Pai is a sleepy little town in Mae Hong Son Province, the north-western shoulder of Thailand that rolls along the Burmese border. It draws backpackers like metrosexuals to a hair salon, for its simplicity, its charm, and for the chance just to be somewhere and do sweet very little. I went there for R&R. A year in PNG had left me wanting some down-time, and a few days of rest-and-recovery-and-relaxation-and-rehabilitation-and-recuperation and whatever other ‘R’s you can fit in there were just what I needed. I went on the recommendation of some expats I’d met- friends of friends- while on Railay Beach a few days earlier who told me it was a gentle place ideal for sitting and letting the soul breathe deeply. One thing I’ve been learning over the last couple of years of intensity is that the soul needs those times- and those places.
I also went there to learn to ride a motorbike.
Well, that’s not entirely true. I didn’t actually go there to learn to ride a motorbike. But I got there, and found myself booked into a little guest-house six k’s out of town with nothing around me, so the only way I was going to get to see the place was if I found a bike. I’d never driven a bike before in my life. My motorcycle-riding experience to that date was largely relegated to journeys on the back of moto-taxis: Nearly getting flipped off them in the sands of Agadez, or the hair-raising, traffic-dodging, adrenaline-squeezing, knee-risking variant of Sukhumvit Road and its many tendrils (those of you familiar with Bangkok know exactly what I’m talking about).
I didn’t, of course, tell the girl renting me the motorbike that I had no idea how to drive it. I simply rented it. Then, paperwork signed, I sheepishly asked her to show me how to turn it on. To her credit, she paused for about a second and shot me a look. Then she walked me over, showed me how to fire it up, where the brake and accelerator were, and off I went. Pai is a gentle little place, a network of backstreets with not much traffic, which is good, because I shot into the street like a stung horse, wobbled my way up to an intersection, etched a shaky loop on the asphalt, then jerkily returned to the shopfront.
“Slowly,” the girl at the bike store said to me, then turned her back and walked inside.
Of course, after an hour or so of puttering around, I fell in love with the little scooter. By that afternoon I was exploring dirt trails into the hills, and I spent the next five days happily cruising up and down the highways and byways of Pai valley, enjoying the cool wind on my face and the bright sun on my arms, and feeling freer than I’d felt anytime in the last twelve months. Again, you bikers out there know where I’m coming from.
Pai is a beautiful confluence of geography and society. The town- it is a town now, but by south east Asian standards it’s a pretty little one- is a handful of blocks seperated by winding streets. A couple of minutes’ riding in any one direction takes you out of the built-up area and into the countryside, which is stretched out in a long wide flood-plain, and consists of paddies, fields, and stands of thick lush trees. During the mornings, a cold grey mist rises from the river and blankets the place from before the dawn until around nine in the morning, after which time the warm winter sun burns the mist off, and the sky becomes a deep azure colour which lasts until the sun dips below the western hills around six in the evening. Villages dot the valley, pleasant contemporary houses with colourful flowered gardens and speckled with ornate temples whose spired roofs frame themselves against the cloudless skies. The hills are wrapped in a thick blanket of deciduous trees. The temperature sits at around twenty-seven degrees with a light breeze moving through the valley, and it’s hard to imagine a more ideal climate.
One afternoon I stopped along a roadside not far from the town and wandered into the fields. A little track took me down to some haystacks, and a shack a little further down. The late sun was warm and insects ticked and birds flitted between branches of a stand of birch trees. Smoke rising from a farmer’s rubbish-burn gave the air substance that trapped slanting sunbeams. Aside from the occasional scooter heading back into Pai itself, the place was devoid of obtrusive noise. I snapped some shots, and enjoyed just being. It had been a while since just being was enough to make me happy. But Pai is the sort of place you can just be.
Note: Pai is a tourist town. There are lots of backpackers in the town itself, and Thais go there for holiday too. Around New Year the place is allegedly packed. I was there in early January, and there were plenty of white faces on the streets, but it didn’t feel full- or particularly busy. If you’re really wanting to get away, make sure you book into one of the little ‘resorts’ outside of the town itself which are dotted along the various access roads. They’re quieter and you won’t feel intruded upon. At other times of the year, I’m told the farang population lulls and it can be quite secluded. I have a hankering to check it out during the monsoon, and just enjoy the sound of tropical rain hammering on the thatched roof of my little bamboo bungalow…