North of Chiang Mai, there is a town called Pai. Apparently the journey to Pai used to take seven days by elephant before the road was built through the mountains a few decades ago. Now it takes three hours by minibus and either a strong stomach or motion sickness pills.
Pai is full of backpackers and Thai tourists, rickety bungalows and boutiques and street stalls full of quirky, self-congratulatory souvenirs that proclaim the number of curves in the road one has endured to get there (762). There are unique caricature artists, and even some guy who runs around in full Jack Sparrow costume and sells postcards of himself. Not exactly a quiet place to escape to, but it’s an easy area to enjoy life.
Pai is also in the foothills of the Himalayas in the Mae Hong Son Province, which is considered one of the very best places in the world to motorcycle. A 125cc moped isn’t exactly a motorcycle, but you can rent them in Pai for less than $5 per day, so we decided to go for it. For several days, Tony drove us all over the valley, through villages, to the waterfalls, and down the rough gravel road up to the “secret” hot springs that is still in use as a village bath.
On our last full day in Thailand, we decided to head about 40 km north to see Tham Lod, a large cave hear the Myanmar (Burma) border. We got a late start and the road wound tightly up and down the mountains. By the time we got to our destination, we realized we needed to turn right around if we wanted to make it back to Pai before dark. Then we passed a sign for Cave Lodge, which we remembered had been highly recommended to us by Kevin. We decided that the best thing to do would be to stay and see Tham Lod, spend the night at Cave Lodge, and then go back first thing in the morning.
We hiked out to where the river exits Tham Lod, and got there just in time to watch thousands of swifts making their nightly return to cave at dusk.
This was the first time all year that our headlamps were really necessary, because we walked the trail back to Cave Lodge in the dark. We noticed what looked to be glittering dew all over the ground, but upon closer inspection, it was our lights reflecting in the eyeballs of every spider in the jungle. Jungles have lots of spiders.
We were disappointed that we hadn’t carved out more time to spend up here, but were really thankful for our short taste of a pretty amazing place.
We woke up early the next morning and realized that while our decision to spend the night had given us the safety of traveling in daylight, we had sacrificed the heat of the day for it. Tony was wearing only a light shirt and shorts and it was a gray and damp morning and there was a mountain between us and the rising sun. But soon we were rewarded by amazing views of the mists in the valley below.
By the time we made it to the top of the mountain we were nearly frozen solid and sprung for hot cups of instant noodles from the tourist concession stand. Some Lisu girls, who hang out at the scenic overlook to pose for photos in exchange for tips, were also eating their breakfast before they began their day.
The soup warmed us enough to continue and most of the rest of the way to Pai was in sunlight.
We had to return the moped and leave for Laos that evening, but we’ll be looking for excuses to ride again soon.