I ended up in the mountainous hippie community of Pai much like I ended up skinny dipping in the Mediterranean Sea after a Barcelona rave five years ago – everyone else was doing it, and it seemed like a good idea at the time. All the backpackers I was meeting in Chiang Mai seemed to be either arriving from or departing for Pai within days, and although I’d never heard of it, I figured I’d see what all the fuss was about.
There were two options for getting to Pai. First being, jump abroad a minivan at 8 in the morning with six other sweaty, hungover backpackers. We’d heard this was a pretty rough ride and the odds for motion sickness were quite high. More on that in a second. Second option: take a motorbike. The journey takes four hours and the road is comparable to the “Tail of the Dragon” back home: a twisty, turvey, fairly dangerous, biker’s dream ride. Minus the paved road, lane dividers, and any semblance of traffic laws. Plus the opportunity to drive yourself right off a cliff into death if you skid out or hit a pothole the wrong way.
Obviously, I was motorbiking to Pai.
A few of my new friends in the hostel found a motorbike company that would deliver our backpacks to Pai via minibus, so that was one less thing to worry about. I can’t imagine navigating those treacherous roads while carrying an extra 30+ pounds. We woke up first thing in the morning and called the company to confirm that they had bikes available for us.
They did! We packed up, negotiated cab fare with a street driver, and headed to the shop, backpacks in tow. A few young backpackers were in line before us, and we watched as they walked up to the last four bikes we could see. Hopping aboard, the happy kids jumped on the bikes, waved to us, and sped away. The shopkeeper came back inside, smiled at us and said, “Sorry, no more bike today.”
Kicking ourselves for spending an extra few minutes bartering with the cab driver when we might have arrived a few minutes earlier, we had to come up with Plan B. Which is how I ended up sandwiched between some sweaty Canadian backpackers in the back of a van on the way to Pai, clutching my stomach, head between my legs on one of the worst car rides I’d ever been on. It was all dirt road, and none of it was straight. We were either swerving left, or swerving right, or narrowly overtaking other cars, mere feet from head-on collisions. In Southeast Asia, every ride with a local driver is a fantastic opportunity to be in a wreck. Fortunately, I was too busy trying to keep my breakfast down to worry about that.
A few hours later, we made it to Pai, and I’ve befriended the sweaty Canadian backpackers by not getting sick on them. My hostel friends and I decide to tag along and stay where they were staying, since we’d slacked on arranging accommodations in advance, and all the good hostels were already booked. The Canadians were staying at the Pai Hot Springs Resort, an eight minute taxi ride outside of town. There was no foot traffic in sight on the way there, short of the elephants, who were so close we could reach out and touch them.
The Hot Springs Resort was set back in the mountains, surrounded by natural hot springs, infinity pools, and elephants roaming the grounds.
We settled into our rooms, went for a long, luxurious dip in the pool, and then headed out for the night.
The night market at Pai is everything I’d hoped a night market would be, and I’m glad I waited for a small town to try it, rather than brave the hectic masses in Bangkok or Chiang Mai.
The main strip was closed off to the public, and I could not stop sampling street food if my life depended on it! Most of it was identifiable…most 🙂
The next day we checked out of our resort and into a more backpacker-budget-friendly hostel, Spicy Pai.
The hostel was a collection of several bungalows situated next to rice paddy fields, and so, so beautiful!
We rented motorbikes straight away and began our ride up into the mountains. We stopped to hike and explore waterfall slides.
We passed little local huts and just about every domestic animal you can imagine lounging on the streets.
Local women waved us down, trying to sell us (what we think was) opium. We politely turned them down and continued on our way, as we weren’t quite ready to end up in Thai prison so early into our trip.
We got lost on the way back, but eventually made it back to the hostel for one of the most beautiful sunsets I have ever seen.
There is so much more I could say about Pai, but I think it’s one of those places that is better to experience for yourself. So if you ever find yourself in Thailand — go to Pai!
It’s 4:50 a.m. here in Thailand and I’m awake. The sound of the monsoon coming down on the roof above me is too heavy to sleep through, and with so many thoughts on my mind, it feels like a good time to write.
When I first decided to go on this trip, a lot of people said things like, “Must be nice. Wish I could do that.” Here’s the thing…getting out here hasn’t been easy. It’s taken me five years to get to the point where I have not only the money to fund a round-the-world trip, but the time. This wasn’t a split decision (though it may have seemed like it was to those who aren’t super close to me.) Ever since I got back from exploring Europe and the Middle East, I knew my days of travel were just getting started. The idea of a round-the-world trip didn’t necessarily enter my head (I didn’t know a thing about budget travel back then) but I did know I needed to save as much money as possible if I wanted to go on more international adventures.
When I hear things like, “I wish I could just take off and travel the world,” I’m always thinking – you have different goals or you’d be here too. Maybe you wanted to go to grad school, or settle down and have a family. Maybe you have career aspirations that don’t support long term travel. If you’re not able to travel the world, but you want to, it’s because up to this point you’ve been living in favor of other goals. And if you’re not doing what you want, change little things every day until you get there. No time to travel? Find a more flexible job or save vacation time. No money to travel? Work more hours, get a second (or better paying) job, and cut back on monthly expenses. I’ve lived five years without cable and figured out a way to cut my phone bill in half each month. I drive a motorcycle on nice days and safe money on gas. I made the decision to be single (at least long enough to book a plane ticket!) and chose to remain childfree (and puppy-free, that’s the hardest part!)
With that all said, it’s not always rainbows and butterflies out here. Every dream comes with hard work, and a healthy dose of reality is never a bad thing. So I wanted to share a few things I’ve found to be different (and perhaps more difficult) about traveling as a 27 year old, vs traveling as a 22 year old.
One of the things I find most tiresome about longterm travel at age 27 is the travel planning itself. Sitting in a hostel for three hours mapping out routes, transportation, and accommodation while your friends are out having fun isn’t great. I don’t know how I did it for so long in Europe…actually, maybe I do. The transportation system was much, much more efficient. Travel was easy and, for the most part, on time. Here in Asia, I’ve been thinking I can replicate that trip, in regards to the ease and simplicity of the logistics. And that’s just not possible.
Plus, as much as I want to tough it out, I’m not the 22 year old partier who can (or wants to) stay up til 3am slinging beers in a foreign country. The me today wants to go to bed early and wake up even earlier to take advantage of the daylight and go on day-long adventures. The me today wants to keep fit and be healthy. And partying with backpackers nonstop doesn’t exactly accomplish that. That’s not to say all backpackers or hostel-goers are partiers. But it’s been my experience that most of them, at least the ones under the age of 30, are.
I also find myself being a little more particular about accommodations this go-around. Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoyed my time in Chiang Mai at the four-bed shared dorm. My roommates were respectful and, for the most part, fairly quiet when they came home from partying. In fact, the one night I did leave the dorms to spring for the private, $10/night ensuite, I found fleas in the bed. But the $3/night dorm ended up being pretty much perfect. For the most part though, you get what you pay for. And at 27, I’m more likely to spring for comfortable, clean accommodation – making it challenging to survive on a backpacker’s budget.
Here’s one thing I’m amazed by — the 22-year-old me’s ability to pack, and repack, every other day. Here in Asia, I find myself needing to settle into a place for at least three days to feel relaxed. In Europe, I was moving around almost every other day it seemed like! Whether it was to a different city, or hostel, or to a new CouchSurfers house, I was constantly on the move. And that’s pretty damn taxing after a while. Also – keeping track of your things while moving from place to place is hard! I’ve left books on trains, lost my quick-dry travel towel, and misplaced chargers.
Here’s a biggie – at age 27, I find myself having less patience for “backpacker talk.” It is always the same conversation with everyone you meet.
“Where are you from?”
“When did you get here?”
“Where else have you been?”
“Where are you going?”
“How long are you traveling ?”
An exception to this was Mish, a 26 year old German who just got to Chaing Mai after a month in Burma. We met in a dark parking lot while waiting for a night bus to Bangkok. Within five minutes of meeting we were chatting about Burmese politics and the recent elections, the German school system, and traveling as it relates to relationships and body hair (that shall be saved for another time:) I guess the takeaway is that unless you meet someone and decide to travel with them for a bit, most connections here are fleeting. You find yourself missing people with whom you have history. You miss feeling really…known.
I’m learning so much about myself out here. I prefer the small cities (Chiang Mai), remote mountain towns (Pai), and peaceful islands, as opposed to Bangkok. I’ve learned that I like to stay in one place for a while, and will probably adjust my travel ways to do just that. I’ve learned that comfort is a priority to me. I’ve learned that traveling in your late twenties definitely IS different than traveling in your late teens/early twenties. And anyone reading this is in their early twenties and wants to do a longterm trip around the world, my advice to you is to GO! Sure, you can wait til you’re older…but it’s a hell of a lot easier (in so many ways) if you don’t.
She doesn’t bother returning my pleasantries and gets straight to the point.
“What you want?”
I don’t blame her. Day in and day out she caters to the likes of Westerns staying at the hostels nearby. Seeking the comforts of home, we find refuge in the Funky Monkey’s banana pancakes and chocolate shakes. She’ll serve us, but she doesn’t have to like us.
I know now, by my fifth day in Chiang Mai, that she recognizes me. I’m the girl who comes bounding down the alley at 7 a.m., stomach rumbling as she orders scrambled eggs, dragon fruit, and sweet, pressed mango juice.
I sit down at a wooden two-top by the street, watching her take the orders of a dreadlocked Australian and his partner, a bandage-ridden backpacker who, from the looks of it, is armed with a motorbike horror story, or two.
I’m about to ask the details of the wreck when up walk two young monks, barefoot and draped in nothing but orange silk robes. They stop outside the cafe about four feet from me. The shop owner cuts off the Australians mid-order and walks into the back, emerging with a platter of food. Slipping off her shoes, she kneels down on the mud ridden road in front of the monks. She bows before getting up to divvy the items on the tray. The monks open two pails hanging around their necks, graciously accepting her gifts.
The woman holds out two glasses of water and proceeds to pour both out onto the road by the monks’ feet. Cars, tuk Tuks and motorbikes whiz by inches behind them, unaware that we are in the middle of something important, or probably more likely, that this sight is just a regular occurrence on their daily commute.
The woman kneels after all the water has all been emptied onto the road. The monks bow their heads. As they begin to recite a Buddhist prayer, I watch the face of the woman relax into a tranquil state, as if she’s letting herself float away – far away from the bustling streets of Chiang Mai and the pancake-eating Westerners. After the prayer, the woman bows, slips on her shoes, and goes back inside the shop, resuming order-taking with the Aussies. And I feel happy – happy that she has this ritual each morning, that she has a chance to pause and reflect before the day ensues, and hopeful that I can make her day a little brighter as well, even if it is with just a smile and a “Sabadee Kah.”
The bus from Bangkok to Chiang Mai took roughly 11 hours, and while the ride surely would have passed more quickly at night, I knew I’d regret missing out on the scenery.
We were on the 10th hour when I realized I had no idea where I was going, or staying, when I arrived.
I knew (from aforementioned research on acquiring visas) that there was a Chiang Mai guest house which would issue me my Burma visa. So, that seemed like a good place to start.
It was dark in Chiang Mai as our bus pulled into the station, and I set about trying to find a ride. Even though the prices are crazy cheap in Southeast Asia, you have to haggle, because the starting price is usually double what they will accept. I wandered around the bus terminal, asking the truck and tuk tuk drivers, “Julie guesthouse?” After about 10 minutes, I found someone who knew where it was, and spent another 5 minutes getting the price down from 150 to 80 baht (roughly $1.85 USD.)
The driver of the truck had his wife and three young children in tow in the front of the cab, something I was staring to realize was quite common for drivers. Turning work into a family event probably due to need. Bonding time, at the least!
Arrival at Julie was swift. They had rooms available, fortunately, and I spent the remainder of the evening taking a cool shower and catching up on Bill Bryson’s “In a Sunburned Country” in prep for my up and coming tour of Australia.
It wasn’t long before I met one of my three bunk mates, a young, slightly drunk guy from the UK, who seemed very concerned that I was sober and alone, reading, of all things. After assuring him that I was okay and taking a rain check on the Chang (Thai beer) he left me to go back to my reading.
It was so nice to settle into a place, knowing I’ll be here for a few days. After hectic Bangkok, Chiang Mai feels like a much needed breath of fresh air. The following day was spent wandering around getting to know the town, eating yummy street food, hanging out in the hostel lobby conversing with fellow travelers, and nothing too exciting to speak of.
The following day, however, was one of the best days of my life!
I’d done a bit of research before leaving the states about elephant parks, and knew I wanted to visit one that did not offer elephant rides; one that advocated for the ethical treatment of the animals. It was then I decided on the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
The Elephant Jungle Sanctuary is an ethical and sustainable Eco-tourism project about 60k north of Chiang Mai. The people of Karen-hill tribe (including our awesome guide, ‘Robert’) truly care about the welfare of the elephants, and it’s apparent in how happy and relaxed the elephants appear from the very first time you meet them.
There are currently about 20 elephants in the sanctuary (including one pregnant mama!) and most have been rescued from elephant parks who mistreat the animals by having them perform shows for tourists, letting people ride them, and generally just not doing what is best for their wellbeing.
We began by spending a couple hours meeting the elephants – there was a grown pregnant mama (57ish years old) with her adult daughter and a baby boy (you can see the little one below – “little” being relative!)
They were so excited about the gifts we brought them — lots and lots of bananas, greens, shoots and water.
The little one was most playful, and we caught him playing a bit of hide and seek with our guide.
After getting acquainted with our new friends, we paused for a Thai buffet lunch on the river. Here I am with two new friends from Scotland, Hayley and Sarah!
After lunch it was bath time for the elephants. We stripped down to our swimsuits and climbed down the slippery clay slopes to the river. Soon after, I witnessed one of the most incredible sights – the elephants appeared from the mountin as the villagers called them down for bath time, carefully bounding toward us as they worked their way down. They could barely contain their excitement as they skidded to a stop on the riverbank, and delicately shimmied (yes I am aware how ironic that sounds but that’s exactly how it happened!) their way into the water, where we were waiting with bathing bowls and brushes.
See me down there on the right? This was one of the coolest, most surreal moments where I actually bonded with the mama and the boy. They were looking into my eyes, nuzzling me and loving every brush and scrub. I was too, until the mama nuzzled a bit too close and laid her trunk down on my toes! Had a bit of a freak out moment when I couldn’t get my big toe out from under her, but after a few seconds I wrestled it out and was pretty much fine, just a bit sore. (The picture on the right is post-toe scare, when I decided I was better off standing further back!)
All in all, one of the best days of my life with a wonderful organization.