Highlights of Pai

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As soon as I exited the “white knuckle of terror” I was offered a typical tour of Pai for the following day which I obliged, for 500 baht (which translates to $20) a full day excursion hitting all of the main attractions that surround this quaint little town.  A few trucks with open backs pulled up to my hotel and took other guests, mine was about 15 minutes late, I put on my patient panties and continued readying a good book.  When my ride arrived, I just smiled.  A grey air-conditioned van with comfortable seating!  A win!  A settled into my seat and noticed that every other seat was taken including two in the front, we were a full house.  In the mix we had Germans, Australians, Iranians, Swedes, and of course the lone Canadian.  As the course of the day unfolded we would get to know each other and converse about our travels.  I would be sat next to the mother and daughter of a  lovely family with two children, the girl was about 12 and she was delightful.  Often looking over at me and smiling.  I had a nut mix with me and every once in a while I would pull it out to grab and handful of my delightful mix and I would see her, out of the corner of my eye, looking at me.  I offered her the bag and she dove in with both hands scouring for the bit of chocolate.  I had put a few carefully chosen pieces into the mix to allow myself a treat but by the end of the trip she would ask for more chocolate until there was none left.  I enjoyed these moments with her being able to offer her something that made her smile.  The family became a point of interest for me as I observed them along the way, both parents relaxed and calm with their very well-behaved children until something happened and the tears fell and the stories of a tragedy unfolded.  A dispute between her and her little brother, the parents would handle this with the same ease and comfort of every other moment.  I smiled inside as I watched this functional family tenderly take care of one another.  Both parents always touching, hugging and kissing their these two precious souls!

The road was no different from the road I took to from Chaing Mai to Pai, 762 curves to be exact, sharp “S” curves all the way.

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This “highlight tour” was to be no different although the striking difference was the driver and the slow, calm way he navigated the sharp corners considering the precious cargo he was carrying.

Our first stop after 75 minutes of driving would be Kiu lom view point, the highest point of route 1095 from Pai to Mae Hon Son offering a beautiful view of the mountains and valleys below.

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It didn’t boast spectacular to me as it was not unlike something I had seen before but I certainly felt something on the cellular level; that old familiar feeling of being home and surrounded by nature. The mountains remind me of a place far away, a place I call home and I immediately had this sense of comfort standing there gazing at the forest and mountains in the distance.  I have come to know that nature is part of who I am, it is part of my being, it is part of my nurturing, it is part of my self-care and it is part of who makes me who I am.  Each and every time I am transported from anything city like to anything nature like I instantly feel this sense of calm, this sense of being home, this sense of myself.

There was a swing at the rest stop that was irresistible for the younger 20 somethings to play on, I couldn’t help capture this image they were having so much fun, shrieking like little children.

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And of course starving, flea infested dogs roaming around.  I found a cracker on a stair I was climbing and threw it down for him to gobble up.

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After a 45 minute stop we would all pile back into the van for the next leg of this excursion to the Tham Lot Cave.  Travelling towards Mae Hong Son which only means one thing, more twists and turns as we navigated at least 100 of the 1,682 curves between the two cities.  I found myself sinking into deep in thought about my life, the past, the present and the future.  Memories surfacing of my life as a mother which in turn brought me to the life of my children recalling  some of the milestones.   My mind would take me into the future as I pondered an upcoming wedding and the speech that I would give at the blessed event!  Deep in thought, the windy curves of the road were simply the windy curves of the road.  Upon arrival we would disembark and be told to gather in groups of three, which make it easy for me because everyone is a “two”, add the “one” and you have a “three”.  I would be put in a group with a young couple, a Brit and a German.  I would introduce myself and we would exchange our countries or origin which is always the first question from there the journey would be without conversation.  Our guide was a local from the tribe and she would lead us into the cave with her lantern in hand, speaking no english, she would point out things that she had been trained to say in english but other than that she could not answer any of the questions that were bubbling up in my mind as we journeyed along.

Tham Lod is more than 1.5 kilometres long, running to a height of 50 metres, from floor to ceiling.  The Lang river flows through more than a third of the cave’s length, which means the opportunity to float through on bamboo rafts.  Floating along in the darkness, listening to and smelling the bats overhead was quite the experience. It took more than a few minutes to let the stench fill my nostrils to the point that it didn’t occupy my mind but just like the curves in the road, the smell, after a time, just becomes a smell.

Tham Lod Cave is a natural limestone cave system with geologic formations sprouting from the floor and ceiling, and forming flowstone columns where stalactites and stalagmites grew together.  Inside it’s walls are covered with massive formations and columns over 20 meters high.  The cave houses bats, snakes, spiders, swifts and of course tourists.   There are thousand upon thousands of bats all huddled together on the roofs of the caves, chills ran through my spine as I glanced up to see them all above me.

In sections of the cave the chances of shit dropping on your head were about 99.9% which can only mean one thing.  I was not lucky enough to be in the 0.1%.  I simply reminded myself that having something shit on your head is good luck, right?

There are many steps to climb up to get a really good view of the stalagmites & stalactites. When progressing deeper into the cave, there is no light whatsoever, so like the sign says, you must have a good guide with a decent burning torch.  Being in the darkness makes the exploration a mysterious, ghostly adventure for the most part.  My tour guide was on the clock similar to the indy driver and the two people in my group took up the positions directly behind her leaving me tailing the group as number four.  A few times with the guide out front, the two in the middle and me bringing up the rear left me on a few occasions completely losing sight of my group as I stopped continuously to gaze and take pictures, I was falling behind. I would find myself in complete darkness as I carefully set on foot down after the other venturing forward into the darkness.  The terrain in the cave ranges from rocky, sandy, planks nailed together, uphill, downhill, jagged formations jutting out from the walls, the ceiling and the floor.  Climbing up and down stairs would form an integral part of this excursion, stairs that were no more than 4 inches wide and very close together, turning sideways was the only way to navigate.  At one point I yelled out “excuse me, I can’t see”, the guide stopped, turned around and waited for me to catch up.  I felt like an old woman for the one of the first times in my life and she began treating me like one from that point forward taking my arm as we got on and off of the raft and thankfully turning to make sure I was part of the group.

The whole journey would take about two hours walking continuously only stopping momentarily while the guide pointed out some of the main attractions, EGO, Buddha, crocodile, coffin, painting and the real live snake.

I enjoyed the tour but if I had to make any comments I would have wanted it to be slower so I could just stand mesmerized at what I was seeing all around me.  It strikes me that a couple of my more recent posts have come to include a portion of me wanting to “slow down”.  I have found myself just wanting to stop and be in the moment longer than the moment, to gaze, to stare, to linger in what is unfolding in front of me in that very moment, to take it all in, from all angles.

The cave was an adventure filled with wonders, some from thousands of years ago and some from now, the creatures living in the darkness of those caves.

We would be treated to a lunch before heading to our next destination.  Fried rice and a plate of fruit.  Ravenous, I ate everything on my plate and more than my share of the fruit plate to be shared between 6-7 people.

Next stop Sai Ngam Hot Springs located about 15 kilometres north of Pai.  The Hot Spring has one pool to bathe in although websites and marketing boast three pools of varying temperatures, the smaller pools were still with green algae floating around the edges.  No one ventured beyond the top pool.  The water is reported to be a pleasant 34°C and clear as far as I could see although I did see a young girl pushing away something that caused her face to screw up in disgust.  The shallow lagoon is surrounded by a lush, jungle forest and is completely in the most natural setting. This is all from a view of standing on the side, taking a few pictures and wondering when we were going to leave as I was being eaten alive by the local bug population. The tour included our van which held 12 passengers along with two open air trucks that were always close behind filled to the brim with 20 somethings which meant that everyone hurled out of the vehicles and scurried down to the water to immediately disrobing, the girls huddled around the bathroom mirror checking themselves out and the boys just took off their gear and slid into the pool.  I just couldn’t bring myself to sit in a cesspool of people who had all been sweating for the past few hours all sitting within inches of one another.

Next stop Mor pang Waterfall which would entail another 30 minute drive on those curvy roads to a disappointing end.  The waterfall would be a colossal disappointment!

I would walk down a path of stair to come upon what seemed to me a very insignificant waterfall indeed.

Some of the twenty somethings were trying to climb up the rock face that took you to the actual pool which was occupied by a bunch of twenty something local men literally running all around the rock and the pool like it was nothing.  The rocks were slippery.  Of course my curiosity set in and I too had to climb up the rocks to see what all the fuss was about.  Ahead of me was a young woman who was very unsure of herself and standing on the rock beside her was her boyfriend digging in his bag.  As I stood behind him waiting for my turn to make my way up the giant rocks, he motioned for me to go ahead of him, so I did.  As I watched the girl ahead of me fretting about how to climb up the mountain, she motioned like she might be coming back down, she asked her guy to climb ahead of her and show her the way. I was caught in the middle and said oh I will just get out-of-the-way and steeped over to a large rock nearby and lost all control.  My foot slipped off the rock like I had stepped on a sheet of ice and down I went scraping my body against the rock, my camera bouncing off the structure as I heard myself say “shit, shit, shit.” As I came to a stop all eyes were on me and the young couple both asked if I was alright?   I immediately stood up and said I am fine.  Feeling a bit embarrassed, I immediately took another route around the young couple and climbed to the top within seconds and sat myself down near the waterfall to lick my wounds and witness my bruised EGO .  I look back at my reaction because that is exactly what is was in that moment a reaction to what other’s thought.

I sat on the top of the waterfall which was literally a sprig of water flowing down a rock formation that doubled as a slide.  I was immediately captured by what was unfolding in front of me, a group of local men playing and acting like children, without a care in the world, without any concern for their safety running along the rocks, pushing each other in the pool below, sliding down the slid, doing backflips and diving had first into the shallow pool.  I sat there biting my tongue, horrified at what could happen at the same time smiling at the simplicity of the fun they were experiencing.

The next time I looked down all the twenty somethings were gone, every single one of them.  I would watch for about 20 minutes then make my way up into the forest hoping to see the “real” waterfall only to be disappointed again realizing that this was it.  My fear would set in as I was finding myself on shaking legs recovering from my fall and realizing that I now had to maneuver my way down the same rock formation I had climbed up earlier when pure adrenal pumping through my veins pushed me to the top.  Now I had a good sense of the slippery rocks and realized that my running shoes were actually part of the problem slipping and sliding all the way down.  I took hold with my hands and used my feet as leverage as I slid on my butt most of the way down hoping I would make it to the group without falling again.  As the universe would have it I would make it without another incident. As I reached the top everyone was there waiting except the two kids, who had gone into the water unbeknownst to their parents.  The two truck with the twenty somethings long gone ahead of us.  We waited for the children to appear to witness a family blow out with both kids crying and carrying on while the parents, looking at the rest of the group embarrassed, dealt with their hysterical children.  Once the scene subsided, we all piled back in the van for our last stoop of the day, Pai Canyon to watch the sun set.

Pai Canyon or Kong Lan (famously known as Kong Lan in Thai) geological and topographic features are quite stunning. This unique geographical area has been formed by continuous erosion over decades until reaching the current condition. The carved narrow ledges and slabs that have survived the erosive actions of the elements have steep 30 meter deep cliff drops and a series of narrow walkways cut on the ridges of giant rock walls that snake out into the densely forested valley.

The walk up to the first view-point is easily accessible to anyone even with a moderate level of fitness.  However, the paths leading further vary widely in width, steepness and danger. It will give you a little thrill and it is not for the faint-hearted. There is nothing in the way of safety bars and you are free to venture as far afield into the canyon as you dare.  But with a 30-50 metre plus drop on either side be careful where you tread.  (http://mychiangmaitour.com/pai-canyon-or-kong-lan/).

Pai Canyon was a beautiful sight to be seen, pale in comparison to the Grand Canyon but a Pai version of something as beautiful.

As the day was drawing near the end, my energy reserves were as well but never so much so that I wouldn’t take on another adventure.  After climbing the long staircase to the top of the canyon I just knew I had to venture further.  Heeding my earlier warning, I decided I would apply extreme caution as I climbed on the narrow passage ways to view the valley from a different angle.  I would climb two of those narrow ledge slabs to gain a different perspective.  Once satisfied that I had explored enough to satisfy my curiosity and my EGO I made my way back to the safety of the first landing and simply took it all in while the sun disappeared behind the voluptuous mountain range to the West.

All piled back into the van we took off back to Pai, first one dropped off, first one home, first one in the shower.

My absolutel favorite thing about Pai is the night market, each and every night vendors set up their stalls selling the most magnificent food EVER!  See for yourself!

My new home for one more night and my new friends before navigating the 762 curves all the way back to Chaing Mai for the night before heading to the south, Puhket for a week of meditation bliss!

 

 

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