Where Chiang Mai was a hipster’s paradise, Pai, a couple hour’s winding drive to the north east is very much a bohemian enclave of harem pants, dreadlocks, vegan food, and just a whole lot of general chilling out.
A funky little town situated on a quiet little river, Pai is a peaceful little stretch of earth northwest of Chiang Mai, full of travellers. Whoever you are, wherever you’re from, whatever you like to do, you’ll find your tribe in Pai. Once a secluded hippie hideout, it’s now firmly on the backpackers trail, giving it a rich mix of cultures from travellers and Thais alike — all coming together with a single purpose — to chill out.
We fell in love with Pai from the moment we arrived. It was just funky enough, out of the way enough, and relaxed enough to feel like a place we could stay for a while. But it was the people we met in Pai that made it feel like we could stay for ages.
Our little hotel, the Pai Loess Resort, was situated right on the river, connected to the town by a bamboo bridge that washes away during the monsoon season, and is rebuilt every year in November. Our bungalow was raised on stilts with one balcony facing the garden and another facing the river, and hammocks strung on both of them for lazy hours listening to the babbling river right at our feet.
The owner, Tem and her husband pour so much love into their place, and the hordes of returning guests, whom she knows by name, are testament to what a special place they’ve created here. She’s your favourite Aunt whom you can’t wait to visit and dread leaving. Warm, quick witted and a little sly, she’s as endearing as they come.
Tem and Austin became fast friends, and fell just a little bit in love with each other – a 60 year old Thai woman, and a 6 year old boy. She greeted us with huge smiles in the morning, and listened intently to Austin’s tales of our adventures, and gave him free orange sodas on the sly. His kind of lady.
The Night Market
Pai’s main walking street is closed to traffic at night, and becomes the food market that all other food markets aspire to be. It is wall to wall stalls of everything you could possibly want to eat, cooked before your eyes – and all fantastically delicious (we tried them all), and cheap. Like 5 Thai Baht (11p / 15 cents) for a skewer of barbecued chicken cheap. We went to the food market every night with the same routine: buy a litre of Chang beer for less than £2, and feast up and down that street, spending no more than £10 for the three of us.
As we strolled around the walking street on our first night, we kept hearing fireworks, and had to know where the party was and what it was about! We found it near the wobbly bamboo bridge, on the grassy bank alongside the river. A fireworks stand. Oh yes….that palace of pyromania that grips young boys in their formative years, and never ever leaves their system. It appeared around sunset and disappeared by morning every night. Not only did Pai have a great street food market, a “come as you are” vibe, and a pretty riverside – it also had coloured gunpowder.
Blowing stuff up
Austin was coming out of his skin at the prospect of getting to blow some stuff up, so we bought an armload of Roman candles, bottle rockets and sparklers and shot them off over the peaceful little river. Apparently bottle rockets aren’t an Australian thing, and Mark had never seen them before, so I planted them in the little cylinder that the stand had set up for that purpose and showed them how it was done!
Our selection of fireworks were more explosion than pretty show, which suited the two men in our little family just fine. Austin and Mark (okay and me too) were giddy with the thrill of lighting things on fire and watching them blow up. I mean, who wouldn’t be? One night just wasn’t enough, and we went back again the next night for more explosive adrenaline. We were joined by a big group of backpackers who set off paper lanterns (awww pretty), and then took aim with enormous bazooka style Roman candles, trying to shoot them down out of the air. One of them hit its mark and nearly set half the village on fire!
Worldschooling and wandering
Our days in Pai were spent playing around the river bank or exploring the coffee shops, garden cafes and handcraft markets of the town on foot. Austin and I went for a walk in the rice paddies just outside of town one day, and he got an idea – he wanted to build a boat out of natural materials only. “Zero percent not-natural”, he said. So we set about collecting the materials of bamboo sticks, banana leaves, curls of bamboo, and vines for tying it all together. We debated the essential design elements that we’d need to make it float, and how we could use natural materials so that we wouldn’t pollute the clean little river.
Worldschooling is about learning in the world, and if this wasn’t it, then I don’t know what is. He had seen first hand the devastation that plastic has in our oceans, and worked hard to help clean up a little bit of it. That’s why he wanted to use natural materials. And he so desperately wants to be an architect when he grows up. His little hands and his little brain NEED to build things, every day. They need to plan, to calculate, and to experiment. This would be one of the first times he’d experiment with natural materials, and we learned a lot from it. That was school for the day done.
If it floats your boat
Boat building itself was a family effort, with Austin dictating the design and materials, and instructing Mark and I on how to help with the trickier construction bits under his watchful eye. We built a frame of bamboo sticks, tied together with vines, fashioned a sail out of a dried banana leaf, and attached two big curls off a bamboo tree on either end to help it float. Austin put the finishing touches on it, and made his mark drawing a Jolly Roger on the sail. He was so proud of his creation, but didn’t want to launch it until Tem had seen it. He wanted her approval, and so we waited for her to return from her morning errands. If he hadn’t already won a place in her heart, that boat sealed it.
We went down to a little platform next to the river, and drew a crowd of onlookers. The boat was nearly as big as him, and if the boat itself didn’t draw attention, this little mop haired boy with his shoulders back and chest puffed out in pride certainly did. We were all eager to see if this thing would float, and I’m sure we were all praying it would.
Not only did it float, it sailed!
It floated down the river, narrowly avoiding disaster with a water wheel, and carried on down around the far bend, with Austin running alongside on the bank until it couldn’t be seen any longer. We all learn from our failures, but this time, he got to learn from success, and that type of learning feels so much better.
The drive out of Pai wound and twisted back on itself through the mountains toward Chiang Mai. Dozens of tour companies come this way out of Chiang Mai, and there is no possibility I’d be able to make that drive in a bus. It was lush, green and beautiful, with glorious views over the mountain range, and it was slow going.
Pai was the perfect way to spend a few days, relaxing and just enjoying whatever came our way. Was it the “real Thailand” with “real” Thai culture? Definitely not. But it was travellers Thai culture, and we felt right at home there. We wished we could have stayed longer, but we had already booked an overnight train to Bangkok, and we were on a schedule.
The overnight train was another adventure, and far more comfortable, practical, and efficient than we ever would have imagined. We went to sleep somewhere outside of Chiang Mai, and woke up just as Bangkok was coming to life. As we rolled through the outskirts of the city, we passed entire shanty towns built right up to the tracks.
People’s entire lives were hung out alongside the slow moving railroad for all the world to see. Tracks and trains were a part of the way they lived, and I wondered what Bangkok had in store for us. Would it be a dense urban slum or modern Asian city? Would there be anything special to see and do here, or would we feellike we had stayed too long? Would it be dirty, loud and chaotic or clean, surprising and charming?
It was all of those – and more. From Austin’s favourite wat of the trip, to fantastic nightlife, shopping, an expat’s insider foodie tour and our new favourite way to travel, Bangkok was more than we expected. Not to mention that we saw the new Star Wars on opening day!
Bangkok proved that it is so much more than its reputation of flying ping pong balls and skeezy girly boy bars. Like everywhere in Thailand we had been, we felt as though we had barely scratched the surface. layers upon layers of wonder lie in this country, just hoping to be uncovered so that they can charm and delight its visitors right down to their elephant pants.
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