With a route to Pai already ‘carefully’ planned, including lots of adventurous roads along the way, there was nothing left to do but set off along the famous winding roads to this mecca of Northern Thailand mountain towns.
However, as with so many a ‘good’ plan ours changed at the last minute. Joining me on this journey was a friend of mine, born and brought up in a small Karen village in the local area and he was quick to tell me as we pulled away that my plans weren’t quite right. I parked my ego, eventually, and said ‘OK, let’s go your route’, after all, I had Google Maps, he had years of exploring every nook and cranny of the province.
So, Chiang Mai to Mae Wang, Mae Wang to Bo Kaeo, Bo Kaeo to Wat Chan, Wat Chan to Pai. It’ll be easy he assured me, but having never been to, or even heard of, most of these places I had to take a leap of faith and trust him. That golden rule of travel, ‘do as the locals do’. Would it pay off? Well time would soon tell.
The roads that followed provided the perfect setting for a memorable road trip, striking that oh so difficult balance between ‘wow, this is awesome’ and ‘hmm, not sure we took the right turn there’ and the odd ‘are you sure this is a road?’
Gentle at first, the roads out of Chiang Mai are fairly straight and at times uneventful. Then the inclines start, albeit gently, but sort of teasing you that you both know it’s only a warm up for what’s to come. Just after Bo Kaeo things begin to get very interesting; steep inclines, increasingly tight corners and top notch view points. We continued to slalom through the bends, with only the odd motorbikes and scooters for company and eventually reached the highest view point – requiring a lengthy break to take in the view and giving my brakes a bit of a rest. With a great panoramic view and perfect blue skies by partner in crime pointed out every village, temple, town and the peak of Doi Inthanon loitering (if a mountain can do such a thing) in the distance. I had to take his word for the names and locations of villages, to me all I could see was forest, hills and so many places I need to explore.
So far, so good.
However, all of a sudden things got very interesting. The previously exciting, but very well built road disappeared we were suddenly bouncing along a dusty red track that was anything but smooth. With holes big enough to swallow a car (OK, maybe a slight exaggeration) and my mind on the fact that I’d declined the extra insurance cover we were left with a choice – turn back and be forever known as somewhat boring, or carry on.
Carry on it was and ‘bone shaker’ doesn’t do the track justice. A combination between 10 rounds with Mike Tyson and an incredible painful Thai massage is more apt and to make things better I made the beginners error of opening my window. So not only did I lose a few fillings but by the time we arrived at Wat Chan I had a rather adventurous looking face covered in red dust compounding the delight of the locals when I got out of the car!
Wat Chan, our lunch stop, is a small Karen village with an amazing Temple (Wat Chan!) made entirely of teak wood. Noodles were the order of the day followed by an amble around the quiet streets and amazing Temple complex. Brilliant. I’d never heard of the place, it hadn’t appeared on my oh so impressive Google Map route planning but that local knowledge had paid off – even if the route had been somewhat ‘exciting’.
Time to hit the road again
Another hour or so across some much gentler roads and we rolled into the popular travellers’ town of Pai. Surrounded by mountains and rice fields, there’s a really laid back atmosphere to the town and a bit of an ‘old school’ travellers vibe to it. Perfect for a mid afternoon cooling beer as a very just reward for a great day’s adventure. And it was over the beer that my expert travel companion let me know that the ‘other way’ to Pai is fully sealed and smooth, still with spectacular views and with a guarantee of no caked on red dust. Ah well, you live and learn and life wouldn’t be as much fun without a bit of adventure, would it?