Chiang Mai and the road to Pai

Read about the start of my journey through Southeast Asia, here, with a stint in Bangkok.

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Pai Canyon

We woke up on the night train outside of Chiang Mai on Wednesday morning, just as the sun was started to pierce through from behind the mountains and illuminate the valleys below.

After some lukewarm coffee in our unmade seats, we arrived around 8:30 a.m. to much milder temperatures than Bangkok, and super aggressive tuk tuk drivers who immediately swarmed us and followed us out of the train station and into the streets until we begrudgingly got in one with our bags.

We checked into our hostel — Brick House, which was really cool, except for the bathrooms — and then went to meet up with our new travel mate/ adopted daughter/ new favorite person in the world, Cat, a 19-year-old from London who we had met at our Bangkok hostel. Cat had taken an earlier night train the same evening and had been wandering around the city since 4:30 that morning. We connected with her at a cafe next to Wat Chedi Luang and together explored the temple and perused some shops around the bustling but much smaller city.

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Mel and I at a cafe in Chiang Mai

When I first began talking to people about traveling to Southeast Asia, everyone I spoke with raved about Chiang Mai. But no one could really tell me why, exactly. The 15.5-mile community is packed with stunning temples, often perched next to drug stores and coffee shops, like a McDonald’s might be. The land itself is beautiful, with mountains towering over the town. And it’s alive with stores sporting chiseled wooden goods, handmade jewelry and vintage clothing (Sweet & Lowdown on Thapae Road instantly became one of my favorite international stores) and street markets overflowing with fruits and noodles and fired grates releasing ribbons of smoke into the air.

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But here, too, tourism overwhelms. One really has to search for a restaurant that doesn’t include pictures of every dish on the menu (my personal policy is to avoid any restaurant that feels the need to offer pictures) and promise burgers and Caesar salad and spaghetti as options. The only really good food we found here was on the streets, as we walked.

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Chiang Mai market

It was still a treat for a couple of nights, just to see the markets and a few other sights. That evening, we took an hour tuk tuk up a hill to Doi Suthep, almost running out of time, but scrambling up the 309 steps — panting heavily — in time to watch the lazy sun dip below the tree line and paint the sky in yellow and pink.

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View from Doi Suthet

That night, we bought ringside tickets at Thaphae Stadium, along with a bottle of whiskey and a bucket of ice and exercised the capacity of our vocal chords through each of the five fights, some of which included the tiniest, youngest of fighters. (Seriously, we’re talking like 7-year-olds here) The highlight? A round of blind boxing in which a dozen or so fighters were blindfolded and stumbled around the ring, swinging wildly and occasionally flattening those in the wrong place at the wrong time or nearly falling through the ropes themselves.

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We found, though, that the true allure of Chiang Mai might be getting out of it, considering its attractive location to Thailand’s natural resources. And the next day, we did.

We had initially planned to stay for two nights in Chiang Mai, but on this trip, we’ve booked everything as we’ve gone along so as to stay as flexible as possible, and we decided to cut out the next day and jaunt up to Pai. Cat, whom we totally fell in love with the previous day, came along as did an Italian named Lorenzo, whom we met at our Chiang Mai hostel. This became our new crew, and over the course of a couple days we became illogically close.

When traveling abroad, hours become days and friendships garnered in the shortest of moments often connect you for a lifetime. I can’t explain by what witchcraft this is true, but I know that it is.

Many people who travel to Pai from Chiang Mai do so by moped. But Cat doesn’t have a license and Mel and I aren’t very proficient moped drivers, so the thought of doing so — one of us with Cat on the back, both of us with serious bags — up the steep cliffs on the road to Pai sounded like a bad idea. So instead, we rented a car for about $35 a day.

I was the de facto drvier, charged with getting the four of us up the razorblade cliffs without killing everyone — meaning the four of us, everyone else on the road and any wildlife in sight.

The early goings were a little shaky. In Thailand, they drive on the left side of the road and the driver’s seat is on the right side of the car. I figured it would take some time to get used to making turns the right way, etc., and cope with the insane traffic and motorcycles always snaking around you, sometimes from both sides, but it was actually the driving on the right side of the car that was the bigger problem. I nearly took off the left-side doors on a concrete wall. Then I almost smashed into a couple of parked cars — my passengers were yelping by this point. Finally, I realized that subconsciously my mind wasn’t accounting for the extra space to the left of me. When I drive in the U.S., I don’t even think about the fact that I allow for more space on the right side of the car, but obviously I do, as anyone does.

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Mel at the Bua Tong waterfalls

After about 15 minutes of white-knuckling, though, we’d passed through the worst traffic, I had learned to keep looking out of the corner of my left eye and we were on the open road.

It started out as a “travel day.” But it was one of those days where everything we did was so new and our friendships felt so old and the sun was hitting all the right angles and it already felt like a photograph, when you look back and are wistful. But we were still living it.

An hour into our drive, we stopped at the Bua Tong waterfalls, which Cat had heard about from someone. We found a tumbling waterfall that dropped in sheets and gentle slopes, about 320 feet in height over two levels — a lovely, off-the-tourist-path sight, with a twist: The rocks along the current were coated with a mineral deposit, which forms a sort of hardened sponge-like surface that is easy to grip, even on steep plunges, with your hands and feet. Therefore it’s known as the sticky waterfall — a striking feature that you can actually climb up and almost surely not fall to your death while doing so.

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Me at the Bua Tong waterfalls

We hiked to the bottom and then over the course of about an hour climbed the various peaks and ledges, the quick-flowing water passing over our feet and ankles while we kept moving steadily upward. The steeper parts included ropes that you could grab onto and hoist yourself up. The sun was warm but not hot and the air was perfect, the water was cool but not frigid, and around us, a jungle bulged. It gave me the feeling of living in the sharpest way possible. With our packs thrown in the car, moving around hectically, living life on the road out of a suitcase and among friends met that quickly become more like family, I wanted to do it forever. As long as I am able to walk and hear and feel and see, I want to stay on the move and in the moment and feel like this.

We drove another hour, our shorts still wet, before stopping at a roadside cafe in the middle of corn fields. The hut was open aired, without walls, a thatched roof blocking the sun, bamboo mats hung like window shades and small operation at the front — a wood fire and grate, a mortar and pestle for making pastes, baskets of tomatoes and limes and banana chips and various containers and coolers holding other items. From picture-less menus written on re-purposed DVD cases, we ordered pad Thais and one of my favorite dishes I’ve eaten — green papaya salad with dried shrimp. The owners taught us some Thai and took pictures of us petting their dog and asked us where we were going, telling us our time was not enough.

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Mel and Lorenzo

We all had duties. I, of course, was the driver. Cat was the navigator after Mel had her privileges taken away for getting us briefly lost. Mel then handled our bookings — as we’re planning as we go, we are constantly in the process of booking things: hostels, trains, busses, planes, boats. It’s hectic.

Mel found a place for us in Chiang Mai and also booked our flight out, to Siem Reap in Cambodia, which we had decided on the night before while talking to a British guy at our hostel. She was also charged with dealing with the chaos. I lost my debit card, for example, and had to acquire a password to get cash from a credit card, and we had to reorder our pocket wifi, which would not work for Cambodia. Then, we had to figure out how much things should cost and what we wanted to do in a particular place.

Lorenzo, meanwhile, was responsible for researching cool places we should stop along our drive. We did stop twice more for a coffee at a beautiful out-of-town hut-like hotel, and then at an overhang for photo shoots. There were many beautiful fruit stands in micro villages along the way as well, but those stops got vetoed as it was getting late. By the time we had made it to the outskirts of Pai, the sun was sinking rapidly, and Cat suggested we stop at the Pai Canyon which was also on our list (and also thanks to Cat).

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Pai Canyon

We couldn’t have caught it at a more ideal time. We hiked to where the dusty cliffs dropped and split into many sections, creating thin, dramatic ridges that one could walk along, connecting to larger pieces of land. The sun simmered just on top of the rolling, layered hills and then dropped altogether and the sky was overtaken by a gray-pink haze.

 

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By the time we got into town, it was dark and Mel, having completed the bookings, was acting as navigator again. It was her phone that led us directly into a walking street market. We turned onto Rungsiyanon Rd., which was fine at first but inch by inch the people and stalls and motorcycles multiplied and surrounded us. We definitely weren’t meant to be driving on the street, but we certainly couldn’t turn around and so the only way was forward. Mel started filming, of course, and was so close to the vendors she could have bought a mango as we passed. Then it got a little wild with one British woman getting bumped (and acting like we killed her) and a guy yelling “IT’S A WALKING STREET” and everyone staring at the obnoxious tourists who were plowing through this night market crowd. Eventually we made it to our hut-like resort and all changed clothes so hopefully no one would recognize us.

We got our dinner on the street as we wandered: various meats and vegetables on sticks with sauces, coconut and tapioca flour balls filled with cream, rotee wrapped around mango and sticky rice (Mel said she’s going to start a religion based on the deliciousness) and airlike mini pancakes. We stopped every block or so (there’s a lot of stuff in one block,OK?) for cocktails at the half-indoor, half-outdoor bars. Our favorite sported trees growing through the roof and an acoustic guitar player nailing classic American covers.

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Pai street markets
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Pai bar
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Cat, housing noodles like a champ in the street

The next day we lounged at our luxurious pool area hanging over the river and really relaxed for the first time on the trip, then drove to another waterfall (this one far more disappointing) and had lunch before getting back on the road, later than we’d expected.

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Mel at our first cushy digs of the trip
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Lorenzo making a splash at our cushy Pai digs

That meant I had to make the same hairpin turn-laden drive, but downhill (imminently more nerve-wracking) and in the dark. We saw a bad crash that had happened shortly before we arrived, where one car had been turned upside down and then rested on its nose. We didn’t know the injuries of those involved, but as cringe-inducing as it was, it felt lucky that the car had spun to the mountain side and not plunged into the expanse beneath its cliff counterpart.

We didn’t stop anywhere this time and we managed to make our way back to Chiang Mai, safely, keeping slow and me insisting that no one but me was allowed to comment my pace.

 

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Chiang Mai and the road to Pai

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