There’s a lot to love about Pai

Seven hundred and sixty two. That’s how many bends there are on the road to Pai. Those of you who’ve been in the car with me coming down Macquarie Pass will know how well I handled that. I may not have been enjoying the twists and turns as I moaned to Davis ‘I feel sick’ whilst turning an unnatural shade of green, but even I couldn’t ignore the stunning vistas passing us as we ascended through the mountains.

It takes 3 hours and costs 150 baht per person in a mini van from Chiang Mai to Pai, they must get a lot of queasy travellers though as just when you think you can’t take another bend they plan a strategic stop at the half way point – something everyone on our bus was very grateful for.

We arrived in Pai with intentions of doing the full Mae Hong Son loop but it quickly became apparent we wouldn’t be leaving Pai in a hurry. Originally we planned to spend just 2 days in Pai but somehow this turned into 6 and plans of trying to fit in the rest of the loop were quickly abandoned.

Pai itself is a chill little village with a hint of a hippie vibe. It has become a haven for backpackers in northern Thailand. Whilst it was once probably an exotic destination off the beaten track offering a unique insight into village life, the Pai of today has definitely been discovered.

This has both positives and negatives, on the negative side Pai is now geared toward tourism and vaguely reminded me of Bangkok’s Khao San Rd. It can get busy and there are often loads of people at the main attractions, and whilst there are plenty of places to eat, as with a anywhere that is geared towards tourists there are plenty of mediocre restaurants.

But for every negative there are ample positives! Yes, Pai is busy, but that just means there’s load of other travellers to meet and since most of the crowd are young backpackers we found that if you got out to the sites early you could still enjoy the feeling of being the only people there, there is amazing food just don’t eat on the main tourist strip and definitely try out the street food at the markets. It’s popularity meant that travel to and around Pai has become ridiculously cheap and easy, but the biggest positive? Pai has some of the most breathtaking scenery in Thailand.

We loved Pai! And no one we’ve chatted with has disliked it with almost everyone saying they ended up staying longer than planned. We probably would have stayed until our visa ran out if not for the call of the Yipeng lantern festival in Chiang Mai beckoning finally us back to the city.

Some of the things we loved most and recommend from our time in Pai-

Stay in a bungalow outside of town

Our first two nights in Pai were spent in town at a guesthouse which was a quick 2 min walk to the night market, brilliant location but otherwise nothing special. When we decided Pai was going to be home for a week we decided to splurge on a Bungalow in the mountains. Our big splurge set us back $35 AUD per night and for that we got a bungalow which overlooked rice fields and offered endless views of the mountains. We even had a pool and on top of the bungalow was a deck which was the perfect place for drinking beers and star gazing. If you’re going to Pai and you’re going to stay for a while- and you should! I definitely recommend renting a bungalow, far enough away to be completely serene and peaceful but close enough to still walk into the markets.

Tham Lod Cave

One of our definite highlights in Pai was Tham Lod Cave. We saw this as part of a tour that combined a couple of other sites and all in all ended up being cheaper than trying to get there on our own. The cave itself is insane! You are guided along the 1.6km caves by local ladies armed with just a lantern, they don’t speak much English so any information they give you about the cave is hilariously limited to pointing out stalactites and stalagmite formations that they’ve nicknamed like ‘UFO’ and ‘popcorn’. They deliver these tidbits with a little giggle making you feel like it’s comedy hour without the two-drink minimum. All up the cave tour takes about 40 minutes you walk through several areas and up loads of rickety, dark staircases which are loaded down with bat crap, I was disgusted for about 1 minute, but as I’d stupidly worn my thongs I quickly embraced those handrails, bat crap and all. Make sure you bring some hand sanitiser with you because I guarantee you’ll be gripping those hand rails too! Once you get to the end of the first cavern you’ll jump on a bamboo raft for a few mins to cross to the end of the cave, you’ll get out here and go up yet more stairs to another cavern before coming back down and beginning the walk back to the park entrance.

the entrance to the caves

the entrance to the caves

Pai Canyon

We stopped by Pai Canyon for sunset…but so did basically every other tourist in Northern Thailand, for a more serene experience try going for sunrise. Regardless of when you go, this one should definitely be on your list, the canyon is about 8km’s outside Pai and offers a lookout over Pai valley. Local’s like to claim it’s Pai’s very own Grand Canyon but that is a pretty big stretch. It does however offer stunning vistas and, if you’re not too freaked out by the impossibly thin and sheer red tinged ridges with 50m drops to the forest floor, there are some nice trail. It’s not for the faint hearted though and the viewing platform is as far as most people go and is easily reached by a set of concrete steps.

Sunset over Pai Canyon - this view makes braving the crowds worth it

Sunset over Pai Canyon – this view makes braving the crowds worth it

Hire a scooter and see what you can find

If you want to go anywhere in Pai the easiest way to get around is to rent a scooter. Whilst the road rules seem a little unobvious your biggest worry should be novice tourists drivers rather than local road rules, we saw many a tourist sporting tell tale white bandages. If you’re a semi decent driver and have minimal common sense though you should be fine and for around 150 baht a day you can rent a scooter. Some of our best times were just cruising around on the scooter and taking in the amazing scenery. Whether you’re going with or without a plan, any road will lead you to some spectacular views and the locals joke that ‘all roads lead to Pai’ so getting lost is hard.

Shane very proud after day 3 of not killing us on the scooter

Shane very proud after day 3 of not killing us on the scooter

The Land Split

The land split itself is kind of cool. Basically a farmer noticed that after an earthquake in 2008 a 2 meter wide and 11 metre deep crack had appeared in the middle of his farm. With his livelihood at stake the farmer decided to turn his farm into a tourist attraction! The owners allow you to visit the land split and taste their organically grown produce all for a donation. The people here are so lovely and continually try to give you more and more food- the rosella juice is amazing!

making rosella jam @ the landsplit

making rosella jam @ the landsplit

The Bamboo Bridge

This one doesn’t seem to be popular in the ‘must see’ lists or included in many tours but we stumbled across a picture and decided to try and find it. A 30 minute scooter ride over some pretty rough and steep roads delivered us to the Pai Bamboo Bridge or Kho Ku Su. There is no entrance fee but a donation box is placed at the entrance and you can also feed the fish for a donation. The walk itself is about 800m and winds across the rice fields that are nestled against the backdrop of the mountains. There are strategically placed huts along the way where you can stop and take in the incredible scenery or even buy a bag of food to feed the fish, proceeds of which are donated to locals in need. We got there early so we had the whole walk to ourselves but for the farmers working in the fields. The bridge ends at the entrance of a temple, which was closed when we were there. I’ve since read that the main purpose of the bridge is to be a time saver for the monks coming from the temple into town.

the bamboo bridge stretches over rice fields

the bamboo bridge stretches over rice fields

Hot Springs

Go directly to the hot springs. Do not pass go, do not collect $200 just go to the hot springs. There are two hot springs in Pai, the Tha Pai Hot Springs while closer are quite hot with stories that you can boil an egg in the 80 degree water! If you venture a little further though you’ll find Sai Ngam hot springs this is where you want to be. Crystal clear water, a lovely sandy creek bed and warm water- soooo relaxing!

Waterfalls

There are a few waterfalls that are easy to get to. Pai Mo Paeng which seems to be a favourite of backpackers keen for a few beers at the top while they find the courage to slide down the rocks into the pool below. Pam Bok, in my opinon is the nicer (and quieter) of the two, this one is secluded and requires an easy walk between high cliffs to reach it.

chasing waterfalls @ Pam Bok

chasing waterfalls

Coffee with a view

Everyone raves about Coffee in Love and while it does have good coffee and great views, it is also the stop for every tour bus that comes through Pai. Not wishing to battle the crowds, we decided to head up the road a little and found The Container. Equally impressive views, great coffee and even better a verandah full of swing chairs! We got caught here during a storm and ended up staying for a few hours, the staff were super chill and even has some decent tunes playing, all in all I can think of worse places to be stuck.

swinging @ Container cafe

swinging @ Container cafe

 

Ancient Ruins of Thailand – Ayutthaya or Sukhothai or both?

Since we live on the beach back home we’d decided that instead of heading south to the resorts Thailand is famous for we’d go a different route and from Bangkok head North to Chiang Mai. It’s a fair way between these two cities and since we’re trying to work with a budget, we decided to go overland and break the trip up with a few stops along the way. Enter Ayutthaya, Sukhothai and some pretty cool ancient ruins.

We started with Ayutthaya, just 1.5 hours north of Bangkok and on the ‘must see’ lists in all the guide books it seemed like a safe bet. Again keen on saving those $ we caught the 3rd class train, a local train from Bangkok and an experience in and of itself – so much so that we wrote a separate blog about it here!

Ayutthaya is the former capital of the Kingdom of Siam which reigned from 1350 until 1767 when it was invaded by the Burmese. These days Ayutthaya is a sprawling, flat town of some 800,000 people and while it’s busy it’s not too chaotic making it pretty easy to get around.

The first thing to know about Ayutthaya is that the ruins are not centrally located. Instead there are numerous sites dotted around the city offering a glimpse of a time long gone that catch you by surprise. This is not really apparent until you get there, we spent ages trying to research where exactly the ruins were so that we could figure out the best part of town to base ourselves in. Turns out it doesn’t really matter. The ruins are pretty spaced out so staying in either the old and new towns has it’s perks.

Everyone told us the best way to see Ayutthaya is to hire a bike. So with that in mind, we hired bikes from our guest house for a whopping 50 baht a day and armed with our map set out on the hunt for some ruins. Ayutthaya is an easy riding city, it’s pretty flat all around the city and even though the traffic in Thailand still doesn’t make much sense to me after 3 weeks here, the locals in Ayutthaya are very used to tourists on bikes so it’s pretty safe, it did take us a little while to get up the courage to cross through a roundabout though – but as they say once you’ve done it once it’s just like riding a bike!

Wat Maha That

Wat Maha That

We managed to cover of the main ruins in one day, if you wanted to see every single one by bike you’d probably need two days. One word of warning- it’s crazy hot! So sunscreen, loads of water and occasionally taking refuge in an air-conditioned coffee shop are definitely recommended!

We hit the main ruins stopping at each one for about 40 mins to an hour. We started with Wat Maha That home to one of the most photographed pieces of the park, the famous Buddha head in the tree trunk

Wat Maha That

Wat Maha That

Wat Ratchaburan founded in 1424 by King Borommarachathirat II who order the site built on the cremation site of his two brothers.

Wat Ratchaburana

Wat Ratchaburana

Wat Phra Si Sanphet, a temple used exclusively for royal ceremonies of the time.

Wat Phra Si Sanphet

Wat Phra Si Sanphet

Wat Lokkaya Sutharam impressive due to it’s 42m reclining Buddah

Wat Lokkaya Sutharam

Wat Lokkaya Sutharam

By this stage of the day I’d kind of had enough. Yes the ruins were awesome and I had enjoyed seeing them but it was hot, I was sweaty, my butt was sore from a bike with absolutely no shocks and I’d just crossed a bridge on which I was certain I was going to die…but then we saw Wat Chaiwatthanaram

As soon as I had a glimpse of Wat Chaiwatthanaram I forgot all of that and just stared in open mouthed wonder at one of the most breathtakingly beautiful sites I never even knew I had to see. It’s simply magic, to stand in a place, a holy place non-the less, and gaze in wonder at a monastery that was built some 360 odd years ago. If this place isn’t on your bucket list already do yourself a favour and go and add it. Spectacular isn’t a big enough word to cover what its like to see this place in person.

Wat Chaiwatthanaram

Stunning Wat Chaiwatthanaram

After a massive day biking around the ruins we were pretty keen to head further north where the locals kept telling us it wasn’t as hot (lies!), so we jumped on a bus to see more ruins in the town of Sukhothai.

Biking around Sukhothai Historical Park

Biking around Sukhothai Historical Park

Pretty much everyone who comes to Sukhothai comes for the Historical Park. We’d seen the pictures and after our awesome time in Ayutthaya we were pretty excited to see the ruins. The ruins of Sukhothai date back to the 13th and 14th centuries and the historical park covers some 193 ruins over 70sq km’s-n sounds awesome right? Buuut, if I’m honest, after Ayutthaya I was a little underwhelmed by the ruins at Sukhothai. The historical park itself is lovely, the crowds are certainly smaller, the small town vibe and the people are just gorgeous but the ruins in terms of scale and beauty- sorry Sukhothai but Ayutthaya wins this one hands down.

sukhothai4

Sukhothai ruins

sukhothai3

Sukhothai Ruis

If you’ve got time and you want to travel from Bangkok to Chiang Mai with a few stops in between, yes definitely stop at both Ayutthaya and Sukhothai but if you’re on a schedule and wondering which ruins to try and fit in my vote would be for Ayutthaya for a truly unforgettable experience.

Bangkok – it grows on you

When we told people how long we planned to stay in Bangkok the response was an overwhelming ‘why!?’. We planned 7 nights as our first stop on our South East Asia adventure and we thought that wouldn’t be anywhere near enough time to see the best of what a city boasting some 8 million people has to offer. A lot of people seem to come here for 2 or 3 days, hit the main temples do a river cruise and head on their way to the famous beaches down south, even many locals told us one week is too long.

I get it. The city doesn’t have an enchanting beauty or charm absorbing the traveller like say a Paris or Rome. It’s dirty, it smells, and I could go on about the unrelenting heat for days! But what Bangkok does have is a gritty charm. Once you look past the temples and the tourist traps you see the friendly people who willing offer their time, advice and smiles and a city that slowly reveals its own brand of charm – but only if you can be bothered to look for it.

When we arrived in Bangkok the country was still reeling from the death of its beloved King. On our first day we went to the Grand Palace but were unable to get in as thousands of Thai people had travelled from their homes to pay their respects to the King, to witness such reverence and love for a non-elected figure was at first astonishing to my western eyes but as I watched and after talking to a few local people I was quietly humbled by the display of affection the Thai people have for a man who was by all accounts a great King and friend to the people of Thailand.

Our most amazing experiences in Bangkok have been the unexpected ones. The man who told us how he and his family had travelled from the north to Bangkok in order to pay their respects to their king, the lady who stopped for a friendly chat and offered us advice on her favourite parts of Thailand, but the best surprise was definitely the monks.

We had just been down to check out Khao San Rd, billed as the backpackers mecca where you can do any number of activities Thailand tourism is famous for, we’d been, we’d seen and since we didn’t feel like getting a tattoo or drinking cocktails by the bucket (though we’ll def come back for that one!) we went in search of some of the famous street food we’d heard could be found on Soi Rambuttri.

On our way we passed an unassuming temple, Wat Chana Songkhram, where we were accosted  by people beckoning us in telling us to come and ‘witness a beautiful sight!’ At first we brushed them off, we were a little jaded from the relentless tuk tuk drivers and fortune tellers.

We did stop though and I’m so glad we did. We got talking to a lovely local fellow who told us all about the temple and then invites us inside for no fee as it was a special Buddhist day they just asked that we be respectful and take off our shoes, it was prayer time and visitors were permitted to watch. We took off our shoes expecting yet another temple experience but instead stepped inside a beautiful red, white and gold temple to the most uplifting and mesmerising sound. A large group of Buddhist Monks chanting in front of an alter. I don’t know how to describe the beauty of seeing that many monks chanting together in prayer, but it was a truly breathtaking moment, it wasn’t so much that we knew but that we felt we had witnessed something special. We stayed and watched until the chanting had finished and later learned from our new friend that the monks were praying for Buddha and for their King.

Up until this point I’ll admit Bangkok wasn’t really growing on me and that I thought perhaps the naysayers were right and one week might be too long but after being invited to witness this I know this city has many hidden secrets and gems, we just have to find them.

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