Pai. Eighteen-year-old backpackers adorned with dreamcatcher tattoos and tragic white dreads lounge around campfires. They’re either stoned or just pretending to be. Wave upon wave of realisations surrounding the human condition hit them as they stare into the flames. Someone in temple pants performs Poi nearby. What an artist. They snap a pic for Insta; this is a moment that must be documented. In the years to come – sat smoking in uni dorms, listening to Bob Marley – they’ll seek to impress their peers as they cite Pai as the place of their enlightenment. Further down the line, they’ll desperately try to cover up the giant ‘Your Vibe Attracts Your Tribe’ tattoo scrawled on their arm as they prepare for a job interview at a Big Four accountancy firm.
Why so bitter Caroline? Well, I’m 30 and in Pai.
View this post on Instagram
To get to the famous hippie haven of Pai from Chiang Mai, you have to take Road 1096, which has 762 severe bends, many of them hairpin. It’s so intense that shops on the route sell travel sickness pills. But it’s worth it for a relaxing few days in a hammock in Pai, nestled among the jungle and mountains of Northern Thailand. #pai #thailand #seasia #southeastasia #travel #travelling #sightseeing #travelbug #travelblog #travelblogger #travelwriter #travelphotography #travelpics #backpacker #backpacking #wanderlust #bucketlist #travelgram #instatravel #travellersnotebook #traveldiaries #travelthailand #northernthailand #explore #exploreeverything #seetheworld
The road to Pai contains 762 hairpin bends, which are so intense that the few shops on the way sell cheap travel sickness pills. Somehow, Phil, myself, and the other couple from Manchester in our minivan remained in good health – if not spirits – even as the vehicle lurched violently around stomach-wrenching corners. The other passengers – a group of Israeli friends – did not fare so well, and I got the sense that our driver enjoyed sending us all careening across the bus as they desperately called for him to slow down.
After roughly three hours of this, we arrived in Pai. I was glad to be back. I’d spent a chill week there writing in 2015, and the ease of eating, drinking, and navigation – so difficult to find in Thailand – was very attractive to me. Our hotel was located centrally, just off Walking Street, and it was horrible. I’m not going to name it, because the owners were lovely, but our room resembled a tiny jail cell, if jail cells had horrible damp problems, and the reception area boasted a strong parmesan-esque scent. Back in the room, the shower flowed directly onto the toilet, an array of lizards populated the walls, and the air conditioning smelled unholy. I need you to know I am not exaggerating when I say that sleeping on the bed was akin to climbing onto a wooden dining table and settling down for the night.
Nevertheless we spent a few fun nights on crowded Walking Street, where – despite its name – trucks and motorbikes will commonly come zooming through the screaming crowd. Stalls selling colourful ‘I <3 Pai’ t-shirts, cheap jewellery, and chocolate and banana crepes light up the street. Dogs roam freely. Mountains blanketed in greenery rise up in every direction, and long-haired Thai men in band t-shirts and ripped jeans ride up and down the streets on tricked-out motorbikes. We frequented Why Not Bar, where the live Thai band would blast out Oasis hits nightly, and Pokbar, where we sat around low tables and drank luminous cocktails. One night we took our cocktails at Edible Jazz – a famous Pai institution where you can lie precariously in hammocks and listen to live jazz music. Another night – as we sat outside a bar with a beer – we watched an old American hippie with a staff herd the dogs of Pai from one side of the street to the other. We got wonderfully drunk on cheap beer most nights to be honest; largely to stop us feeling the pain of the rock-hard ‘mattress’.
One day we took a bus trip to see some of the sights around Pai. These included bathing in some lovely hot springs and going to visit a clearly fake Chinese village (everyone was in national dress, there were donkey rides and no houses) that our driver insisted was real. Sunset at Pai Canyon – the pink and yellow sky illuminating the surrounding mountains – was a revelation.
View this post on Instagram
Glorious sunset at Pai Canyon this evening 🌅 #pai #Thailand #sunset #seasia #beautifulseasia #landscape #scenery #mountains #travel #travelthailand #traveller #travelling #travelblog #travelwriter #traveljourno #travelphotographer #travelpics #wanderlust #wanderfolk #bucketlist #travelgram #instatravel #wandering #traveldiary #travellersnotebook #passportready #seetheworld #explore #exploreeverything #sunset
After a few nights of experiencing the delights of Pai, we decided to expand our stay there, but with one caveat: a new hotel.
The new hotel we booked was located within the verdant hills that surround Pai, so we asked the people from The Bad Hotel to arrange us a taxi. Instead, the receptionist attached a rusty metal cart to the side of his motorbike, and fitted a large parasol to it. We seemingly had no choice. Phil went with our bags in the temporary side car, and I sat on the back of the motorbike, as we – very, very slowly – motored our way up to our lovely luxe hotel. Approaching inclines, I seriously feared for the motorbike’s engine. Pensioners on foot were overtaking us.
We asked our hotel receptionist to order us a taxi and instead he constructed this. (I went on the back of the bike, @phil_____norris in the sidecar with the bags) #travel #pai pic.twitter.com/Uj53evabhr
— Caroline Howley (@Carolinesgoneto) October 15, 2018
When we finally arrived – looking absolutely ridiculous in our cobbled-together vehicle – the owner of our new hotel was waiting to greet us. He was an old, bald, Thai man in Deirdre Barlow glasses, and – although we did not yet know it – absolutely batshit. “WHAT YOU DO?” he yelled. “I HAVE SHUTTLE BUS. YOU USE SHUTTLE BUS!” When he calmed down, he showed us the Shuttle Bus timetable – which would later prove defunct – in painful detail and then checked us in to a lovely cabin, overlooking the surrounding greenery. It was heaven. Well, until the dogs arrived.
We made the mistake of opening a packet of Lays Original flavour crisps on our decking area. This proved the death knell for our enjoyment of the hotel. Three large, loud dogs would now jump, growl and bark at us whenever we left our room. The next day we took a long trek to see Pai’s white Buddha, where we were almost foiled by other aggressive dogs, who went for us when we started to walk up the one and only path to the temple. Another day, we sat out by the beautiful infinity pool, but the hotel’s failure to provide umbrellas meant that Phil ended up burning his shoulders so badly he was unable to carry a backpack for days. That night we decided to stay at the hotel for dinner, a choice that greatly upset our owner, who – I now suspect – is largely unable to cook. I was served a large bowl of raw tofu, cut into huge, moist chunks, as the dogs growled nearby. The shuttle bus into Pai turned out to be the crazy owner in a jeep, who would – very grumpily – drop you off and pick you up again later, as long as you asked him on the hour. The pickups were often half an hour late, and included accompanying the man on other errands he needed to do – for instance, storming into a nearby cafe and shouting at some Chinese customers. One morning, as we were enjoying a breakfast of egg on toast on the veranda, the owner was showing off his – tbh excellent – impression of a giant mosquito to an alarmed-looking German couple nearby. As he buzzed his way back towards reception, shouting “I AM MOSQUITO HAHAHAHA” we decided to make rapid arrangements to leave Pai.
View this post on Instagram
Pai’s hot springs 😍 Given that the weather was BOILING I didn’t much feel like getting in after my sizzling hot springs experience in Bolivia, but the water was pleasantly warm and it was super relaxing until some kid stole one of my shoes 😆 #pai #hotsprings #thailand #seasia #beautifulseasia #travel #travelling #travelblog #travelblogger #travelbug #travelwriter #seetheworld #explore #exploreeverything #travelcouple #travelpics #travelphoto #wanderlust #bucketlist #instatravel #travelgram #instago #instagood #swimming #scenery #paradise #passportready #tickettoride
So our little slice of Pai had turned out to be something of a mixed bag: I’d loved being back there, but Phil – while he enjoyed it – found it to be “so full of the exact type of people that annoy me” that it wasn’t as relaxing for him as it looked like it should have been. We certainly felt like a week had been long enough as we climbed aboard our seven-hour minibus to Chiang Rai.
Chiang Rai is famous for its White Temple – or Wat Rong Khun. “Great, another temple”, travellers may be excused for thinking by the time they‘ve made it this far north. But they would be mistaken, for this is a temple with a difference.
View this post on Instagram
What an incredible place for my 1,000th ever post 😃 This is Wat Rong Khun: the famous white temple of Chiang Rai. I was shocked to learn this was only built in 1997 and even more surprised when we went inside. Unfortunately photography wasn’t allowed inside so you’ll have to take my word for it. Adorning the walls – in place of the usual historic murals – were a host of characters, including but not limited to: Michael Jackson, Neo from The Matrix, Freddie Krueger, a minion, and a handful of Pokemon. Oh and a Nokia 8210… #watrongkhun #chiangrai #thailand #temple #travel #beautifulseasia #seasia #travelthailand #travellers #backpacker #travelblog #travelblogger #traveljourno #travellersnotebook #traveldiaries #wanderlust #bucketlist #seetheworld #explore #exploreeverything #instatravel #travelgram #travelgood #tickettoride #passportready #instago #traveltheworld
The temple is glittering white – making it almost painful to look at under the beating midday sun – and endlessly intricate. A sparkling, ornate bridge takes you to its entrance, and in the grounds you’ll find a number of other beautiful structures in shimmering gold and white. Yet look a little closer, and you’ll see the lake of eerie granite hands grasping for you as you cross the bridge. Venture inside, and accompanying the usual statues of Buddha, you’ll find murals including Keanu Reeves in the Matrix, Michael Jackson, Elvis, one of those blasted yellow Minion things, a Nokia 8210, and a handful of Pokemon. While it may look otherworldly, the stunning structure was only re-built in 1997 – perhaps to encourage more tourists to make the long journey up north – as an art exhibit in the style of a temple. Upon entry you can pose for pictures with cardboard cutouts of the excited-looking architect.
View this post on Instagram
Wat would you do? Get up on my feet and let go of every excuse Wat would you do? 'Cause I wouldn't want my baby, to go through wat I went through Come on, wat would you do? Get up on my feet, stop makin' tired excuses Wat would you do? Girl I know if my mother can do it, baby you can do it
Things in Chiang Rai were not easy (there were hardly any tuk-tuks, and the ones we managed to hail repeatedly took us to the wrong place), but we were charmed by its small town vibe. The streets are lined with friendly bars and restaurants, the bustling day market is an intriguing collection of sights and scents (think plucked whole chickens and live fish), and the few temples dotted around town are tranquil and populated by chatty Buddhist monks. A spectacular golden clock tower stands on one roundabout, while its ugly concrete sister tower – concealed by the market – is inexplicably sponsored by Kodak.
View this post on Instagram
The vendors at Chiang Rai’s day market sell everything from plucked chickens, complete with heads, to bags of boiled eggs and chocolate waffles. Noodles are – of course – ubiquitous. Endless jewellery emporiums line the streets behind the market. You’ll find Chiang Rai’s gleaming golden clock tower at one end, while its Kodak-sponsored concrete sister tower is at the other. The stallholders have very little interest in tourists – we’re unlikely to purchase their most visceral goods after all. The night market meanwhile has endless tourist fare but is unfortunately plagued by bugs. 🐜 🐛 🐜 #Chiangrai #thailand #seasia #beautifulseasia #market #shopping #travel #traveller #travelling #travelbug #travelblog #travelbloggers #travelcouple #travelwriter #travelpics #travelphotos #wanderlust #bucketlist #travelgram #instatravel #instago #traveldiaries #travellersnotebook #passportready #tickettoride #northernthailand #explore #seetheworld #exploreeverything
One evening we made friends with a young man from Israel and a friendly Italian, and – after the inevitable discussion about the sheer stupidity of Brexit – we decided to go to Chiang Rai’s Night Market. It only takes place on a Saturday, and – despite the insane levels of flies and bugs present there – we were lucky to catch it. After a cursory walk around the stalls, which sold everything from embroidered bags to bobble heads – and some delicious veggie street food – we wandered into a nearby square where hundreds of old Thai people were line dancing in 1950s costume.
We then took our new friends to a street bar we’d discovered the night before. After sitting down, the Israeli man said: “It’s horrible this place, how did you find it? So many prostitutes.” Indeed, this bar did feature a number of old white men with young Thai women draped over them. I found this somewhat hypocritical given that he’d just hours before told us how he’d been enjoying the country’s abundant prostitutes. While it’s an aspect of Thailand I don’t feel hugely comfortable with, if you didn’t want to run into any prostitutes you’d never leave your hotel. And, surely – given the distribution of power at play – any repulsion should be directed at the creepy old dudes.
Phayao was fucking mad. We’d chosen it as it firmly ticked the ‘off the beaten track’ box – but it turned out to tick it much, much too well. You could say the tick absolutely obliterated that particular box.
We hopped off the large bus on which we’d been the only tourists, and waited for the usual wave of clamouring tuk-tuk drivers to attack. Getting off buses is my least favourite part of travelling: disorientated and weary, you’re left to fend off the sales pitches of dozens of tuk-tuk drivers who ignore your personal space entirely. But – in Phayao – they never came. We retreated to an empty nearby restaurant called ‘Steak&U’ in the hopes the staff would speak English. After a cursory plate of ‘French fried’, the waiter managed to tell us – largely through charades – that there were exactly zero taxis in Phayao. Given the town’s ‘small’ size, they simply had no use for them. There was nothing for it but to walk.
After downloading the map from booking.com, we shouldered our backpacks and set off on the 2km trek in the searing midday sun. We were carrying around 25kg each, and we didn’t really know where we were. At one point a friendly man waved to us from his garage, asking where we were going. I thought we were saved – surely the offer of a lift was imminent? – but after we told him he simply looked a bit confused and said: “Have a good walk”.
Sweating and out of breath, we finally arrived at the map’s destination. It was an ESSO garage. Assuming that wasn’t our night’s accommodation, Phil left me on the forecourt with the bags, in the blazing sun, and went to look for the hotel in the surrounding area. He came back half an hour later, no better informed. A kindly noodle vendor had tried to help him locate the mystery hotel, leading him on a dizzying walk through dozens of tiny winding back streets before eventually admitting defeat. Our situation was desperate: the hotel’s name was in Thai script, so we didn’t even know what it was called. We explained our plight to a woman from a nearby shop – she was as confused as us. She tried the number on booking.com, to no avail, before Googling the hotel. It turned out the address was another 2km uphill, so she rang the number from Google and our elusive host came to pick us up, cracking many jokes on the way back about how stupid we were to get lost. Oh, how we laughed.
The glassiest of lakes in Phayao today. No one speaks English here,there are zero taxis,and veggie food is near impossible to find,but getting a tiny wooden boat out on this lake to a little submerged temple makes the seaweed crisps for dinner worth it ☁️ #travel #thailand pic.twitter.com/yhT7onZHmN
— Caroline Howley (@Carolinesgoneto) October 22, 2018
After lying down in our – admittedly very comfortable – beds for a while, we decided to venture into Phayao to get some dinner. Unfortunately, given the distance between the hotel and the town centre, coupled with Phayao’s apparent dislike for street lighting, we were at the mercy of our host. While she begrudgingly offered to drive us, she staunchly refused to wait while we enjoyed a bite to eat away from her weird little hotel. This was particularly irksome given that we’d booked the hotel due to the fact the FAKE ADDRESS she’d given booking.com was a short walk to town. Instead, and without asking, she ordered us some veggie noodles on her phone, got out the car to pick them up, and then drove us back to the hotel and told us to go eat in bed.
The next day we decided to cycle to Phayao Lake, where you can get a little boat out to a submerged temple. We got a lot of stares: Phayao is a popular holiday destination for Thai people, but Westerners are much more of a rarity. Despite the rain and grey skies, this was a pretty magical experience; the lake was glassy and the temple tranquil. Trying to get something to eat afterwards, we basically got chucked out of one restaurant because we couldn’t speak Thai, and there was no Diet Coke to be found anywhere. Disaster. Eventually we found a place that would cook us a vegetarian dish; the waiting staff stared at us the whole time we were there.
View this post on Instagram
This is the top of a submerged temple in Phayao. The temple was built around 500 years ago but in the 1930s, this huge lake was carved out to improve irrigation. The old temple sits directly underneath the statue of Buddha. It’s also very slippery, and much of it is connected by thin planks of wood🧜🏽♀️ #temple #Thailand #Phayao #northernthailand #seasia #beautifulseasia #wanderlust #bucketlist #buddhism #backpacker #backpacking #wanderfolk #travel #traveller #travelling #travelbug #travelblog #travelblogger #travelwriter #travelpics #travelphotography #travelgram #instatravel #traveldiaries #travelgram #travellersnotebook #explore #exploreeverything #seetheworld #passportready
After two nights in Phayao, it was time to get the hell out of Dodge. We had an 11-hour bus journey back to Bangkok and a short flight ahead of us. And then we would arrive in Cambodia, with Thailand – the first country on our 12-month itinerary – firmly ticked off. But first, our illustrious host press-ganged us – potentially her first ever Western guests – into taking smiling pictures next to the hotel sign with her and her dog. And just like that, we had reluctantly endorsed the worst hotel of our time in Thailand with our conveniently foreign faces.