A variety of methods of transport exist to travel between Thailand’s northernmost major city and the outlying district of Pai, a popular backpacker haunt situated amongst the surrounding jungle of an area that at one point produced a good portion of the world’s opium crops.
Pai sits about 85 miles or 135 kilometers northwest of Chiang Mai and the only land route involves traversing a seriously winding road that snakes up, down and around the undulating mountainous high jungle terrain. Any number of bus and minivan contractors provide multiple daily trips connecting Chiang Mai and Pai. The trip by bus takes around three hours, but for those who can’t stand being tossed around in the back of a minivan sandwiched between fellow travelers and locals for an extended period of time, a few flights operate between the two cities and take only about half an hour via prop plane. For those more adventurously inclined, I recommend that the absolute best way to make the journey is via motorbike!
AYA services, a local motorbike rental company negotiates one-way rentals from Chiang Mai to Pai for insanely cheap prices. Drop off your luggage at their office adjacent to the Chiang Mai train station and they will bring it up on one of their vans as you make your way along the open road with 110cc’s of unbridled freedom. This journey, however, is not for everyone and takes some dedication…and coordination.
Traffic in Thailand travels on the left side of the street, and although the drivers are used to interacting with motorcycle traffic, that is usually under the presumption that that traffic knows the rules of the road; a vital part of knowledge that neither me nor my friend possessed. The last time I’d ridden a motorcycle was on the island of Mallorca in the Mediterranean, a rural place devoid of any sort of traffic, and I crashed three times. So, setting out on our trek I was filled with nothing but confidence of course. It turned out though, that navigation and safety would be one of the least of our worries on this journey. After navigating the local “superhighway” and the collection of high-speed roadways out of the city, we were ushered over to the side of the road by a few police officers. Initially, he looked over my California driver’s license and seemed content to let us be on our way for an 100 baht fee (about USD $3), but his colleague did not believe that my friend was truly from California and kept repeating the words “Saudi” and “five-hunna-baaaaht”. So for one reason or another, our bribe amount rose to 500 baht. We paid and went about our way, but little did we know that we would be passing through many more police checkpoints on our way to Pai. When you bribe a police officer, you don’t get a receipt that exempts you from bribing the officers at the rest of the checkpoints down the road unfortunately. We blazed through the next few checkpoints and pretended like we knew what we were doing despite some frantic hand waving by officers standing by. Ultimately, no high-speed chases ensued and we eventually made it to the turnoff to route 1095 the windy road that slithers through the undulating countryside up to Pai. The ride requires something like 750 turns along the roadway, each of which must be navigated in synchrony with a variety of tour bus and delivery truck traffic.
The motorbikes will not take you from point A to point B in the most direct or time conscious manner, but that was the allure for us. We had scheduled the entire day to travel a journey that we could have made in the tour van in three hours. The freedom allowed us to stop wherever we liked – not just at the sponsored official tourist pit stop where you have to pay to use the restroom – and take any turn we desired. The first of these deviations came as we saw a faint old sign that seemed to indicate a waterfall off to the right hand side of the road. The road eventually turned to dirt, but we continued to push on with our dinky street rods. The path sliced through some incredibly lush fields, striking quite the contrast to the otherwise arid landscape. About twenty minutes in, we ran into a heard of water buffalo and asked the herder if we were heading in the right direction. He didn’t seem to understand what we were asking, but he pointed straight ahead and nodded. That was all the assurance we needed and after a bit more off-road action we arrived at a dry creek bed. A ten minute hike through the trees from here lead us to an area in which we imagined there might be a waterfall, but alas we determined that it must be dry season. Puttering back to the main road, we could have felt slightly disappointed with the detour, but instead we contemplated the simplicity of life among the fields we were riding through and focused on appreciating the opportunity to see what we did see: the human condition in a remote part of Thailand. After all, it’s not every day that you’re riding a scooter through agricultural fields and stumble upon a man herding water buffalo.
Our second waterfall stop proved to be more fruitful. After a few minutes of wandering down a winding side road, we arrived at the Mork Fa Waterfall visitor center where we paid to park our scooters before venturing up the trail to the pool. Here, we took the opportunity to bathe and scrub off the thin layer of dust and particulate matter that had built up on our faces while riding through the thick clouds of air pollution back in Chiang Mai.
The excursion up to this point had left us fraught with both adventurous spirits and an empty stomach. We pushed on, initially forgetting that traffic drives on the left side of the road and quickly remembered the traffic rules at the sight of a delivery truck barreling our way. Unfortunately, due to the fact that dry season also seems to be low season for the area, nearly every food stall along the side of the road sat vacant, until at last we spotted a welcoming thatched patio and pulled to the side. After exchanging a few awkward smiles with the cook and agreeing to whatever was on the menu for that day we sat conversing about topics like the concept of slash and burn farming. A few moments later, the lady emerged with a simple, yet delicious concoction of noodles. Shortly after slurping up the rest of our food we were back on the road.
As we climbed in elevation, zigging and zagging back and forth along the cutbacks of the cracked road surface, the flora changed from that of a tropical palms and lush overgrowth to pine trees and dry brush. We had seemingly traversed up and out of the rainforest and into a biome more comparable to the California Sierras than I’d expected to find in Northern Thailand. Soon enough, the awe of the landscape was quelled as we approached an official province border crossing. Lacking the desire to have another conversation with law enforcement, we crossed our fingers and blew threw the checkpoint, hoping that our demeanor would indicate that we knew what we were doing. Without looking back, we sprinted through the next few kilometers as if we were running from the law when finally we saw a sign indicating our impending arrival to Pai. We had made it, unscathed, with a whole set of tales to tell. So we sat, and waited, for our friend to arrive on the bus so that we could share with him all that he’d missed.