The bus lurched and swerved across the road as we swung around yet another sharp corner, the road snaking steeply upwards through the trees. There are 762 bends in the road between Chiang Mai and the mountain town of Pai, in Northern Thailand, and I felt every single one of them as a twist in the pit of my stomach as I clung miserably to the seat in front, my face white and clammy with sweat. I snatched brief glimpses of beautiful scenery flashing like sunlight through the surrounding forest, before taking another shaky swig of diet coke and closing my eyes, trying to sleep through the ordeal of the journey.
We arrived in the centre of Pai just after sunset, the market stalls and tiny shops glowing with coloured lights in the half darkness. The shadowy outlines of the surrounding mountains were clearly visible against the night sky as we headed up the nearest hill to our accommodation – a hillside bungalow at a circus school camp on the edge of town. Fire torches twirled in the darkness and a group of people gathered around the slack line, urging each other on whilst a tribe of puppies tumbled in the grass.
The next morning, my shoulders stiff from the unyielding ‘bed’, I sat up and threw open the wooden window shutter, gazing out in amazement. The landscape unfurled like a flag of green and gold, farm land nestling amongst lush green fields and dense vegetation, the smoky purple of the mountains a distant backdrop against the clear, pale blue sky. The scenery was utterly, breathtakingly beautiful – and I fell in love right then and there.
A mountain town popular with hippies – possibly something to do with the abundant amounts of weed growing freely all over the place – Pai retains a slow pace and a bohemian atmosphere despite the increasing numbers of tourists. There is a heavy Western influence here and although the town is touristy, it is charming in its quirky shops, yoga studios and brightly painted cafes selling health shakes and interesting salads.
The real draw, however, is in the surrounding landscape. We hired a motorbike and set off to explore Pai’s beautiful backdrop; coasting down winding dirt roads baked white in the sun, through rolling fields and mountains, at one point overtaking a lumbering painted elephant.
We snaked up an increasingly treacherous road to reach a waterfall, sliding down over the smooth boulders to splash into the pool below, and visited the hot springs to submerge ourselves below the surface of the mineral rich water. We hung out at a pool party and floated on the river in tubes tethered to the bridge below the rasta bar on the waterfront. Evenings were dedicated to street food, as we wandered the length of the market on the main street, stopping at every delicious food vendor until we were so full it was all we could do to stagger back to the bungalow and collapse.
Pai gets a bad rep due to its influx of tourists, proliferation of budget bungalows, and kitsch markets; but I loved it wholly for what it was – a beautiful mountain town and a fun diversion from bustling Chiang Mai.