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The International Writers Magazine: Thailand

The Journey to Pai
• Kevin O'Donnell
Occasionally I get a stark reminder that I’m a bit out of my depth. One such moment was when I first set eyes on my 125cc scooter that was to be my steed on my mighty moped trip from Chiang Mai to Pai, a small town in the mountains of North Thailand. I’ll be the first to admit that it’s not a very powerful bike, in fact there are motorised pencil sharpeners with more grunt.

For someone like me, it might as well be a Harley Davidson. I had decided to take on this trip before coming to terms with the fact that the closest thing to a motorbike I’d ever ridden was a Raleigh Chopper.

Regardless of my ineptitude I acted like a seasoned pro glancing over the yellow and black bike, poking at it to make sure it was okay. Yes, this is a scooter I’d decided. After that the problems started. I tried to open the little boot on the back of the scooter with absolutely no success. The little Thai lady who’d dropped off the bike stifled a fit of laughter to help me out. I said I was fine, after all I’m a man and men are good with engine things. She left. Next I had to try to start the thing. Once again my efforts bore no fruit. An old Thai man that had been in a bar across the street stepped away from his afternoon drinking session to show me how to get my beast started and on the road.

I don’t think people value the importance of afternoon drinking when it comes to travelling. In fact I’d be willing to bet that some of the greatest adventures in history started in the afternoon at a local pub. The story of Gato and Mancha the two legendary Argentine horses began with their two owners arguing in a pub in Buenos Aires about how far they could ride the two horses, the next day they set off and months later arrived in New York. I’m sure Marco Polo was sat in his local, drinking and debating who’d win in an arm wrestle between Queen Mary and King John when the topic of conversation turned to what’s east from here.

Pai The day before I had been wandering around at a loose end in Chiang Mai, I was hot and bothered and wanted a respite from the humidity and traffic. I happened upon a bar on the edge of the Old City that looked as though it would be a favourite spot of retired Americans who had gained a new lease of life in Thailand through some ebay bought girlfriend.

Luckily I’m not prejudiced in my choice of watering holes so I stopped in and got a drink. I took the local paper because even in the world’s junkiest rags there’s always a chance of something excellent. It wasn’t long before I’d abandoned the newspaper and started talking to an English girl who was also in for a few midday drinks.

“You have to go,” she said. Pai had come up in the conversation. Of course the thing with travellers is they’re keen to shell out tips and there’ll always be a “you have to go” thrown in there. I admit I’m guilty of this too but I’ll follow advice as well as give it. “It’s a special place, it’s amazing and you can rent a motorbike to get up there.”

To me this sounded like something a little bit different from the normal trail and I believe that the road less taken is a rare entity in the modern, well-trodden world, especially in a country such as Thailand. Therefore I’ll take it any chance that I get. I returned to my guesthouse full of Dutch courage and rented my bike, full of fantasies of tearing through the mountains like Valentino Rossi on crack.
That evening I headed out to a local restaurant called Tik’s with some people who were staying in the same guesthouse as me. Tik’s is a small restaurant, bar and art gallery, a favourite spot for young, westerners living in Chiang Mai. I was discussing my upcoming adventure with a dreadlocked Scotsman.
“Ye know it’s the wet season?”
I told him the torrential rain had hinted as much.
“And ye know if it rains ye can call it a day or go skidding off the side of the mountain”
I said I’d be grand.
“Well ye must be an experienced rider to be taking this on aye?”
Never even touched a scooter before. He shook my hand.
“Nice to know ye bud.”
With my nerves entirely at ease I headed to bed for a good nights rest.

Call it rookie error or just blatant impatience but before setting off for Pai I hadn’t even gotten around to looking at a map. I was more focused on actually getting my machine running whilst remaining alive throughout the process. I knew it was North of Chiang Mai and to an intrepid explorer such as myself all I need is a compass bearing and my own natural sense of direction.

I spent a good hour doing laps on the Chiang Mai ring road executing a number of illegal manoeuvres that earned me a chorus of beeps from my fellow road-users. Eventually I took a road that looked like it was going north and was relieved to see a road-sign with "Pai" 134km written on it.

At first the road was a motorway going on to Chiang Rai and Chiang Khong, the jumping off point into Laos. I used this time to get acquainted with my bike while observing the oddities of the Thai motorway. Anorexic cows with udders that looked like popped balloons grazed casually on the side of the road as cars and trucks threw clouds of dust into their dopey faces.

A man who’d just gotten his hands on a brand new fridge was taking it back home on the back of his bike. A family of six was heading down for a day out in Chiang Mai on daddy’s scooter, mammy behind him with a baby in her arms, two children on the handlebars and granny sitting on daddy’s shoulders with a dog asleep on her head. That’s an exaggeration, there was no dog.

I took a turn off to the left marked “Pai 100km” and rode along the straight flat road with the mountains looming in the near distance. Tony, the manager of the guesthouse in Chiang Mai later told me that there is around seven hundred and fifty bends on the stretch of road that I was fast approaching. Over the afternoon there was nothing more than a break of thirty seconds without hitting a bend. S bends, U turns, blind corners and chicanes, this road was like a bend emporium, it had every type of bend you could dream of. Initially I was tackling the bends in the style of a nun on the way to mass on her Honda 50 but as the day progressed I got better and bolder in the corners. This didn’t spare me the embarrassment of not only being overtaken but also being left eating the dust of a middle age Thai man on his scooter.

Pai view The road snaked through the mountains, under the shade of the trees that opened occasionally to give a view of the lush, green jungle below. I had the continuous dilemma of whether to stop to take a photo or to just keep going at a good speed; after all I didn’t have all day.

I didn’t need the warning of a Scotsman to know that if it rained on these roads it may as well be motor oil falling from the skies. The dark clouds now gathering overhead acted as a constant reminder that I needed to push my thumb in a little further. I was racing against the rain.

My fuel gauge was getting dangerously close to empty so I took a chance to fill up my tank and my stomach at a little rest stop. I left my bike with the tiny, shrivelled Thai lady who came out of her house as I approached the pump and went into the shop to browse the selection. Inside the bamboo thatched shop was an eclectic range of goods including cans of coke, the legendary Jungle Man tobacco that would send the Marlboro man into a fit of coughing and seeds to grow your own opium. I stuck to a can of coke and a chocolate bar, best to not push my luck even more.

I got back on my bike for the final stint. The road untangled as I put the mountains behind me. The little markers on the roadside were ticking off the miles and I relaxed as my destination grew closer. I arrived in Pai around three or four hours after departing my guesthouse in Chiang Mai. On the tip of my afternoon drinking company, I had booked into a hostel just outside the town of Pai.

The whole hostel was built out of bamboo and was situated in the middle of a massive rice paddy. The sunsets were spectacular across the paddies, you could see the sun dipping behind the surrounding mountains, giving way to a full frontal astronomical assault. The star’s burned like unconquerable spirits above, you could sit up in the raised common area and look down on the paddies and see fireflies like fallen stars buzzing just a few feet off the ground. Under the roof a group of likeminded travellers sat on the floor drinking Thai whiskey and revelling in the feeling that Pai was something worth celebrating.

Pai felt like a separate entity to the Thailand that’s ever malleable to the hammer of the Western idiocracy. I’ll admit there’s a Seven Eleven so I’m not suggesting that it’s completely untouched but it’s not all neon and buckets like so much of Thailand. I never got to do it but I was told that if you climbed the mountain just behind where I was staying and looked South one could see the mark where the wave of westernisation stopped, leaving Pai high and dry.
Pai Main Street

© Kevin O'Donnell August 2013

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