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Delightful Northern Thailand – Sweet Pai & Ning



Road 1265 from Ban Wat Chan gets better, now it has even people on the asphalt, and look there: young westerners kayaking on the river. Pai can't be far from here.

According to the map, the world famous backpacker resort village of Pai has a river. Two things are sure then:

– The river is called Pai.
– Ning & Pothole will seek lodging on the river's edge.

Accommodation

The map reveals several roads along Pai river. Finding a room isn't difficult: All river roads contain nothing but cheap lodges. Actually, all roads away from the river contain nothing but cheap lodges, too.

We find an individualistic settlement of a few scattered tourist bungalows and a dorm block right on the water. It is the only "resort" which arranges its cottages and rooms not in long, dull, Guantanamo-like rows, but somewhat at random. Nice curving walkways, many flowers growing out of soil and pots. The "resort" has several wooden lounging platforms at the water's edge, some with worn-out mats. They are mostly lie-down, which is perfect for Ning and me.

The nicest shack just got available. Still 600 baht sans breakfast seem a bit steep for the place: It looks like they hammered it together from whatever planks happened to drift downriver. The attached bathroom… ah, one of those places I brought my flip-flops for… Not what Ning likes so much, but then: She is always happy to save (my) money; and our verandah over the water is much to her liking, of course, especially the deck-chair there.

She claims the bedsheets aren't fresh; I am not sure. But she can stay. Anything plusher would be in the rice fields way out of town; but after an isolated week on Doi Inthanon, in Mae Chaem and Ban Wat Chan, we are both set for some nightlife; or at least for more than one restaurant in walking distance.

Actually, nowhere in SE-Asia (except Khon Khaen, Mui Ne and Phu Quoc) I have ever been satisfied with my lodging. Around siesta time, when a snoring Ning extensively test-drives the deckchair on the verandah, I cycle around 25 other riverside bungalow places. But most "resorts" are simply too dull and prison-like; ours may be sleazy, but it has a simple charm at least. There is just one relatively upmarket place, which charges 1800 Baht for inviting spacious riverside bungalows. But there I spot a sign: "Do not bring any food to the resort!" So what with our daytime staples of spring rolls, Dutchie yoghurts, Tipco orange juices, oranges, strawberries, mangoes, bananas, biscuits, water, peanuts and lots of unknown local snacks from the market? We stay with the individualistic hippie resort; they don't even sell breakfast, so bringing food is not a problem there.

Pothole Research

We are both fed up with the car and walk out to rent bicycles. We find ladybike wrecks for 40 baht/day, while mountain bike wrecks start from 60 Baht. This is one more place on our Tour de North where I regret that we didn't bring decent bicycles from Chiang Mai town or Farangland. (Ban Wat Chan and Malee's Bungalows in Chiang Dao had the only decent bikes we saw, but prices started at 50 Baht per *hour*).

Even with the most dilapidated two-wheelers, Pai is delightful bicycle country: The town itself deadflat; around Pai, pleasant afternoon trips can be enjoyed with a few moderate hills in delightful countryside. The roads are empty and reasonable.

As in Farangland, Ning astounds me with her energy and ambition on the bicycle. I am never sure if she wants to please me or if she herself is determined to make certain distances and hills with her own leg-power – so untypical of Asian ladies.

"But I need water", she gasps as we pass a small auntie's shop in the rice fields. So while she waits under a shady tree, I dutifully enter the compound. There is a huge fridge with a glass door, flashing many tempting bottles of mineral water and orange juice. But no service here – should I just help myself and go? I call "SAWASDEE KRAAAP!!" Nothing. I spot a baby's cradle: Maybe I get baby to scream and thus attract a salesperson? But the cradle is empty. I feel too shy to take out the bottles and leave change (as was practice in New Zealand), and I feel too shy to return to thirsty Ning empty-handed, too. Finally, a fat mama with attached baby appears, and I can buy great ice-cold mineral water for a total of 18 Baht.

Three curves later, Ning demands to stop. Here she wants to finish the first bottle. Obviously, other people had a liquid deficit too: the hard shoulder is littered with plastic bottles. Ning swallows deeply and – drops her bottle to the ground! – "Why you do this", I moan? "You know I don't like that! Would you do that in Farangland too?" – "No, your country so clean, there I will NOT throw bottles away into the countryside!" – "So why do you do it here??" – She shrugs, avoids my eyes and points to the discarded bottles mess on the ground: "Here no problem."

Field Research

Everywhere around Pai there are small interesting dirt tracks into the fields. Even if you get stuck with your bicycle, at least with the lousy ones that are for rent, the tracks reward you with views, the odd friendly farmer and maybe a bizarre fruit tree waiting to be harvested – Ning is a great fruit spotter!

Yes, and then – isn't that a bass line pounding beyond miles of aisles of seedlings? "I remember, when we used to sit, in a government yard in Trenchtown… " Hey, this is good old Bobby, whaling across the paddies! And yes, see behind the fields, there is yet another line of cheap tourist bungalows, and all they play here is Bob Marley, Joan Baez, Jon Denver and Bob Dylan; in Pai, the times they aren't a-changing. Interesting: even though you can see and smell the ganja clouds rise up from those concentrated cheap bungalow camps, in all of our Pai week I never hear Marley's "Legalize It" – but his worn-out "No Woman No Cry" blows around every corner and field.

"HA!" I jump from the bicycle and into the ditch like a hawk. Ning doesn't even look at her insane westerner, she knows I just spotted another picturesque backlit rice field which has to be snapped. But this time she actually seems to get bored. Instead of demanding me to go on with her – as many other ladies would do -, she gathers all her courage and phasaa Thai and chats up a farmer on the next road junction. She learns that the rice we see growing everywhere seems to be cheap "red rice" which is sold to "poor countries". What we thought were onions is something else, too, according to her source, maybe scallions. And the assumed potato fields do not really have potatoes as well. Now we know. Actually, in the fields, I am only interested in what looks nice on the camera; Ning is only interested in what tastes nice on the palate. More often than not, our joined hobbies make for a good combination.


Temple Talk

One evening we hike up the steep track to Wat Mae Yen – a mini version of Chiang Mai's Doi Suthep hilltop pagoda with it's own serpent lined stairs. It's two kilometers out of Pai. Up inside the compound, first I only notice a snoring dogs. But there is a sightseeing platform, where we go for sunset. There sits a young attractive backpackeress with gold blond hair curling down all the way to her waist. She gives admiring looks to a middle-aged, good-looking Thai monk; he gives her (but not us) tea.

Another middle-aged western tourist crawls in out of breath, swinging a heavy Nikon D-SLR. He posts himself immediately at the best sunset sighting spot and snaps away. – "Did you come for the silence meditation too", asks him the backpackeress? – "No, I want to capture the sunset." – Backpackeress smiles knowingly at monk and remarks: "You know, sometimes I really have to get out of the big city." – Monk smiles knowingly back at backpackeress. – Photographer reports: "Now I have to go down to 1/15 second, quite difficult now."

Looking back, I didn't take one single sunset from that hilltop pagoda, actually I didn't take many landscapes and overviews in all of our northern trip. As for around Pai, the landscape is lovely, but not at all spectacular; and then – it is hazy all the time. It's January, and according to a chart in Oliver Hargreave's useful "Exploring Chiang Mai", that month has an average of 28,3 days of haze. In all of our Tour de North, we never had a fresh blue sky, except for the Doi Ang Khang area.

Food & Drink

I had already told you about our morning peace of Pai rituals including breakfast at Café del Doi. For lunch, we don't need much – just a few snacks. So we stroll around the main shopping streets. Ning checks a few dress stalls, while I discover a small row of Muslim food shops – shops and staff look most different from other Thais. Anyway, they display tempting spring rolls. I order one spring roll just to try – and it tastes crispy fresh and great!

In the moment I take the first bite, Ning jumps by, hah! "Oh, you found spring rolls", she observes; "what's inside?" – "Not pork", I reply cleverly, as I have no real clue; then I order eight more spring rolls plus a bag of funny nuts; I am charged exactly 38 Baht. Spring rolls plus assorted other snacks make for a good daytime staple on mountain trips as well as on lazy days around the shack.

For dinner, the guidebook had recommended a place called "Edible Jazz". Finally we discover the place in a small soi – all locked up. In hungry depression, we stare at the closed gate, as a western lady rushes by: "You wanted to eat there? Yesterday it was open. Maybe you try again tomorrow. Great place!" We hop back on the bicycles and end up in "Good Life": a funky little family-run place, where you sit either on chairs, swings or floor cushions. The blackboard on the wall lists only very few dishes at 40 Baht each, but the young cook-waitress-girl promises: "You order anything you want, we cook for you." And they have a list with about 100 different health teas.

We settle for the cushions on the floor and get very good Thai food; Ning praises her tom yum plaa. On the other table we spot a tasty tempting western style salad, and the diners advise us that this is known as "Cesar" to the cooking family – ok, one Cesar for us, and two forks please!

Next to us on the floor cushions platform lounge two young travelers. The male backpacker with waist-long hair flashes a cigarette and asks me with a smile: "Would you mind if I smoke?" – "Yes", I smile back. – The cigarette disappears and never comes back.

"Have you seen 'Super Size Me'", asks the hairy backpacker his friend? – "When was that", asks the other guy, a skinhead. – "About last summer." – "Oh no, haven't seen that, I am traveling for two 18 months now." – Then a smiling grey-haired grandfather type approaches and analyses the skinhead's last night's dream.

Next night, "Edible Jazz" is actually open. In this semi-open restaurant you feel like sitting in a music lover's living room, with one wall missing. The other wall is filled with Audio CDs and a small, but well-adjusted stereo. Seating is either on a couch or again on floor cushions – our preferred choice.

They play well-hung jazz classics from the sixties: Miles Davis' "Kind of Blue", Stan Getz, even Billie Holiday: Wonderful. Getz's cool, melancholic saxophone floats throw the room and out into the black chilly Pai night. This could be a magic place for jazz lovers; but as everywhere, and even in this small soi, you get a steady stream of noisy tourist motorbikes. Here even huge dirt bikes roar past every three minutes; there must be a nest there.

On our floor position we enjoy expensive, but delightful western food, including croquettes – new to an unimpressed Ning -, good salad and dark brown real western bread. The managers seem to be a couple with a western lady and a tall, feminine Thai guy. (I only know one more mixed couple with a Thai guy, and they are into gastronomy too, managing Rabbit Resort in Jomtien.)

The western lady is very attentive, one look and she hurries by. To finish the meal, I ask for her cocktail list. Funny enough, they have only two bizarre mixes, she recommends the one with lots of coffee – not for me in the late evening. Ok, I settle for a Bailey's, while Ning takes more care of our Japanese green tea.

Even now, after 10 p.m., a group of elderly westerners arrives, settles around a low table, orders full dinner and starts to discuss the hilltribe-trekking they just finished. After taking their orders, the western lady disappears in the kitchen and isn't seen again. When we finally want to cycle home, the Thai guy doesn't see my signals to pay the bill. In this smallish place, I try for more than ten minutes to attract his attention without screaming – in vain. What does Ning think about me now? He goes on and about and chats away with other customers, but he ignores my looks and gestures. Finally I walk to his counter and ask for the bill. He shows me a handwritten paper with our items. My last Bailey's is not listed there. – "Ok for you", he asks with a somewhat provocative voice? – "Ok for me", I say and pay exactly the amount listed.

We should really try more of the many restaurants in Pai. But after the relaxing floor seating in "Good Life" and "Edible Jazz", it is very difficult to settle for any venue that squeezes you in narrow wooden chairs. Ok, we try the French themed "Chez Swan", but the most exciting item there is a turbulent young shepherd dog.

I ask Ning where she wants to go next night, and my altruistic companion says: "Maybe we go back to 'Edible Jazz'. Nice place to sit. And they have good farang food for you. You know, soon we go to Chiang Dao and Ang Khang – maybe only Thai food there. So better enjoy some more western food here in Pai, while you can."

Ok for me! We board the bicycles towards "Edible Jazz" and – end up at the locked gate again; not much luck with "Edible Jazz". This means another evening at the funny funky hippie "Good Life" with its good food. One western customer welcomes us: "Maybe tonight you would like a real menu? I just created one for them on the computer." This is one more friendly family-run SE Asian service, where friendly western customers take care of the business.

Rolling On

Pai grew on us. It had been planned as mere one-day R&R stopover after dusty Ban Wat Chan – we ended up staying more than a week! After Pokhara, Pattaya and Khao San, I had never thought I would stay in any other tourist ghetto. And I definitely didn't want to expose my shy conservative Ning to all the Farang excesses.

But then, life in your shack down by the river is easy. People are amazingly friendly and relaxed – from backpackers to resto service to remote farmers. Except for accommodation, Pai is dirt cheap. They do a kilo of laundry for 20 Baht, a new Honda Dream is 100 Baht a day; I never saw prices like that anywhere in Thailand. Food is plentiful and affordable. You have your small town entertainment at night, and lovely easily accessible countryside by day. With our rental Vitara, we reached gorgeous mountain sites within an hour.

And now, we will finally move on, across one more mountain range, towards Chiang Dao and Doi Ang Khang. Impressive Road 1095 awaits us – with more national parks and hot springs along the way.

With heavy bags we leave the bungalow, one last time. Ning made sure we have a bag of spring rolls too. "Look", I say to her as we walk towards reception: "You see this Japanese lady on the river platform? She with the flower-hat? She is doing a watercolor painting." – Ning nods. – "And over there, the Farangs, they are playing guitar and singing, sounds like their own original song." – She nods. – "And here, the skinny dreadlocked westerners and Thais all with their admirably flat bare tummies, each one juggles virtuously with three poles at a time." – She nods. – "You see, everyone needs some kind of artistic expression. Very low-key, just a hobby, but necessary." – She nods. – I lecture on: "Me, I snap and write." – She nods. – "So Ning, what is your way of expressing yourself?" – She nods. – "I mean, anything like writing, painting, composing music, interior design, any form of *creating* that appeals to you?"

She nods. Then: "Me? Oh, ME?" She looks back to the deck chair on our verandah; she beams: "YES! You know, for me, I can SLEEP SO QUICK!!!"

Stickman's thoughts:

Delightful! A note to all readers, you CAN submit pictures with your wirtings!