The Road to Pai
A backpacker's paradise
or just plain hedonism?
Who knows how I heard of Pai? In the months leading up to my Thailand trip, I scoured countless blogs and asked all of my travelling friends where to go, and somehow Pai ended up on my list. To be honest, I had completely forgotten about it until a few days ago when I looked at the map and thought, why not?
During Pai research round two, I saw mixed reviews about this mountain town in the Mae Hong Son region near the Myanmar border. Some say they disliked how touristic and unauthentic it seemed. Many warned that the road to get there was dangerous. More reviews labeled it a party town with not much more to offer. Despite the negativity, Pai looked like a cool experience and, being a newly-branded backpacker, I was interested to visit this so-called backpacker's paradise.
Lesson #1: a study on pronunciation.
I'd like to think I present these blog posts with sincerity, meaning I describe the good, bad, and ugly of traveling in exotic and unfamiliar places. We got to the Chiang Mai bus station earlier than planned, proud of this small achievement, and bought the last two tickets to Pai, which we pronounced like "pay." They happened to be VIP seats so we happily reclined our large chairs with our snacks and podcasts and blissfully started down the road.
About two hours later, Dain wakes me up and notices we're not that close to Pai. In fact, we were quite far away, heading southeast when we should have been heading northwest. What kind of roundabout way were we taking? Slowly, we looked down at the map to see a small town called Phrae, which is pronounced very similarly to "pay." We looked at each other and realized we needed to get off as soon as possible, and luckily the Lampang bus station was only a kilometer away. From there, we had to book the next bus back to Chiang Mai and then catch the correct bus to Pai (pronounced like "pie"). This time we used our phones to show on the map where we needed to go to avoid confusion.
A journey that should have taken 3 1/2 hours was going to take 9, but we weren't upset or stressed. This is where traveling in Thailand with no set agenda or time constraints really wins out. We didn't really mind that we went the wrong way- think of it as a spontaneous tour to another town we didn't expect to see. And the money wasted? The extra tickets only cost us about $5 each and had we not reached Pai that night, I would have lost my $2 hostel deposit. It was so, so nice not to have to fret about wasted money or time because here, we have both in spades. And hey, that's part of visiting a foreign country: you don't know the language or your way around, and there are bound to be hiccups in your plans. We have the luxury of being able to take those hiccups in stride.
When we finally got on the correct bus, the last bus of the day, we settled into our seats, turned on a podcast, and relaxed. The relaxation was short-lived. Almost immediately after I had reassured my mom that no, I didn't bring my motion sickness medicine because I didn't need it, the 700+ sharp turns on the road to Pai began to show their teeth. No matter what I did, I couldn't shake the feelings of dizziness, vertigo, and churning acid bubbling up in my stomach. Near its apex, with my head between my knees, I had one clear thought: I wish I was at Shabu De Bear.
What's Shabu De Bear?
It's a small, unassuming Japanese restaurant near our apartment in Chiang Mai. Why did I want to go there? We had never eaten there- in fact, I actively advocated against eating there when Dain really wanted to try their unlimited food and beer. So why was I desperate to get there?
There's a funny thing that happens when you're uncomfortable and in unfamiliar territory: you're desperate to get back to what you know.
Shabu De Bear is something we say in jest whenever we're ending our walk and nearing our apartment because it's fun to say (go ahead, try it) and it means we're almost home. Back to where all of our stuff is, where we can connect to wifi and contact our friends and family. Our little oasis that looks remarkably similar to our apartment in San Francisco. Even though my trip has just begun, I'm starting to pay attention to why I think or do what I think and do, and this was one moment of realizing that I crave the familiar just as much as I do adventure and the new. Lesson #2.
The bus turned a corner and the dark, desolate mountain roads gave way to a street flooded with people, busy shops, and stalls selling food. We were driving literally through the downtown Pai night market, which happens daily, where every traveler comes to have dinner. Immediately I could see the difference between here and Chiang Mai: the stalls sold more bruschetta, avocado, and vegetarian food than traditional Thai food, people were walking around in almost exclusively tie-die and elephant pants instead of the more modest Thai dress, and nearly everyone was western. We got out of the car, scoped the street for a meal, and immediately met fellow travelers and started up a conversation. This was one of the first times I've felt like I can be open and really meet people, because as friendly as Thai people are, there exists a huge language barrier and many are shy about approaching foreigners. Say what you will about Pai, but at the end of the day, your traveling experience is heavily shaped by the people you meet. Connecting with so many diverse and interesting people put Dain and I on cloud 9 and for the first time, we felt like a part of the backpacking community.
A quick walk across the river and up the road a bit sat our lodging, the Famous Circus Hostel of Pai. Once just a school, a few years ago the placed built a number of dorms to allow people to stay and learn their crafts longer, and thus a hostel was born. I'd say it looks like a 90/10 split, with 10% of people staying there actually interested in practicing fire tricks and juggling and 90% just interested in the experience. I was in the second camp- when else am I going to be able to live as a carny?
The hostel itself is so much fun and the grounds exceptionally nice, although our room was absolutely horrendous. There's a pool, a bar, and plenty of space to lounge. It gets the reputation for being a little rowdy at night, which it certainly was, but it was a really fun atmosphere and I'd rather have my hostel be fun than boring. We met so many people that we liked, people from all walks of life traveling from Wales, England, Canada, Netherlands, Noway, Australia, Finland, Malaysia, Jerusalem, France, you name it. That's the best part about meeting other travelers: everyone's an instant friend. Everyone wants to plan their next adventure with you, and insists on showing you around next time you come to their town. Already we've met up with Pai friends back in Chiang Mai and made plans to see each other in Malaysia.
After hearing that, indeed, I was extremely car sick traveling to, from, and around Pai, my mom asked if the trip was worth it. Even fighting back some residual dizziness, still clutching a plastic bag, the answer was an unhesitating yes. Not only is Pai an astoundingly beautiful place, it's also the right place to go when you're a young, carefree, intrepid vagabond looking for fun, a laid-back scene, and a litany of like-minded people from all around the world itching to get to know you. Never again will you be willing to put yourself through that vertiginous drive or be able to withstand the nonstop party, so go now when you'll love Pai for what it is. I certainly do.