After our day in Bangkok, we spent the night on the northbound train, just like we did the first time we left Bangkok. We even stayed in second class sleepers, just like the first train that we enjoyed so much.
The major difference this time is that we knew what we were doing. We are no longer the wide-eyed tourists with fresh Thai visas. Unlike most of the backpackers around us, we have made this journey before. On the subway near the train station, I asked a group of backpackers if they were headed to the train station. Yes, they were on the overnight train to Chiang Mai, too! They were excited to find people who could point them in the right direction, and we were excited to find that we were not only in a position to do that, we were also relaxed enough to actually notice the new travelers around us. It sounds like a small change, but the first time around, I never would have asked someone if they were headed toward the train station. I didn’t even know where the train station was!
Our train was supposed to arrive in Chiang Mai around 8 AM, but Thai time mixed with actual delays on the track meant we arrived closer to 11 AM. We didn’t mind – it meant we could sleep later. We left the train station after briefly consulting a map and purposefully pointed ourselves in the direction of the bus arcade. The last time we made this exit, we fought through crowds of tuk tuk drivers and travel agents trying to get our attention. This time, only one person politely offered us a tuk tuk ride, and he quickly moved on when we said no. We must look more confident.
We walked away from the train station and across the main road, so the traffic was moving in the direction of the bus arcade. Then we flagged down a passing songthaew and asked if he was going as far as the bus station. For 30 baht each, we climbed in the back of his truck with one other passenger. Soon, we were walking into the bus station that we spent an hour searching for on our first visit.
Our ultimate destination from the bus station was Pai, still our favorite place in Thailand. We started at the same window that we bought our tickets from last time, expecting the familiar 150 baht mini bus ticket. Instead, the man told us that the government bus was leaving in an hour, and tickets were only 78 baht. Government buses are the slower, less likely to fall off the cliffs or make you carsick way to travel, but this one didn’t offer air conditioning. We needed a little bit of excitement in a day that had gone so smoothly already, though, so we signed up. We weren’t sure what to expect. Maybe chickens?
The next hour gave us plenty of time to cross the street for a quick, cheap lunch, and then we were watching our bus load. It looked more like a school bus, with tiny seats that might fit three small children or two Thais, but they were not made to hold two westerners. TJ’s shoulders alone took up two thirds of the seat. I didn’t mind sitting halfway into the aisle because I could sit straight ahead anyway. My knees would dig into the wooden back of the seat in front of me.
We were lucky, though. Not only was the bus completely devoid of chickens, but the only empty row of seats was right behind us. I laid claim to it, and suddenly we had two seats that could accommodate both TJ’s wide shoulders and my freakishly long thighs. Off to Pai!
Our first stop in Pai was at the same hotel that we had stayed in before. Baan Pai Village was offering its bungalows for $14 a night now that high season had passed, and we ended up staying in exact same bungalow as before. We were hoping to time it just right with the rainy season coming next month, but it turns out it can rain during the Thai summer as well. And rain it did. It stormed every night that we were in Pai, but it didn’t make us love it any less.