On the second day of our northern Thailand adventure we woke up to an unfamiliar experience – the cold. Not something we have felt for almost three months of traveling now. It was a nice experience to be snuggled into a cosy bed with a mosquito net fort while the air was crisp and cool. However, the climate in Pai in this sleepy mountain village is only cold throughout the night, with daytime temperatures this time of year soaring up to the early-mid 30’s in the afternoon.
Seeing Pai in the daylight
Pai is a very scenic mountain village that has had a tourism boom over the past 5 or so years, transforming from a sleepy town full of hill-tribe locals to a melting pot of alternative and ‘hippy’ tourists from around the world. It is pretty easy to find a yoga school, pair of harem pants or an affordable bungalow amongst the rice paddies to sleep in at night.
Mid-morning we ventured out into our first daytime viewing of Pai, and it was just as scenic as we had hoped. Mountains, hills and greenery everywhere. Beautiful buildings, rivers and rice paddies, quite the change from Chiang Mai city that we have become used to. We visited the walking street market and had a quick and easy breakfast at a Thai-German cafe.
Originally planning to look around the town longer, our attempts at extending the car rental failed and in order to make it through the hilly-pass before sunset we would need to get a move on. After reviewing the internet for things to do, we decided to head west for the afternoon.
Sight-Seeing at Santichon
Not far out of Pai is a Chinese village that goes by the name of Santichon, settled by communist escapees from Yunnan, Southwest China.
We stopped in for a look on our drive. It was incredibly beautiful, with so much attention paid to the details. At some moments it felt more like a theme park than an actual village, however behind the ‘tourist’ part there is a definite community settlement.
There are lots of tiny little Chinese houses decorated with ornaments and lanterns selling a variety of teas, ornaments and chinese sweets. We taste-tested a beautiful jasmine fragranced green tea, admired all the gorgeous tea sets and brought a bottle of coffee wine that had been produced in nearby Chiang Rai.
The main road into the Chinese village was well signposted, and lined with street vendors selling a variety of Chinese tea, snacks, trinkets and food.
Snacking at Jungle Cafe
Continuing our journey up into the hills, in search of waterfalls, we came across a stretch of road with a few different cafe and accommodation options. Our choice for afternoon snack went by the name of ‘Jungle Cafe’.
It was idyllic, my idea of total relaxation. Sunny & surrounded by nature, reggae music, hammocks and
good food. A couple of backpackers were playing on the pool-table while I enjoyed a delicious fruit salad of mandarins, dragon fruit and papaya with yoghurt and honey. I would love to have found this spot sooner & stayed for a week, however time was passing and we only had 5 days left in Chiang Mai before heading off to Malaysia, so it was time for us to continue on.
Waterfalls at Mo Paeng
Winding up and into the hills in such perfect weather was as good as it sounds, it was a welcome break to be out in nature again. The Mo Paeng waterfalls were only a few more minutes up the hill from the Jungle Cafe and when we arrived we found a few other tourists around sunbathing, however it certainly wasn’t overcrowded or unpleasant.
All up, Mo Paeng waterfalls are only 9km outside of Pai and are an easy spot to find if you are looking for some big flat rocks to sunbathe on, beautiful natural scenery and pools to swim in. We found the water was quite cool and nobody was swimming, so we gave it a miss. On hotter days people refresh themselves in one of the clear pools and are often seen using the flat rocks of the waterfall as a natural waterslide.
We relaxed on a huge rock overlooking the bottom pools with a few other westerners seeking a quiet spot in the sun. The basin is surrounded by banana palms & jungle and as you kick back & relax in the sun you can spot a number of differently coloured butterflies.
From the carpark at the top, the waterfalls are only a couple of minutes walk away. Unlike some other waterfalls in the region these are very easily accessible and suitable even for people without hiking gear or the stamina to walk for long distances. Before we knew it, 4pm had arrived and it was time to head for Chiang Mai.
The long drive home
The journey back to time was essentially a race against the sun. After the harrowing experiences of driving on the 1096 in the dark the night before, getting to the other side of the hill range before sun-down became rather important to us.
Driving these roads during the day was much easier than at night, the scenery much better too. There are various national parks, geysers, hot-springs and street vendors selling the usual bits and pieces. Unfortunately, being able to see out the window triggered all kinds of motion-sickness in me and I spent much of the journey trying not to be sick all through our rental car.
Stopping at a roadside restaurant & market it quickly became apparent that this was where the tour-buses were paid to stop. Lot’s of seating, low quality food & over-pricing tend to be the standard in these tour-bus truck-stop areas. The food looked unappetising and the chicken was sitting out in the sun, pre cut into un-appetising little bits ready to be cooked. We skipped on the meal and loaded up on pre-packed snacks before continuing on our journey.
We made it out of the hills just as the sun was setting and joined the rush-hour traffic heading back through Mae Rim to Chiang Mai, feeling rather pleased with ourselves for successfully navigating the Thai roads.
Overall, it was a magical 2 days. We experienced rural Thailand, jungles, waterfalls, caves and temples as well as observing what life is like closer to the Burmese border. Thanks to avoiding the ‘big’ tourist attractions around Mae Rim and focusing more on natural attractions it was also a very cost effective trip. If you are in or around Chiang Mai, I highly recommend hiring a car, bike or driver and getting out and exploring – there is so much beauty you will miss if you spend your entire stay in Chiang Mai!