Pai is a little mountain town near the Thai border with Myanmar, a short distance from the ancient walled city sprinkled with temples known as Chiang Mai. I’ve been to Chiang Mai 3 times now and Thailand… maybe 12? I decided I wanted to go to Pai because other people said it was great. I read it was touristy. I read it was over-rated, but some of my friends were the exact ones giving it those high ratings!
I decided to skip the 762 curve motorbike ride up the mountain. I had a motorbike in Myanmar so I knew just how much fun it isn’t to ride in the rain and the forecast for Chiang Mai and Pai both said rain. Instead, I paid too much for a pick-up truck to drive me to the bus station to put me in a small van for the journey. I chatted with the couple seated on either side of me on the way up- kiwis moving to Cambodia. I eyed the smooth pavement of the hairpin turns and the zigzags of the road curling its claws around the mountain longingly, knowing the drive would be memorable and enjoyable by motorbike. I love to feel the air. I feel like I’m part of the surroundings and the bike is part of me when I’m on the 2-wheeled machine. About 2 hours into the 3 hour car trip (4-6 by motorbike including stops) it did start to rain and it washed away my sense of longing.
Upon arrival, I said I quick “enjoy your trip!” and practically leapt from the van. I decided to walk around the town a bit before going out to my hotel even though it was still sprinkling. The wares for sale reminded me of Bangkok and the beach- standard “cool” Thai things. There were a few new ones though, which I eyed, thinking, “I will buy you” and “you will be mine” even though there’s no room in any of my 3 bags (the 4th broke so I had to ship its contents to America for a cool $100). I am picking up my whole life though with 4 years’ worth of baggage, literally. I circled the block, noting the temple and the post office for future use. I was surprised how many tourists managed to fit into the small town. I eyed all of the menus and settled on a cheese and bacon omelet. It sounded rather rich and savory for a dinner, but I was ok with it. Then I walked back to the bus station, the only place I’d seen taxis. I stalked a man in a motorcycle taxi vest and made him jump when I said, “suadeeka!” from behind. I said “motorcycle taxi?” and showed him my destination on my phone. He had to ask a shop keeper for directions and then said tentatively, “50 baht.” I could feel that he was bluffing, but I said ok because it sounded fair enough to me. I got on the motorbike with him, yoga mat in one hand and phone in the other (though I stuffed it into my purse as we took off).
We followed the curves of the small road out past fields and lots of hotels cute enough to lure people in. We passed a massive white Buddha statue halfway up a green mountain and I looked him in the eye, silently promising, “see you tomorrow.” We turned down a smaller road with lush plants popping over its edges and then took a turn down a small driveway and my hotel was there on the left with lots of little red flowers lining the drive. I paid my driver and made my way to a cool friendly mod coffee counter with a mattress on a swing, several empty tables and 2 cats. There was a sign that read “Check In- 13.30- I’ll be back” and call with a phone number. My phone had no service but I didn’t mind because I could also see a sign with the wifi password. After about 15 minutes, I used skype to call. The owner said he was on the way to the market but came back for me. I tried to pay, but he didn’t have change so he said “tomorrow is ok for me” and showed me to my room, which was a small wood cabin for 2 with massive French doors, a cozy bed on the floor and a romantic trailing mosquito net. Through a back door was an outdoor bathroom with a view of the trees and the sound of the birds. Ok. Sold. I settled in for a mostly comfy night, minus the mosquitos buzzing me ear and sucking blood from my ankles.
In the morning, I realized there was perfectly enough room for my yoga mat between the bed and the door so I practiced a few asanas before breakfast- scrambled eggs, lettuce, mangoes and coffee/tea. I skipped the mango because I didn’t want to cut it. When the owner walked through, I asked him about a motorbike. He said, “ok, take your time” but I was already ready so I sort of walked through my cabin then came back. He cleared a space to get a motorbike plus hauling side car out of the garage shelter. He moved a table and did a few other things. I sat on the bed swing and pretended to be content chilling. I wanted to get on the road before the rain. I needed to feel the wind in my face and the cool air blowing through my clothes. I looked up and he was waiting on me! About one minute down the road I realized I probably needed my passport and made us turn back (guess I’m not ready). We had one stop on the way- a break for a phone call- I smiled lots and said no problem lots too because I felt bad about rushing him earlier. He smiled lots too so I knew we were fine. He dropped me off at a shop and an abrupt woman demanded my passport and a cheap price. She offered me a small scooter and I asked for something a little bigger. I’m no novice. A tanned boy asked what color I’d like. I said “anything will be fine” and “red” in the same breath. As he pulled out a barely bigger scooter, I commented “mm automatic” and he chuckled as he asked if I could ride a motorbike and I responded a definitive “yes.” I really would have preferred something with manual gears, but I didn’t push it. I picked a helmet from a bin and 140 baht (plus 100 deposit for the worn wobbly helmet) later I was on the road! To the gas station. I was a little lost but found it before I it ran dry (they give them to you empty). I filled up and got a chocolate bar for later.
I pulled back on the gas and I could feel the wind on my gums because my smile was so big. I’d missed this sort of machine more than I knew already! It had been little more than a week since I sold my lemon of a Chinese knock-off motorbike. I chose to ride out on the highway away from Chiang Mai. I figured the road was probably comparably scenic and challenging. I was right. The mountains rose up along the side of the road, covered in trees with fresh green leaves. Low grasses flopped onto the road and hundreds of white butterflies flitted around. The air was absolutely alive with the energy of so many fluttering wings. There were fields too with farmers working and looking at me with confusion. I smiled and they did too. I passed a sign for a waterfall and said “see ya on the way back!” I climbed and curved and dipped and passed and sped on and on up the road. Sped is a funny word because I’m not such a fast driver, but it feels like it because it’s so fun. I missed *my* own motorbike though as I bumped over some lumps in the road. This lame automatic scooter didn’t turn so well and I swung out wide rather than hugging close to bend with the swivels and switches. I also couldn’t maneuver fast enough to miss the potholes. My learned sense of timing was off for this beast. I even went over with the scooter in slow motion as I did a U-ey to get to the side of the road for a photo opp. I could feel its weigh pulling against me and just let it go. Luckily, there was hardly anyone else on the road and there was plenty of time for me to pick us both up. I loved seeing the S and U shapes of the road ahead disappearing into the green hills with their mist and… grey? clouds. Are those… rain… clouds? A few drops fell and I knew that is usually followed by a down pour. Rain was predicted for the morning and I turned around for good in fear. I did a few more Ueys wanting to go on but really not wanting to be stuck with raindrops pelting my face and body, making it hard to see through squinted eyes on this deliciously curvey road that could be dangerous once it was slippery and I was alone after all.
I went for the waterfall instead. I figured there must be nice things to see in town too. The waterfall was out a bumpier more crowded road but through some nice villages with pigs and chickens and dogs in the road and pretty flowers by the houses. A couple of temples added to the scene. The waterfall itself wasn’t much to talk about- a trickle coming down a rock that wasn’t tooo tall. I sat to eat my chocolate and decide what to do. I saw some shoes next to the rock, but as I savored my chocolate, TONS of tourists struggled up and down. Not many looked impressed and few photos were snapped. I decided I didn’t need to scamper over the rock so I went into town instead for lunch. Fat Cat had high ratings on trip advisor and from my friend who claimed Pai was her favorite place in Thailand, which baffled me so I had to see for myself. Fat Cat was a little bamboo house with outdoor seating and a sheltered rest-hut with a few triangular pillows for eating, lounging, chatting, and letting the afternoon float by. I parked but then got back on my motorbike to get my book from my cabin just a couple of bends up the road—I could tell I might want to stay a while. While I was there I saw some big butterflies up close on a pretty pink flower and felt lucky for the experience. When I returned, a cute girl about the age of my old students offered me a menu with a well-rehearsed English phrase about taking a seat. I found a spot with a big cushion and made myself at home. I wrote down my order on the slip of paper that was offered to me and settled in with my book. A strawberry smoothie arrived that was perfectly ripe and sweet with a touch of herbs to compliment. Then my rice salad came- a nice ratio of slightly sticky purple rice and fresh crisp vegetables and some nuts to complete the mix. I dined and read about yoga and felt at peace.
Eventually, I peeled myself out of my spot and climbed back on my motorbike. I had promised a visit to a certain large white Buddha and I would hate to disappoint. I wound my way up the curved drive and found a massive gravel parking lot unprotected from the sun beaming down except for one sliver of shade beside a building. I pulled up there beside an old woman selling little bags. She was small and frail, but smiled a big beautiful smile that pulled her deep wrinkles into a bright smile too. She pointed a gnarled finger at some small pouches made of shan fabrics. I nodded encouragingly and simultaneously scolded myself for showing interest in something I didn’t want (I have NO room). She nodded too and I pointed up and the Buddha and back to the motorbike. She was satisfied and settled back into her seat.
I glanced at the temple on the far side of the lot and made my way for some steep steps heading for the pure white Buddha. A fellow explorer was also on the steps and I joked to her about getting in our workout. We made small talk as we made our way up and took photos of the Buddha side by side from a perch in the shade on the sun-warmed platform where Buddha sat. We idled a bit then I announced that I was staying and the girl and I parted. I found a bit of shade just my size under a tree branch and sat myself down cross legged facing the Buddha. Meditation is part of my yoga practice and I like trying different settings. My most recent meditation assignment from my book is about God being in everything. I repeated this sentiment imagining little Buddha shaped gods in everything—God is in the leaves, God is in those chirping birds, Buddha is in the wind, Buddha is in me, Buddha is in… the Buddha? The statue. Then I thought “How can Buddha be in Buddha?” and realigned my thoughts to imagine Buddha as energy flowing in everything- a new realization for me. As I finished my session, I heard footsteps and found a collection of tourists were all arriving- spontaneously simultaneously just as I was finished. I went to the bathroom next and dropped a heavy coin in the un-manned collection box. Another tourist watched me do it and I hoped she’d leave a donation as well. It’s someone’s life’s work to clean the thing.
I slowly and quietly explored the temple on the other side of the lot- padding around statues and briefly into the halls. I admired the swirls on the front of the buildings and the mirrored walls. I passed bells and gongs. I bowed my head to the gold tall Buddha in hall and appreciated the plants someone tended to beautify the grounds. My favorite though, was the guardians in front of the pilgrims’ steps up to the temple. Their stern green faces are so sweetly fierce that I couldn’t help but smile. They have a nice view over the valley too.
As I’d gone up and down the steps, I’d stressed a little bit about how to get by the sweet old lady to my motorbike without one of the little bags. I really didn’t need or want one. But she was so nice and I’d smiled. I hadn’t touched them or shown interest though (that always seals a deal). I told myself Buddha would buy one- an internal and external struggle. I wondered if I could just give her some money and not take a bag? Or buy it and leave it somewhere for another tourist to find. As I approached, she brightened and sat up taller. I sighed slightly and pointed to the other lady selling water (which I needed after tromping around in the sun). I hoped they were related and that was enough, but she had the same expectant, hopeful look in her eye after my purchase. I knew I had to do it. I couldn’t leave without a bag. Somehow, I was already too deeply invested. I looked at the small pouches, analyzing which one I would have to take. I picked one up, adjusting my attitude and asked, “how much?” She perked up beyond her already bright state, repeating “how mu?” and she fumbled around for a paper with two numbers written on it in old fashioned swirls of pencil – 59 and 35. She pointed to the one I was holding and then to the 55. She pointed to some smaller ones I hadn’t seen and to the 35. I had in my mind had figured they probably cost about 30 baht, but certainly wasn’t going to haggle or back out. It really wasn’t that I didn’t want to give her any money- I just really didn’t want to find room for even the smallest bag. I chose a small one with a pattern that I hadn’t noticed but liked. I handed over two green twenty baht notes and shuffled things around in my small purse to make room for the extraneous pouch. As I looked up, she was rummaging around in her things looking for change for me and I waved her off, gesturing with an open hand that I’d like to give the 5 baht to her (about 15 American cents). He face lit up even more with surprise and pleasure. We both said “korpkunkaa” and I walked away to my motorbike. We smiled at each other more as I put on my helmet and backed the bike out. I paused before turning it on and speeding off so I could wave. In that moment, she blew me a big kiss with both hands and I blew one right back to her. I felt overwhelmed and happy. I started up the engine and we waved some more as I drove off down the hill.
I considered going back to the hotel but decided I’d rather drive around a little more so I went back to a fork in the road and chose the smaller route. It bounced up and down over some hills and into a small town with several blocks of little houses. Then there was a big blue sign for the oldest or first temple in Pai. Wonderful! I do love temples, especially old ones. I drove between two massive lion statues and parked under a tree next to a barking dog and a monk draped in orange who soothed him. I walked around to the front of the elaborately decorated temple- striking in red and gold. It wasn’t a very large building. It twinkled and chimed though- lots of small bells were hanging from the roof and grey clouds brought wind along to ring them. I went through a side door past the dog who was barking again and was awed by the Buddha statues in the temple. The soft light illuminated them beautifully. They also had a maroon and gold motif and I couldn’t get enough of them. I snapped some photos and put a donation into a box held by a cartoonish monk statue. When the money slipped through, it triggered a recording of a child rhythmically saying something soft and soothing in Thai. I sat down for a bit to admire the building and its resident Buddhas a bit more.
When I left the dog was gone. Again, I considered going back to the hotel, but there was still more road out there, leaving out of the other side of the town. I went through a big brick gate and into some flowing fields. There were water buffalo and cows, all big and majestic as they nonchalantly chomped away at the grass. I passed some men carrying loads of twigs and some working in the fields who looked surprised to see me but softened when I smiled. Then the clouds cracked and some enormous drops of rain fell out into my lap and onto my bare arms. I pulled over next to a conveniently placed shelter overlooking the valley and donned my raincoat. I guess I went too far with the day. I have a hard time knowing when to go home rather than explore. The clouds unleashed a downpour that lasted for hours. I struggled to see as I tried to follow the road back home to my hotel. Mysteriously, it wasn’t raining at all on the hotel or the last 5 minutes of roadway.
I sat on the bed, tired from the harrowing ride and emptied my wet purse onto the bed. I picked up the pouch, thinking of the old lady. I opened it and saw that it was lovingly lined with a few different fabrics and piping. I looked up and saw something serendipitous- the pouch was the perfect size to hold my camera that came sans case. I could hardly believe my good luck.
I had a warm shower in the outdoor bathroom while the rain danced on the roof and the leaves just over the wall. Then laid in bed for a while, hoping the rain might let up long enough for me to get dinner. I googled gluten free restaurants and found ONE open in town. All the way in town. In the rain. I suited up in my coat and planned which skirt to wear to get wet and mentally prepared myself for the battle. I passed several restaurants, lit up and cozy looking on the way, but was determined to get the gluten free stamp of approval. I arrived and ran in dripping only to find the kitchen was closed; only tea was for sale at the dinner time hour. I nearly cried but went next door instead to a one-man restaurant. He delivered the menu, took my order, and quickly turned out a delicious Tom Yam. He also showed me the best place to sit to avoid the moths. I tipped him 10 baht on the 80 baht meal and he grinned. I don’t know how people live on such minimal funds. I stopped at 7-Eleven for a juice and to get proper change to pay for my hotel. The cashier and I laughed over a mishap with the change and I felt warmed by the people of Pai. Everyone was lovely!
Back at the hotel, I fought moths crawling on the bed for an hour. They were really unintelligent beasts. They fly into things and died in a heap beside the bed. I don’t know how they got in on this night, but not the night before. Their fluttering wings were beautiful before they crashed.
In the morning, I woke up slowly- I chatted with my boyfriend online, bent and twisted my way through some asanas and took the time to carve up a mango. I’d seen bags on the trees of the hotel waiting for the mangos to drop and had a feeling they would be fresh and perfectly juicy. I was in no way disappointed, in fact, the mango I had for breakfast was probably the best one I have ever tasted.
I was considering dropping my motorbike off first thing, but decided to have another joy ride on another road I’d seen. This one was just as beautiful and they elephant camps take their tours along it. I smiled to see their massive feet treading along the road and motorbikes passing by. At one camp, I stopped to admire the beasts. I love their long eyelashes and freckled trunks. They’re surprisingly graceful creatures. I remembered the sway in their step from having ridden them myself before and could almost feel the slow shift of their shoulders beneath me.
I had lunch at Fat Cat again, turned in my bike, and went to the bus stop to buy a ticket, imagining the vendor offering a ticket for that very minute and me suggesting an hour to shop. So I was surprised when she said the next available bus wasn’t for 3 and a half hours. Bbbbut I just gave back my bike! I started to walk up the street and it started to rain. Hard. I ducked into a post card shop and sent a few off from their writing station then jogged a couple doors down to a coffee shop to wait it out over a hot Thai tea and a new book on my kindle. In the end, I was thankful for the peaceful extra hours watching and listening to the rain from the comfort and safety of the cozy shop. The sun came out just in time for me to buy a bag for my yoga mat and have a stroll down to the river.
The drive back was hell on wheels. The driver had driving gloves for improved grip on the wheel so he could zing around the corners. He leaned into each turn and maneuvered the wheel quickly hand over hand. Two little old ladies in the first two seats vomited into little plastic bags the whole way. I had to sit on my heels to see the road so I wouldn’t join them. I even put on my seat belt.
Now that I’m safely back in my hotel in Chiang Mai, I feel disconnected from the journey. Pai seems like a blurred dream of misty mountains, butterflies, smiles, rain and Buddhas. I think I will remember it fondly…