Lets backtrack a little.
Last year Jen and I had a car accident in the Far North of Australia, during our last Big Aussie Road trip in November. A cow decided to commit suicide and jump in front of our van one evening. Van was a write off, 100km from the nearest town – Halls Creek (where they set the horror film ‘Wolf Creek’ – I shit you not). Stinking hot. Isolated. Stranded.
Scared the crap out of me and Jen was lucky she didn’t have the damn thing sitting in her lap (at 95km/ph). Could have been so much worse and wasn’t a lot of fun. Flying Doctor Service airlifts, remote hospitals, rental van companies, challenges galore. Eventually worked itself out but ended our road trip around Australia and left physical and emotional scars on both of us. I’m still jittery at dusk.
Anyway, something good to come of it was that I’m now extremely careful on the road – apparently I’d always drive like a conservative grandmother at the best of times, but that little experience made me super careful.
Which is fortunate as this week I got itchy feet again. Bear with me – there is a point.
There’s a place about 130kms north of Chiang Mai, snuggled deep inside a secluded mountain valley and isolated in a way from the relentless pace of the rest of Thailand. Pai is a little hippy paradise and sits right up near the Burmese border in far north Thailand, and is becoming a must see destination for travellers wandering through Thailand looking for something different.
My friend CB and SG back home had mentioned Pai as a place that I “have to see”. I’d never heard of it so I looked it up. Yep…temples, mountains, big white Buddha statue, hot springs, hostels and hotels. Ok…so what was so special?
Hang on…getting there looked interesting. Options ex-Chiang Mai are abundant – fly, bus, minivan…motorcycle. Hey motorcycle! – I can scooter up! Something about the appeal of a 4 hour ride zooming through a National Park appealed to me. Anyone can jump on a bus or minivan ( 1.5 hours and 100 baht or so from Chaing Mai one way) but taking a 125cc scooter through the mountain passes, switchbacks and blind corners of this decidedly treacherous little stretch of road takes some commitment.
So after a morning coffee, checking the weather, and very little planning, I set off.
The trip up was both challenging and stunning.
Once I scootered out of the mild chaos of Chiang Mai, and actually got out in the countryside, a whole new side of Thailand emerged. The regional aspect. In a way it felt a lot like regional Australia but without the bogans. Busy city streets gave way to rice paddies gave way to terraced hillsides gave way to lush tropical mountain forests. Roadside coffee shops, rest stops and little shack shops were everywhere. I hit the Chiang Dao turnoff and headed left, towards Pai. This was a breeze! Highway all the way and 60kmph was easy on the cycle.
And then the highway started to climb. And climb. And climb. The sunny day began to turn a misty grey as I rode up into the low cloud cover over the peaks of the National park.
My 60 kmph quickly became 40kmph became 30kmph as the grades and slope increased and the slippery curves and sheer drops took over. The mist thickened a little and spits and spots of rain spattered the pavement ahead. Luckily the road was build like a racetrack – all well cambered twists and turns and hairpins, swooping up and down the steep mountainsides. It was just as well as the streams of motorbikes, minivans and taxis crazily negotiated these steep mountain roads at breakneck speeds, ignoring the speed limits and road markings in the favour of a quick turnaround at the destination and another load of tourists.
Fortunately the rain held off, the baking sun came back and the 4 hour ride became a sweaty but peaceful exercise in mindfulness as there was no time to let the inner voice chatter away – all focus was on the curves, the road ahead and the oncoming traffic.
As I got closer, the heat and humidity intensified until I was dripping sweat even with the cool breeze from the bike. Thunder echoed and rolled off the walls of the valley as I rounded the last few curves and began the final descent into the town, rolling over the WWII Memorial Bridge and past the health resorts and spas that were now peppering the roadside.
The highway turned to streets turned to laneways filled with backpackers, street vendors and food stalls. Narrow alleys bustled with people. Dogs barked and fought. Overhead power lines sparkled and hummed, hung with glowing red Chinese lanterns. The air was filled with aromatic smoke and steam roiling from the street food vendors gas and charcoal cookers.
So this was Pai! Interesting!
I’d made it in 4 hours without incident, not too bad at all!
I parked and took off my sweaty helmet, looked around at the chaos and then up at the threatening clouds just as the grumbling thunderstorm – tired of being ignored and desperate for attention- swept through town in an earthshaking tantrum and broke the sky.
to be continued…