The low clouds clung to the slopes like wispy threads of web as we hurtled towards Pai in our minibus. Cold air slapped sticky cheeks, and horns honked as fresh skid marks were laid around sharp corners. Our bus slammed to a halt, and only laughs were exchanged between the drivers. Route 1095 from Chiangmai offers some spectacular scenery, with tall green pine trees curving down into deep ravines, but if you’re driving you will not want to take your eyes off the road for a second.
The roads around Pai were far less terrifying. We rented a motorbike from the local Aya transport hub*, and set off for our own exploration of the countryside armed with a free map (see below). Here’s our top ten places to visit:
1) Passing through the Chinese village of Santichon, and clambering up the steep hill to the Yun Lai viewpoint. Up in the clouds, you can enjoy the mountain ranges with some complimentary herbal tea in decorative ceramic pots. Note: The motorbike ignition will not work if the kickstand is down. Also, if like us you’re not an experienced rider, you might be better off walking down the sheer vertical track. Keep an eye out for chickens and dogs whipping across the road!
2) Sliding down the Mor Paeng waterfall into the icy pool below. Some locals showed us where to sit before the stream launched you down the slippery rock face, and we even found a free guard dog to watch our belongings. The winding road there offers some cheap wholesome eats, and plenty of emerald paddy fields with farmers donning the fashionable conical hats.
3) Rolling up and down the roller coaster like road heading south east to the Pam Bok waterfall. The smooth tarmac, minimal traffic and long dips makes it feel like you’re heading the pack in a game of Mario Kart. You’ll find plenty of hostels on this stretch, and luckily the petrol stations are never far away.
4) Falling upon the Land Split en route to the Pam Bok waterfall. This is a site that’s making the best of a bad situation- after being hit by two mysterious land splits in 2008 and 2011, the farming family who owns the land can no longer grow crops. They opened their property to passing tourists to survey the lengthy crack, revealing deep red earth metres down. A giant swing and dancing tree are also entertaining but it is the family’s hospitality that is most memorable. They generously served us a feast of freshly grown passion fruit, dried bananas, nuts, homemade jam, dried dates, roselle juice and a moderate sample of their special roselle liqueur. In return, you are expected to make any donation which we happily did.
5) The Pam Bok waterfall is a raging cascade of water down a high rock face, which explodes into a sliver of river below. To reach it, you must walk over slimy rocks and wooden bridges, before slowly edging down the rocks to a curve where you can view the fall in all it’s awesome glory. If you’re feeling daring, continue up the road (literally, there is a huge hill) to another viewpoint.
6) The Pai Canyon offers a heady thrill of a trail where you follow a circular path around the red and sandy rocks. The paths can get extremely narrow at times as it is carved by water tracks and exposed tree roots, and sections have washed away making it necessary to leap across. Not recommended if you’ve had one too many Chang beers the night before (in which case you also probably shouldn’t be driving)!
7) The WWII Memorial bridge offers a slice of nostalgia, but don’t be fooled- the original bridge built by Japanese soldiers during the war was demolished. The Thai government deemed a new bridge was necessary, so this memorial bridge was constructed after the war and stands next to a modern concrete crossing. Two old-style rickshaws dressed with flowers sit forlornly on the wooden slats, and the river view is obstructed by hundreds of wires.
8) The Tha Pai hot springs are a great way to unwind after time in the saddle. The National Park charges a small fee for entry, but as we found out it closes at around 17:30 and the guard offered us a jump in a muddy puddle nearby as compensation. Instead, try the local resorts which offer a more luxurious spa treatment, with hot pools alternating with cooler pools for just 80Baht.
9) The Wat Mae Yen temple offers the typical toothy dragons, warriors and serpents that you’d expect on a Chinese temple. There is an impressive view from the hilltop, and an antique gong that sits there tempting visitors to strike it. Our visit was made more exciting by a truckload of Buddhist monks singing and laughing their way up to the top, before bounding out into solemn silence as they went to pray.
10) The Mae Yen waterfall eluded us. We drove down a track that led us into the river, so we set off to find it by a 4km hike. We trekked for 90mins along the edge of a field, through overgrown jungle and across rapids to reach it, but it remained ever further away. We spotted brown signs in Thai stapled to trees that might have directed us to it, but equally they may have read ‘Private property, trespassers will be shot.’ An exciting trek with some big tropical butterflies, but otherwise a failed venture.
A well-loved map of Pai:
*We paid 100Baht per day for the motorbike hire, with an optional 80Baht full insurance cover. You also have to leave a 100Baht deposit for the helmet hire, which is compulsory for all riders in Pai. We quickly ran low on fuel and had to double back on ourselves, and I think it’s best to assume you need to fill up immediately.