After about four hours of climbing twisty mountain roads, we reached Pai. We pulled onto a market street thick with tourists. The van had to crawl through the endless stream of people eating street food and shopping for linen pants before pulling into the station and setting us loose.
I was not in the mood to be a part of the swarm so I walked a few blocks to an unassuming, half-full restaurant and had a simple meal of sliced duck on rice. I found my hotel, checked in, and went to my room. The bed was big. On it two towels were neatly folded, which heightened my suspicion that Thailand was not the best place to travel solo. I showered and, exhausted, flopped onto the bed, eager to see Pai in the daylight.
The next morning I spent a while just lying in bed, drinking complimentary coffee and tea, luxuriating in the comforts I knew I couldn’t financially sustain. Online I booked a hostel in the center of town. I checked out of the hotel, left my pack with the concierge, and set off in search of breakfast. I picked an unpretentious (and therefore inexpensive) looking restaurant off the main strip and ordered pad Thai for 50 Baht (less than $2 USD). The place wasn’t crowded, but I was nonetheless impressed by the fact that one woman was running the restaurant all by herself, acting as both waiter and chef. The pad Thai was delicious and egg-heavy, a perfect meal to start the day.
I strolled around, gandering at all the scooters and their riders that were a constant on the streets of Pai. You can spot the tourists if not for their (often) white skin, by the fact that they are wearing helmets, a safety feature which locals (as well as some brazen young male tourists, whom I suspect are Australian) don’t seem to bother with. Another defining trait of the tourists in Pai is the shaky way with which they handle (or don’t) their scooters, as if they are getting on one for the first time in their lives. This is almost certainly the case with a sizable portion of Pai’s visitors. Renting scooters is cheap and easy here and is pretty much the only way to get around and explore the surrounding area.
With that in mind I began shopping around the different scooter rental places, comparing prices, before returning to the first place I’d checked out. Among the automatic scooters was a mini-dirt bike, the type that my then 8-year-old cousin used to ride during our Idaho summer dirt bike camp outs. I liked that it was small and fast and I could shift, giving me more control on these hilly, twisty mountain roads. The girl working there couldn’t have been more than 13. I handed over my passport as collateral and she gave me the key to the dirt bike and pointed me vaguely in the direction of the gas station. I must’ve circled the town three times before I found it. I filled it up and zoomed up north in search of a swimming hole I had read about.
The snaking roads offered expansive, impossibly gorgeous views of green jungle and background mountains. After about 20 minutes of riding I stopped somewhat at random to check out a river I had seen from a higher vista. A small trail ambled past banana trees to a surprisingly cold river. I picked and ate a few small, flavorful bananas before continuing on my quest for the swimming hole.
Another 20 minutes and a few consultations with Google Maps later, I arrived at a waterfall. People were sunning themselves like reptiles on the rocks. I stripped and did the same. The water here fell in increments, dipping into pools and creating natural rock slides. I soaked myself in one of the pools full of chilly mountain water, then resumed my photosynthesis. Down below, a man and a woman were doing acroyoga while their friends looked on. Above me, a couple of Irish lads were sliding down the rocks, showing off for a group of three giggling girls. They all looked about 18. This wasn’t quite the Indiana Jones adventure I was hoping for. So far in this mountain town in Northern Thailand I had found little in the way of cultural immersion. There I was merely witnessing Europeans having the time of their lives during their gap year between high school and university.
I slid down the rocks myself, to test them out, and swam a bit more. But the water temperature being what it was, I only remained in the water for short increments. Even after getting out and being in the sun, my skin was covered in goosebumps. It was February, after all.
One of the “Things to Do” in Pai is visit the White Buddha. Catch it at sunset, they say. I motored there, parked among the thick militia of bikes at the foot of the stairs, and climbed with vigor, passing others taking breaks. There was a Sacre Coeur level of tourists here. At the top, I circled the giant statue once, did my best to hide my contempt for all the dweebs taking photos of themselves, and joined everyone sitting on the steps. We all watched the sun go down. Once it disappeared from view, one joker clapped. Gradually everyone descended, and, after the initial wave, so did I.
There was no denying, I was in tourist central here. I promised myself that my travels in Asia would transition from vacation to travel and exploration. Which they would, eventually, but I had booked Pai for two more days and might as well do all of the “Things to Do”. I’ve discovered that when you travel alone you explore with maximum efficiency and can check off destinations and activities with haste.