Pai was the first place we changed up our itinerary for on the fly based on a personal friend’s suggestion after beginning our trip. It came at the recommendation of one of Ross’s fraternity friends and everyone we mentioned it to in Thailand agreed it was a worthwhile place to visit. It is a small mountain town northwest of Chiang Mai accessible by a very windy 3-hour drive. Following all the traffic laws and sensibilities of a person without a death wish would cause the drive to be an unforgivable four hours. The mere three hours it takes to get there is thanks to the heroic skill and impatience of the bus drivers who rip around corners and blind turns giving warning honks for safety. We think a few more warning honks might have been good as we saw a truck which had taken a nap on the side of the mountain in a hammock of plants and trees that were successful in breaking its fall. Sadly, we were so taken aback by the rare sight the thought of photographing it slipped us by until after then next blind corner pulled the truck out of sight.
Safely arriving in Pai we found ourselves a motorbike rental shop with a man who was kind enough to promise he would open his shop early for us to drop our bike off in two days’ time. This was necessary because our lodgings were a few kilometers out of town and we planned to take an early bus back in order to give us maximum time to navigate the airport before our flight to Myanmar. After securing our transportation for the next couple days we headed off to place to stay for the night. We had many discussions about the budget up to this point but upon hearing about one of the special places to stay in Pai we both agreed going a little over would be worthwhile. After about a twenty-minute ride on the motor bike we arrived at our treehouse. Our room was on the third floor, or at least three distinct levels from the ground, with two other cabins below us on the second level. It was far from the most comfortable place we stayed in Asia and the tree split the room such that the beds were two twins at either end. Further, the door in and out was actually through the floor from a ladder and in order to lay the second mattress all the way down one had to be sleeping on top of the door which would make a quick entry or exit difficult. But hey, we were living the childhood dream.
After getting settled in to our new roles as Tarzan and Jane we headed off to the main part of town for another night market. After another amazing dish from a little stand on the side of the street we wandered aimlessly through the streets. We were able to witness several small girls no older than 7 dancing in allegedly traditional garb to allegedly traditional music in an allegedly traditional dance style in order to allegedly pay for school or college. We really have no idea as for all we know it was how Thailand did the Macarena and the overbearing alleged father who kept yelling at them when they stopped may have been keeping all the money. All this was even more suspicious when we saw a man who was probably in his 80s on a good day playing some music taking donations for his “college fund.” Maybe this was all legitimate but after getting scammed a few times, especially when the scams are designed to tug on your heart strings, you tend to become a little bitter and distrustful towards these sorts of street charities. Maybe if they started a GoFundMe they would have better luck.
We started early the next day as we had agreed to hit as many things as possible in our short time there. Our plan was to hit some caves, a hot spring, a waterfall, and then a canyon for sunset. We started out strong making the longest part of the journey to the caves through the windy mountain roads. Our tour guide through the caves was a hilarious woman who had a great time pointing out all the pareidolia inducing rock formations. Her favorite was the elephant rock formation. When we corrected her and explained the English term she wanted was “penis” we all broke out in knowing laughter. The caves themselves were enormous and spectacular. As with many moments along the trip, the Indiana Jones theme kept playing in Ross’s head as we delved deeper into them. Also worthwhile was the bamboo raft portion which took us along a river through the cave. It was filled with cat fish that would swarm at the meager amount of fish pellets we would throw in. It was both beautiful and frightening in the dark light watching only the writhing of their shining, slender forms break the surface of the water as they hungrily fought over the tasty morsels. The eerie attitude was only compounded by the multitude of rafts along the river illuminated by a single light each. It felt as though we were being escorted along the River Styx.
We eventually emerged from the caves into the noontime heat in order to work our way back through the mountain paths toward the hot springs. Everything we read online stated it would be 20 Baht a person plus 20 Baht for parking the bike at the particular hot springs we were headed to. Sure enough just after turning on to the road that would lead directly to them, there was a toll station which took the money the internet community reported they would. What no one explained was after driving the next 15 minutes to the springs there would be not so much another toll booth but a thatched shack with two men claiming it was another 20 Baht per person to actually go into the hot springs. Infuriated by what was either a bait and switch in the best case, or a flat out scam in the worst case, Natalie had to come Ross down and remind him this was not even two extra US dollars in value they were demanding. Eventually we entered the springs which were actually a nice lukewarm which felt refreshingly cool against the incredibly hot air. Set against the forest backdrop we both agreed the extra 40 Baht was still worth it.
After drying ourselves enough to believe the heat would take care of the rest, we continued on to the waterfall which was much closer to town. We eventually arrived to the beginning of the walking path to the waterfall after braving ever thinning roads which devolved into an unkempt dirt path. We began walking toward the waterfall which our maps.me app said would take about 30 minutes. It was getting late in the evening and we were rushing along hoping to see the waterfall quickly and return to the bike in time to jet off to the canyon for sunset. We passed by some other hikers on their return journey who, as they passed us, commented the waterfall was a two-hour hike away. Ross loudly exclaimed, “I know,” and laughed off the comment. Clearly the waterfall was much closer than that according to our app. Surely these travelers were making some joke. The joke became clear when we saw a sign stating, “Waterfall Ahead 2 hours.” We soldiered on through a very untamed portion of the mountainside wilderness for the half hour our app stated it would take with no sign of a waterfall. At this point we checked the app and we were on top of the symbol for the waterfall, but looking more closely there was a very long and narrow path past this marker to another waterfall. Sure enough, another hour and a half away by foot. We later learned during no time or season is there a waterfall where stood checking the app, and we learned for the first time maps.me can be very wrong sometimes.
We hurried back the way we came in order to still try to make it in time for the sunset. Along the way Ross noticed Natalie had two burgeoning bug bites on her back likely from mosquitos. Getting out the anti-itch cream Ross was able to see one of the mosquitos of the area land on his shoulder long enough to get a good look. It looked exactly like kind of mosquito that is known to carry dengue fever, which is known to be a problem in Pai. Later Ross would quietly google all the signs, symptoms, and timing of dengue and create calendar notifications for when it was most likely to hit and when we could breathe a sigh of relief. Unfortunately, it was most likely to be a problem, if at all, in Myanmar, the one place we were constantly warned to not get sick because the hospitals are still very third world. Crap.
Brushing aside the terror of not knowing, we hurried to the canyon famous for its amazing view of the sunsets in Pai. It lived up to the hype and it was best sunset we had seen all trip and will likely be at least one of the top sunsets we will see this year. It was probably made even more breathtaking because we were already a bit breathless traversing the dangerously narrow paths along tops of the canyon to get to the best viewpoints.
To celebrate a mostly successful day of sightseeing we grabbed a few beers to have back at the tree house. These beers, and whatever disagreed with Natalie’s stomach from the day came to bite us in the butt that night as we became intimately familiar with the design flaw in having a bed on top of a door that takes you down a latter to the nearest bathroom. But hey, we were living the childhood dream.