Adventures in Pai

Our trip started at the Chiang Mai bus station just outside of town. We walked towards the ticket window past countless backpackers wearing elephant print balloon pants. One sat with his bare feet up strumming a ukulele, producing nothing but strange and disjointed noises impossible to be mistaken for music. Another, just beyond the nearest row of plastic seats twirled what looked like brightly patterned socks with weighted toes in a desperate attempt to look graceful and artistic like a ribbon dancer or gymnast. These people were trying so hard to fit into the backpacker subculture, which ironically is based on freedom and not trying to fit in. It just doesn’t make sense. I looked over at Bethany and saw her already sour expression from only a few hours of sleep the night before start to blend with confusion as she let out a quiet sigh and slowly shook her head. I love how after so much time together we have an unspoken way of knowing exactly what the other is thinking. After much confusion and frustration, which is par for the course at any Thai bus sation, we ultimately decided to take a taxi up to Pai.

Earlier that week we spent a day playing with elephants and asked our guide about the dangers of his job. The most dangerous thing he said is when a bull elephant secretes a thick, orange, hormonal substance from its temples (the official term is musth). No one knows exactly why or what causes it, but during this time the elephant is uncontrollable and will attack people, animals, and even other elephants without provocation. Nothing is safe and the only thing to do is chain the elephant away from the others until enough time has passed and he’s calmed down. Its fascinating to me that in nature there are these explosively powerful and mysterious substances that we know so little about. So why all the talk on elephants and this strange orange stuff? Well, on the road to Pai – 4 hours of harrowing switchback turns crossing a massive jungle mountain range – I’m convinced it that was this orange substance alone that fueled our driver, who completed the 4 hour drive in 2.5.

Now I haven’t actually described Pai yet, but that’s ok for two reasons.

First – The drive is actually as bad as everyone says. There is no easy or pleasant way to get there – private drivers are insane, buses are a mess, and most flights in are privately chartered. Getting to Pai is a serious investment of time and most people who visit northern Thailand stick to Chiang Mai.

Second (and most important) – Pai is a rare place that is exactly what it sets out to be. Unlike so many other places we’ve been in Asia Pai doesn’t waste it’s time trying to fit into something else – it just is, and that’s good enough.

Once we overcame the extreme nausea from the drive we found Pai to be a peaceful, relaxing place. The town is on a small river running through the floor of a valley with huge mountains on all sides. There is very little to do except to walk around the town, visit one of the many independent cafes or bars, and take in the scenery. The atmosphere is calm, lazy and contagious – even the stray dogs here all seem to move more slowly. It’s a really special place and we’re thankful to have invested the time to go.

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a hotel of thatched huts just outside town

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exploring Pai canyon

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upside-down coffee at a local cafe in town

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looking out at the Pai valley

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a riverside bar just outside of town

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