If you backpack through Thailand for any considerable amount of time talking to other travellers, you quickly learn of two things:
1. Pai is a small town North of Chiang Mai that you had likely never heard of before.
2. Pai is great, and you have to go to Pai. “I loved Pai!” They say. “I met people who went for merely days and ended up staying for months” say their friends. “I will name my kid Pai!” Yet more chime in.
Okay, so we decided we would go to Pai.
The next challenge for the backpacker who wishes to follow this rite of passage, is in deciding exactly how to get there. When you start Googling around you find that this is something many people have pondered before you, and essentially boils down to:
1. Take the bus (read minivan). You’ve been taking them everywhere else so far anyway and have never had any problems, but you learn that this particular journey is very windy, the drivers reckless and the guy next to you that forgot his travel sickness pills might throw up on your last pair of passably ‘clean’ trousers. You ponder option #2 instead.
2. Fly. It’s more expensive, but fast, as Pai even has it’s own little airport. It could be fun, but seems a little extravagant. You’re an environmentally conscious backpacker, after all. Maybe option #3.
3. Rent a motorbike and drive yourself. People who have done it are telling you the drive is amazing. You don’t doubt it, but are slightly perturbed by the recent addition of bandages to their daily attire. You search around and find horror stories of pot-holes, accidents and aggressive drivers. There’s also the issue of how to get your bags there with you, as you don’t particularly like the idea of taking them along for the ride.
We spent a few days in Chiang Mai so had some time to think about it, and along the way heard of one company, AYA Service, that has offices both there and in Pai, which means they can offer a unique selling point: one way bike rental, with your bags able to go separately on a minivan. Great, that swung it so we decided to take a chance and drive.
Getting our bikes… or not
It was tricky to find any concrete information about how exactly to arrange everything with AYA Service, and their office in Chiang Mai is a little way out of town so you can’t just walk in and ask them easily. The hostel we were staying in just told us we should come down early in the morning, at 7AM, and he would call them for us to reserve some bikes. OK, great!
I went down at 7.20AM the next morning… Bummer, no bikes left! I asked if you could reserve in advance, but he said you can’t because they didn’t know how many bikes they would have. It seemed pretty odd and we were a bit hesitant to try again with such vague information, but by this point we were really looking forward to the drive so decided we would and waited one more day in Chiang Mai; worst case AYA also operate minivans so we could take one as Plan B.
Next morning we decided to just head straight to their office, and early. After a 15 minute ride in a tuk-tuk we were waiting outside their office at 6.40AM (they open at 7AM). This turned out to be a wise move! When the office opened we walked in and asked for 3 bikes after two guys already ahead of us. The woman had a small basket of keys, and after taking ours out there were only three left!
By this point we had also heard that both the service, and the quality of bikes, is very hit and miss. Basically, you take what you get. Don’t go in expecting to be able to have any real choice or special requests. We were able to get a half decent Honda Click 125cc bike, and then slim pickings of two questionable looking offerings. I mean, they had two wheels, so were definitely of the bike family.
When you hire a bike, check before you ride that you have working brakes, lights, horn, indicators etc. Consider it a luxury if you have a working fuel gauge. This applies all round SE Asia.
Don’t be the guy who found out his brakes didn’t work properly halfway to the hairpin, or the girl riding tandem with her boyfriend that burned the outside of her leg because of a missing exhaust guard (both stories we have heard).
There were actually a few more bikes around it seemed, and a few that were in much better shape. Unfortunately, they didn’t have the key for them. You quickly learn that it is what it is and are thankful there is anything left with a motor attached to it. Two girls who came just after us were looking like they would only have one small scooter between them, until at the last minute another bike turned up. And then, you realise why they never know how many bikes they have and you can’t reserve in advance.
AYA charges a ‘fee’ for returning a bike a day late, which is just the daily rate anyway. If you want to keep the bike longer, you don’t need to tell them, you just keep it. As a result, they only have a trickle of bikes as and when people drive them back from Pai, and that direction is not nearly as popular.
For the 125cc bike we paid THB 200 for a days rental, THB 40 for damage waiver insurance (the only place I’ve seen that offers this so far), THB 300 for the one-way carriage of our bag, plus TBH 100 deposit for a helmet.
All told, the actual cost to us was TBH 540 (~£12.50), and then every subsequent day we kept the bike would be TBH 200 (~£4.60). The other bikes were 115cc and TBH 40 less per day.
So, it’s not breaking the bank. We just hoped our bikes wouldn’t break either!
Around 7.30AM we had left our bags in the office (somewhat reassuringly they gave us a tag to put round it), picked a ‘helmet’ and set off… to the gas station.
Never expect anything you rent to already have fuel. In fact, be surprised if you have anything other than flashing empty. I’m pretty sure they must syphon out any remaining when a bike is dropped off, for a bit of extra profit.
Fortunately fuel is pretty cheap, and after we had full tanks (THB 100), we were on the road.
The first part of the drive is mostly a flat highway, first three then two lanes of traffic each way. Most of the locals on bikes keep to the very left of the road, which resembles a hard shoulder, and let the trucks pass by them. We did the same.
Route 1095, once you are on it, is direct to Pai. A beautiful mountain road riddled with 762 turns through 148km of picturesque forests, spectacular views, and hopefully sunshine.
Bua Thong Waterfall
Before reaching the start of the iconic road, we took a small detour to spend some time at Bua Thong Waterfall. I didn’t know too much about it, but it is now one of my favourite places in Thailand.
When we arrived and parked up there wasn’t a single other person in the car park, and we weren’t sure what to expect. But walking a little towards the sound of the water, we were greeted with the top of the beautiful waterfall gazing out over a valley of trees. There are stairs down to the bottom past a few different levels (we did have to step over a snake at one point), but the real fun is had in climbing back up again, up the waterfall itself. There is a guide rope to help you, but the rock is satisfyingly easy to climb; there are just a few places, mainly where it plateaus, that are a little slippery. The rest has good grip, hence the nickname ‘Sticky Waterfall’.
We had a great time climbing up, down, and back up again. Stopping half way and leaning against the rock, inside the flow of the water, all the sounds of the surroundings muffle into your ears. And at the top, we just sat in the cool water and looked out over the view.
We had arrived at around 10AM and had the whole place to ourselves. This is one of the nicest advantages of making your own way, you can explore places before all the throngs of the tour buses and trigger happpy camera brigade; you’ll come away with your own experiences, instead of a shared manufactured one. And the best part, it was free.
762 Turns of fun
We left the waterfall as the tuk-tuks were pulling into the car park and made our way to join up with the start of route 1095. At this point I was still a little nervous; my prior biking experience was only a few sporadic rentals here and there, and the reports of the pot-holes and sketchy road conditions were numerous.
As we got progressively further into the road I waited for the surface to deteriorate, the traffic to pick up, and the fearing for my life around each turn to start. This never happened. It turns out that the road was completely redone sometime last year, making it wider and smoothly tarmacked the whole way round.
What awaited us around every turn was in fact a dream drive, winding through and up the landscape. At many points we were the only people on the road, and could just stop and admire the view.
Towards the end of the drive the hairpins start coming thick and fast. For 45 minutes or so we were driving together meandering through the day, occasionally pulling the throttle to overtake each other and have a turn up front.
Because of our long stop-over at the waterfall and our leisurely breaks, we ended up arriving in Pai just before sunset after a final push chasing the sunlight down through the trees.
Driving at speed in the dark, otherwise known as the projectile army of bugs smashing into your face. Seriously, without a visor a bug hitting you head on at 80km/h doesn’t stand a chance, and leaves a momentary throb to prove it.
After checking into our hostel we drove to the AYA Service office in Pai. Some bright spark decided it was a good idea to put this the majority of the way down a mostly pedestrianised market street, so we had some fun weaving through the crowds perusing their buckles and sipping their tea out of sugar canes, to find our bags just sitting patiently waiting for us. Result!
Our drive to Pai was great fun and a highlight of our trip so far, and everyone we spoke to who had also done it said the same. However, although the road has been redone, people still have accidents. During our ride we saw two, one a 4×4 that had veered off the edge into a ditch, and a couple who were riding together toppled their bike while taking an upward bend too slowly. While in Pai we saw many people with bandages and battle scars on some part of their body; one morning in our hostel, within 20 minutes of each other two guys were getting first aid, one who had taken off the top layer of skin down one side of his body leaving some serious bloodened skin.
It seems we were either lucky, or just careful.
Want to bike to the same route? Some tips:
- If you want to go with AYA, get there early, before they open in the morning. Otherwise there are numerous other places you can hire a bike if you plan on driving back to Chiang Mai to drop it off also
- Get the International Driving Permit. It cost us £5.50 from the Post Office and took us 5 minutes. We were stopped twice by the police within 10 minutes in Chiang Mai (2 minutes into Abi’s first drive!), and without it would have had an easily avoidable fine
- Drive within your limits. It’s a really enjoyable drive, but less so if you fall off. The surface is decent and there are signs for all of the tightest bends
- Check your bike before taking it, and take photos of any pre-existing damage
- Have a full tank of fuel before you set off. It’s a 4-5 hour drive and some areas are a bit gas-dry
We kept the bikes the whole time we were in Pai, it’s a great place to drive around.
Oh, and I love Pai!