(For more about just how protective they are about the royal family check this out. You can go here to see the article that caused the problem; a very good read)
I took the three day weekend as an opportunity to check out some more of this country. So on Thursday I hopped a bus to Chang Mai where I met up with Jen, who teaches in Chang Rai, and James who I was meeting for the first time after some e-mail correspondence thanks to our good mutual friend Rachel Mennies.
After a stroll and some shopping around Chang Mai's wonderful night market, eating one and a half enormous yet delicious Mexican style burritos made by a guy from New Orleans, and a few bars, we hit the hay at our favourite Chang Mai guesthouse - Top North and prepared for the long day we had ahead of us.
Friday morning we woke up, and after a few failed attempts, found a motorbike rental shop that had three Honda 125 Dream's that could be ours for the weekend. As the only member of our threesome to have ever driven a motorbike, myself and the bike rental employees began a little lesson for biker newbies Jen and James. Three minutes later we were off (after all you learn faster from experience right?). After navigating some serious Chang Mai city traffic, filling up on petrol and finding the right road, I led the way into the mountains on our way to Pai.
About 40 kilometres into the ride we hit Route 1095 which would lead us all the way to Pai on one 136 km long trip. To get from Chang Mai to Pai you have to get over the top of Thailand's northern mountain ranges. If you've ever driven up or down a mountain, you know the only way to do it is to weave back and forth, while the road turns back on itself and you make 180 degree turns while fighting up or down a 40 degree hill. This is not a road you want to take on a rickety old bus. Trust me, I saw those buses trying to climb at a 5km/hour pace and it's a wonder that the fronts didn't slowly lift up and let gravity finish the job down into the valley.
But on my trusty Honda Dream, it was the greatest drive I've done. We stopped on the way to check out Mork-Fa Waterfall in Doi Suthep National Park. If you're there, it is well worth the 200 Baht entrance fee. After that, and another stop at a roadside vendor for some Pad See-You we found ourselves in the happiest place I've found in Thailand.
It was probably the combination of a long exhausting ride, the beautiful clear night, the lantern lights lining the river and the bustling walking street/night market but I haven't felt that at peace in awhile. Jen and James very quickly got tired of my repeated declaration that I was going to find a way to live here somehow.
After struggling through the mobbed walking streets and discovering that no one in Pai actually knows the names of the roads they live on, we finally found our guesthouse and our little cabin room. It's a decent guesthouse called Golden Hut run by a hippie with huge dreadlocks, with hammocks, table tennis tables, and beds with mosquito nets hanging over them which always seem to add a touch of romanticism to a place, even if their real job is to keep the malaria-infected mosquitoes away. It was pretty rustic, don't stay here if you're high maintenance, but I enjoyed it.
After showering and changing we ventured back out on to the walking street for some good food and good music. We ended up spending most of the night sitting/standing on the street by a band who had set up their gear in between two banks to play and promote their show the following night. They were a great bunch of guys, one of whom had an English wife from St Albans (where I went to school for almost four years) who we chatted with for awhile. We had nowhere to stay the following night and we asked her about this, and she insisted that we were definitely not going to find a place. The problem was that this was a national three-day weekend and Pai has become a very popular tourist destination for Thais, so the place really was packed to capacity.
We called it an early night, I woke up at dawn the next morning and starting the process of calling up all the guesthouses I had a number for to find another room. That failed, so I showered and went to Golden Hut's reception to ask for help. They called up a lady who gave us 'rooms' for the night. We moved our stuff to our new residence to find that we were actually sleeping on the floor of this woman's living room on mattresses, but it was probably cleaner than the Golden Hut, and at that point we were taking what we could get. We thanked her for the room, hopped on our bikes and went to see what Pai was all about. We checked out their waterfall (pretty, but not as impressive as Mork Fa), the beautiful canyons and the natural hot springs (which have a 200 Baht entrance fee too...still not sure if that one was worth it). The natural hot springs were pretty cool. The highest little pools of water were so hot that people were literally boiling eggs in them. The lower ones were still pretty hot, but some thick skinned Thais, and James, still got right in.
After that we headed back into town, showered off the spring water which left a strange film on our skin (minerals?) and headed back out. Stop one was the best dinner I have had in Thailand. Ever. Here's where you'll all be disappointed and rolling your eyes at me - it was a burger. The best burger ever. I've already mentioned this, but Tha Wang Pha is devoid of any Western food, which sounds great, and don't get me wrong I love the food here, but rice and noodles. Everyday. It wears on you. And I'm serious when I say this was a good burger.
Burger House is run by Ed, an old ex-pat American Vietnam vet who moved to Thailand and opened up the Burger House "because I was starving." Amazing. He offers 100% beef burger, with toasted buns, real lettuce, tomato, onion, CHEESE, real good bacon, and BBQ sauce. He even has real thick-cut chips. Not McDonalds fries, real chips.
After that little piece of heaven, it was back to the night market for a bit then we wandered into a bar mostly because an English guy was heckling us from the balcony and telling us to come in. He was basically running a pub/bar crawl for the westerners that were in town that night. He was from Yarmouth of all places. So we hung out and played a few card games with him (I've forgotten his name and I feel bad about that...), Darren from Putney, Mack from Balham, Yelena from Germany, Dan from France, Anthony from New Zealand and a few other internationals that I didn't get the chance to chat with. From there we moved briefly to a dance club called BeBop before reaching Bamboo which encompasses a lot of how I think of Pai. Bamboo is a large hut made of...well guess, with no chairs or seating of any kind except some cushions on the floor and perhaps a few stools. For the most part you just hang out barefoot on the bamboo floor huddling around the bonfires burning in the centre. It was like a little hippie haven.
After an unknown amount of time, Jen noticed that James had wandered off... I won't go into the details to save him the embarrassment but Jen and I ended up walking home in the hopes of bumping into him and falling asleep. Luckily James showed up a few hours later.
Our final morning in Pai we grabbed some fried rice for breakfast and hit the road back to Chang Mai. It was a lot busier since everyone was headed back home before work on Monday, so on the route back we navigated our way past cars, large passengers vans, buses that looked like they could topple at any minute, herds of BUFFALO, baby cows that chose the middle of the road for their afternoon nap and the usual extreme turns and hills. Luckily Jen and James were veterans on the bikes by then, and Jen only fell over once, but to be fair we were going up a massive dirt hill after an unsuccessful trip to check out a geyser (another 200 Baht entrance fee which we decided was one too many fees to see nature) and the ground was like swiss cheese with holes to trip over everywhere. She was unharmed and we continued on.
Our farewells were brief, Jen and I got a tuk tuk to the bus station and I had to immediately get on my bus without saying goodbye. I was headed for Lampang where I was meeting Kru Noy who was there for a large school competition that our students were competing in. In a few hours, after a dinner of broth and a very large pork ball (this will be relevant later) I found myself standing on the grounds of my good friends Lisa and Nate's school in Hang Chat. Unfortunately they had both taken off for the long weekend since their school was closed due to the competition, so there was no teary eyed reunion.
I was exhausted but obligated to stay and watch some rehearsals before heading back to Kru Noy's friends house to pack it in for the night.
A few hours later I find myself in the bathroom and the large pork ball I had eaten later floating in pieces in the bowl....
The next day isn't worth writing about, but I spent it wrestling nausea, a huge fever and the distinct wish to crawl up and pass away to another world. I will never look at pork balls the same way. I don't even like typing those words.
Luckily Wednesday was also a national holiday so when I got back to Tha Wang Pha I had another day to recover.
So there were some highs, like discovering a place in Thailand where sadness does not exist, and some definite lows. But all in all another successful trip into this beautiful country.