I know I’ve probably said this about numerous towns along my travels, but Pai stands out as one of my favorite places in the world.
We arrived in the late afternoon, after a long winding drive from Chiang Mai. The town’s main road buzzed with motorbikes and backpackers, yet it maintained a silent calm only small towns can manage. We already felt a warmth brimming in our hearts for Pai. It had us at hello.
Our guesthouse sent two women on motorbikes to pick us up at the bus stop. We hopped on and zipped up into the hills to our bungalows. The quiet location nestled in the mountains provided us with solace from our week spent in the party towns down south. Here thatched roof huts speckled the hillside and bamboo structures served as restaurants and bars. We approved.
Then she showed us to our dorm beds in the stone dank basement of a hut. Limp mattresses lay on the floor, boasting childhood patterns. Bright pink mosquito nets hung from the ceiling above each bed. We cringed. Maybe doling out approval so quickly was naive. We immediately decided we wouldn’t stay in this room more than one night.
Thankfully, a visit into town made up for our disappointment with the sleeping situation. During the day, Pai felt serene, as visitors and locals roamed the main street and its off shooting limbs. Restaurants and shops line the way, some playing Marley tunes. The sun reflected off the golden roof of the Buddhist Temple. We stopped in a cafe for some deliciously sweet Thai tea. Our favorite!
A few stands sold woven hats and colorful pants and scarves. Elephants adorned the prints on most clothing, because of their popularity in the area. T-shirts boasted the phrase, “love Pai!” and “heart Pai.” Everyone seemed to always be smiling.
As the sun shimmied behind the rolling blue mountains that hug the city, the city came alive. Food stands suddenly appeared along the edge of the three main roads. Music started playing from the bars and filled with boisterous backpackers. We marveled at all the different types of food you could purchase from the stands: shiskabobs, grilled cheese, pizza, grilled corn, stir fry, fried insects, pad Thai, coconut pancakes, hot tea in a bamboo cup, etc. You could eat all night and never try it all. We started with stir fry.
Some people snacked on the appetizers like chicken on a stick, dumplings, and egg rolls, while others dove into the dishes like Indian curry and pad Thai. The smell of deep fried oil, stinky curry, coconut milk, and peanuts filled the air. I wished I had a bottomless stomach to try everything.
We ate and went down an alleyway with dancing green lights on it to a small bar. The Spirit Bar sat people on cushioned stools around a fire pit. We first perused the jewelry shop at its rear, then took a seat and a Chang beer by the fire. A nice Austrian guy befriended us and we chatted all night. We wandered home, exhausted.
The following day, we switched to a nice private bungalow down the road with our own porch and hammock. From there we could stroll easily across the bamboo bridge to the town. As you get closer to the bridge the bungalows get nicer and nicer. Nothing felt too expensive in Pai though.
After back and forth bargaining with several drivers, we finally caught a ride to Pai canyon. A quick jaunt up the hill brought us to the top of the canyon. Here we could stare out into layers of hills and mountains painting the landscape on either side.
Two Thai police sat guard of the narrow pathway where some workers were positioning cameras for a Japanese film set. The policemen laughed at us as we shimmied on our bottoms across a steep finger sticking out from the rock, to snap a picture. Our fear of heights left our knees shaking as we attempted to stand up and pose. I chose to remain seated by the edge and crawl back. Some brave souls walked out there fearlessly and smiled as they teetered close to the edge. One crazy German guy did push ups on the narrow walkway. They gave me a heart attack.
We walked down the wider path to capture closer pictures of the temple in the hills and the rolling landscape. The path continued down a steep crumbling slope to a bridge. We started to climb down the slope slowly but when the dirt crumble beneath our shoes sending us sliding, we quickly retreated.
Back at the main lookout we watched as one group after the another returned from completing the loop around the top of the canyon. We battled internally with our own fears, preventing us from the hike. Instead of joining everyone, we sat watching each group go around for two hours straight.
In that time, we took numerous pictures of the sun sending shadows creeping across the face of the canyon. We marveled at the layers of blue mountains as they faded into the hazy sky. The birds seemed to laugh at us as we sat conflicted with our desire to go and our fear of falling off the cliff.
As another group, we watched head in the direction of the path, returned alive, we started to question our decision. Then Mandie posed the question again, “should we do it?” And I responded, “I don’t know should we?” The conversation ping ponged back and forth like this for a few rounds until finally we both said, “okay, let’s do this!”
So only a half an hour before sunset, we scurried off down the path in a race against time and fear. We scooted, our butts to the ground, down the crumbling slope. At the bridge we trudged across, wiping beige dust off our shorts. Then we weaved around trees and tightroped across the narrow path. We climbed over a fallen tree trunk, then pulled ourselves up a rocky incline.
We continued uphill for 50 meters, panting and sweating. I continually peaked back at the sun dipping further and further behind the trees. At the top, we prematurely celebrated by snapping pictures of our panoramic surroundings with Rocky fists in the air. The mountains congratulated us early with an amazing view of every curve and wrinkle of their green face. Then we took deep breaths and continued on.
We scrambled down a disintegrating slope, sending rocks down with us. Then we balanced across a foot wide path with steep drops on either side. That path led to a boulder with an imaginary staircase that we created by maneuvering each foot on to a flat surface and pushing up. At the top, one of the men working on the film set held out his hand and pulled me up. Then finally we traversed the last narrow path to where we started.
Both fists in the air this time, we calmed our pounding hearts and celebrated our victory over fear. We made it just in time to watch the sun cap the mountains tip with a halo of light, sending rays across the cloudy sky. It slowly descended the back of the mountain, illuminating the lining of each cloud and painting a heavy shadow across the opposing mountains. We stayed long enough to see the sky turn into a stacked rainbow.
That night we enjoyed the wide array of street food on offer in the night market and shared a Chang beer with our new friends. We felt extremely accomplished and totally in love with Pai.