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Joe and Sarah's Adventures

Chiang Mai and Pai, Thailand

THAILAND | Wednesday, 9 January 2013 | Views [8202] | Comments [2]

After yet another harrowing and sleepless overnight busride, we arrived safe and sound in our first stop in Thailand- Chiang Mai! Rather, we arrived somewhere outside of Chiang Mai. We've started to become accustomed to one of the tourist traps of Southeast Asia: instead of placing bus stations in conveniently central or downtown areas, they are almost always located somewhere on the edge or miles outside of town. This means you have to catch a taxi, moto, or other form of separate transportation to actually get where you're trying to go. Which means great business for the swarms of moto drivers who know the bus schedules, know from one look that you are a tourist, and know that they can ask for two to ten times the normal price. Not so great for us. We even experienced what is apparently a very common racket in Asia-- the hotel or bus company that you previously stayed in or booked with will sell your names and arrival times to hotels or bus companies in the town you are heading to, meaning that when you arrive, some smiling person is waiting there with a sign with your name on it! You think, "Great! I have a ride". Then you realize, "Wait a second, how the heck does this strange person know who I am and that I'm coming here?!" They badger you and follow you and insist you ride with them. You tell them no no no, I don't need a ride. They say it's way too far for you to walk (which of course it probably is but we have no way of knowing because we have no idea where we are.) If it sounds stressful, that's because it is. You have no idea if that person is legitimately just trying to be friendly and offer you a decent price so they can get some business, or if they are trying to milk you for any spare money you have and are in league with some dishonest company or hotel that will badger you into paying way too much for a crappy room or ride around town.

Transportation woes in Asia
Transportation woes in Southeast Asia- note the person actually in the moat to the left of the truck

Throughout the trip this happened at pretty much every city we came to, which, if you've been following this blog, you'll know is a lot. Many times we paid way too much to get where we needed to go. Many other times we refused rides and walked way farther than we should have with our heavy packs. (The worst example of this was when we first got to Phomn Penh late at night and instead of paying the $5 for the ride we walked about an hour not knowing if we were going the right way and sure we were going to get mugged.) This sounds ridiculous doesn't it? Why not just pay the $5 and be done with it? This is the constant balancing act you must do Asia with everything- deciding what something is worth and how much you're willing to pay. Had we known it would be a horrible 1 hour walk through scary parts of town in the dark beforehand, we probably would have just shelled out the $5 and been done with it. However as far as we knew, it was just a 5-10 minute walk away and this pushy person in front of us was trying to charge us 5 times what our guidebook said a ride should cost. Keeping everything in perspective and not getting stressed out or worked up over small amounts of money is essential in daily life as a tourist. However as budget-conscious backpackers we couldn't afford to just throw up our hands and pay whatever they asked every time either! While half of you wants to give the driver TEN dollars because he clearly needs it more than we do, the other half of you is indignant that someone is trying to blatantly rip you off just because they can. This daily battle was by far the hardest challenge of traveling through Asia.

Anyways! Back to Chiang Mai! We arrived, exhausted, around 6am and to avoid the moto driving swarms we walked over to a nearby... McDonald's! You can't imagine how excited we were to see a brand new, breakfast-serving McDonald's at this moment. We've been trying to stick to being as authentic as possible, at least when it comes to food, but we decided it would be ok, just this once! The contrast between Thailand and Laos/Cambodia is shocking as far as development goes. Paved roads, traffic signals, McDonalds, Starbucks... it immediately felt more comfortable but also lost a little bit of that exotic charm. Chiang Mai is the largest city in Northwestern Thailand and is considered the cultural capital of the country. It has a central "old city" surrounded by the remains of an old moat and medieval style wall built around 700 years ago. The moat and wall form a big square around the district. Within the walls, narrow little streets, steaming food carts, plenty of garden-filled guest houses, and more temples than you can count make you feel like you've left the city and entered an older world.

Chiang Mai Old City Wall
A restored section of the medieval wall surrounding Chiang Mai's Old City

After getting a hotel room, a nap, a shower, and our bearings, we set out to explore. We arrived on a Saturday, which we discovered was very lucky because every weekend Chiang Mai's old city is converted into one GIANT walking market. All of the main streets were converted, within hours, from bustling thoroughfares to stall-lined shopping bazaars. Since it is centrally located up in the highlands, Chiang Mai is an important center for arts, crafts, antiques and hill-tribe peoples selling cultural items. Fabrics, herbs, carvings, silverworks, paintings, musical instruments, paper, jewelry, dog outfits, and all of the usual kitchy tourist stuff are everywhere. Plus food stands galore! Everywhere we looked there were stalls selling some delicious-looking item that they'd cook or prepare for you right on the spot, from chocolate-dipped fruit, to fried cockroaches, to pad thai! And a million more things besides. We walked around snacking (not on the bugs) and looking at every booth. We watched one young man carve intricate designs into flip-flops, turning them into works of art. Another man was getting a very painful-looking bamboo tattoo right on the street in the middle of everything. We even got to watch a traditional music and dance performance on a makeshift stage that we discovered was part of a bigger cultural festival being put on in honor of the Queen's upcoming birthday! (more on the royal family below). We stopped at a pad thai vendor to have an actual sit-down meal on the sidewalk- our first pad thai in Thailand! It was amazing. And it cost $1 for a piled-up plate. Sarah almost cried with joy. We spent hours walking the market. The streets were packed with locals and tourists alike. It was one of the more enjoyable experiences of the trip and definitely one of the best markets, if not the best. 

The packed Saturday Walking Market!
The packed Chiang Mai Saturday night walking market!

Mounds of Pad Thai!
MOUNDS of delicious Pad Thai for $1!

Bugs for sale!
Other types of "food" for sale at the Night Market

As mentioned, Chiang Mai is also one of the temple capitals of Thailand, most located in this old city center. Many are historicly significant, and show off a distinctive Northern Thai architecture or blend of Thai, Burmese, and Yunnanese influences from the mix of peoples who traditionally lived in this area. Highlights include a temple from 1345 that houses the city's most revered Buddha image (Wat Phra Singh), another that is constructed entirely out of teak beams and panels so big that trees large enough to make them haven't been around for centuries (Wat Phan Tao), and a final one that is actually a chedi or stupa-like structure that dates to 1441 but was partially destroyed in either the 16th or the 18th century by either an earthquake or cannon fire (Wat Chedi Luang). What's most interesting is the fact that no one seems to know which it was!? Either way it is huge and very impressive-looking despite being partially crumbled. Some temples are attached to monasteries so orange-robed monks walk around quietly contemplating the meaning of life or whatever it is that Buddhist monks contemplate. At another, we were accosted by a whole class of school children in their adorable matching uniforms, asking us questions from little worksheets and writing down our answers for their English class homework assignment. 

A glittering temple in Chiang Mai
A glittering temple in Chiang Mai's old city

Chedi in Chiang Mai
Wat Chedi Luang- partially destroyed but no one knows how!

We are sad to admit that we got a little templed-out after a couple of days. We did a nice little self-walking tour that stopped at most of the significant or beautiful ones, but there were just too many to keep straight! (Similar to churches and cathedrals in Europe). Not that they weren't fascinating, we just couldn't cram them all in! To take a break from temple-hopping we went out of the center of town to a movie theater and saw the new Batman movie! It was very exciting to be in a country where we could actually go see an English movie in a real theater again. The popcorn was different (sweeter) but otherwise a pretty similar experience to American movie-going, besides the much cheaper ticket price. Also, we got our first taste of the significant role the Thai royal family and mainly, the King, play here: after the previews but before the movie began, a song (the "King's Anthem") began blasting and everyone in the theater stood up. Taking our cue, we stood as well and watched a long video montage of the King played on the screen. Picture after picture of him smiling, looking regal, leading parades of elephants, holding happy babies... that sort of thing. No one spoke or moved until the end of the video, we all sat down, and the movie began. Later we heard stories of Thais and even tourists/foreigners being arrested for not standing during this video- Thailand basically has a zero tolerance policy for any disrespect of the King or royal family. Anyone heard saying something negative, even in jest, about the King can be arrested or detained, including tourists. It is illegal to step on Thai money because the king's image is on all coins and paper bills. Many people wear yellow on Mondays because that's the day of the week the king was born and yellow is the color for Monday and the monarchy. The King, (His Majesty Bhumibol Adulyadej) has been on the throne for over 60 years and is currently the longest-reigning monarch worldwide. The Thai people appear to adore him and he actually has a good track record of reigning in corruption, restraining excess, and helping the people (well, most of them, hill-tribe people to the north and Muslims to the far south who are ethnic minorities are often brutally surpressed or excluded). The delicate balance of monarchy and democracy has had its hard times, most recently in 2008 when mass protests actually shut down the Bangkok airport for an extended period, but overall things seem to be working for now. The king is getting older, however, and his son does not enjoy the popular support his father has, so the future of the royal family and Thailand's government may be very different very soon.

 Example of the constant reminders of the royal family
An example of the constant reminders of the Thai King & Queen

Cultural performance in honor of the Queen's Birthday
A cultural performance in honor of the Queen's birthday!

After a few days in Chiang Mai, we hopped on a bus for a four hour ride up to the tiny mountain town of Pai. Again, lots of motion sickness and terrifying curves on this trip, but we made it in one piece, and Pai is so small that the van dropped us right in the center of town! Pai started as a sleepy little hole-in-the-wall hippie commune and honestly hasn't changed too much. It's so calm that even the dogs and cats nap in the middle of the streets, not moving even when the occasional moto zooms by. It has about 3,500 residents, mostly in the tourist business, and is very close to the border with Myanmar (Burma). The town itself is only a few streets and can be explored in a matter of minutes, but it is the surrounding area and activities that draw visitors. It is set in a gorgeous mountain valley, with terraced rice paddies, elephant paths through jungled hills, a lazy river, and little enclaves of traditional houses for farmers and their home-stay guests. Trekking, rafting, elephant rides, fishing, hot spring soaking, massages, yoga, and Thai boxing are all available here. We stayed in a quaint wooden bungalow set in a flowing garden along the river in the "center" of town for about $15/night. Besides a nasty run-in with a very loud, very large gecko one night, it was extremely peaceful and quiet. Even the gecko encounter wasn't too bad- it broke through our thatched roof, apparently while being chased by something trying to eat it, waking us up and terrifying us momentarily, but Joe was able to eventually shoo it out an open window with a broom while Sarah cowered under the mosquito netting and took pictures. We were only scared because it was a foot long and we didn't know what it was or if it was poisonous- we looked it up the next day and saw that it was a completely harmless gecko, just very large. Phew.

Sleepy little Pai
Sleepy little Pai

Midnight Monster Attack!
Midnight Gecko Attack! You can't tell by the pic, but it's HUGE!

We decided to try for another exciting elephant experience since Thailand and especially Pai is so well known for them. We had everything arranged, paid our money and met our ride the next morning to drive us out to the elephant camp. Our day-long trip was to include an elephant ride down to the river where we would bathe them and ride them around the water, then go for a bamboo rafting ride for an hour or two, have lunch, then ride back to the camp where hot springs awaited for a soak before heading home. Upon arriving at the camp we were informed we couldn't do any of this becuase suddenly the river was too flooded and dangerous. Granted, it had been pouring here everyday (we are definitely in the middle of the wet season now), but unsurprisingly everyone failed to mention this when we booked this package and paid extra money for all of this. They told us instead we could ride the elephants around on land for a little while and they'd still let us have some lunch and sit in the hot springs if we wanted. The company offered a huge variety of packages, some of which were very basic like what they were offering us now, but obviously half or one-third the price of what we'd paid. We said thanks, but that's not at all what we wanted so we'll just take a refund. They said no refunds. We said yes refunds. They said no. We said yes and said someone should have told us when we paid all of this extra money that nothing we were paying for was possible. They said no again and that their manager forbid them from giving refunds. This went on for over an hour, all the while everyone was smiling and being as polite as possible. To lose your temper, show frustration or annoyance, raise your voice, or anything of the sort in Thailand (and all of Southeast Asia) means you lose face and therefore, lose the arguement. Sarah is NOT good at this. Joe is VERY good at this. Sarah had to actually walk away from the conversation and go play with a nearby elephant to stop trembling with rage. Joe sat and smiled and waited until the woman made the necessary phone calls and agreed to refund our money. We rode back to Pai and to the office, where we spent another 20 minutes "arguing" (read: politely smiling and insisting for our refund) with the woman at the office, who tried to say she'd only give us half back. After she saw we were keeping our cool and couldn't be dissuaded, she tried to argue that we should at least pay for our ride to and from the elephant farm. Normally this would have cost about $5 and she was asking for about $15. Sigh. Joe told her if she gave us all our money back he would go outside and pay the driver the appropriate amount for the trip. After another 5 minutes we wore her down and got our money back. Joe was true to his word and paid the driver about $10 "for her trouble" and we hightailed it out of there. So several hours and $10 later, we hadn't done anything but argue with people. Very disappointing, and a perfect example of the daily challenges we described in detail above.

The flooded river at Pai
The flooded river at Pai

To turn lemons into the proverbial lemonade, what we did the rest of the day almost completely made up for our disastrous morning. Joe decided he'd like to try to go fishing so we stopped at a store to buy a little hand-held fishing spool and some hooks, then walked to our hotel to ask if we could buy some raw chicken for bait. The look the hotel attendant gave us at our strange request was unforgettable. I'm sure she thought she misunderstood us, and asked several more times what exactly it was we wanted. Joe showed her his fishing reel and explained he needed raw chicken for bait. As soon as she understood, she burst out laughing, as did another staff member nearby, and smiling, she headed off to the kitchen to grab Joe a baggie full of chicken. She didn't even charge us for it, she was so amused. In the rain, we set off in the direction of the river, but it was a raging, churning, brown torrent of logs and mud, and the current was so strong there was no possible way to fish in it. Of course we never could have rafted or rode elephants in this maelstrom! So we moved on farther out of town along a road that eventually turned into a lane that eventually turned into a muddy cow path. We saw a sign that said "waterfall" so we decided to hike to it and try to find a little pond or something along the way. This turned out to be one of the best experiences of the whole trip! Maybe because it was completely impromptu. We hiked along the muddy little path carved with ruts from motorbikes and hoofprints, past bright green rice paddies, wildflower-filled cow pastures, tumbling haystacks, traditional little houses, babbling irrigation ditches, etc. Several times we had to stray from the path to avoid cows themselves, lying in the middle of it and thereby completely blocking it. As we walked and talked, the sun came out for the first time since coming to Thailand and the colors and fresh smells were even more amplified. It was breathtaking. 

Views from our hike
Views from our hike

Views from our hike
Views from our hike

We watched as two adorable old ladies fishing in their little family pond caught a big fat fish and they beamed as we clapped and congratulated them- they were very excited to have two foreign admirers of their fishing skills and Joe became very enthusiastic about finding our own spot to fish (we felt it would be inappropriate to ask them to let us fish in their pond since they were clearly fishing for their dinner and it was their private property). We came to the woods at the base of the mountains, saw another waterfall sign, and started hiking in. About 20 minutes into the woods, the path just ended and we came upon a run-down, abandoned looking little bar instead of a waterfall. Sarah was sure it was going to be a secret hideaway/meeting spot for drug dealers and that we'd get murdered just like in the Leo DiCaprio move "The Beach". (Pai has a bit of a reputation for drug culture to complement the hippies). Joe said Sarah was being stupid and against her wishes, hopped over the locked fence to walk up to the bar and check it out. Turns out, Joe was right this time (it doesn't happen often)- it was just a bar, no drug dealers in sight. Just a kid who seemed very surprised to see anyone in the off-season and his dog with three adorable puppies. The kid offered us cold beers and we played with the puppies while talking to him about Pai and his life here. He suggested we try fishing in a nearby pond, so we paid for our beers, ordered 2 more to go, and headed down to lazily fish and enjoy the quiet of the woods.

The "bar" outside of Pai
The "bar" outside of Pai where we had a few beers and played with puppies!

Joe unfortunately had no luck with his chicken bait, but he enjoyed himself. We searched around and waded up the river a little ways, but never did find the waterfall! We were told by several different groups of tourists later that it was pretty much impossible to find (none of them had made it either) so no one knows if it actually exists or not. After a long afternoon we headed back to Pai, arriving just before dark, but just after it started pouring again, ate a delicious Thai dinner, and headed to bed. The whole experience was calming after such a stressful morning, and being totally improvised made it all the more fun. We would have missed all of this if we had gone on our elephant ride so it turned out to be for the best! And that is the fun part of backpacking SE Asia-- you never know what is going to happen to you, but if you go with the flow and look on the bright side, you will unexpectedly be rewarded with memories that will last a lifetime. 

Enjoying our unplanned hike!
Joe with his bag of chicken enjoying our unplanned hike!

Pad Thai = Deliciousness

Pad Thai = Deliciousness

Tags: chiang mai, fishing, gecko, king, night market, pai, queen, temple, thailand, trekking



Anyone who's stoked to see a McDonald's should have their traveling privledges revoked! Leaving the western society only to find the imprint of western society everywhere you go ruins the beauty of traveling and experiencing new places. Imagine, how great it will be when one day there will be McDonald's and Starbucks in every city on the globe, how great a world that will be!

  Adam Jan 8, 2017 4:10 PM


Great story and I agree with the fast food. After 7 weeks on the road I loved a whopper at Burger King!

  Mike Moran May 26, 2017 10:51 AM

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