Cruising the 762 Curves to Pai
When I first visited Thailand, the mountainous town of Pai was mentioned occasionally, but it wasn't quite on the backpacker radar yet. Two years later and everyone is talking about Pai. It's so chill and laidback. It has good coffee and good vegetarian cafes. It’s full of hippies and yogis. I didn't totally get the mystique of Pai, because from what I could tell, there wasn't a lot to do in Pai, but that seemed to be the beauty of it.
So, of course, I had to go to Pai.
Pai is only three hours north of Chiang Mai, so it's an easy trip once you're already up north. I planned on taking a shuttle to Pai, but quickly found out that many backpackers attempt to drive motorbikes up the mountain to Pai.
Um, no. I knew my klutzy self on a scooter would be a hazard to other people, but the more I heard people making the journey, the more tempting the trip became. The problem?
The road to Pai has 762 curves. Yep, count 'em: 762. So driving a motorbike there was promptly out of the question.
But then I met Mike, who was probably one of a million Canadians at Thai Thai Hostel (let me state for the record that there are a lot of Canadian backpackers and they are all super friendly). Mike was convinced that I could manage a scooter, so we rented two together.
The Thai woman who rented us the scooters took one look at me, cocked her eyebrow, and asked, "You ride scooter before?"
"Uhh, no." I admitted.
"You need to practice on side road here. Or, you ride with him." She handed me the keys, and Mike and I headed to a side road. I made it up and down the street pretty easily, figured out the blinkers, and managed a wide turn. But when Mike suggested I take the motorbike out onto the street, my courage faded. The cars were speeding by and I was too nervous. I made Mike nervous!
The solution? I left my beautiful, pink scooter behind at the hostel and hopped on the back of Mike's. After a full day of exploring temples and a national park on the outskirts on Chiang Mai, I was warming up to the idea of going to Pai by motorbike. But only if Mike drove!
Then, the day before Mike and I were supposed to leave for Pai, Andrew walked into the hostel, covered with gauze and bandages. The Thai staff were literally like, "Oh, just another white person in a motorbike accident," as they continued to tidy up reception, but the rest of us backpackers were looking at him in horror.
Andrew had been driving a motorbike up to Pai when he lost control of the bike. It hit a patch of grass but then landed straight in a concrete ditch. Andrew emerged bloodied, and two Russian girls helped him get all the way back to Chiang Mai where he could get to a hospital. (Andrew, I have to say, is one of the most positive, optimistic people I have ever met. He stayed calm after the accident, didn't gripe about having to change his travel plans or the fact that he couldn't drink alcohol on Thai meds, and kept people laughing even as he was bandaged up. He even went back to Pai!).
Alright, so all my courage went out the window upon seeing Andrew, but Mike was still feeling confident. I really wanted to go and I didn't want to go by shuttle bus anymore, so I committed to splitting the cost of a motorbike with Mike and we booked a hostel for two nights with some backpackers we had met in Chiang Mai.
On Saturday morning, with the sun blazing and our day bags packed, Mike and I set off for Pai.
The first hour is a straight shot on a busy highway, which leads you out of Chiang Mai and straight up north. Mike weaved in and out of cars, keeping pace with the traffic since many cars anticipate motorbikes and make their way around them.
After an hour, the highway begins to curve up a mountain, with the curves tightening as we made our way up. About 70% of the drive to Pai is navigating tight curves, many of them hairpin curves that require confidence and skill. Luckily, Mike had both. All I had to do was hang onto the back of bike and make sure my butt didn't get too numb! The cars drive fast on the mountain and often take the curves wide, crossing over the middle line, so we were constantly aware of other cars and motorbikes sharing the road.
We stopped at a waterfall about halfway there to take a break and stretch our legs. The waterfall was bigger than I thought and the water was refreshing. It was really hot driving to Pai, so waterfall and ice cream stops were necessary. There are small villages along the way with fruit stands, and every local we encountered was happy to point us in the right direction.
It's not an easy ride, but it's a beautiful one. Much of the drive took us through forest and shaded areas. It was a perfect way to see northern Thailand and having great company along the way made it even better.
After three hours of driving, we finally found ourselves in the little town of Pai. It was pretty chill and laidback, like everyone had said. That's about the best way I can describe it. There are plenty of shops and cafes, and the town is easily walkable. We stayed at a popular hostel, Common Grounds. There was a huge common area, a pool table, clean dorm rooms, and plenty of people to interact with.
We spent our three days in Pai lazying around, eating good food, and exploring the town by scooter, while our nights were spent drinking alcohol and making new friends.
There isn't much to do around Pai, which was expected. Mike and I checked out Pai Canyon, which is a… canyon. But a spooky canyon. A lot of the trees were burnt and the canyon extended further north. Near the canyon is what the locals calls the Land Split, which is literally a trench in the ground where two earthquakes split the ground in two. There were also nearby waterfalls and a big Buddha, but we didn't make our way to them.
On Monday morning, we set off to journey back to Chiang Mai. We flew down the mountain on the way back, which was mainly due to Mike's confidence than anything to do with me. I just got to enjoy the sun on my face and the wind in my hair.
Pai is a perfect hippie town nestled in the mountains, but to be honest, I am not sure why everyone raves about such a little town with so little to do. I enjoyed Pai for what it was, but what made the trip worth it for me was the drive there and back by motorbike.
Moments after Mike and I arrived back in our hostel in Chiang Mai, a girl walked past us with her knee bandaged and a sling on her arm: a broken shoulder from a motorbike accident on the way back from Pai.
Truthfully, I was glad to be back in one piece!
- Hostel: Common Grounds Hostel, 290B/night (book ahead; it's popular)
- How to get there: 150-200B/one-way shuttle or 250-300B/day to rent a motorbike from Chiang Mai
- If you don't plan to return to Chiang Mai, you need to rent a motorbike from a company that will allow you to leave the bike in Pai. Either leave your backpack at your hostel in Chiang Mai or arrange with a company to have your bag be transported to Pai by shuttle.
- If you go: You can't go wrong with any of the coffee shops or vegetarian cafes in town. Check out Pai Canyon. Everyone seems to have scooters in Pai, so rent one if you want to practice.
- If I'm being honest: Don't drive to Pai if you're not confident. Or do what I did and meet a hot guy to ride on the back of the motorbike with. You won't regret it.