Northern Thailand by Motorbike - the Mae Hong Son Loop
Part 3 - Pai
Pai is but a few hours by motorbike from Mae Hong Son on what must be one of the most scenic highways in Thailand, made all the more enjoyable by traveling on said motorbike. I wouldn't have wanted to be on a public bus.
Unlike Chiang Mai or Mae Hong Son finding accommodation was easy. Pai is one those places where it seems everyone walks around with a Lonely Planet in their hands so you only need hunt down a guesthouse not listed in the book. We stopped at a place down one of the side streets, a Mr. Teng Guesthouse, and found the place more than adequate. I don't recall the room rate but it was cheap and the owner is very friendly and speaks good English if that's important to you.
We only had the afternoon to explore the area as the motorbike had to be back in Chiang Mai by noon the following day, but we made the most of it. On our itinerary was the Tha Pai Hot Springs where locals were trying to cook eggs, the Maw Paeng Falls which takes you through a KMT village where the locals try to sell drugs to all the foreign tourists, though perhaps since Thailand commenced its war on drugs they've all been shot dead now, I don't know. Anyway, it's a nice waterfall, but the 3 or 4-km-long dirt road leading to the fall, which would have been cakewalk on my Honda XLR, was, riding a large street bike, more like sloshing through pudding. We also visited the Grand Canyon of Pai. Not really grand, but it is a canyon in some sort of sense and worth visiting.
We also saw three motorbike accidents, well, we saw one - a local on a 110cc hit a dog and crashed, came across another seconds after it happened - a tourist also on a 110cc and probably thinking it was a bicycle missed a turn and crashed into a barbed-wire fence. He was definitely injured. The third was only evidence, back in town we saw a couple of guys on 250cc dirt bikes and one was banged up having obviously wrecked somewhere, but he seemed indifferent to his scrapes and bruises- my kind of rider.
Some advice. As bucolic as Pai may be, a motorbike is a motorbike and is not a bicycle. If you haven't ridden before then I don't suggest that you start here. Learn at home first. Don't put an early end to your holiday because you think riding even something as simple as a 110cc is the same as a bicycle, it's not. Do be careful. Sermon over.
Pai reminded us a lot of Yangshuo, China. A scenic area (though Yangshuo is considerably more scenic, but hey, it's one of the most scenic places in the world) surrounding a town devoted heavily to budget tourism, and as such, both towns have two sides - a tourist side and a local side.
We mistakenly ate dinner on the tourist side (actually the dinner was intentional, it wasn't until we started eating that we discovered our error) and not the local side and both of us complained. The restaurant was, like so many so-called Thai food restaurants catering to tourists, Thai only in name as the food had been altered to appease seemingly uninitiated tourist tastes. Aside from the food being unrecognizable we also thought it a shame because many tourists really do want an authentic meal and restaurants like this do everybody a disservice. Oh well. Sorry I don't remember the name of the place, but it was in the center of the tourist area. This too, is a Yangshuo problem where scores of cafes along West Street and Pantao Lu serve up tourist food (though some do so quite well) in much the same way, forsaking authentic Chinese styles for sanitized tourist versions. I could probably go on endlessly comparing Pai and Yangshuo but I won't. Not yet anyway.
Even though it was New Year's Eve we were both rather tired and had to get up early to be sure to get the bike back to Chiang Mai by noon the next day, so we forego celebrations and I think we were both asleep by about 10:30 pm.
We awoke to the chilliest morning yet, cold enough to see one's breath, grabbed some breakfast and hit the highway making Chiang Mai by the appointed time.
We both would like to have seen more of the area around Pai and both of us want to do another northern Thailand by motorbike trip but not in four days, but rather more like fourteen. Pai is no doubt a backpacker mecca but there really is a lot to explore in the area and places that become so popular do so for a reason and it's not banana pancakes and hip cafes, it's because there really is something worth doing in the area. But do be careful, there are a lot of tourists running around on motorized two-wheeled vehicles that really belong on bicycles. Natural selection should eventually take care of the problem.
Part 2 - Mae Hong Son
Part 3 - Pai
All text and photographs © 1998 - 2006 Gordon Sharpless. Commercial or editorial usage without written permission of the copyright holder is prohibited.