Northern Thailand’s Mae Hong Son Loop: Chiang Mai to Pai

As lovely as Chiang Mai itself had turned out to be, we were there because from it, six hundred kilometres of asphalt courses in a circular route through some of Thailand’s most beautiful scenery. The Mae Hong Son Loop. We had our bikes and we meant to see it. We’d picked them up a few days earlier from Pop Rider who had a branch near our hostel. A Honda PCX and a Yamaha NMAX, both 150cc bikes, would be our steeds for this mountainous journey. We could have saved some money renting smaller 125cc bikes like we’ve used in the past but based on some research I did, 150cc and up was recommended. It was a choice we would be glad to have made. Another good choice was buying and setting up a Thai sim card on my mobile. Six hundred baht got us a month of free data allowance, and the access to Google Maps alone was invaluable.

We decided to travel in an anti-clockwise direction, heading north out of Chiang Mai and passing through Pai, Soppong, Mae Hong Son, Khun Yuam, Mae Sariang, and Mae Chaem before heading back into Chiang Mai from the South. We had plenty of time and we planned to take it.

We left early in the morning, avoided the cops and hoping to beat the truly awful Chiang Mai traffic on the highway out of town. Well, we managed one but not the other. The highway was busy, hectic to the uninitiated (us) and has the longest traffic lights I have ever experienced. Standing amidst the exhaust fumes in the melting sun (yes even at 8:30am) as your light stays defiantly red for at least 10 minutes is not pleasant. I should have known it was going to be a long wait when all the motorcyclists around us switched off their engines and got out their phones. So let’s just say that with the fume-filled  and stressful driving conditions, starting out north up the 107 wasn’t an auspicious start to the journey. We wanted to get off that road ASAP so decided to take a long-cut up a side road, the 3009. And what a decision that turned out to be. I mean, maybe thats the way everyone goes and it’s no secret, or maybe we missed out an awesome portion of another road, but that 3009 was just fucking amazing. A smoothly paved road passing through idyllic scenes of rolling fields of rice paddies interspersed with palm trees, and backed by mountains rising up in the distance. The sky was deep blue, the clouds white and fluffy and the sun was warm on our skin. The view would close in and we’d be driving through small hamlets of teak-timbered houses with beautifully tended hedges and gardens of flowers bursting bright pink and yellow through the greenery. There was something almost pastoral about it. I felt like I was driving through the English countryside in summertime, but you know, in Thailand. It was weird but wonderful. We stopped off for coffee at a little place in the middle of nowhere with the most spectacular views.

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Does it get better than that with your morning coffee?
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Or your morning iced chocolate or pink milk?

If you fancy stopping by yourself, take a left off the 3009 and head down the road a bit when you see a giant white Buddha statue by the side of the road, like so:

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Back on the road, all too soon the 3009 came to and end when it met up with the 1095, our road for the rest of the journey to Pai. The 1095 is a snake of a road, winding up and down over steep mountain passes through 1,864 bends on it’s way to Mae Hong Son. We did about half of those bends on our way to Pai and it was glorious riding. The rice paddies gave way to pine forests as we gained elevation and trees with bright yellow flowers draped themselves above us over the road. Glimpses of plummeting tree-shrouded valleys could be caught through the tree trunks lining the side of the road, as it clung to the mountainsides. I did this journey twelve years ago in a bus and I was immensely grateful to be doing it on a bike this time. Why? Two words: Travel Sickness. It seems to be a common occurrence, if this sign indicating a nearby rest-stop is anything to go by:

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But what a rest stop it was! 

Soon we were back on the road and driving down into Pai Valley. This is where it got seriously weird for me. I know twelve years is a long time, and I’m not going to remember every detail about a trip, but I didn’t recognise a single thing driving down into that valley. There was just so much there. Signs advertising resorts, restaurants along the roadside, a large mock-Tudor English country house that turned out to be the hugely popular coffee shop, Pai In Love. I remembered Pai as a quiet place. A small town nestled in a quiet valley. The town itself just a crossroads really, which had only newly acquired an ATM. Such progress! I remember getting lost about 3 times before actually being able to find Pai Canyon, and there I was driving past a plethora of motorbikes parked by the roadside, maybe a hundred tourists chilling at tables eating and drinking around a big wooden sign saying “Pai Canyon”. My, how things had changed. As we drove into Pai town itself I was having the most bizarre feeling of being totally out of place. It was surreal. I expected to recognise it, to know which way to head to get to what I thought of as the “centre” of town. It was literally unrecognisable to me at first. I felt totally lost. We pulled over, checked good old Google and got our bearings. A few minutes later and I did finally know where I was, but finding the Pai I knew, the old teak buildings still tucked away here and there, unchanged, was still a bit of a thrill when it happened.  Like finding lost treasure.

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Looking down Pai River from the bamboo bridge near our bungalow. 

We had no place to stay for the night, so after a late lunch I left Alex and the kids in search of beds for the night. I crossed the bamboo bridge over the river, found a few places full but then came across the Pai Loess Resort. The owner was super friendly, like really, really nice. She said they had just one bungalow still available that would fit us, for 900 Baht including breakfast. Sold. I fetched Alex and the kids, we ditched our stuff in the room and went to check in. As we stood next to the owner and she opened her booking book, she paused. A conversation with her husband ensued in Thai. I may not know much Thai but it was clear there was a problem. Alex and I looked at each other, whispering that perhaps she had double booked us. Lo and behold, that is indeed what had happened. Her last available bungalow was not in fact available. Hearts sinking at the thought of finding somewhere else to stay, we thought she would apologise and send us on our way.  But no. She did some swift rearranging – moving a friend of hers who was visiting into a smaller bungalow, and giving us her friend’s larger bungalow. It held only a double bed but she assured us she could put a mattress on the floor for the kids, and we’d only have to pay 700 baht. The kids were thrilled. A mattress on the floor? Awesome. And it cost less than a room with two beds? Unbelievable!

Everything was working out. We’d relaxed over morning coffee in a breathtakingly pretty spot; we’d had an awesome day on the bikes; we’d found a nice little place to stay right on the river, at a great price and with lovely owners.  It was shaping up to be the end of a perfect day. But in the immortal words of Robert Frost, “nothing gold can stay”.

It wasn’t long after we’d settled in that Alex started feeling a bit unwell. It was getting towards dinner time so I took the kids out to explore Pai and check out its nightly Walking Street while Alex stayed behind. When we got back it was clear that Alex had full blown gastro-enteritis. He was rapidly getting worse, to the point that we got out the bag of IV fluids we’d brought with us and considered having me set up an IV line for him. I admit I wasn’t overly keen on the idea, not having cannulated a vein in about 7 years, and those veins having belonged to dogs, cats and other furry creatures. Still, I was willing to give it a go should circumstances require it. When Alex fell down, having almost blacked out, and lay on the floor looking grey I decided that perhaps a D.I.Y bungalow hospital was not going to cut it, and told him we needed to get him to the actual hospital. The one just down the road.

How did I know that there is a hospital in Pai? Funny story. So remember I said I was in Pai twelve years ago? Well, I was there with my Mom. We were having a great time. That is until she started vomiting in the middle of the night and couldn’t stop. At 1am I had to find and wake up our hotel staff to get help. Luckily, we discovered that there is a hospital in Pai and they drove us to it. She was admitted, put on IV fluids, medicated and we stayed the night. The next morning after paying a whopping £15 for a night in a private hospital room and all medications, she was discharged. So yeah, I know there is  a hospital in Pai.

I went to look for the lady who owned the place, and I found her having a lovely meal with her friends. The ones she had booted out of their bungalow for us. I explained the situation and she was very concerned and came to see Alex right away. Upon seeing him she went to get her husband who brought the car round. She told me to stay with the kids while she and her husband supported Alex to their car and off they drove to the hospital, making us feel like hadn’t ruined their evening with friends and weren’t putting them out in the slightest. See, I said they were nice.

She returned an hour or so later telling me Alex was on fluids and doing much better. Then she pointed to a word on her phone saying that the doctors had diagnosed this. The word was “Botulism”. She told me not to worry. Now, I don’t know about you but to me, botulism is not a worry-free diagnosis. I could only presume that something was lost in translation and that they were using “botulism” to mean food-poisoning. She seemed to think Alex was doing fine, and told me they planned to keep him on fluids another few hours and her husband would go pick him up at midnight. I thanked her profusely, to which she replied “Mai Pen Rai” with a smile. As promised, Alex was returned to me at midnight looking much better than when I last saw him. Alex had left for the hospital without his wallet, so the owners had paid his bill to get him discharged. I asked what we owed them, thinking we might actually use our travel insurance for once. It was, you guessed it … £15. Pai itself might have been unrecognisable at first, but it seems that some things hadn’t changed in twelve years.

We ended up hanging out in Pai a few days longer than planned to give Alex time to get back on his feet. As far as places to be stuck recuperating, we could have done worse! The owners of the resort continued to be wonderful to us, making sure we had a place to stay, even when it meant moving us to some of their more expensive bungalows, but not charging us any extra. She kept handing out water bottles to make sure he was hydrated and gave us boxes of biscuits when we said he was just eating some bland food. The kids enjoyed the outside space and the freedom to explore a bit and the nightly Walking Street was easy for me to wander up and down with them on my own – nibbling street food here and there.

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Pai’s Walking Street setting up for the evening.

And I gotta say, the Hipster vibe was well and truly going strong in Pai’s food scene. It’s thus far the only place in Southeast Asia where I’ve come across street vendors selling vegan cous-cous salad, grilled Okra skewers, and pots of slivered avocado. There were abundant culinary options, and the coffee was good too.

I ended up with mixed feelings about Pai. It’s a nice town, still. Despite the development it hasn’t descended into Backpacker Ghetto territory. Is it full of Backpackers? Hell yeah. But unlike other backpacker meccas – Vang Vien, Koh Pha Ngan, I’m looking at you – it doesn’t feel like people go to Pai just to party. Don’t get me wrong, there is a lively bar scene but it isn’t Pai’s raison d’etre. It’s fun, it’s an easy place to be and there’s ample stuff around to keep you occupied during the day. It has a lot of things going for it, but it isn’t Thailand. By all means, visit Pai, spend a little or a lot of time there, but if you want to try to get to know the country and get a glimpse pf Thai culture, then don’t stop there.

 

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