It’s often said that it’s more about the journey than it is about the destination. Never has this been more true than with my weekend in Pai – a small town nestled on the banks of a gentle river in the mountains of Northern Thailand.
Pai is around ninety miles from Chiangmai. Route 1095 twists and turns up steep mountainsides and forested valleys – 762 times to be precise – from the outskirts of Chiang Mai to Pai and beyond. It skirts the border with Myanmar and traverses several national parks. Its known for offering nauseating bus rides or the Mae Hong Son Loop: a rite-of-passage motorbike adventure along thrilling roads through immense natural beauty.
Naivety inspired me to action. I chose motorbike; I chose tiny scooter (downgrading the skill level of the trip having never ridden a motorbike before). I set off, still in awe that I was allowed to do this on my own. I spluttered through the traffic-choked suburbs of Chiangmai and, after about thirty minutes or so, the signs appeared. THE ROAD. Route 1095.
Very slowly, the path begins to kink. Very soon, you are doubling back on yourself once, twice, three times, as you ascend into the forested tops of the mountain and glide downwards into shady valleys. With each turn, my confidence grew and I began to relish each one more and more.
Obviously, because it had to happen at some point, I fell off. I reached a point where it must have been raining and the tarmac became slick and shiny. In the most undramatic scene ever, I rounded a bend and the bike just kept going – sideways, sideways, sideways. I lost my balance, tipped off, and began to slide down the road. As I slid, I mulled several important questions: Was anyone watching? Would I have to buy my fourth iPhone of the year? Was this the end of my favourite travelling trousers? Would I ever stop skidding?
Eventually I came to a standstill. Or a sprawlstill. I scrambled out from under the bike and picked myself up, slipping again on the road which seemed to have turned to an ice rink beneath me. My iPhone was unscathed. My practically turn-of-the-century Primark tracksuit bottoms were miraculously intact. My jacket had a small hole in the elbow and the skin showing through it was red and raw.
As I struggled to lift the scooter back into an upright position, a pickup truck rounded the corner and slowed to halt next to me. A Thai family got out. One of them magicked a jar of bright green balm from nowhere and applied it to my graze. Another with a combover and fuschia lipstick heaved my scooter from the ground and began walking it back up the hill. I tried to gesture that I was in fact going the other way, but it got lost in translation. I followed. At the top, I thanked them profusely, waited for them to drive off, and then turned my scooter 180 degrees back round and took on the whole treacherous bend again. I went slowly, my legs outstretched and padding the floor with my feet. I continued to travel like this for quite some distance. I only stopped because the road got busier and I felt self-conscious riding my scooter like a small toddler.
Finally I arrived. People have mixed opinions of Pai. Some insist it’s a laid back bohemian enclave where you go for two days and end up staying for two months. Some say it’s a faded hippie town that’s lost it’s charm. The first thing I noticed were the hordes of backpackers; a feast for the eyes for fans of elephant print trousers. If a track was ever beaten, it is here.
After a rather slow week, I was itching to DO THINGS. After a quick stop at the hostel, I headed south on my scooter to Pai Canyon to see the sunset. The narrow ridge was overrun with selfie-takers. I sulked a bit. I realised I’d arrived way too early. There was over an hour left before the sun was anywhere near the horizon.
Next option: I drove back the way I’d just come to watch the sunset from an alternative spot: the giant white buddha in the hills overlooking the town. Or at least I tried to. There were multiple signs at the entrance insisting that people dress respectfully to see the buddha – no shorts, no sleeveless tops: a concise summary of my outfit. I saw plenty of other tourists heading up in more revealing clothes, but I was in grand sulk mode by this point so I sat on the bottom step making a point to no-one in particular and watched the sunset from there.
The next morning I made a brief stop at Sai Ngam Hot Springs to wallow in warm-as-a-bath water in the forest. After that, I rejoined Route 1095 to continue north towards a viewpoint high up in the mountains. The road was even more beautiful than it had been the previous day. At the highest point, the mountains stretched out in all directions, jagged and deep green against a pale sky. Perched atop it all on a concrete plinth was a contraption that seemed to defy all regard for the user’s safety. A combination between a playground swing and a Ferris wheel, there is no way to use it that would end in anything other than death. I sat and watched as a group of three dabbled with it. Thankfully, they couldn’t get more than one person onto a swing seat before the weight of them would send the other seats spinning high above and out of reach.
It was still early afternoon and I didn’t want to retreat back to the hostel quite yet. The next town on the road was Mae Hong Son. I was getting hungry and I thought it would be a nice stop for lunch. Google Maps reliably told me it was just under 100km. “Easy,” I thought.
In hindsight, I think the knowledge that kilometres are shorter than miles gave me a false sense of security when imagining the distance. In my head, kilometres are play measurements or “baby miles”. 100km and back for a quick bite to eat seemed thoroughly reasonable.
I got within 40km of Mae Hong Son before I realised what a pointless endeavour it was. I had been driving for centuries on a small scooter designed for a quick nip around town not epic trips into the mountains. I would have approximately twenty seconds upon arrival in Mae Hong Son to navigate unfamiliar streets, find a spot for lunch, order and eat said lunch and then get back on the scooter to go the entire way back I’d just come.
I’d just arrived at a viewpoint, even more scenic than the last. Rich greenery rose on steep peaks, receding into the distance to meet the mountains of Myanmar. I bought some grilled corn on the cob and sat on a stone bench in the shade to decide whether I should see this ridiculous challenge through.
Eventually, common sense beat stubbornness. I spent some time wondering around the viewpoint, taking pictures, sipping water slowly. I got back on my bike, turned around, and drove all the way back to Pai. I arrived in early evening, headed to the first cafe I saw and inhaled a ham and cheese toastie. Then I went for a massage. By the time I emerged, it was dark and I strolled along the fairy-lit riverbanks and over a creaking bamboo bridge. I found myself a spot for dinner and returned to the hostel just in time for the last two rounds of a pub quiz.
The next morning, it was time to return to Chiangmai again. The road was equally stunning backwards. At one point I turned a corner to see a pair of massive horns poking upwards from a patch of long grass and thought that I’d come across a dinosaur. On closer inspection, I saw they belonged to a big, bloated, happy cow, munching away and impervious to all around her.
With a sense of sadness but also accomplishment, I said goodbye to Route 1095 and turned back onto the highway that would carry me back into Chiangmai. I entered a fresh hell. It was narrow, potholed and dirty. Choking with fumes, I was dwarfed by lumbering buses and black-smoke spewing trucks. I was thrust into the middle of bumper to bumper traffic with everyone travelling at 80kmph. I alternated between driving just as fast to keep the buses at bay, or travelling at a speed that didn’t instil mortal terror, but forced the huge vehicles to roar up behind me and overtake with only the tiniest margin for error. I also pulled over every ten minutes or so to check that I wasn’t having a heart attack. Then it was back into the snarl, my pleading voice tiny inside my helmet – NO BUS NO BUS NO BUS.
I arrived back in Chiangmai with a thick film of dirt on my skin, red raw sunburn and having aged several decades. That evening, my scooter burst its back tyre and gave up the ghost of its battery. I left it on the street in town and got a tuk-tuk home, feeling sick with fear and relief that it could have happened on one of the any 400km+ I had travelled over the past three days.
The freedom of the journey by scooter was novel to me whilst travelling: usually the realm of unreliable and unforgiving public transport schedules. I loved being able to leave one place in the morning and do nothing more than follow the snaking path of a road. I could keep going when I wanted; I could stop when I wanted. I could change my plans, and change them again. I felt autonomous.
Luck had definitely been on my side with the scooter holding out for so long before breaking. I’d been naive in setting off without a backup plan and/or knowledge of basic mechanics, but the gamble had paid off. And with a few small tweaks, I’d love to do more travelling like this – at my own pace, at my own speed, and free from the mercurial whims of bus drivers. The scooter is fixed now, so who knows…