CURRENT LOCATION: Luang Prabang, Laos
Our first morning in Pai was a rather lazy one. We had a decent sleep in and ventured out in search of some brunch. Having just listened to a podcast on the etymological history of the word "brunch" on our bus trip from Chiang Mai, this seemed fitting. The streets of Pai were also just waking up. It appears that all the rumours of this place being super chilled out and laid back were true. Pai seems to stagger to life at around 10.30-11.00am, which suited us just fine.
We managed to find a spot that sold more than eggs - at this stage of our trip, this is our only requirement for fear of entering an egg-induced coma and/or homicidal rage. While we enjoyed a brunch of not-eggs, we discussed our plans for the day. The major attractions that bring people to Pai are very much not localised nor are they near the township. The various waterfalls, temples, caves, and adventures are anywhere from 1-45km out of town. Bicycles were available to hire, and we had done this many times before, but the landscape around Pai is extremely hilly and the 35°C plus temperatures are not ideal for cycling. This left us rather stranded and as we have found ourselves many times on this trip, at the mercy of over priced tours and hired drivers. There was, however, a way to avoid all this...
Motor scooters. I have an innate fear of motorcycles and let's face it, scooters are basically motorcycles. This fear is stemmed from growing up in the house of two doctors, where motorbikes were associated with absolute danger and untimely death. So, needless to say, I was apprehensive. However, we were halfway around the world, in a beautiful sleepy highland village and there was so much to experience. This, along with Sam's efforts to calm my nerves, prompted me to be bold and very much go out of my comfort zone. It was settled. After brunch we would get our stuff together and hire scooters!
So much of travelling in the third world, without a set-in-stone plan, takes you out of your comfort zone: the language barrier, customs and traditions, new bizarre foods, unknown cities, placing trust in strangers, being away from friends and family, not knowing where you will be and what you'll be doing in a more than a few days time, and a lot more. This was, for me, a new level of nervous. Sam rides a scooter (named Donna) around Auckland, so she was confident and this definitely helped to assure me it was safe. But I was still anxious. We walked along the main road until we found a shop that was renting 110cc scooters for 100 Baht (approx $5NZ) per day! A bargain. As we approached and inquired, the man asked us if we had ridden scooters before. Sam responded that she drives them regularly, but that I had never been on one. The guy immediately went quiet, at which point part of me hoped he would say that they didn't hire scooters to first time riders and I would avoid the whole scenario. No such luck. "OK. Go see the woman and pay.", he exclaimed. Now it was getting real. The woman at the desk also asked us about our riding history, and she seemed a little more concerned by my inexperience, but hired us out two scooters all the same. I think she was more worried about the fate of the scooters than of me, because she quickly pointed out that if we crashed them, we'd have to pay. Granted, these scooters were obviously the "noobie" scooters that had been dropped many a time. But, in a strange way this was comforting. We picked out a couple helmets from the basket and were given the keys to our scooters. They gave us a map of the area, told us that we'd need to fill the gas tanks as they get returned empty, and marked all the top sites for us. Sam gave me the crash course in how a scooter works and we were off.
The beginning of the journey was perhaps the most daunting. The town's main street was filled with food stalls, pedestrians, stray dogs, locals on motorcycles, parked motorbikes, and generally all of the things you would identify as a hazard on the NZ practical driver's license test. This was all compounded by the fact that this was my first time on a motorised scooter. I declared that we should just go for it and I'll follow Sam. If I want to stop, I'll toot my horn. My mind was all over the place, but I think the last thing Sam said before we took off was, "If you go too slow you'll wobble and crash, but you'll figure it out." Gulp. I put my right indicator on, and we hit the accelerator. Strangely, this seems easy. Straight forward. Almost identical to riding a bike. Until... how the hell do I turn the indicator off?! As we drove for about 5 minutes through town, I went from left indicator to right indicator, back and forth, like a spaz. When we arrived at the gas station, we pulled up to the pump where we were greeted by gas station attendant who did everything for us! Nice! This is pretty standard in SE Asia. Sam made sure I was all good, and taught me the pro trick of pushing the indicator button straight in to turn off the blinkers, and we were off again to our first attraction. The giant white Buddha.
As we cruised along the virtually deserted roads of Pai, I started to enjoy myself. Fear was no longer my primary emotion and the wind in my face, and the sensation of leaning into a corner and accelerating out of it was awesome! The 5kms flew by and before I knew it we were at the temple that housed the giant white Buddha. This was very much an appropriately named attraction. It was an impressive sight, even having been visiting Buddha shrines for the past few months. The Buddha was actually relatively giant and its position at the top of a large hill made for a spectacular view of the Pai valley. The heat of the day became apparent as we climbed the stairs to the top and we no longer had the breeze from atop our scooters. I think I was enjoying myself!? Who'd have thought?
After some quality views and Buddha time, we stopped for a cold drink and hit the road again. We rode for another 20 minutes or so, through a small village in search of a waterfall. Failing to find the turn off for the waterfall we stopped for some food at the Piranha Farm. We had some huge portions of cheap, tasty Thai food while watching some fishing patrons catch a medium sized fish. I couldn't see if it was a piranha or not, but still exciting. After refuelling our bellies we went in search of some other waterfalls.
These were much clearer and well signposted. We parked our scooters in the shade and walked about 3 minutes to our first set of waterfalls. These falls reminded us a lot of the Waitakere ranges back home. Apparently you could slide down the smoothed rock faces like a water slide, but no one was doing it so we opted out as it didn't seem particularly safe. We had a bit of refreshing soak in the cool water before we sought out the next waterfall where we had read we could swim and even jump off of rocks into a pool! We didn't hold our breath though given our strikeout on the water sliding at waterfall number one.
The second falls were a short ride away from the first. There was well-worn path that lead to the river. We crossed a dodgy bridge and we could hear it before we could see it. This waterfall was already inhabited by a large group of tourists. As it turned out they were all together in a big group tour. I'm not sure if it was just coincidence or if the tour company has some sort of filter/vetting system, but all the guys were super muscled, tattooed and confident. The girls were flirty, not fond of clothing and seemed to be into muscled, tattooed guys. They had occupied the main swimming hole and were demonstrating first hand that you could jump off a rock into said rock pool. As they repeatedly climbed the rock, did backflips into the pool and generally showed off their pecs and biceps, the girls all watched and we hung back. They took a number of super fun group photos and it felt a bit like a party, but we weren't invited. Luckily there were two other girls who arrived at the same time as we did and they seemed equally left out. We made friends with them and as soon as the tour group/frat party had vacated we swooped in to have a swim. Sam and I mimicked the guys and climbed up the rock to jump in. The climb up was only about 3m high, but it was slippery. I definitely was not as graceful as the Jean Claude Van Damme lookalikes, but I climbed and jumped in all the same. Sam did it too to the delight of our new German friends as well as some Japanese women who were watching us! Much to our dismay, as we exited the water, we were overcome by itchiness! There must've been something in the water that was giving us a reaction! It was awful! Almost simultaneously, the Germans also started scratching! What the hell?! We were having so much fun and now it was horrible. Luckily once we dried ourselves and got changed it eased, for the most part.
Our final stop for the day was the Massive Land Split. This was also aptly named. The land split just appeared on the farmers land a number of years ago. He woke up one morning and where there used to be a field, there was now a huge crack, about 5m across and 10m deep. To his surprise it appeared seemingly at random. There was no earthquake. There was no storm. Totally weird! Needless to say, it wreaked havoc on his farm and he was no longer able to work the land. In the years since, the land has cracked another couple of times too. He set up a stall where makes his own roselle juice (and wine) and gives it to all the tourists who come to see the giant land split. Roselle fruit was new to me, but it tasted a lot like cranberry juice. It's technically free but he asks that you donate a small amount to come visit. Usually this is only the equivalent of $1USD per person and you can have as much juice as you like. We enjoyed it so much we gave him $5. He was so grateful that he immediately brought us some peanuts and free home made wine. We respectfully had the tiniest of glasses as to not offend him, but explained that we had to drive our scooters all the way back into town. After finishing our juice (and wine) we did just that.
It was a 25 minute ride back to our accommodation. Once home I remained smug and proud of my scootering efforts and made sure to let Sam know this. We had a delicious dinner and wandered the walking street of Pai, where there were loads of food stalls, vendors and of course, tourists. We patted the stray dogs and retired early after our epic day out. We had a such a good time, and I was feeling increasingly confident, so we decided that we would hire the scooters again the next day and venture a little further afield.
In the spirit of Pai, we slept in again on our second day. We found a nice cafe to get some bagels for breakfast before we head out for Lon Cave. Lon Cave is situated 45km out of Pai and was recommended as a really cool experience. I was feeling confident from the great day of scootering the day before and weather was perfect, so it seemed like we hit jackpot. We began our journey out of town and very quickly we discovered that the rumours of the hills were true. We climbed and climbed, weaving thought the winding beautifully paved road. It was amazing! This road was genuinely awesome. It would be a perfect road to drive and it was made all the more exhilarating by the fact that we were on scooters! I had to pinch myself a few times as I didn't quite believe what I was doing!
We got to the top of the massive hill about 25-30km into the ride and our enthusiasm came to an abrupt stop. We pulled over at a viewpoint and rest stop. "How's your petrol?" I asked Sam. "Not good..." She replied.
We were both on the E and we were only just over halfway! Luckily, an Australian couple arrived and a few minutes after we did. They were returning to Pai from Lon Cave. They assured us that the journey from the rest stop to the cave was almost exclusively downhill, and there were a few places to buy petrol out by the cave. They also raved about their experience at the cave. Armed with our new info, we made the decision to carry on. This meant that on my second day of riding I got a lesson in advanced economy scooter riding. Let's just say there was a lot of coasting down hill, slow hill climbs and willing the little orange scooter to make it up the hills while I only accelerated a 1/4 of a turn... About 40 anxious minutes later we arrived in a small village. A couple minutes later we spotted a refuelling station. It was not a petrol station. It wasn't even a store. It was, well, the best the description for it would be a petrol vending machine. We topped up and carried on to the cave!
We arrived at the parking lot for the cave about 1 hour and 40 minutes after leaving Pai! Not a bad ride for my second day. Plus, there was the added excitement of not knowing if we'd make it or not! But lo, we were here. We paid our entry fee for the cave. You are required to hire a guide who shows you through and carries an old school gas lantern. We grabbed a couple cool drinks to recharge after our epic journey, but the guide was eager to get going, so off we set and followed her along the trail. We were about 200m away from the parking lot when it starts to rain. Now, when it rains in SE Asia, there's none of this drizzling nonsense. It started pouring down. We took shelter for a little bit while the worst of it passed then scurried to the enhance of the cave. Even this was impressive. It was much larger than we had expected and there were hundreds of bats and swiftlet birds flying around the chasm. There was a river that ran through the cave and a group of raft guides waiting patiently in the shelter of the cave. While our guide got the gas lantern going, one of the raft dudes prepared our bamboo raft, which as far as I could tell was a bunch of bits of bamboo tied together with grass. Sweet!
We set off into the cave and it immediately became apparent that it was freaking awesome! There were loads of interesting stalagmite and mineral formations! You could hear all the bats clicking and squeaking. The main cave system was huge. The ceiling of the cave must've been 25-30m high. As we ventured further into the cave, the raft bottomed out under the weight of the fatty white people...or maybe the water level was just extra low. Yeah, let's go with that. We abandoned the raft and started making our way through the cave system along a marked path, our guide leading the way, massive lantern in hand. She showed us all the gimmicky natural formations that vaguely resembled Buddha, a monkey, an elephant, a crocodile etc. We made our way from chasms to tight corridors, up stairs and along raised walkways. It was genuinely impressive and certainly enjoyable. After about a little over an hour of exploring the cave and its wonders it was time to return to the parking lot. Our guide instructed us that we could pay 100 baht to get a ride back on the raft or we could just walk back via the trail. She made it rather clear that it was 1km, we would get wet because it was raining, and her tone indicated that we should just pony up and pay the damn money to raft back. Being stubborn adventurers we said that we would just walk! No problem! We don't mind getting wet!
As it turned out, she had to lead us back, so we were not just responsible for our levels of saturation, but hers as well. She was getting soaked. Sam and I looked at each other as if to say, "Well, aren't we a pair of assholes..." In an act of chivalry, Sam offered her rain jacket to our guide. Sam had to physically wrap her in it before she would agree to take it, but she eventually caved and accepted it. It was only about a 10 minute walk back, but we got to cross some excellent bamboo bridges on the way. We thanked our guide for an awesome adventure and then were faced with the decision of what to do. Should we just drive back in the pouring rain or wait to see it passes? We decided that as much as it will suck to ride back in the rain, it would be way worse to ride back in the rain and in the dark. So now, on day 2 of scooter riding, I was getting my second lesson: how to ride a scooter in torrential rain!
Luckily a short ways into the ride the rain eased and eventually it stopped. The road was still slippery, so needless to say we took it easy. The same could not be said for a particular tourist who overtook us as great speeds. We were reunited with him as he was pulling himself out of a ditch on the tightest of uphill bends. He was largely unscathed, but could figure out how to get his scooter started again. Strangely, it was ultimately my advice to roll it to the flat and give it some gas he pushed the starter. It worked! Who's the noobie rider now? Not I. It was at this point I felt like I had graduated the first grade of scooter riding school! The rest of our ride home was dry and actually enjoyable, and not as eventful as our new tourist acquaintance's.
On our last day in Pai, we hired the scooters again. We made our way to Pai Canyon, a short ride out of town. They market it as "Thailand's answer to the Grand Canyon", which Sam (who has actually been to the Grand Canyon) pointed out was basically shooting themselves in the foot. However, it was pretty spectacular and we spent a good hour and half exploring the canyon and being brave by walking out near the edge and doing some bouldering to venture to the best viewpoints around the canyon. It was really enjoyable. After the canyon we cruised to a nearby elephant stable we had passed a couple days before. Upon arriving, we both regretted stopping to see these poor, stressed elephants and felt even better about our choice of elephant nature park in Chiang Mai a few days prior. These elephants were kept in a small pen, only slightly bigger than them for the day. They were chained in. One of the elephants continuously rocked back and forth. We had learned from our previous elephant encounter that this was most likely a stress behaviour, as a result of being in captivity/overworked. We fed the elephants and then left as they were prepping them to take out a group of tourists to ride them. It's impossible to know for sure, but after seeing elephants that appeared happy at the elephant nature park in Chiang Mai, these ones seemed depressed. If you find yourself in SE Asia, please make sure you do some research before embarking on any animal tourism adventures!
We decided to ride around town for a while as a means to keep cool and kill some time before our bus to Laos that evening. We stopped at a cafe for a cool drink and then did a big loop that brought us back into town to say goodbye to our faithful scooters. In anticipation of our epic 3 day journey to Laos, we invested in couple of novels. Actual paper novels. From a bookstore. We hunkered down at our guesthouse to start our novels, relax and kill the last few hours before our journey to a new country! Sam will be blogging about that journey.
Final statement: it's been an amazing experience coming to SE Asia, and in so many ways it has changed me. I've talked a bit about this in my previous blogs, especially in Cambodia. But, facing my fear, leaving my comfort zone and then ending up having such an amazing time is a great learning experience. I've found that nearly every time we have been faced with an adventure that forces us to fight the urge to say "I'd rather not, it'd be easier to just not..." we've have enjoyed it. I will definitely be taking this attitude on with me as I go through life! There is a fine line between being straight reckless and taking smart, calculated risks. But the majority of the time, I have been truly rewarded for leaving my comfort zone!
Lots of love,
Z & S
(Original post date: 21st June 2015)