About three hours north of Chiang Mai, through 762 curves and the most treacherous roads I've ever been on, you'll reach Pai. To say it lightly, it's a hippie paradise. Backpackers from all over flock here to visit the canyons, take a gander at the mountains surrounding on all sides, get a drink from the numerous bars, "feel the culture" and meet other foreigners at the market. I saw more foreigners in this weekend trip than I had seen in Thailand in ages.
Even though there is always a wave of tourists moving through Pai, it keeps the "small Thai town" vibe, letting travelers get a glimpse of Thai life, even if it is hidden behind vendor carts and crowds of farang. There are lots of details that shout "Thailand!" at the top of their little object lungs, locals who light up when you speak in a northern Thai accent to them, and little Chinese aunties waiting on bless you with some of their hot tea just for entering their little shop.
Upon arrival, Megan and I checked into Heart of Pai Resort, still dizzy from the bumpy and rollercoaster-esque bus ride. We finished off our 7-Eleven loot, took the smallest of naps, then headed on to dinner at Silhouette, the restaurant at Reverie Siam. I'd been recommended this place both through friends in Chiang Mai and online, but the price tag per room was a bit much for my taste. The food however, was perfect for it. We sat and marveled at the restaurant's interior, ordered several tapas to split (think lemon pepper hummus and fried risotto balls), and got our mocktail on. The weather was perfect, a storm just passing over us, and the sun setting in the background. Talk about idyllic.
After dinner, a complementary motortaxi took us to the walking street in town, where we browsed the shops and the stands for a few hours. There were post cards galore, all manner of bags and pouches, plenty of foods to try (we settled on coconut khanom and rotee before caving into a carrot-cashew cake at Pai Siam Bistro).
On Saturday morning we discovered our favorite spot in Pai: Om Garden Café. The place was overflowing with greenery, an obvious win. The extensive menu (which we sampled both mornings of our trip) included a breakfast burger with bacon, egg and grilled mushroom, fried eggs over pita bread and hummus as well as more traditional Thai breakfast items like porridge and fruit. The smoothies were incredibly sweet and smooth. Megan had a slice of lime cake a couple times as well.
While living in China, Megan has had the fortune of learning to ride a motorbike. I, on the other hand, have not yet built up the courage to learn. She rented one for the two of us to ride, and it was probably one of the best decisions we made all weekend. We zoomed over to the Chinese village about 5 kilometers away from the city center, heading to the top of the "mountain" for spectacular views, not-yet-ripe bananas and all the green tea we could drink.
Heading down from the summit, we breezed through the little village, Megan getting to surprise some of the ladies there with her Chinese, and me getting by on the Thai they spoke. The sweetest women ran these tea shops, not pushing us to buy, but hoping for a chat to spend the time they normally just used sitting in the heat and watching tourists walk by without a word.
Before the day ended we hiked up and around the entrance of Pai Canyon, a quick bike ride to the other side of the city. No deep deep abysses here, but plenty of formations jetting out over the forested area, views of beautiful blue and green mountains for miles. Slipping here is easy, and we saw too many bandaged foreigners to want to spend more time climbing and balancing. The views were worth the drive, and the heat of the sun was worth the wind on the ride back.
That night we browsed the market again, but on motorbike this time, circling the town to take in the glorious cool of the night–something Chiang Mai hasn't received yet this year. We ate a little (sorta unimpressive) dinner at Duang Restaurant near the center of the market before we discovered Nong Beer Restaurant's great Thai food. Closing the night with another long visit to Silhouette for virgin Mojitos and some quality book time.
The first time I visited Pai the premise was camping, and this trip was completely different. I'm definitely prone to repeat trips: visiting the same restaurants, the same lookout spots and the same hotels. This was a refreshing second look at Pai, with its hoards of backpackers, constant smells of beer and Thai food, and rustic Thai village-town combo life. Word to the wise: if the khao soi has spaghetti instead of egg noodles, just go somewhere else.