On the road to Mandalay…

Mandalay is a wonderful city, in northern Myanmar. It’s the second largest city in Myanmar, and also my favourite one so far. They say that it’s the people you meet on the road help shape your trip, and they couldn’t be more right when it comes to Myanmar. The people here are the nicest I’ve met, and in spite of the fierce competition for low paying jobs and services, general poverty, and extreme weather conditions (feel factor of well over 40 degrees centigrade), they all manage to maintain a smile on their face.

As my bus docked into Mandalay’s bus station, there was a swarm of locals at the bus door, offering to carry my bags and drive me to my hostel. I refused each one of them and moved away from the crowd, where this young boy asks me if I need a taxi. He wasn’t like the others, he genuinely seemed to want to help and I told him where I wanted to go. He said he could take me, and during the taxi ride we got talking, and he told me he was also a tour guide and would be happy to show me around Mandalay, if I wanted. His name was JoJo, as I would later learn, he was 22 years old, and he was a devout Buddhist who stayed with his family just outside Mandalay.

Now, JoJo had one of those serene, monk like faces. He dropped out of high school a few years back because conditions at home were rough, and because he wanted to make money. He drove a motorbike taxi for a few years, and once he had saved enough, he bought a car and became a taxi driver. He told me that since this was low season, and tourists were scarce, he would take me on a tour of all the key spots in Mandalay (in a private AC taxi), all for $35! I couldn’t say no to an offer that good.

He picked me up early next morning from my hostel, and we started off with the famous Mahamuni Pagoda. It’s Mandalay’s most famous pagoda, and the image of Buddha at this temple is regularly applied with leaves of gold. The legend is that an old King requested the Buddha to leave an image of himself behind for people to worship, after visiting the King’s lands. An image was built and Buddha breathed upon it, giving it the significance it holds today.

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This was followed by a visit to an actual Buddhist monastery where over a thousand child monks were in training. I got to see the distribution of alms.

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Lining up before they get food.

After that, we went to Sagaing, a hilly region full of pagodas, just outside Mandalay. It offered a good aerial view of Mandalay.

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From there we stopped for a quick lunch and then I visited the old capital of Mandalay, Inwa. It’s a tiny region that’s accessible either by horse carriage or on foot. It takes around 5 hours if you want to walk, I rented a horse carriage, and it took me around 2 hours.

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Teak wood monastery.
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Too hot to step out.

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Ruins at Inwa. 

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(A word of warning: Inwa is hot. There is close to no shade at any of the monasteries or pagodas, and the ground heats up to something that feels like a bed of fire. Being Buddhist monuments, there are no shoes or socks allowed… it really, really burns.)

Through all of this, JoJo was a little concerned because I was running through these monuments fairly quickly. He had the day planned taking into account a set amount of time at each of these places, and every time he dropped me off at a place, he kept saying ‘slow slow’. But since I was alone, and I tend to walk really fast, I was shaving off a significant amount of time from his estimates. Fortunately for me, JoJo was happy to take me to a few additional spots, and his smile never waned.

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Another teak wood monastery.
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Lungi making.
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Random temple.
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Largest reclining Buddha in Myanmar.

Once we had gone through the additional spots as well, JoJo drove me to the final spot, and highlight of the evening, the U Bein Bridge. The bridge was built in the 18th century and is the oldest teak-wood bridge in the world. It’s around 1 km long and offers one of the best sunset views in Mandalay (the other being Mandalay Hill). I got here early and had a couple of beers at one of the many restaurants at either end of the bridge. It was beautiful.

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On my next day out in Mandalay, I decided to walk to the remaining tourist spots – each a short distance from my hostel. I visited the old Royal Palace (worth skipping), the pagoda with the biggest book in the world, and scaled Mandalay Hill for a sunset view of the city of Mandalay.

The biggest book is not as you would imagine. It is, in fact, 729 individual tablets engraved with scriptures; and each one of them has been enshrined by a mini temple of its own – thereby making it the largest book in the world!

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Some of the 729 enshrined tablets.
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Hazy view from Mandalay hill… because rains!
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Silhouette of the sun just before it disappeared behind some rain clouds.

In terms of food, restaurants, and other things to do, there’s nothing that particularly stood out for me in Mandalay. Myanmar is still in the nascent stage of tourism, and everything is local and small scale. The restaurants are pretty expensive for what they offer though, and expect to pay 2-3 times the supermarket price of water or a soda at any of the tourist spots.

Through all of this though, my best moments in Mandalay are the conversations I had with JoJo. I even booked a day trip with him to Pyin Oo Lwin, and I will write about that in my next post.

Would my time in Mandalay have been the same had I not met JoJo at the bus station? Definitely not. I’d probably have scrambled to move from one place to another, clueless of where to go next in the blistering heat and not seen more than half of the places I did. Besides all of this though, it was my time with JoJo that has given me a lot more perspective to take with me for the remainder of my travels.

His way of thinking and approach to every one of his life’s problems makes me believe that truly pure people do exist. In one of our talks, I asked him how he felt about the British invasion of Myanmar. He goes on to tell me, in depth, of why the British wanted to conquer Myanmar (gold and ruby deposits, and teak wood), the extent of what they took away from the people, and about how it left Myanmar years and years in the past. He then suddenly stops, smiles and says, “But we are Buddhist people. We don’t hold grudges. We forgive everybody.”

I want to write so much more about JoJo and the many things we spoke about, but this post would get too long, and I don’t think I’d do justice to the conversation or be able to convey the true emotion and sentiment behind it, but I will still try and cover some of it in my next post, along with some other interesting stories from Pyin Oo Lwin.

I know you’ll never end up reading this JoJo, but thank you for being one of the highlights of my trip. I hope many more tourists take your taxi. And I hope you never stop smiling…

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Koh Phangan and the full moon party

My first experience with the full moon party (January, 2016) wasn’t that good. In fact, it was terrible. But this time, a friend was flying down (and tickets from Chiang Mai to Surat Thani were cheap), so I thought I’d give it a second chance. Also, I had a few days to spare until I finally flew out of Thailand, so it made sense going to a place that is not the north of Thailand.

Chiang Mai to Surat Thani by flight, followed by a short bus journey from the airport to the Surat Thani’s pier, followed by a ferry that goes Surat Thani -> Koh Samui -> Koh Phangan. It seems like an easy journey when you research online, only that it’s not. The entire journey took me about 8 odd hours – and I was drained by the time I reached Koh Phangan. So I spent my first night doing what I do best: sleeping. My hostel was on Baan Kai beach, a 10 minute ride from Haad Rin, which is where the full moon party is held, and also a 10 minute ride from the Thong Sala pier, which is where the ferry (usually) drops you off. It was a good decision staying away from the noise and chaos of Haad Rin, but a short ride to anywhere on the island, and my hostel owner was a super fun guy, and that made my stay even better.

On my second day on the island, our hostel owner drove us to a small jetty from where we took a speed boat to a tiny beach near a cluster of hills that included the highest one on the island. We then trekked up one of them for about 45 min to one of Koh Phangan’s many viewpoints. The trek wasn’t difficult per se, but the heat made all of us sweat little puddles. The view from the top though? Totally worth the trek.

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The next day my friend and I went up to this cafe on a hill close to the Thong Sala pier. Almost all places on Koh Phangan can be reached by a THB 100 ride in a songthaew, so everything is easily accessible (a songhthaew is a shared taxi / pick up truck with two benches at the back – they are the easiest and best way to get around the island, and the cab will drop you right at the doorstep). The highlight of the cafe was another viewpoint; you can sit and order a few drinks while you wait for the sun to set. Beautiful, but I’m a little biased towards the previous view point – maybe because of the effort I had to put in to get there.

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Later that night we attended a warm up party to the full moon party called the ‘Jungle Experience’. Also a 10 minute ride from the hostel, we were dropped in the middle of a highway and asked to cross the road. I was expecting an actual jungle party, at least deep in the jungle area of Koh Phangan, but it was in an area that was flattened and looked like parking lot – a grand total of about 100 feet from the highway. I guess they just needed another reason to help tourists party / make money. When you’re on Koh Phangan, you drink the famous buckets (literally a tiny bucket filled with ice, alcohol and a mixer). The ones at the party though were overpriced, not strong, and made me want to use the restroom a lot, which had a THB 10 entry every single time you went. Those visits added up, and I think between my friend and I, we spent almost the equivalent of a bucket at the restrooms. The party itself was alright. I felt the music was repetitive, and the place itself was far smaller than I had imagined. Overall, probably not worth the THB 600 entry, expensive alcohol and expensive restroom visits.

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Totally makes you feel like you’re in a jungle… NOT.

And then just like that, it was the day of the full moon party. Pre-drinking started early in the hostel, a little too early perhaps. But I paced myself well, and was the right amount of tipsy when we got to the full moon party at around 12 am. The place was jam packed, and we saw many passed out drunk people while we walked from the taxi drop point to the beach. Typical full moon party welcome. Clothes that you can and will discard and glow in the dark body paint are a must for the full moon party, and we were on fleek.

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The party is absolute chaos. Thousands and thousands of drunk people on a small beach, dancing. The estimated attendance that night was around 30,000, and that’s about half the amount of people they get during peak season! Protocol is to get a bucket of alcohol or a beer, and walk along the beach until you find a bar that’s playing music you like. And then you just stand there and dance. Or find a random girl and grind (whether she wants to or not) if you’re like one of the many foreigners looking to score.

I was with my friend and a few other people from the hostel, who I promptly lost after I stepped away for a restroom break. So I did a few up and down walks of the beach until I ran into another group of people from the hostel, and we bar hopped and danced until the sun was almost up. The beach itself is full of neon lights, and it looked pretty amazing.

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A couple of bars had some fire performers, who were skilled and amazing. Another part of the beach had an area where they soak a big rope in gasoline and light it on fire. Two of the bar workers then held the ends of the rope and looped it in the air for drunk (and very stupid) tourists jump over. Every few jumps someone would fumble, get hit by the rope, and get burnt as they tried to scramble to safety. Why they would want to do this, repeatedly, after watching others get burnt (some even got some fire rope to the face!), is beyond me. We spent a good amount of time looking at some of these idiots get burnt.

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Look at the guy in the all Adidas wear about to show the world how stupid he is.

(I can’t upload videos because I’m on the cheap, free version of WordPress, but if you’re curious, there are tons of videos on YouTube a quick search away).

The restroom prices during the full moon are double that of the jungle experience – THB 20 per visit. Not surprisingly, most men and some women found it cheaper to just stand on the beach at the edge of the water and relieve themselves directly in the sea. There’s also beer bottles, food, wrappers and empty buckets thrown all across the beach, so it’s best to wear covered footwear to prevent injuries.

Towards the end of the night, my feet were aching, and I had lost the second group of hostel peeps as well, so I got some street food, and made my way to the shared taxis to get back to my bed. My experience was better than it was the last time around, but it still, for some reason, didn’t feel like a party that I truly enjoyed. I’ve had more fun at a simple dinner with drinks. But that’s just me.

The party was on until much after I left, and there is also an after party that begins at 7 am, and runs until ‘late’. In fact, there were these two girl who came back to the hostel at 1 pm the next day when I was about to leave the island. They partied all night, went to the after party, then went back to Haad Rin (apparently one bar was playing music until 11 am), passed out on the beach, woke up an hour later and came back to the hostel. Obviously they fall in the category of people that absolutely love the full moon party.

In terms of food, I don’t think any restaurant on Koh Phangan really stands out. You could just drop into any place you like, and you’ll get the standard Thai fare and maybe some western food, at mostly reasonable prices. There’s a bunch of street food stalls, like every place in Thailand. There’s also some specialty restaurants like burger joints, steakhouses and cafes that serve German and Lebanese food, but they’re more expensive, and I personally found them lacking.

In terms of activities, there’s snorkelling and diving (they take you to Koh Tao, which is a short boat ride away). But Koh Phangan is mainly a party island, so if you’re there, it’s best to just do what the island is famous for.

Would I go back a third time? Unlikely. Maybe it’s the fact that I’m older now and I don’t enjoy parties that much, or maybe something this intense just isn’t for me. I also found it a little difficult to relate to the younger generation of people who were on the island / the hostel. So while I am not likely to do this again, if you’re curious, I’d say it’s worth checking out once… maybe.

Over and out, Chiang Mai

I’m sitting at Chiang Mai airport, waiting to board my flight to Surat Thani, and I’m really really sad to leave this place. Over the last month, I’ve spent most of my time in Chiang Mai, so though difficult, I’m going to try and condense some the things the city has to offer into this one tiny post, reliving the memories in my head as I do.

My original plan was to spend 2 weeks in Northern Thailand (Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Pai, Golden Triangle, the lot), but I ended up spending 2 weeks totally in Chiang Mai itself. Chiang Mai is the largest city in Northern Thailand, and a digital nomad hub. It’s easy to see why. It’s cheaper than Bangkok, and while it offers everything a major city like Bangkok does, it has a rustic, and more Thai feel to it. The city of Chiang Mai is huge, but the original city, dating back to the 13th century, is still demarcated and known as the city centre / old city. It used to be a big square city surrounded by walls to keep Burmese invaders out. Some pieces of the walls of the old city still stand, as do some gates / entry points.

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Tha Phae Gate (east gate of the city). PS – Just noticed the Hotel M while uploading this picture. 🙂

Chiang Mai is what you want it to be. If you need peace and quiet, it’s easy to find here. If you need to let loose and party, there’s a bunch of bars and clubs that are full of both locals and tourists, every night of the week. I spent my days alternating between the two, and in terms of bars, Zoe in Yellow is my favourite – just like every other person who’s ever been to Chiang Mai. There’s a really nice live jazz bar near the north gate called the North Gate Jazz Co-op that my uber driver recommended the night I got here. Strangely, they played live rock the only time I visited, but I’ve heard some jazz playing the few times I’ve passed by the place, and that sounded nice. Besides that I really liked Garage 48, Reggae Bar and Spicy (nightclub). In my last few days I discovered Nimmanhaemin Road, which is Chiang Mai’s hip street, north west of the old city. It’s full of bars and restaurants, and it’s really really lively. I spent my last 2 nights there – loved it.

In terms of food and restaurants, there’s just so many places I liked, I couldn’t fit them all in here. Chiang Mai is known for its Khao Soi, a Northern Thailand dish of a noodle soup with your choice of meat (it’s Khao Suey minus all the veggies (yay)). I really liked the Khao Soi at Coconut Shell in the old city. They serve it in a bowl made out of a coconut shell – and I think it’s the only place I went to twice in Chiang Mai (besides McDonald’s… don’t judge me, it’s the best drunk food). There’s the famous Cowboy lady near the North Gate that serves pig intestines (actually delicious; recommend). And there’s a whole bunch of delicious street food near the North Gate, at the night market, on the weekend walking streets, and pretty much anywhere you go. There’s a fair bit of western food too if you need a change in flavour from Thai food, and there’s also a bunch of (gasp) Indian restaurants! I only ate Indian food once though, and it was alright. I wouldn’t go seeking Indian food here. There’s also a cafe where you can chill with fluffy pussy cats (see Catmosphere). And lots and lots and lots of coffee shops – my favourite being the Wawee coffee chain. I spent a lot of my days just sitting in a Wawee coffee shop reading.

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Khao Soi at Coconut Shell.
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Cowboy Lady cooking up those piggy guts.

For the touristy stuff, the city is also full of wats and monuments. It’s impossible to cover them all. As you walk through the old city, you’ll randomly come across a wats along the way. I had made a little list of the ones I wanted to see, and my favourites from those are the Wat Phra Singh, Wat Chedi Luang and the Three Kings Monument.

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Wat Phra Singh
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Wat Chedi Luang
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Three Kings Monument

Within the grounds of the Wat Chedi Luang lies the city pillar of Chiang Mai. It’s an exclusive to men kinda place, but women, you’re not missing much.

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There’s also Doi Suthep, which most travellers love, but you gotta rent a scooter and ride up there. I didn’t go because I just didn’t want to travel 30 min by bike in the hot sun.

For shopping, there’s a night market that runs every night near the Tha Phae Gate, where you can shop for clothes and souvenirs. It’s a little less lively on the weekends when there’s the Saturday walking street and the Sunday walking street running elsewhere in the city. All of these places are filled with locals vendors and lots and lots of yummy street food. They’re also really crowded.

A lot of cooking classes, massage classes, trekking tours, village visits, waterfall tours, and elephant sanctuary visits run out of Chiang Mai (see The Elephants) – so it’s very easy to find something to do / have a weekend (or weekday) getaway. And being the central hub of Northern Thailand, it’s so easy to hop on to a bus and make a trip to one of the nearby towns / cities. You can go literally anywhere from Chiang Mai. There’s also a bunch of gyms (they got Crossfit) that let you do a day drop-in, should you feel the need to workout during your travels – I did, all that food has gotten me fat.

They also got malls, multiplexes, a zoo, and many massage parlours, and you’ll always find something to do or see in Chiang Mai.

The point I think I’m trying to make is that this place truly is amazing. It’s a little early in my trip for this, but if I had to pick a place as my new home, Chiang Mai would be topping that list – for now anyway.

PS – As I’m proofing this post, it seems like I’m really trying to sell Chiang Mai. But really, it’s an awesome place.

PPS – If you’re reading this Thai tourism board – you owe me!

Chiang Rai and sickness strikes

Of all the things to take back from Pai, I took back with me a throat infection. My obstreperous approach in taking care of my throat, even once I detected early symptoms, made things worse. I mean I took the basic cough lozenges – but when have they ever worked?

I was suffering mildly through the bus journey from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai, but by nightfall when I was trying to sleep in my hostel room, it was unbearable. I had swollen lymph nodes, and was coughing so heavily, I’m surprised none of my roommates complained or asked to shift rooms. In the morning I got a local, herbal cough remedy, and it worked like magic! Opium meds are legal in Thailand, I think that could be it.

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I don’t read Thai, does it say opium?

Side note: the hostel I stayed in was one of the nicest hostels ever. It’s a new hostel run by two sisters who smile all the time and go out of their way to help you. Loved it.

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When I was not coughing, I spent my time exploring this tiny little city that’s full of culture and coffeeeee. I don’t know why they call themselves a city, because the place is so tiny, they’re more like a town. And they really love their coffee; you’ll find coffee shops / stores every few metres of the ‘city’. They sell the famous doi chang (northern elephant) brew of coffee – which is served with condensed milk. Everything tastes better with condensed milk, trust me.

The centre is marked by a clock tower that rings every hour, and if you visit it at 7, 8 or 9 pm, you also get a sound and light show where the clock plays some Thai music with colourful LED lights lighting up the tower. #Adorbz

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I also got a chance to visit the famous white temple, which is so whacky, and so beautiful. There are life sized cut outs of the key designer of the temple at various points (he’s like 4 feet tall and needs better clothes); but the temple itself is beautiful! And the bathrooms… so clean and shiny. Top 10 bathrooms I’ve visited in my life for sure.

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Look at me and my terrible dressing sense. (Got this picture off Google)  

Besides this, there are the usual 20 million wats you find in every Thai city. I did visit them, but I’ve seen so many of them now that I’ve stopped spending lots of time at there / clicking pictures.

Chiang Rai also has a cat cafe called Cat ‘n’ A Cup. This whole cat cafe trend seems to be the new in thing in Thailand. I don’t know why I decided to go, my experience was not too different from the cat cafe in Chiang Mai: the cats here ignored and rejected me as well. I need to stop going to these cafes – it’s really damaging my self esteem…

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They should add Rule 8, applicable only to the cats: Please give needy humans some attention. 
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This cuteness is just a facade, we’re all assholes who will ignore you.
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I’m only here because I smelt food, you don’t exist for me, human.
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Dreaming of pussy?

And even though I have already mentioned this in my previous post, it’s been a month in Thailand. I’m back in Chiang Mai for a couple of days, and then I move onward to Koh Phangan for the full moon party!

1 month! 

This is going to be a quick one. 

I’m sitting at this coffee shop in Chiang Rai and I just realised today is my 1 month trip anniversary. It really doesn’t feel like it’s been that long, I still, very vividly, remember getting on that plane; but here I am. 

I think with the internet and social media connectivity, I really haven’t had reason to miss home / people back home. I know I’ve jumped between days of exteme gregariousness and extreme loneliness – I probably even complained about it to some of you – but overall I’m happy that I took this step.

I wake up (almost) everyday with no agenda, not knowing what I’m going to do, just making decisions along the way. Most days are happy, some days I’m a grump, but it’s nothing a smile from a random stranger on the street can’t fix. Thailand is a beautiful place with beautiful people, and I’m happy I picked this country as my starting point. I don’t know if I’ve learnt anything of significance so far; to me, this whole journey has been a learning experience. But you know that feeling of regret some of us wake up with every morning? I don’t feel that anymore. 

Finally, I’m glad I decided to write this blog. When all of this ends, I will have one place to revisit all my (mis)adventures. I’m also glad some of you take time out of your busy schedules to read this (hey Suhavi!). So, if you’ve gotten this far, I’d like to remind you that my birthday is coming and I accept all kinds of gifts… especially cash. Seriously, please send cash. 

762 turns to Pai

Everyone seems to love Pai. Everyone, it seems, but me. Now don’t get me wrong, I like Pai. I just don’t love it. If places could be dated, Pai is the place I’d friendzone.

The much advertised 762 road turns separate Chiang Mai from what I am sure used to be a truly incredible Pai. I took the minivan up to Pai from Chiang Mai; however, there are also buses, taxis, and adventurous tourists can also rent scooters and make the 3 hour odd ride themselves. Although websites and travel blogs warn you about these 762 turns, the motion sickness that follows, and the many accidents that occur if you rent a scooter, but the road seemed easy peasy to me. I saw a lot of tourists with crutches, bruises and bandages from their ride to and fro Pai, and I have only one thing to say to them: amateurs.

Here’s what I like about Pai:

There are no big chain restaurants. In fact, there are no small chain restaurants either. It’s a short distance from Chiang Mai. The main village area is tiny enough to cover on foot. There are waterfalls, hills and even a grand canyon (copy cats) a short scooter ride away.

And now here’s what I don’t like about Pai:

I expected Pai to be this really tiny, quaint town – which it is. What I didn’t expect was that the town would be so westernised that it is easier to find a western meal than it is to find Thai food. The fabled night market is full of bruschetta, lasagna, shawarma and burger stalls. They even have steakhouses! No, really.

There’s also a famous mushroom shake restaurant, where you can get high and ‘trip’ in the nearby rice fields – a lucrative option for gap year 19 year olds – not so much for me. Weed is of course, in abundance too.

At the end of it, I asked myself if I had really just travelled 3 hours for a place where the most fun things to do were yoga, drink, smoke weed and walk around like a hippy? Turns out I did. Was I happy about it, absolutely not.

So, while I’m sure Pai started out to be this amazing Thai village getaway, it has been supplanted by western and hippy culture – to the extent that you can’t even see the real Pai anymore.

If you want a chill, laid back, bare-bones, hippy, western food serving town, Pai is the place for you. If it’s not, I’d recommend the more cultured, tiny city of Chiang Rai instead. More on that in my next post.

PS – it was raining really heavily while I was there, which means no pictures.