The Hill Adventure From Chiang Mai To Pai

Ah, Thailand. With ivory-white beaches and macaque-spotted jungles, awesome Buddhist shrines and perhaps the happiest locals on the globe, you offer plenty to love. But you're not all homogenous. From north to south you change entirely, which is precisely what I discovered as I traveled away from the glowing beaches of the Andaman, past buzzing Bangkok and up to the gateway to the north: Chiang Mai. It was just the start of an odyssey into the hills, up to where little Pai town beckons the more adventurous backpackers among us…

Chiang Mai, or, Vegan cafes and glimmering Buddhist stupas

It's fun being in Chiang Mai. I've been here a couple of days, and the long, bouncy "VIP" bus that brought me here from Bangkok has been long forgotten, its pothole jerks and wild midnight swerves a distant memory thanks to the relatively laid-back lifestyles of Thailand's northern gateway.

Okay, so it's no secret that much-loved Chiang Mai is a tourist favorite, and there are certainly oodles of other backpackers with me as I wander the streets of the historic Old City, between the lichen-spotted walls of the old, now crumbling, Lan Na Kingdom and out to the reggae bars and night bazaars for a bite to eat. Still, like I said, it's a welcome notch down from Bangkok, a town of chilled folk and dreadlock-touting guitar strummers, where even the rumbling songthaews move slower through the dusty streets.

I've just dusted off another breakfast of banana pancakes (cliché, I know) and fresh mango juice. I'm sitting beneath the bloom of a gnarly banyan tree, slurping up what remains of my vitamin-filled concoction. My hostel owner – at least, I think he's the owner – is doing what he does best: reclining on a rusty deckchair in the corner, a mojito (never virgin) clutched in one hand, his lazy pooch panting by his feet, and his head rocking to the off-beats and steel drums of some reggae trio out of Kingston that no one else has ever heard of. I've become used to the sight. It's gotten to the point where I'd be more worried if Ping Pong (as he likes to be called) wasn't sprawled there. It's the first sight in the morning that reminds me that this is Chiang Mai. Life here is lackadaisical and that's okay, it seems to say.

I head out on my last day in the city, leaving behind the gates of my hostel and joining the dirt tracks that crisscross in a grid around the handsome Old City. It's a patchwork of Chinese eateries – visitors from the People's Republic account for around 30% of the total visitors to this corner of the Land of Smiles and it seems the local gastronomy is following suit – and massage parlors. It's also packed with handsome timber frontispieces that harken back to the classic days of Chiang Mai, when the town was still a far-flung outpost on the edge of the jungles that rolled out to Burma in the north.

I spend the day hopping between the glimmering golden stupas of the city's many temples. This is a temple town at its very best, not in the sort of grandiose way Ayutthaya is, or hauntingly ancient as in Sukhothai, but rather a place with its shrines and reclining Buddhas worked almost seamlessly into the urban fabric. You can turn one corner and be glowering up at the dragon-tail tops of the gilded Wat Buppharam, spiked like a fairy-tale Chimera on the roadside. You can turn another and encounter the half remains of Wat Chedi Luang, its grand stupa telling a tale that dates all the way back to the 1500s. You can turn another and see the glimmering Wat Phra Singh, where pagodas tower overhead in brilliant alabaster hues and the chants of meditating monks echo between the timber halls and incense-shrouded chedis.

And when it's time to eat, Chiang Mai has plenty up its sleeve. I bid farewell to the temples with a respectful bow of the head, the lower the better. I delve back into the maze of small roads that is the Old City. I seek out the newer, edgier side of town. There are quirky vegan bars and cafes that seem plucked straight from the streets of Paris. I settle for sweet mango salsa (prepare for a mango overload if you come to these parts), vegan cheese platter and beetroot mix in acclaimed Amrita Garden. It's breezy, fresh and just a little bit pretentious. But that's okay because the smorgasbord is as tasty as they come, and there's nothing but smiles on the faces of everyone around me.

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The journey to Pai, or, Rumbling up to Mae Hong Son

I find it hard to believe that anyone leaves Chiang Mai without a heavy heart. There's something about the city that really enchants and enthralls. It's homey and comfortable; two traits that you might not expect to find in Thailand's northern reaches, or this far from the sparkling coast. Anyway, it's with a heart as heavy as a pad-Thai-filled wok that I hop aboard the creaking minibus that was tasked with taking me up the hair-pinning bends and into the mountains; up to where Pai lurks between the canyons and the trees. The journey is supposed to take just over three hours. I know by now to take that with a pinch of salt in Thailand, and I dutifully settle in for the long haul. I make sure I get a window seat, though – everyone says it's a must for this trip.

It's not long before I see why. We've left behind the rhombus walls of Old City Chiang Mai but I can still see them now and again between the bamboo stalks and hulking teak trunks that line the mountain road heading north. I can still see the city because the minibus is only wiggling on the precipitous ridges that rise and rise close to the centre. These are the beginnings of the famous Shan Hills, a range which stretches its long and impenetrable tendrils all the way from the tea fields of Yunnan in China to the edge of the mighty Himalaya. Just entering them from my base in Chiang Mai feels like an achievement, like I'm dipping my toe in one of the great wildernesses of Southeast Asia.

We swerve as we drive on. We swerve round wooded hillsides that seem to get mistier the deeper we delve. We swerve past other minivans and 50cc scooters that can barely handle the potholes in the road. We swerve past colossal teak trees where I think I can make out the silhouette of a macaque in the upper branches. We swerve and swerve but all the while we're going upwards, higher into the Shan peaks where I know lazy Pai and its fabled bamboo bars await.

Then the road tops out and goes steady. The verdant wall of foliage on either side falls to a low hedge and the vast valleys of the Mae Hong Son hills unfold before me. Like a crinkly blanket of green and brown and dusty yellow they roll into the distance. They are peppered with brown villages that clutch like limpets to the mounds. There are groves of palm trees hiding beneath the clouds that coalesce in the valley bottoms below me, and there are bare dwarf woods clustering on the tops of the ridges. On the horizon, the sun is concealed behind a wall of hazy mist – the sort you only get in South Asia. It glows through though, casting a warm red-pink hue across the feral hinterland of North Thailand.

Soon, we're hidden deep in the hills, still climbing upwards with the rumbling engine of the minivan purring and gasping at every meander in the road. Small towns start to dot the edge of the road as we weave in and out of clusters of lanky trees. We stop at one and disembark for a moment. The air is cooler, only marginally, than back in Chiang Mai. It's still warm enough to warrant a fresh coconut juice from the vendor that stands eagerly on the side of the road. I refresh myself with a short walk to the far side of the road. I can see our small perch dropping away down to a valley where a babbling river runs over rocks and past dells of palm trees. It's the dry season at the moment, but I imagine that stream changing into a crashing deluge when the rains come. It must be an annual show of nature's awesome power for the locals who call this wayward pitstop on the route to Pai their home.

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Pai, or, Lazy days in the Thai hills

We arrive at Pai. The minibus looks like some beat-up rally car. It pants and gasps as it pulls down the main drag of the small town and into a layby next to the main tourist office (which is also the bus stop). I almost feel sorry for the engine – it will have to turn around and make the long journey back to Chiang Mai before the day is through. I get to stay here though, up with the bikers and backpackers in the happy-go-lucky hippy town of the hills.

It doesn’t take long before I'm super-chilled. Pai has that effect on people. I've dropped my bags in a cheap little cabana where I haggled for a bargain. It's not bad, what with the drifting streams of the pretty Pai River gurgling past, and the tweets and squawks of one darn pretty tropical garden surrounding it on all sides – hammocks included, of course. Now I'm akimbo in a local bar. It's called Ting Tong, so the lettering proclaims on the bamboo signs above me. It's chilled and easy, but powered with a dash of petrol-headed panache. Harley Davidson paraphernalia adorns the walls, the cocktails are potent, and there's something of the Dennis Hopper circa Easy Rider era in the other guests.

As the evening drags on – and all evenings, and mornings, and middays, and nights in lazy, loveable Pai have a way of dragging on – I hop about the bars that fringe Walking Street. I have a French press in Café De Pai, where there's a cool fusion of Francophone elegance and Thai character. I have a tipple in Bigs Little Café, watching other groups of travelers returning from their rafting trips or cooking lessons. And then I hit the night market, which sprawls all the way through the main drag. It's alive with rasta-reggae craftspeople touting pseudo-Buddhist trinkets, jangling necklaces with mysterious symbols wrought in iron, and other curious little titbits from the hazy land of hilltribes in the north.

There are outfitters and tour organizers everywhere. One asks me if I want to travel out to see the peoples of the Karen, still dwelling in traditional timber shacks in the untrodden borderlands with Burma. Another touts wild rafting excursions down the whitecaps of the Pai River. Another has a billboard with pictures of Pai Canyon on it; a stark place of sheer-cut gorges and towering cliffs, where the panoramas sweep out to the very edge of the north-western reaches of the Land of Smiles. I promise I'll do the lot but I know I won't. I've only got a couple of days in this intriguing hill town, and everyone always told me that when it comes to Pai, what you think is enough is never really enough.

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Chiang Mai and Pai are just two of the bucket-list-busting places we visit on our awesome Treasures of Thailand and North Thai Discovery tours. You'll be able to see the glimmering golden temples of the Old City of the Lanna Kings, and even get to meet Thailand's iconic national creature on an ethical elephant experience. There are departures all year round – we'd love to have you on board.

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"Rich is a traveler, writer and filmmaker who's always after somewhere new to go. He's been hopping around the globe since 2011, from Poland to Paris, Mumbai to Ho Chi Minh. He runs several travel sites of his own, from Ski Eastern to Live Krakow to Crabs Move Sideways. When he's not planning his next trip, he's usually listening to 50s jazz, surfing in Wales, skiing in the Alps, or just swigging (too much) great craft beer."

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