Exploring Northern Thailand

Our whole experience in Northern Thailand can be pretty much summed up by the way our trip to Pai went. We had originally booked two nights at the wonderful Pai Homey resort. From what we had heard there wasn’t a huge amount to do in Pai, so a couple of nights should have been perfect; enough time to get there and look around, and relax a little after the madness of Songkran, but not wasting days doing nothing. As it happened, we didn’t do much, but we still ended up spending 6 days there. The parts of northern Thailand we have visited have been so pleasant they have often been difficult to leave. The crawlingly slow pace of life is difficult not to get sucked into, especially when you don’t have anywhere else in particular to be or any real schedule to stick to.

We departed Chiang Mai in a mini bus (again booked for us by the very helpful Stamps Backpackers Hostel) and began the three hour drive north through the mountains. If you read anything online about the journey from Chiang Mai to Pai one of the first things you’ll read are warnings about how twisty the roads are. Let me assure you, they’re right on the money. I’ve read varying counts of the total amount of curves in the drive, that range from 300 to 700, and I’ll be honest and say that I didn’t fancy sitting and counting each bend, but I can confirm that there are a lot. This isn’t helped by the fact that most of the bus drivers treat the drive like they’re blasting around the Nurburgring. I’m not even joking with that one, they’ll take corners on the wrong side of the road to hit the apex of the corner, and won’t think twice about pulling off overtaking moves Lewis Hamilton would be envious of as you fly into a blind hairpin corner. This was the first point in the trip I missed having my own car; partly because tearing around those roads would be great fun, but also because I felt a little out of control and not entirely comfortable with the man who had my life in his hands. Fran didn’t seem concerned by any of this, as she spent a strangely long part of the drive giggling with her hands in the air as if she was on a rollercoaster.

We did eventually arrive in Pai in one piece, and as I was feeling slightly sick, I was glad to find we didn’t have much of a walk to get from the bus stop to our hotel. The walk did give us a good opportunity to get our first taste of Pai. We wandered down a quiet dirt road and it immediately became clear that Pai was very different to Chiang Mai. Our walk took us through several sleepy looking streets and then over a rickety bamboo bridge suspended over a large river surrounded by greenery. We walked up more dirt paths to find our hotel, called Pai Homey, a cute collection of wooden huts on a large and lush patch of grass. Surrounded by trees and plants, with North Thailand’s many mountains and hills in the distance, and set to a soundtrack of almost constant animal noises (the birds in particular kept us amused with their strange calls) the whole area felt both very rural and very relaxing. The rest of the town follows suit as there isn’t a lot here. There is the walking street, which is effectively the tourist hub, and contains most of the street food (I couldn’t walk past the deep fried chicken and cheese sandwiches and not try one) as well as shops, bars and restaurants. Other than some bars and restaurants in the surrounding streets, there isn’t much more to Pai.

The relaxed vibe of the whole place rubbed off on us pretty quickly (we aren’t people that need an excuse to relax) and we spent a lot of time over the next few days catching up on sleep or relaxing with a book in the hammock hung outside our hut, and even spent a day relaxing by a nearby swimming pool. The one day we did venture out any further proved to be one of our favourite days. We met up with our friend Karl who we had met in Chiang Mai and had also headed north, and rented out mopeds with the intention of exploring the area surrounding Pai. Neither me or Fran had ridden before, so Karl became a temporary driving instructor in a quiet back street. Ten minuets and no crashes (but one near miss with a wall) later we headed off, Fran on the back of Karl’s bike, with me riding my own. Initially I wasn’t sure, I felt very vulnerable and felt a bit Jeremy Clarkson towards the whole thing (“Why does this only have two wheels? How do I turn? This is rubbish, where’s my car?!”) However as I became more confident on the bike I began to really enjoy the expereince and the feeling of cruising through middle-of-nowhere Thai villages on the bike has actually been one of my favourite parts of the whole trip so far. I’m actually looking forward to hopping on a bike again to go exploring.

The trip itself consisted of five stops. Initially we stopped at a large white Buddha nestled in the hills. We parked up the bikes and headed up the stairs towards the Buddha at the top, and although there were not that many steps in reality, the relentless sun beating down on us made it hard work. However once we reached the top we were rewarded with fantastic views across the valley. The next stop (after a quick drug search at a police checkpoint, during which Fran left a policeman slightly embarrassed, as he searched her bag only to find a spare pair of underwear) was the Pam Bok Waterfall. Due to the time of year the waterfall itself was fairly short on actual water, but there was enough for us to cool off with a quick dip in the rather dirty pool below. A kilometre up the road we stopped off at a bamboo bridge that twisted endlessly through a rice paddy, and after a long and hot walk to get the end we found another fascinating Buddhist temple, which we were free to explore due to it being totally deserted. Myself and Karl had wrapped towels around our shoulders as a sign at the entrance had advised us to dress respectfully, while Fran had turned a spare tank top into a stylish makeshift skirt. Our efforts felt somewhat wasted at first as we walked past two girls who had not felt it necessary to do so and were wandering down the bridge in crop tops and shorts, however walking past a group of Thai women who seemed very impressed with Fran’s outfit and the effort she had gone to assured us that it was worthwhile. Moving on we were headed to Pai canyon, where we intended to watch the sunset.

As we were driving we stumbled across the Land Split, another attraction we’d heard about. The Land Split itself is largely underwhelming, The name pretty much sums it up, it’s a crack in the land that you wander around with not a lot to see. However we did enjoy our stop there, almost completely down to the owner, who greets you with a warm smile, and then proceeds to bring you a variety of treats and snacks, including ice cold roselle juice, bananas, sweet potatoes and dried banana chips with roselle jam for dipping. The refreshments made it an ideal stop before we moved onto the Pai canyon, which we had to do in a bit of a hurry as we were now in danger of missing the sunset. We made it just in time, where we were greeted with fantastic views of the area as we climbed across the high and sometimes worryingly thin rocks to find a good spot to watch the sun set behind the mountains. (Along with half the people in Pai by the looks of things, this is clearly a popular thing to do so it does get busy.)

And that was pretty much it for our time in Pai. We made our way back down through the mountains (and yes the drive was just as bad, if not worse, the second time around) and headed back to Chiang Mai for a few more days. The first thing we had to do here was to head to the immigration office and extend our visas, which would have expired yesterday (28/04/17) otherwise. We had both had some concerns about visas previously, and were not sure how easy extending them would be, but in the end it was a surprisingly simple process. Getting there is easy, you hail down a songthaew and ask to be taken to the ‘promenada’ (this cost us 250 baht for both of us on the way out and 200 baht on the way back). Once you arrive outside you’ll be pointed in the right direction for immigration, which is a series of desks outside a big office. Here you fill in the extension form (which you can pick up here, or can be printed off and filled out beforehand, which is what we did), and hand over your completed forms, scans of your passport picture page, visa stamp page and departure card, as well as a passport style picture and 1900 baht each. You then wait inside the office for your name to be called, first of all for a picture to be taken, and then again to collect your (hopefully) completed visa extension. We arrived at around 10:00 and were done by 11:45, so if you make sure you’re prepared with everything you need the whole process is very easy. We’re now good for another 30 days!

Another of our days in Chiang Mai was spent doing a day trip to nearby Chiang Rai. (We covered a lot in this day so I’ll go through it in detail in the next post.) The other two days we didn’t do a huge amount, however I did finally pluck up the courage to get my hair cut, the first time in around four years I’ve had my hair cut anywhere other than my usual trusty barbers at home, which after weeks of worrying went fairly successfully. And that was the end of our time in northern Thailand, as we’ve since started to move south again. (The next post will provide a bit more detail on this.) As I mentioned at the beginning, we’ve loved north Thailand, finding it comfortable and relaxing, and often have struggled to move on. That being said I’m very excited to get moving and find out exactly what the rest of this fantastic country has to offer!

 

 

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