Thailand – Pai, Chiang Rai and Phu Chi Fa

This place is incredible.  I never want to leave. It’s so cheap and very easy going, so you can kind of do what you want without anyone hassling you unnecessarily. You can bring alcohol from outside into all the bars, smoke anywhere, sleep anywhere. Not to mention it’s beautiful and full of equally beautiful people. Everyone is stoned all the time, or drunk. None of the huts or places have locks on the doors. Nobody steals shit, if you lose your phone or wallet usually the next day someone will have handed it in at the bar.  You can hire a scooter for the entire day for £2. A private double bedroom (well just a wooden hut really) is about £7 and dorms can be as cheap as £3.  The entire village is the size of London’s Spitalfields market, but it has about 40 bars and restaurants!  Beers are 80p in the shop or £2 in bars, but they’re much bigger than in London (620ml bottles).  A plate of pad thai or chicken fried rice is about £1 at the many small street markets or makeshift restaurants that every local person runs from the front of their house.
On arrival I got dropped off by the bus in town centre and walked up to the hostel with some nice Swedish guy who helped me with google maps, as my phone is now broken. He seemed friendly enough but didn’t drink or smoke and so didn’t want to come chill with me at my hostel (The Famous Pai Circus Hostel), because apparently it’s a party hostel. Anyway I arrived and immediately bumped into Ed and Genie from the hostel in Bangkok! We had a few beers and swam and watched the sunset in the infinity pool overlooking the beautiful valley of Pai.  I could tell I was going to fall in love with this place from the start.
The young English and Australian guys from the Chiang Mai hostel were staying around the corner at Darling View hostel so I went to look for them but couldn’t find them, so headed into town.  Luckily Pai is tiny so I bumped into them pretty quickly.  They told me they were planning to do a tour tomorrow for £12 that visits most of the popular local attractions, so I decided to join them.  We walked back to their hostel, played some pool and then headed back to the circus hostel to watch the fire dancing.  I drank a load of rum and coke (thanks Ed!) and beers and then I think we all headed into town to an after hours bar called Don’t Cry.  Or possibly Boom Bar.  It’s really hard to keep track of what’s going on without a working phone.  Either way we were out somewhere until fairly late.
The next day I was woken very early by an annoying rooster right next to my hostel dorm, which was essentially just a straw hut so had no sound insulation.  However I had to meet the others at 9am anyway to get down to town and have breakfast before our tour.  We had a proper Full English breakfast together at a small cafe and then all piled into the back of a tuk-tuk and headed off.
Our first stop was the Pai viewpoint, but I was really tired still from lack of sleep and the drive was very long and uncomfortable, so when we reached it I went straight to a nearby coffee van to get a double espresso.  Then when I turned around everyone was gone!  I noticed a small path leading up a hill with a sign to the ‘highest viewpoint’ so assumed they had all gone there.  I started walking up quickly to catch them but it just seemed deserted and I couldn’t see anyone ahead. It was getting more and more eerie and then as I turned a corner I was confronted by a man wielding two machete’s and sharpening them on each other.  I got a fright but didn’t want to turn and run as it seemed rude, so I kept walking towards him bravely.  Luckily he smiled and nodded in the most unthreatening way, so I continued past.  Then I noticed all the cut bamboo he had been chopping down.  However, I still didn’t see anybody up ahead so I turned back.  I eventually found the others back at the bottom all just behind the coffee shop, enjoying the actual viewpoint.
For some obscure reason there is a ridiculously dangerous metal ferris wheel type thing built right up there at the viewpoint, with small rickety seats controlled only be the weight of who is sitting on it. This makes it very difficult to get four people on, and incredibly dangerous to climb off, as the weight change sends the remaining three into an uncontrolled spin.  So of course we all climbed on and spent a few minutes risking our lives and limbs trying to get it spinning.  Unfortunately we didn’t have a good distributed weight ratio so the only spinning we managed to do was when one person got off, sending the others flying.  It was scarier than all the crazy shit we did at the waterpark in Chiang Mai. Good fun!
Then we continued to stop number two, the Lod Cave.  The Lod Cave consists of an extensive underground sequence of caves with a river running through it.  They have setup a tour run by the local people who take you through the cave on a series of walking paths over precarious bamboo bridges and then across the underground river on long thin bamboo rafts, lit only by kerosene lamps that they carry along.  An easy place to get lost and die a damp, 16174470_10158225714925220_3990808050471342702_ndark death if you wander away from the group!  We explored the many massive large caverns and rock formations created by stalactites and stalagmites, and then got on the rickety bamboo rafts and went to check out the deeper dark depths of the place.  It’s also home to a multitude of bats, snakes and various insects but the fearless locals make it all seem relatively safe. Deep within the last cave are centuries old wooden coffins that the ancient Thai people would send there dead down the river in.  Morbidly fascinating.
Next were the hot springs, a somewhat calmer attraction that involves three man-made rock pools in a river heated by the natural springs that abound in this area.  We relaxed for an hour here and inexplicably spent most of the time searching for coins on the riverbed after one of the group found a 5 baht coin.  The last stop was the Pai Canyon, the most incredible rock formation I’ve ever seen.  It involves huge veins of hard rock around which the softer soil has eroded away, leaving a maze of very high thin ridges to walk along.  Super dangerous and something that would never be open to the public in health-and-safety-obsessed Europe.  Some parts were only inches wide with hundred 16142281_10158220996380220_3576038685444736075_nfeet drops on either side.  Obviously I found it necessary to run along these while filming and not concentrating particularly hard.  From one of the many vantage points we sat and watched the sunset over the beautiful Pai valley, and then eventually headed back into town.  I can’t remember what we did that night, there was supposed to be a beer pong competition at my hostel, but I think we headed out to town, probably to Boom Bar or Yellow Sun.
The next day I bumped into two other friends I had met at the waterpark in Pai, and we went to a bar to get ‘special’ happy shakes.  The didn’t have any available at the time but we put in an order for later that night and then got some drinks and played ping pong.  Then Bruna, the Brazilian girl from the lock-in bar in Chiang Mai, messaged me to say she had arrived in Pai and was at the circus hostel so I headed back and chilled in the pool with her and some of her friends for the afternoon.  That night was another fire show, so we took the special shakes and enjoyed the amazing lightening effects it all created. I felt like I was on a beach in Brazil because of all the palm trees around, and because earlier we had been discussing a Brazilian psy-trance party, Universo Paralello.  At some point we ended up at Don’t Cry again, but I was pretty tired and wasted by then so I headed back to bed early… ish.
I awoke the next morning to find everyone at the hostel setting up for yoga, so I decided to join in even though I’m not usually a fan.  It worked a charm on getting rid of the hangover though! I spent the rest of the morning practicing slackline and after that met up with Tim, Chris, Ali, Holly, Fabio and Ani from the Chiang Mai hostel – we all hired scooters and drove off to find a waterfall to swim in.  It was freezing cold and shrouded from the sun by trees and towering cliffs, but most of us braved it and dived in.  After the initial shock it was actually quite nice, and I felt like I was buzzing after getting out.  I guess it really gets the blood flowing!
Then we went to the canyon again as some of them had not seen it yet, and I found some new places I hadn’t seen before.  Afterwards we just headed back to Circus hostel to swim and get all the canyon dust off ourselves and then to a cheap bar called Almost Famous that has half price cocktails for only 60 baht (£1.50)!  Once that closed, me and Tim headed over to Don’t Cry, the only bar open after 12.  As we got to the door we met a French girl named Amy who had just arrived in Pai and was finishing her drink outside.  We chatted and had a few drinks and I told her about the yoga every morning at my hostel, so we connected on facebook and made plans to meet at 9am the next day for yoga.
Annoyingly the one day they don’t do yoga is Thursday and I didn’t know, so sadly Amy came all the way for nothing.  But at least she came, and since she was there we decided to go meet the others and have breakfast.  As usual in Thailand the food took really long and it was almost midday by the time we were done.  Then it was time for the kiwi girl Emily to leave back to New Zealand, Tim was tired and wanted to sleep and the others didn’t seem up for doing much, so me and Amy took my scooter and decided to go explore.
First we visited the World War 2 memorial bridge, which turned out to be really lame.  It’s quite small and old and right next to a big highway bridge with lots of traffic, so not the charming bridge they make it out to be in promotional photos.  16387884_10158274553305220_4616688809976260231_nThen we went to the Canyon which is usually a trip for sunset but we decided it would be good to go now and beat the crowds.  The canyon’s crazy precipices and thin walkways usually scare most people, but Amy had no fear and by following her I discovered some of the most dangerous bits of the canyon that I had yet to see even though this was my third visit.  As we were leaving we bumped into some others from my hostel who were going to a waterfall and invited us to join.  We quickly headed back to Amy’s hostel to get her bikini and then found the waterfall.
Unfortunately this time of year the farmers re-route a lot of the water to irrigate the rice paddies, so there was no water, just some green stagnant pools.  Needless to say we didn’t stay long and decided watching sunset from the Circus hostel infinity pool was probably a better idea, which it most certainly was.  We practiced slackline and hula-hoop for a bit (as you do at a circus hostel) and then headed into town to drop off the scooter and book white water rafting for tomorrow.  After grabbing some cheap £1 dinner at Pai’s best restaurant with no name, Amy headed back to her hostel to get to bed early so we could be up at 6:30 for the rafting.  I bumped into Ali and Holly on the way back to my hostel and we had some drinks in town at Banana Bar before heading to bed.
16299555_10158250258715220_1884359105317134772_nIn the morning I met Amy and the two other rafters on our trip for breakfast at 7am, then we all piled into a truck for a 2 and half hour uncomfortable ride to the river for rafting.  Being off-season the water was low so we didn’t encounter any huge rapids, but it was a really awesome day out in beautiful untouched nature close to the border with Burma.  We floated down the river, saw some buffalo and monkeys, swam and enjoyed some hot mud treatment at a small hot spring on the riverside. There were a few fairly decent rapids, but really the best part of the trip was just floating serenely down the river amongst the amazing natural rainforest.  16298878_10158250250930220_5074771363013308020_nLunch was provided as the traditional style vegetable fried rice wrapped in banana leaves, which we ate on the boat along with watermelon and clementines.
The hot spring was really just a trickle of water from where a small hot spring joined the river, and it was boiling hot – so hot you could barely touch it.  But it heated up the mud in a section on the riverbank, and Amy started throwing mud on me so I threw some back at her and soon we were bother covered.  It was quite nice though rubbing it over your body and apparently this is something people do, especially when they want to be children again.  We swam for a bit to get clean and continued on down the river through a few more rapids and a lovely calm area where we could swim again.  At the end of the day we reached a small resort where we took the boats out of the river, all had a shower and then piled back into the cars to head home.
My hostel was fully booked that evening so after some more super cheap food at the place across from Circus Hostel I grabbed my stuff and moved to Paizen River Jam hostel where Amy was staying as it was a much more chilled vibe after four days at the crazy Circus Hostel.  We didn’t party that night because after the long day both of us just wanted to get some sleep.  Amy does geo-caching, a kind of world wide treasure hunt, where you use an app on your phone to find small boxes or tubes that people have hidden around the world.  Then you open the box and add your name to a slip of paper inside and re-hide it for the next person.  So before heading to bed we went in 16298919_10158269668265220_5003526279976296831_nsearch of the only two geo-caches that were hidden in Pai, and found both!
The next day there was a festival called Norwegian Wood in the afternoon.  I did some much needed clothes shopping in the morning and bought a hoodie, two shirts and two pairs of pants for about £10!  I met the rest of our small crew around 2pm at Sabai Gardens where they were all staying. We walked down to the Sunset Bar first for a few drinks and then we headed off on quite a long walk to where the festival was.  It was quite strange, not the usual festival vibe we expected – very chilled and very local, almost all Thai people.  At first we were the only ones there, and didn’t want to spend a lot of money on beers at the bar so kept walking down the road to a little shop selling them at half the price and then sneaking them in.
As the night progressed the festival got busier and the music got weirder and weirder, with some really strange dramatic performances by this women dressed all in white and dancing like Bjork.  We had some food and really nice traditional Thai coffee and then eventually thought it might be time to head into town and find somewhere more normal to party. The others wanted more food but Amy and I weren’t hungry so we went in search of Chinese new years celebrations.  Unfortunately we soon discovered we were a day late for Chinese new year and couldn’t find the others again so we just went to Boom Bar, which was playing really good music and we had a great time drinking and dancing there until midnight.
I spent the following morning writing my blog and just melting into a hammock for hours at the Paizen hostel because it’s so chilled.  The others had mentioned heading to the White Buddha at some point so I went over to Sabai Gardens in the afternoon to meet them.  We were waiting for Tim who had gone to buy underwear because he burnt all his clothes in a fit of bedbug fear, so we played a few rounds of cards and then got a message from Tim that he was already heading to the White Buddha so we went to meet him. 16298692_10158255206265220_545769760174422916_n The White Buddha is a new attraction so unfortunately it was still being built and had some scaffolding that spoilt it a bit, but still we watched a lovely sunset from up on the high hill it’s on and then I heard from someone there that there is a festival just around the corner playing drum & bass and electro music.
We tried to find it for awhile but everyone was so hungry that we gave up quickly and went for food instead. This was a pity because Amy was there and said it was amazing but couldn’t get hold of me because I didn’t have a phone!  When I got back to the hostel and checked my laptop I got her message to say she was there and so headed off to find it, but it was miles away and I walked for ages without getting a lift.  By the time I got there the festival had ended, but we chilled by the fireplace anyway and drank some local wine out of traditional bamboo cups before heading back on Amy’s rental scooter.  I think it was quite late by then so we just went to bed, as we had plans to be up early and hitch hike to Chiang Rai in the morning.
After making some signs for hitching we said cheers to Tim and headed off for the highway to hitch back to Chiang Mai and then on to Chiang Rai.  Literally within 5 minutes someone picked us up and we had a lovely comfortable ride to Chiang Mai in the back of a small pickup truck.  It was much nicer than a hot, enclosed bus – and free!  This was the start of my love affair with hitch hiking!  The guy dropped us on an odd street on the outskirts of Chiang Mai so we had to walk for a bit to get to the freeway that led to Chiang Rai.  Luckily Amy persuaded a small delivery truck packed full of what seemed like an 16427696_10158269614285220_7214079013642045693_nentire family to let us ride in the back for a few kilometres to the freeway.  Then we grabbed some water, got some good luck blessings from a local man and within 10 minutes had a ride to Chiang Rai!  Amazing!  I couldn’t believe how easy it is hitching, and so much more fun and comfortable than taking buses or trains.
Upon arrival in Chiang Rai we didn’t have any planned accommodation, so just walked around asking places.  Most places on the main tourist street were fully booked unfortunately, but we eventually found one called Shaman Guesthouse down a quiet side street that had a private double room for 300 baht, and the owner was French so him and Amy got on well and chatted a bit. For dinner we went to this really cool cheap street food place with a view of this insane clock tower that plays music and changes colours for a few minutes every hour.  There isn’t much nightlife or anything like that in Chiang Rai so we just played a few games of pool in Chicken Bar (every bar is named after an animal for some reason) and then got to bed early so we could be up early and get to the white temple before all the tourists!
This didn’t work out as well as we hoped – apparently the tour company buses have the same idea and even though we were up and out early it was already packed by 8am when we arrived!  So we ditched that plan and decided to try again the next day.  We drove up the road a bit to look for the Khun Kong waterfall, and after a short half hour hike through the beautiful jungle we found it.  It was still early though so it was freezing cold, but we were brave and went for a swim anyway. I wanted to skinny dip but Amy was scared people might come and public nudity is not well received in this part of the world, so we just swam around a bit and went behind the waterfall into a little cave like place and climbed up onto the rocks.  16387854_10158269618770220_1936253460528816147_nAfter about half an hour of swimming it was getting too cold, so we got out and shivered while trying to dry ourselves and get dressed.  On the hike back through the jungle we took a different route along these amazing bamboo bridges that are really well designed and incredibly strong.  Bamboo is such a useful material for building things, and the Thai people use it in some ingenious ways.
We had heard about a “beach” somewhere in Chiang Rai, so back on the scooter we googled it and headed off to find it.  On the way we stopped and got some really cheap lunch at a tiny little place that had no English menus, but we somehow managed to communicate ‘vegetable fried rice’.  You could tell the locals thought it was quite strange that ‘farangs’ were in their restaurant.  Unfortunately the first beach we found was really crap, so we headed off to find another one that looked a bit better.  This one was the real deal – it even had a sign saying “Chiang Rai Beach” very proudly.  They use the word ‘beach’ a bit loosely though as it was really just a grassy riverbank, but it was still nice and sunny so after buying some beers, snacks and a pink egg (don’t ask) we lay down and suntanned a bit, and then I taught Amy how to skim stones because apparently French kids don’t learn this while growing up in Paris.
As evening descended we scootered back to the hostel and then went looking for the night bazaar which we were told is really cool.  16388255_10158269619775220_6798673815345269865_nAfter walking around looking at all the cheap knock-off clothes and eating watermelon we found this cool little square with loads of tables, a live music stage and food stalls surrounding it.  Some traditional Chinese dancers came on and two young local guys played guitar and violin while we ate this strange hot and spicy vegetable soup that you cook yourself at the table in a clay pot.  The whole experience was great and it was the most genuinely traditional local type thing I had done so far on the trip.
At 5AM we were up and back off on the scooter to the White Temple.  It was pitch black and freezing (well, it was about 15 degrees which is freezing for Thailand) and we arrived at about 6am. Luckily one little coffee shop was open so we had some coffee and Chinese steamed buns while awaiting the sunrise.  As the sun rose more and more people started arriving with presumably the same idea as us, but luckily no tourist buses… yet.16473249_10158269576175220_576118562316320323_n  Our mission succeeded and we got loads of really good pics of the temple in varying degrees of light, and even though a bus did arrive at 8am, we still managed to get in first and get some pictures inside without loads of people.  The inside of the temple is so weird, because it’s decorated at the back with all these cartoons and characters from western culture, like Harry Potter and Terminator.  It’s supposed to depict how these things are bad and then as you move toward the front of the temple where Buddha is it depicts serene, heavenly type scenes.  Bizarre.
Amy wanted to leave at lunch time to go to Phu Chi Fa, and she wanted to go alone because it was something special to her, so after the temple we went back to the hostel to pack and get her stuff and then had a quick lunch next to the bus stop before she left.
I did some much needed washing and then rode around on the scooter looking for somewhere to buy a new phone.  I found a huge western-type strip mall which had lots of electronics shops and I found some nice cheap phones, but didn’t have enough cash on me to buy them then and didn’t have any cards either.  I thought maybe I’ll go back the next day but never did.  The rest of the afternoon I spent looking for hot springs, but instead found the Goddess of Chiang Rai – the hugest Buddha statue I’ve ever seen!  Seriously, this thing is like 10 stories high.  I was running low on petrol by this point so I headed back, dropped off the scooter and then just went to chill in the hostel.  Just after dark I heard some music coming from nearby so I went to investigate.  I walked around for an hour but couldn’t locate the source of the music, so gave up and just walked back to the main street where the bars were.  I found a really strange bar where a big hen party or something was going on, which is very uncommon for Chiang Rai, so I had a drink out there for a bit while laughing at everyone dancing. A bit later I was turned away at the next bar because apparently I was too drunk, so I just went home and slept.
The next day I moved from the guesthouse to Ti’Amo hostel which was a bit cheaper for a dorm bed than the private room on my own.  Amy was coming back from Phu Chi Fa to get a bus from Chiang Rai to Chiang Mai, so I met her for lunch after buying a very cheap new phone from 7-11.  We had lunch and said some sad goodbyes as she hitched off toward the south bus station.  After she left I headed back to the hostel and just chilled as I didn’t really have anything to do.  I got chatting to a Slovenian guy who seemed really nice so we went and played some pool together.  He was an investment banker or something so we spoke a lot about all the financial problems in Europe.
The following day I borrowed a free bike from the hostel and cycled to the blue temple, which was disappointing but luckily I saw a nice bike shop nearby with 5000 baht bikes.  I kind of wanted to buy one to join Tim and his friends on their bike tour to Myanmar, but I knew I also had a whole bunch of other plans lined up, like Laos and Vietnam.  Instead I ended up getting a very cheap local bus to Theong and then hitch hiked from there to Phu Chi Fa.  I had to get 3 lifts, one with a guy who worked for the department of corrections, one on a scooter, and another with a wealthy couple from Bangkok.  I arrived towards evening, checked into a tent and then got a beer and watched the sunset at a nearby restaurant.
I could barely sleep that night because a cat was dying outside my tent, but I still managed to wake up at 5am to go watch the sunrise over the surreal Phu Chi Fa valley, high above the clouds and very moody and beautiful.  I didn’t want to spend more money getting a lift up the mountain in the morning like most people do, so I just hiked up in the pitch black with all my stuff. 16427597_10158283901180220_4920142288172599628_n It was a pretty sharp incline and an intense hike through thick jungle, so even though it was freezing cold I was covered in sweat by the time I reached the top.  It was really nice being in nature alone during the hike up, but once I got to the top it was crowded with thousands of people.  So much for it’s tagline as “the most beautiful place you’ve never heard of”.  Apparently a few other people got the memo.
To avoid the crowds and constant chattering I went past the ‘danger’ fence, found a comfy spot on the edge of a cliff and put my headphones in.  The sunrise at Phu Chi Fa is too amazing to try describe in words, so I’ll just say that if it’s the last thing you do before you die, go see it.  It’s nothing less than FREAKIN’ INCREDIBLE.  My heart was bursting out of my chest in awe and I was listening to power ballads as usual, so all in all it was a fairly emotional experience.
After hiking back down I got some breakfast at a small restaurant and then hit the road again to start hitching to Chiang Kong.  A lovely couple from Bangkok picked me up after only a few minutes and we started the drive towards Theong.  Along the way I got chatting to the girl because she spoke English quite well but her partner didn’t, and she was fascinated to hear about my trip and the fact that I quit my job and left my life behind to come here.  As we neared Theong she decided they would change their plans and take me all the way to Chiang Kong as they wanted to explore some of the golden triangle area near there.  How awesome!  She also added me on Instagram and said I should message her when back in Bangkok.
They dropped me in Chiang Kong town centre because they thought that’s where the Visa place was, but it was actually about 10 km’s back at the new “Friendship bridge”, so I started hitching again and some nice guys took me all the way to the immigration office at the bridge.  I exchanged a few thousand baht for dollars as apparently that’s what they prefer when paying for the Laos visa, and then got a bus across the bridge to the Laos immigration gate.  The process was fairly quick and easy and then I was in Laos.

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