Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Chiang Mai to Pai

In which tea is boiled in a bamboo kettle and we give up on Western food.
Starring a dead dog that Abby got attached to.

Pai is a mere 120kms from Chiang Mai but the route goes through 762 torturous turns (that is NOT an exaggeration - you can buy the t-shirt). Our minibus driver was particularly incensed by the curves choosing to take them faster than traffic law advised with tires screaming and almost always, on the wrong side of the road. This is the closest I’ve come to being sick on this entire trip.  I eventually opened the window fearing the worst and although the cool air helped, the reek of over exerted brakes did not.  We didn’t bother to thank him when we finally fell out of the vehicle in town.

There is very little to do in Pai other than eat and chill out – the two main streets are lined with gorgeous shops and cafes and the whole place is about as laid back as you could get.  We wandered over a bamboo bridge to find a cheap guesthouse and checked into Phu View with a vista over the fields that was decidedly better than the pronunciation implied. 

Back in town we were lured into a café promising baguettes with “real cheese” – the first I would have had since Russia.  We were sorely disappointed. The burger buns bore no resemblance to baguettes and the sheets of plasticised yellow substance bore no resemblance to any dairy product I know.  We learnt our Western food purchasing lesson.  That night I had a Tom Yam soup that had me literally weeping into a napkin while the restaurant singer, stopped mid-song to check I was ok. 

The next morning we hired bikes with two gears and set off into the surrounding hills for a very huffy/puffy cycle to a Chinese village.  It’s becoming clear that should one not really want to go to China, between Thailand and Malaysia, you could pretty much cover it off. There was a lovely red arch, plenty of strangely dried sweet and salty fruits and green tea by the pot.  The village also has a giant swing with about four seats on it that would not pass health and safety regulations anywhere else on earth.  

Next stop was a rather enchanting café called “Coffee in Love” Apparently Pai was even sleepier until a few years when it was catapulted to stardom by a Thai film called “Pai in Love” some of which might or might not have been set in the café.  Now the whole town is filled with not so subtle references and everything is stamped with something “in Love”.  The café had a gorgeous garden and some truly scrumptious cakes that were completely justified by our exertions to get there.

Back in town we hired tubes and were driven about 8kms upstream to jump in and drift back.  No sooner had we set off than Abby ran aground on what she thought was a rock but turned out to be the bloated, slippery body of dead dog, on a rock.  Obviously I could not laugh at the time as the current was quite persistently keeping her in very close proximity to the dog, but I have been making up for it ever since.  The rest of the journey, though underscored with mild disgust, was quite lovely. We had the river to ourselves drifting past fields, stone quarries and houses from which people leaned offering to sell us beer.  There was one dubious moment when the river split in two and as we deliberated which fork to take, we were swept down one side and the decision was out of our hands.  Back in Pai we clambered inelegantly out enduring the stares of everyone on the riverside and strode back into town in our bikinis, tubes under our arms before heading home for very thorough showers.

The next day we set of early for a trek through the countryside which began in a Lisu village.  It was all rather awkward as the locals, obviously annoyed by the continuous stream of curious tourists avoided any eye contact and didn’t return our smiles.  The surrounding scenery was spectacular – we walked through garlic fields (the main crop grown here) watered with sprinklers and a forest of wild banana trees.  At one point the grass was higher than shoulder height and we came out the other side coated in seeds.  Our guide Kon, set off into the bamboo and emerged with a trunk which he proceeded to deftly carve into three mugs.  Lunch was in a little wooden shelter and he struck up a fire, making a kettle with the remainder of the bamboo and boiling us some smoky tea.  He also whipped from his backpack a lunch of frankly epic proportions – pad thai, rice cakes, sticky rice pudding – all of which was served up on plates made from big green leaves that he pinned into squares using bamboo chips. 

Final stop for the day was a waterfall where we were supposed to swim but the water was Baikal cold and so we chose to lounge instead, photographing the dragon flies and butterflies and watching the Thai kids, utterly unphased by the water temperature, splashing about and leaping from the rocks.

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