behind the mountains) we arrive at the Pai Canyon.
Every evening in Pai there is a Walking Street Market, so the main street in the centre becomes transformed with stalls lining both sides of the road and a very bustling crowd fills the street looking to do a bit of shopping, or to test out the many various food-stalls. It’s a dangerous exercise to walk along the road as there are so many tempting treats on display, and even after eating a huge dinner we still can’t resist having a taste of some of the many snacks on offer.
We decide to visit another waterfall and plan to do that around mid-day before going to lounge by the pool in the afternoon. The waterfall we want to go to is the Hua Chang Waterfall, and it doesn’t look too far out on our little overview map of Pai. It turns out to be a bit of a mission to get there though, and even after a very long drive – along a really badly kept farm-road and crossing the river a few times without the help of bridges (poor scooter) – we still had a long trek through the jungle, again wading across the river countless of times, before we finally get to the waterfall. It’s a really peaceful trek up to this waterfall and not many people seem to take the trip up to it. We met two people on the way up, who could assure us that we were on the right track thankfully, and three people as we were going back down. The scooter-ride on the very bumpy, muddy and rough path with the added bonus of dips in the river was an exhilarating experience on its own of course.
Needless to say this adventure took much longer than we initially calculated, and by the time we came back down to civilisation it was too late for going to the pool. We did get the chance to lounge by the pool on the afternoon of our last day though, so all was not lost.
We also really wanted to do some more white-water-rafting and there were many options available for this at the various agencies in Pai, but they were quite pricy, and they only did them on certain days that didn’t fit our schedule – we also didn’t want a two-day combination with trekking so our options were very limited – in the end we decided for just a day’s sightseeing. It was a silly-early start (as per normal) to get almost all the way to Mae Hong Son for sunrise (which we didn’t make, despite the driver’s desperate formula one performance) and had the first rays of sun over the misty lake at Pang Tong Royal Project. From there we headed to Mok Cham Pae, a little Chinese village in the mountains, for breakfast – we took a little walk around to a little restaurant away from the very busy one the bus dropped us off at and had some lovely soup (although strange looking with black chicken and various herbs) and crispy pork with rice – the restaurant was also a tea-shop, so we had free tasters of various gorgeous teas. The village is idyllically set next to a little lake with tea plantations around it, so we enjoy a nice view as well as good food and drink. Next stop on the tour was Pha Suea waterfall, and then not far from the waterfall the Phu Khlon hot-springs where we could soak our feet into hot mineral pools. After the hot-springs the tour continued to a Karen Long Neck hill-tribe village for a bit of souvenir-shopping (this is more than likely one of many “fake” hill-tribe villages – set up only for the milking of tourists’ cash of course). Hannah get’s a nice woven top and we get to feed the elephant so we’re quite happy. Before breaking for lunch we visit the Temple On The Hill (Wat Phra That Doi Kong Mu) in Mae Hong Son – a blindingly bright white set of stupas high up on the hill above Mae Hong Son. We then move on to Thampla Fish Cave where we also sit down for a late lunch of excellent crispy grilled pork and sticky rice. Final stop on our journey is not on our schedule, but due to missing the sunrise in the morning the guide decides to give us a sunset instead and we stop off on a mountain viewpoint about 25 kilometres from Pai and enjoy a frrrrreeeeezzzzzing but beautiful sunset before returning back to Pai.
From Pai we continue to Chiang Rai via minivan – another hang-on-to-your-hat experience… The driver was an absolute nutcase and in every turn in the road (and there are a lot of them on these winding mountain roads) he managed to get the wheels screeching, and at the back we could feel the suspension not keeping up and kept feeling the clunk where it had no more to give. The minivan went via Chiang Mai where we changed to another minivan with an equally crazy driver to take us on the last half of the journey to Chiang Rai. When we got to Chiang Rai we were ahead of schedule (I wonder why?) and we could consider ourselves lucky to still be alive.