It took two full days in Chiang Mai, and plenty of long hot showers before I was satisfied that I no longer smelt like dog wees after our week at Elephant Nature Park. Sadly, to fully resolve the issue I had to part with my favourite, super spongey and comfortable jandals. Turns out that they were more like an actual sponge than I had contemplated and, after a full week of soaking up dogs wees, they absolutely reeked – whenever I took a step, or moved my feet about, a distinct puff of eau de wee wee would be released. They had to go. We caught up on a few zzzzzs over those couple of days as well, and started to hatch a plan for making our way down to Bangkok and onwards to the beach.
Before heading south we wanted to explore a little more of northern Thailand. We especially wanted to get up to the town of Pai, which we’d heard a lot about. Our original plan was to hire bikes and tackle infamous Highway 1095 and all of its 762 corners to get to Pai, but that plan was scrapped when we woke up on Wednesday morning to torrential rain, and a seriously average forecast. We ‘ummmed’ and we ‘ahhhhed’ all morning about whether we should just throw caution to the wind and hit the road. In the end, we sought guidance from a much higher power and asked ourselves “what would
Jesus Mum do?”. That decided it, we bought ourselves tickets for the minivan and joined the rest of the tourist flock making the 4 hour, vomit-inducing, trip over the hill.
Pai is famous for its laid-back, bohemian atmosphere. It is a favourite spot for hippies, yogis and backpackers. It is very low-key, with not a great deal to do other than putt about on a scooter, drink coffee and eat cake at one of the many amazing cafes, get a massage, shop for souvenirs and sample the street food on the evening walking street. Pai has well and truly capitalised on its popularity, and the local shops do a roaring trade in Pai branded t.shirts, coffee mugs, postcards, magnets and key rings. We happily spent a couple of days enjoying the town (especially the breakfast cafe with the homemade hash browns), but were still super keen to get back on some scooters. We’d read about a really cool set of caves in the town of Soppong (about 50km from Pai), so hit the road on Friday to check them out. We also managed to find a scooter rental company that would let us drop our bikes back in Chiang Mai, which meant that, if the weather came right, we could at least ride back to Chiang Mai and avoid another minivan trip
The road to Soppong gave us a very good taste of what to expect when we made the trip back to Chiang Mai – endless hills and corners, potholes, loose gravel and roaming animals. Luckily, the particularly scary corners were laid with a red grippy covering, so you knew exactly when to start bricking it. Our bikes weren’t quite the mean machines we’d had in Chiang Rai – mine started to rattle and whine whenever the speedo went over 40 km, and Campbell’s helmet smelt like rotten cheeseballs. Neither of our helmets had a visor, so we copped an absolute face full of nature during the ride, all the while looking like Atom Ant. On the plus side, no visor meant I didn’t have to worry about a repeat performance of the time I sneezed inside my helmet and coated the visor with goo.
It was a really fun drive and we were so pleased to be on the road again. The trip took us about an hour and a half, and we were rewarded with an amazing view from the halfway point lookout, before flying down the other side and into Soppong.
We made it to Soppong in time for a late breakfast, and were straight back on the road headed for Tham Lot Cave. The Cave is enormous, and is made up of three different chambers full of stalactites and stalagmites. You have to pay for a local village guide to escort you round the cave, and they light the way with a gas lantern while pointing out rock formations that look like crocodiles, teeth, eagles etc. Our guide found it particularly hilarious when we reached the stalagmite that looked like a “boobie”. We paid a bit extra to take a bamboo raft ride to see deeper into the Cave where there are very old rock paintings and teak coffins, which are supposedly thousands of years old. The Cave is also home to a huge number of bats that you can see, hear and smell (they smelt like the seals at Red Rocks) as you make your way through the different chambers.
All in all it was a very cool way to spend a couple of hours; much cooler than the couple of hours that followed where we frantically made our way around town trying to find an ATM that would accept our NZ cards. Not fun! We spent a very relaxing night in Soppong and hit the road back to Pai on Saturday morning. We made the most of our scooters and shot straight through town and out to Pai Canyon. According to some of the Thai tourism websites, Pai Canyon is Thailand’s answer to the Grand Canyon. That’s a seriously lofty claim, which Pai Canyon doesn’t have a hope in hell of backing up. The Canyon was still worth the trip though – there’s some beautiful lookouts, and you can wander about taking in the views and scrambling up and down the rock faces at your leisure (no such thing as health and safety here!).
Today we finally got to take on Highway 1095. We were up bright and early to hit the road and hopefully avoid some of the minivan convoy doing the trip from Chiang Mai to Pai and back again. It was such a beautiful time to be on the road. There was one point where we were driving through a forest that smelt like Christmas, had the sun on our faces and a crisp breeze to go with it, I had my best bud setting the pace upfront and was safe in the knowledge that there was a blueberry muffin in my backpack for breakfast, and I honestly felt like I was living the dream. It was the absolute best. As the morning wore on the traffic picked up, but the drive was still really pleasant. Drivers here are a lot more tolerant of scooters and they just made their way around us (sometimes two or three abreast, as you do!). We made it back to Chiang Mai safe and sound in three and a half hours – quicker than a minivan and a whole lot more fun.
We have made it back to Chiang Mai in time for the opening night of the Yi Peng festival. There will be events on for the next few nights, including a massive release of paper lanterns into the sky to mark the occasion of the full moon. The festivities will be a bit more subdued this year because of the King’s death (we’re particularly sad to be missing the traditional beauty pageant), but it will still be a great time to be in Chiang Mai.