Saturday, December 12, 2009

Our little Hippie town in Northern Thailand

Pai Dec 2 to 7, 2009 (by Swiss)

A bike @ "Coffee in Love"

Wednesday in Chiang Mai would mark our departure for a visit to Pai, located in Northern Thailand near the Burmese border. We were told that Pai is a popular vacation destination for Thais, which combined with a very prominent hippie culture makes for a fun, chill, and very diverse experience. Sounded like a good option to us, so at 9am we hopped on a Tuk Tuk for a ride to the public bus station, hoping to catch the 10:30 am bus. We learned two things that morning: 1. Tickets are 72 baht, a fraction of the 180 baht we were quoted for a mini-bus in town. 2. The 10:30 bus doesn't exist, so we were stuck waiting a couple extra hours for the 12:30.

Sardines on wheels
We quickly learned why the public bus option is cheaper than the mini-bus alternative. Besides taking about an hour longer to get to Pai (~4.5 hours), the bus was packed to the brim with people and goods. Lawton and I managed to squeeze into a row of seats that were designed for people with non-Lawton thighs, with his knees not-so-gently touching the seat in front of us. I had an aisle seat, so I could at least sort of stretch one leg, although I was competing for space with bags, packages, and about 5 Thai limbs. Just when we thought that they couldn't possibly fit any more people in the vehicle, we were proven wrong, with one guy literally hanging out the open side door on our journey north. Our cramped seat suddenly felt like a luxury of sorts. But it was a fun experience, and the bus got us to Pai safely by around 5 pm.

Our trusty bus on the ride to Pai

This guy spent 3 hrs hanging out the door

While in Chiang Mai, we tried to find places to stay, with the going rate of ~400 baht being about twice what we were expecting. Wikitravel once again came to the rescue, identifying the “Mountain View” bungalows as a cheap option for travelers heading to Pai. A phone call the day before confirmed a rate of 200 baht per night, and upon our arrival, Mike and Eddie (British guys who run the place) hopped on their bikes to come pick us up at the bus station. We checked into our bungalow, lucky #7, and I got a lift into town to rent a scooter. Scooter rentals at aYa run around 100 baht (3 USD) per day, the cheapest we've encountered so far.

It's here that I think a quick plug for Mountain View is warranted: The place was well run, had a friendly and helpful staff, offered a nice common area with a help-yourself bar (each room had a booklet to keep track of the tab), a large DVD selection and TV for anyone to use, and water heaters on the showers for warm showers (a must) in the morning. Room rates range from 150 baht to 300 baht, and tents can be had for 100 baht per person if you desire. You also get free access to the local pool, “Fluid.” The biggest potential downside for some (and upside for others) is that the place is about a 15-20 minute walk from town. This allows for a very quiet atmosphere but a slightly longer time to get to dinner. We found walking to town to not be that big of a deal, though, and it was actually quite nice to get away from the noise when we were ready for bed. Of course having a scooter made getting to town quite expedient anyway.

Our little bungalow in Pai

The view from our place on the hill above Pai

The dogs @ our Guest House

The main area of our Guest House

If you're patient enough, you'll even find a frog in your toilet ...

A frog in a toilet in Thailand

The remainder of the day involved grabbing some food for dinner and scoping out Pai. The town itself is small and charming, with a variety of characters (from western backpackers to Thai Rastafarians) filling the streets during the nightly market. There is an abundance of restaurants and bars, some of which offer live music performances. Given its small size, it's not uncommon to run into the same people a couple times a day, and the vibe is very laid back and friendly.

The VW coffee bus in downtown Pai :)

The busy night market in Pai

A large animal-thing in downtown Pai

We managed to get to bed at a reasonable hour, and quickly learned that there's a reason the room came equipped with heavy duvets: It gets freaking cold at night. Quite the welcome change from the heat, and day-time temperatures are quite pleasant. We suspect, besides a movie that was filmed close by, that native Thai travelers seek out this destination to escape the heat down south.

Fill 'er up
Thursday would mark the day we almost singlehandedly managed to fill up the Mountain View bungalows. This was achieved by first having Sally and Caroline check in around 1pm, and then later in the evening having John, Jeremy, and Scott (our buddies from Chiang Mai who were doing a little tour on scooters) book rooms as well. Bringing in all this business was appreciated and earned us a free beer from the hosts. Noice.

But first things first. The day started off with us seeking free wifi, which contrary to Chiang Mai, wasn't very abundant. We stumbled upon the TTK guesthouse and restaurant the prior day, and since they offered free wifi to their customers, we decided to check it out. After they turned on the router for us, we both checked email and had a decent western breakfast consisting of eggs and toast.

Being relatively mobile thanks to our little scooter, we decided to go explore the area a bit, specifically the Mor Paeng waterfall. We got to the small-ish waterfall after a 20 minute ride on mostly paved roads, where the pic below was taken. It was a nice day and a fun little activity.

@ The Waterfall :)

Waterfalled-out, we returned to the guesthouse to touch base with Sally and Caroline, as well as to devour a ham and cheese toastie from 7-11 (now a standard item in our snack repertoire.) The local hot springs would mark the evening activity before catching dinner with Sally, Caroline, Jeremy, Scott, and John. Word on the street was that the natural springs are now government run, where they charge a 200 baht admission and the springs are too hot to bathe in anyway. Since we were seeking a place to relax, we instead opted for a spa, which at just 50 baht offered 4 different pools for our enjoyment.

Since we now had a large group of people, it was agreed that checking out a Thai barbecue restaurant, Pai Thong, would be in order. Jason had spotted the place the previous night, which offered all you can eat for 89 baht. Alas, it was off for a 20 minute walk into town where we spotted this skillfully overloaded truck in front of our restaurant:

Someone moving all their furniture in a pickup truck

Thai BBQ appears to be a derivative of Korean BBQ (or maybe vice versa, I don't know); that is, you get a charcoal grill on your table and have access to a smörgåsbord of meats for grilling (beef, pork, fish, seafood, tofu, etc). Pick as much as you want, although you will get charged for leftovers.

The Thai BBQ Buffet

The grill is somewhat unique in that there is a brim around the edge where any drippings from the meat are captured. Instead of this going to waste, they add a light broth to the “moat” as I like to call it, which can be supplemented with a range of veggies as you please. Adding some glass noodles results in a delicious soup to go along with your meat and rice. It was very, as the English tend to say, nice.

BBQ Meat, yum!

The Thai BBQ Buffet

Needless to say, it was a fun and delicious experience. The place supposedly is working on a website, although it might not have much at this time. The owner was very friendly and supplied us with a map of Pai free of charge.

After stuffing our faces with meat, it was off into town for some drinks and hanging out. The guys went off to check email, while we headed to the “Almost Famous” bar. If you ever make it to Pai, check it out, it was nice. We eventually ended up at a spot somewhat near our bungalow, where Caroline decided to join some of the locals for a ride to Bamboo bar (they initially tried to actually fit 4 people on a scooter – didn't work, but funny pic below) and the rest of us headed up the hill to Mountain view.

Trying to fit 4 westerners on a didn't actually happen

Scott acted as our bar keep...

Scott records his purchases at the bar

...and soon it was time for bed. The group opted for their beds over the dog's favorite sleeping spot:

Sleeping at the cooled down fire pit

Pool Day
Friday was pool day, since admission to Fluid is free courtesy of Mountain View. John had gotten up early to hop on his scooter for a ride to the Burmese border, since his visa was expiring that day. He had to leave the country for ~10 minutes in order to score a new visa. We were told that the border is about 8 hours away, so John had a good chunk of riding to do. Naturally we figured he would spend the night near the border and meet back up the next day.

Before taking a plunge at the pool, we hit up the Pai Country house restaurant, which came recommended by the guys at the bungalows and has a huge menu selection. I had some rice soup for breakfast, while Jason opted for ginormous bagel with eggs and bacon.

I didn't mean to order something this was pretty gross in size

The pool itself was very nice, with a small restaurant and bar for snacks and drinks as well as a stereo system for musical stimulation. We spent most of the day reading, relaxing, and occasionally making snobby comments about the music (it ranged from a lounge music cover of a Radiohead song to 90's slow dance music to reggae) while laying on the straw mats supplied by Fluid free of charge.

Fluid Pool in Pai

Content with our morning dining experience and after hearing their cordon bleu chicken burger was excellent, we headed back to the Pai Country house for dinner. The burger was very tasty – and yes, Jason and I both had one:

Swiss orders the chicken cordon bleu burger

Drinks were had once again at Almost Famous (pretty decent mojitos, plus it was buy 4 get one free - easy to do when you have 7 people.) It was around 10pm when we suddenly got an unexpected call from John: He had made it back to Pai after literally traveling the entire day on a scooter to Burma and back. Props were given accordingly. Shortly after the call, I excused myself to catch some sleep. The rest of the group headed to Ting Tong, which I hear was fun and had great atmosphere (including good music and wood fire pits outside.)

One of the older bars in Pai

Hanging out at Almost Famous

Staying warm by the fire in Pai

Who wants some Apple Pai?
Saturday started off with a quick wifi hit at TTK, where we munched on some of their excellent Mediterranean food. I had a Chicken falafel, Lawton sampled the aptly named sampler plate.

Next on the list was Apple Pai, which is not a misspelled version of the popular pastry dish, but rather a shop run by an overly talkative New Yorker specializing in selling movies and music for Apple iPods. At 25 baht (<0.8 USD) per movie and 2 baht (~ 0.06 USD) per song, I will not speculate how exactly the copyright portion of this deal works out. But Jason got some movies and new music for his iPod, whereas I was out of luck as a result of having a measly iPod shuffle :(

That's right, you can load movies onto your iPod for cheap here

We once again visited the pool, more briefly this time, before hopping on the scooter to check out Pai Canyon. The canyon was ok, not as big as, say, the grand canyon, but an enjoyable side trip nonetheless. John and I even managed to do a little 15 minute hike down and up a portion of it.

Jason @ Pai Canyon

Out on a small piece jutting out into Pai Canyon

The sunset over the Pai Canyon

On the way to the Canyon (and to the spa earlier in the week), we noticed a place with a giant sign displaying “coffee in love” as well as a house that didn't really fit the stereotypical Thai architecture. Intrigued by the style of the house and size of the sign, but more importantly by the number of Asian tourists flocking to it, we stopped by on the way home to take some pictures. Although we didn't know for sure, we figured that it had something to do with the movie that was shot here. The excitement resulting from visiting the sign turned out to be equivalent to the excitement most people gather from visiting signs, if you catch my drift. But it was fun to people watch.

Thai tourists being tourists

Love those Thai tourist poses

My try at a Thai tourist pose

We're guessing a Thai movie was filmed here

Happy Birthday, your Majesty
Saturday, December 5th, marked the birthday of the current Thai King, Bhumibol Adulyadej, which equates to a huge holiday for the Thai people and Pai was buzzing throughout the day. When it came to dinner, however, we quickly ran into some issues with restaurants either being closed or fully booked. Luckily, we found a place with spots and promptly ordered some food and beer. What we didn't know (or realize), is that the sale of alcohol at restaurants was a no-no during the eve of the Kings BD. Instead of requesting us to change the order, however, the apparently margin driven establishment served us our beer in tea pots. It went quite well with Lawton's "Chicken on Toast"

They gave us teapots to hide our beer on the King's Birthday

Chicken on Toast...first time I've seen this in Thailand

Most other bars stayed closed until midnight, so upon completing our Thai dinner and “tea”, the group first swung by a bakery for cheese cake, then to 7-11 for a couple of beers (they were allowed to sell beer and were super busy), before heading back to Mountain View for the eve. Cheesecake was eaten and cards played late into the night.

Hanging out on the King's Birthday...all bars are closed on his birthday

Wrapping up Pai
We awoke at a decent hour on Sunday, ready to wrap up our stay in Pai. The girls went ahead to grab breakfast (we had the scooter and would catch up later), while we started inquiring about options for getting to Laos. According to Mike, the easiest and most expedient way was to book through aYa, where they provide package including a mini-bus service to Chiang Khong, accommodation for the night, ferry tickets across the river in the morning, and a 2 day slow boat ride to Luang Prabang.

While we were chatting with Mike we ran into an Australian couple, Scott and Meegan, we had met earlier at Apple Pai. They were paying 600 baht a night for their lodging at the time, and so we told them about our place, which they decided to book. After learning that we were off to Laos, and as a thank you for the lodging tip, they handed us an almost brand new version of the Laos Lonely Planet. Karma, it's a good thing.

It would also mark the last day in Pai for Scott, Jeremy, and John, who skipped the spa in the morning and decided to join us for breakfast prior to hopping on their scooter for a ride back to Chiang Rai via Chiang Mai. Scooters roared (buzzed?) to life, and we all cruised into town to meet up with Sally and Caroline.

To our surprise, we found out the girls decided to check out TTK, so we ate there once again. Although we didn't bring our computers this time around, the food was still excellent. We also had this strange feeling that we were slowly treated as regulars there.

After seeing “team scooter” off, a visit to aYa was in order. The package was as Mike had explained, and came at a cost of 1750 baht. This was a tad pricey but worth the convenience in our opinion, especially since doing the trip via public buses would take at least one extra day according to Jason. We were informed the mini-bus would leave at 8pm, and we'd arrive at the border around 2am. This is when we'd check into our accommodation, before departing early in the morning for Laos. We booked it for the next day, so more on that little adventure in our next post.

Caroline had some stuff to take care of online, so she borrowed my computer. Jason, too, had some online stuff to do, and so they both spent a good chunk of time at TTK after a quick trip back to the bungalow to pick up computers. I decided to take the scooter to explore the area and find a book exchange. The exploration involved a bumpy 20 minute ride to what I thought would be the Maeyen waterfall, only to find out that it was an additional 3 hour hike from where I had to leave the scooter. Although I was in the mood for some exercise, I couldn't quite justify 6 hours of hiking that late in the day. So back into town and the Hippie cafe, where I exchanged some of my books. I figured I needed some reading material for the 2 day slow boat ride in Laos.

The countryside around of Pai

Swiss on his Pai scooter

For dinner, we checked out one of the restaurants, Baan Benjarong (Jason believes it to be that, anyway), that was closed the prior day. Scott and Meegan joined the regulars, so our group grew to six. We were served some pretty good Thai food (some dishes excellent, some so-so), although the wait for the food, at around one hour, was quite long.

Live music in town was next on our menu, but the places in town were absolutely packed. It was around this time that I got a text message from Sandra (aka Team Austria from Bangkok), wanting to meet up for drinks (we had randomly run into her earlier in the week.) With the live music venues full, our group instead headed to the Mellow Yellow bar, where Sandra joined us. The group eventually split up, with Jason, Sally and Caroline heading to Ting Tong, and Sandra and I heading to Bamboo. Bamboo, like Ting Tong, has wood fire pits outside and made for great atmosphere and a very late night.

Bye Pai
We successfully managed to check out of our place by 11:30am on Monday, and the guys at Mountain View offered to drop off our bags at aYa. The girls caught a ride with the truck, while scooter-equipped Jason and I rode our 125cc Honda Wave into town. It being Monday (late Sunday in the states), my routine NFL score check was in order. Wifi was needed for this, and since we had not managed to find any other free wifi spots in town, it was time for one last visit at TTK. I really wonder if the owners will end up putting up missing person posters when we don't show up there Tuesday morning...

The remainder of the day can be summed up in two words: Massage and Food. First off, Sally, Jason, and I got a Thai massage from a place recommended by Scott, and then we spent the afternoon reading, lounging, drinking coffee, and eating cheesecake (Sally and Jason) at one of the bakeries. I also traded my scooter and a couple of hundred baht bills for my passport, a nifty document to have for Laos.

Over the last few days we learned that Thai baht are readily accepted in Laos, and given the lack of ATMs there, a last ATM run was in order. It is here that I found out my card was not working anymore, which I initially blamed on the fact that it was 4 am on Sunday in the US (a plausible time to do computer system maintenance.) Subsequent runs two, four, and 14 hours later – with similar results – now make me wonder what exactly is going on. Oh well, it'll have to wait until Luang Prabang.

Dinner was had at Pai country house, where I consumed some crummy Pad Thai, while the rest of the group appeared to enjoy their last dinner in Pai. One more 7-11 and unsuccessful ATM run, and off to aYa it was for our 8pm minibus.

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Unknown said...

Jason - I'm glad to see that you are keeping up the healthy eating habits; I just may have a chance of winning this weight loss competition...

Selah said...

I love the little puppy dog in the fire pit :) So cute!

Anonymous said...

chicken cordon bleu??? Really???


Anonymous said...

Pai Thong said...
Thank for mention us as very nice.
And indeed the website is going very slowly.
Hopefully i'll get soon more time.
Till now every evening full.
And again Thanks for visiting us.

Henry said...

Iff you ever have the chanche to override the wife , please don't hazetate, she is a monster.
the owner.

Lusil said...

Ah, travel, adventure, I dream about this every day sitting in the office.... So much work, but at the end of the project in a month, I think I can also afford to travel for a week. And Thailand is my goal, I want to see. Heard from a neighbor, he was pleased with the trip and found a good apartment and rented a motorcycle as well not to sit with a crowd of people in a public bus (personal space should still be) and don't waste time on transplants from one transport way to another transport.

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