Monday, March 25, 2013

Life of Pai

TJ and I have been in Thailand for a week now, and we are absolutely smitten. Out of all the wonderful things we have experienced here, our absolute favorite has been the town of Pai. With the possible exception of Sydney, which will always be close to my heart, Pai has been my favorite stop of the trip so far. TJ predicts it will continue to be his favorite throughout the rest of the trip. We will see!

Pai is a small village in the northwest mountains of Thailand. It is a rough, winding, four-hour bus ride from Chiang Mai, the nearest city. The bus left us in the middle of town in a small, concrete parking lot that quickly emptied out of our fellow backpackers and even shopkeepers. Our only sense of direction was a large map which marked all the hotels in the area with their phone numbers. TJ hunted down a payphone while I kept watch over our bags. We were all alone, but our hotel assured us that they were on their way soon.

Fifteen minutes later, a truck pulled up with "Treehouse Resort" painted on the side. We slung our bags into the back and hopped aboard. We were on our way! We had booked a night in one of the resort's treehouse cabins. We didn't really know what to expect, but it sounded like something we had to try.

The truck driver ended up delivering us right to the base of our treehouse, and even picked my pack up out of the truck bed to carry himself. It turns out, that's because we pretty much had to climb the tree to get to our room. There were steps carved into and added to the tree, so it was a safe climb, but it was definitely no staircase.

After carefully picking our way up the tree, we arrived at our home for the night. It was so cool! Double doors, held closed with a padlock, swung open to reveal a small room with a low bed, small refrigerator, sink, and even TV.

The bathroom was around the back of the cabin and tiny, but all ours and everything we needed.

In fact, it felt like the entire resort was all ours. We saw two other guests there as we were leaving the next morning, but other than that, it was quiet and empty. It was actually nice after weeks of cities and crowded hostels.

We didn't have time to enjoy it right away, though! We were hungry, and we had a new town to explore! The same driver happily drove us back into town where we could find dinner and a new form of transportation - a motorbike!

Motorbikes seem to be a primary mode of transportation everywhere we've been in Thailand. We were dying to try it out, and with its lack of public transportation, Pai seemed like the perfect place. Our driver pointed us in the right direction, and we walked into the local motorbike hire. A few minutes later, we walked out with a motorbike. A little too easy.

After circling the village a couple times and finding a nice place for dinner, we made the drive back to our treehouse. I have almost no experience on any kind of motor bike, so I clung to TJ's back as he steered along the dark roads. Don't worry, Mom. We both wore helmets and the bike only gets up to about 60 km per hour!

We spent the night under the mosquito net with the windows of our treehouse open. It was like camping, and it's the first place we've been on our whole trip where we were actually comfortable without air conditioning. After a good night's sleep, we were up early to check out and off on our next adventure - elephants!

The night before, while wandering the village, we came across a sign for Thom's Elephant Camp, a place we had heard of online. After a quick breakfast at the treehouse - rice soup and fried eggs - we dropped of our bags at the reception counter and took off on our motorbike. Turns out, Thom's Elephant Camp was just a couple minutes down the road, so we were early.

While we waited on the rest of our group to show up, the staff handed us leaves and bananas to feed to the elephants. They showed us how to hold the food behind our backs so the elephants wrapped their trunks around us to get it. Their skin is so rough!

Soon, after I embarrassed myself by climbing up to sit on the elephant backward, we headed out on our trek. We spent the first half of the morning on a trail ride through the mountains, sometimes sharing our elephant, Pom Paem, with a mahout, and sometimes having her to ourselves. It was a lot more difficult than I thought it would be! We rode the elephant bareback, with just a blanket under us and a rope to hold onto. When we went downhill, especially, we would slide forward until we were almost on her neck. I was determined not to fall off, but my legs ached afterward from trying to hold on.

The second part of our trek was a loop down to the river, where we were able to play with our elephants in the water. Unbelievable fun! Pom Paem started it by spraying all of us with water from her trunk, then she would lay on her belly in the water so we could slide down her back (sometimes with a little "help" from her leaning to one side). The mahout encouraged us to move up to her head, where we could hold onto her ears while she tried to throw us off! I only tried it once or twice, but TJ was game a few times. The last time, he got head-butted in the chest and thrown into the water, but he surfaced unhurt and to a crowd of cheers and laughs!

After our fill of playtime, we rode the elephants back to camp and slid into the hot tubs to warm up. Pai has natural hot mineral water in the mountains, so this elephant camp had used it to fill a set of hot tubs. I was in heaven. I've been pining for a bathtub for the last few weeks to soothe my aching muscles and blistered feet. This was warm, soothing mineral water, and we got to soak as long as we wanted.

Eventually, we climbed out, showered off, and walked back to the main part of the camp. Our hosts had a delicious lunch of fried rice waiting for us. We took our time eating while we watched a slide show of videos and photographs from our morning elephant ride.

Our experience wasn't quite over yet! After lunch, we joined two other people from our group for a ride down the river on a bamboo raft. It was a lot like I imagine a gondola would be, with a guide standing at one end (in this case, the front) with a long pole that he used to propel and steer us. The difference was that most of our "boat" was just under the water instead of on top of it. Our feet were wet, but the rest of us stayed dry, perched up on bamboo seats in the middle of the raft.

Except for the occasional cow or fisherman, we spent most of the trip in quiet isolation. So peaceful, and so beautiful.

A truck picked us up from the landing point and took us back to the camp, where we got to play with the elephants one last time while we waited for a ride back into town.

We still had our motorbike, but we couldn't fit both of us AND our packs on one bike, so the elephant camp staff kindly carried me and our bags to our new hotel while TJ drove along behind on the motor bike. Our new destination was Baan Pai Village, a hotel we had noticed on our walks around town that offered private bungalows right in the middle of the village.

Our bungalow is a small bamboo and thatch hut that comes with a bedroom, "terrace," and full bathroom. The wall between the bedroom and the terrace - basically, a front porch - is made of windows that can be folded to one side to join the two areas. Mosquitoes are a problem here, especially because we're in an area with dengue fever, so we have a mosquito net on our bed and a mosquito coil on our porch. Someone comes by every evening to light a new mosquito coil for us. We love it so much here, we ended up booking two nights instead of going back to Chiang Mai like we originally thought we would do.

We spent our extra day in Pai exploring on our motor bike. There are quite a few national parks and waterfalls in the area, so we picked a waterfall that didn't have an entry fee and packed a picnic to take with us. We spent the afternoon laying around, splashing a bit in the ice-cold water, and laughing with the kids that braved the cold to slide down the natural water slides. Some people were brave enough to jump off the high rocks!

On the way back, we were running low on gas and had not seen a single gas station. Just as we were starting to get worried, we came across a small building with a hand-written "SAEL GASOLINE" sign hanging outside. Desperate, we pulled off the road and were greeted by two men who gestured at the bike. Yes, we needed gasoline! One man disappeared inside and came back with a clear glass bottle full of liquid and a plastic funnel. He poured the liter into our gas tank, and we handed him 45 baht. I guess it really was gasoline because the bike started up and got us into town with no problems.

The bike was due back to the rental place soon, so we decided to spend the evening exploring the village on foot. It really is small enough to walk from one side to the other in just a few minutes, so it was a pretty easy night. We stopped a small pizza restaurant for dinner. I think I was expecting "Thai" pizza - somehow, a different pizza from home, but instead, it was just delicious, normal pizza. A good sign you're in a tourist area, I suppose.

After dinner and another walk, we decided to listen to our achy muscles and treat ourselves to a massage. We walked into the place next door to our hotel and got a couple's oil massage for 200 baht each. That works out to less than seven dollars.

After elephants and massages, we almost never want to leave this place. We briefly considered renting a place and staying here for a while. We have less than two months left of travel, though, and lots of other amazing things to see, so we bought a bus ticket back to Chiang Mai for tomorrow. Back to the sticky heat, honking horns, and tuk tuk rides! We're already planning the next time we will be able to visit lovely Pai.


  1. Pai sounds like my kind of place! In my travels I have found some of my greatest memories off the beaten path tucked away in the countryside. I will never look at another elephant without "seeing" in my mind the picture of TJ on the elephant in the river! Great photography Courtney!

  2. Wow, Pai sounds amazing! We'd love to go there with you one day. Meantime, a nurse told me today that she's from Thailand, and of course I thought of you. Between your stories and hers, I am enchanted!

  3. Great post! This makes me really want to take a trip to SE Asia and specifically Pai...and you got to spend the night in a treehouse!