A very long drive to Pai

August 3rd, 2008. Thailand

Our motorbike journey began around 10:30am Wednesday morning with a full tank of gas, 1 change of clothes each, our cameras and a bottle of water.  We were headed to Pai, a small tourist town in northern Thailand.

Nik had done some research and knew that the trip would be about 130km if we took the basic route.  He also noticed that there was a “shortcut” that could shave off a few kilometers.  Since he was driving, I was in the navigation seat, and I was informed about the shortcut as we were driving down highway 107 past the a road that he thought might be it.  I consulted the map, and the road we were passing could indeed take us to Pai.  I would call it more of an “alternate route” rather than a “shortcut”, but that’s just semantics.

We decide to turn off, and about 30 minutes later, I start to question where we were.  All the signs were in Thai characters, and there wasn’t a single highway number to be found.  Some of the tourist landmarks looked like they could be what I saw on the map, but I wasn’t certain.  I ask Nik to stop so I could show him where I think we are, and he says, “That’s not the shortcut I was talking about. The shortcut I was talking about is way up here.”  He points to a little bitty road that basically cuts the corner off the main road that is a good 30km north of the “shortcut” I took us to.

Rather than backtrack, we go forward, and all of the navigation is left to me.  Translation: If we screw up, it’s my fault!!  We finally see signs confirming that we are on the road I thought, now we are just looking for the next turn near a town called Mae Khao which should take us into Khun Khan National Park.  Well, we never see Mae Khao, but we do see Khun Khan NP, so we turn right.  Then we run into this sign.

Well, nothing on that sign corresponds with anything on my map, so we opt for the bigger road, which is left.  The National Park is beautiful.  We find a couple good spots to stop and take in the view.  At several points we were driving along the ridge line and all we could see was mountains to our left and to our right.  Absolutely stunning!!

A few times along the way, the road turned from basic asphalt to pavers.  We both thought this was interesting and couldn’t imagine lugging all of those heavy stone pavers up the mountains.  Then I decided that they were used for traction, because it does rain a lot and they were always on steeply sloped areas.

As we neared the exit to the Khun Khan National Park, the road quality started to deteriorate.  There were heavily potholed areas every once in a while.  Then the basic asphalt road transitioned to solid packed dirt.  We thought it was kind-of cool that we had to drive along a short dirt section.  It qualified us to be true adventurers!  Then the dirt road started to erode.  Then the eroded dirt road turned into muddy eroded dirt road. Then the muddy eroded dirt road turned into muddy eroded dirt road on a steep hill.  We still thought it was cool.  We fishtailed a few times without falling, and Nik was officially my hero.

After an hour of constant bobbing and weaving, it wasn’t cool anymore.  Nik’s entire body had to be exhausted. (I was tired too, but all I was doing was holding on)  I still wasn’t certain we were where I thought we were, and as far as I could tell, we weren’t passing any of the towns I thought we should be.  In fact, we weren’t passing ANY towns.

Finally after another hour, we passed through a small village and decided we should stop and ask someone.  We spoke to a kind Thai man about our age that didn’t read or speak English, so he couldn’t tell us where we were on our map.  Nik asked if we were going in the direction of Pai, and he nodded yes.  Then we asked him what town we were in.  He told us, but we couldn’t find it on our map.  So we started pronouncing the cities we thought we might be in, and he kept shaking his head and pointing behind him, over the mountains, not in the direction we had come from or where we were going.  Then finally, we noticed a small blue line on our map that was west of the road we thought we were on.  We tried one more time, and said “Khun Mae Tala?”, and his face lit up and he started pointing down at the ground!!  We finally knew were we were.  We were on a rural mountain road that stretched between Pang Ma-o and Wat Chan.  We weren’t exactly sure where or how we had missed our turn.  It must have been at that crazy sign.

At 3:00pm (5 hours into our 4 hour journey), we were only half-way to Pai.  By our estimation we still had 2/3 of the dirt road journey ahead of us until we reached Wat Chan.  We couldn’t turn back, so we went on.  More bobbing and weaving.

To add to the excitement, it started to rain.  We found shelter just off the road to rest and let the storm pass.  We knew that more rain was making the road worse, so we just prayed that we didn’t get stuck in the middle of no where.  The sky cleared, and we were on our way again.  By 5:00 we still weren’t to Wat Chan, and we were starting to run out of gas.  By 6:30pm we still weren’t there, and that’s when we happened upon this little village.

We found a makeshift gas station and filled up.  Nik asked the villager how far to Wat Chan?  10km.  Thank goodness!!!  If he is right, driving at 10km/hr, we should be able to make it to paved roads in about an hour.  We should be driving on paved roads just before the sunset turns to pitch black darkness!

Our friendly villager was right. 10km later, we arrived at Wat Chan right as the last bit of daylight went away. And this darkness was the darkest dark of night you’ve ever seen.  No street lights.  No houses with lights on in the distance.  No moon.  Just mountain roads with the occasional motorbike or car.  While Nik focused on avoiding potholes and making the curves and shifting gears as we went up and down the mountains,  I was cowspotting.  This was necessary because cows would randomly be sleeping in the middle of the road.

We finally arrived in Pai around 10:00pm, 10 1/2 hours after we left.  The drive was amazing.  We saw some of the most incredible views and the most terrible roads.  We never panicked.  We never lost our tempers.  We gave each other a huge hug when it was done, happy to be alive and not on the motorbike!

Thursday we spent the day wandering around Pai by foot.  Friday morning, we hit the road again at 10:30am, but we took the basic route this time.  We drove through several rain storms, and had to stop 8 or 10 times along the way to let the heavier rain pass.  We were happy to be on paved roads, and got an amazing satisfaction out of driving in the rain.  There was nothing between us and nature.  It was like being a little kid jumping in puddles.  Too bad we didn’t have our rain boots on!!!

Nik’s blog: Epic journey to Pai

This is the first time that Nik and I have truly told the same story in our blogs, and it’s pretty interesting to see how we explain the exact same events.  His also has more photos of Pai because my camera batery died early on.

One Comment


really like ur blog, love the pics and the clean format you picked for it

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