762 Curves to Pai
At the end of May 2017, Loren and I found ourselves in Chiang Mai - a beautiful city in Northern Thailand. We ended up meeting quite a few amazing people - Eli from Italy, Emily and Felix from the UK and Joe from the US.
As Eli, Joe, Loren and I were chilling on the roof top of our hostel we started talking about how awesome it would be if we went all together to Pai - a small, hippy town about 3 hours north of Chiang Mai. And even better, we should all rent scooters and drive there! Needless to say we were drinking at the time and I don't think anyone was being serious about it. Loren and I were keeping our plans pretty loose but knew we would go to Pai in the next few days. Eli decided she wanted to head that direction the next day but didn’t want to take the journey alone. So to all of our delight, we decided, “Let’s go to Pai! Let’s rent scooters and let’s go tomorrow!” She talked to Joe and like magic, four new friends were all set for an 8 am breakfast and then we were hitting the road! The next morning we managed to get up bright and early and get motor bikes. Eli had her massive suitcase with her since she was just stopping in Thailand on her way back home to Italy. So she had to deal with a lot of frustration at the scooter place and a ridiculous quote on getting her bags brought up there. She had no choice but to take the bus to Pai while Joe, Loren and I jumped on our junky, little scooters and hit the road to meet her there!
Two minutes later we realized that we were out of gas… Apparently when getting a scooter from a rental place they don't always bother to fill it up with gas so now we were on a mission to find a gas station… Sounds pretty simple, right? Not so much. We were going north on a busy one way freeway with no gas station in sight but finally I spotted one across the street!
This was great news, except that meant that we had to make a U-turn which again should be an easy task but not here in Thailand. We filled up and we were ready to get back on road. This time Joe was leading the pack, trying to get us back in the direction of Pai…again easier said than done. We couldn’t make another U-turn so we decided to make a left instead which was so the wroooong choice because we ended up on an even bigger freeway, followed by massive construction. If you think driving in a different country can be scary, just imagine driving in Thailand in rush hour, in the middle of road construction, giant pot holes filled with water, so much smog you want to choke and then top it off with crazy tuk tuk drivers flying by like bats outta hell… Yea, it was fun. After 30 min of battling this traffic we were able to get back on track!
Traffic seemed to dissipate the further out of town we got which boosted our confidence and we stepped on the gas! We were doing 60 or 70 km/h, a fast pace for our not so gently used bikes, when suddenly the fun came to an end. Up ahead we saw orange cones and a figure in dark green waving his arms to pull over to the side. Great! A police check point. They pulled over every single non-Thai person on a scooter, it was a group of maybe 10 of us at the time. Each one of us was “assigned” an officer and we were pulled aside. The officer asked me for an International Driver’s Permit (IDP) which I didn't have. Side note: Loren and I were supposed to get the Permits but right as Loren was about to send in the applications, passport photos and checks, I talked her out of it. I thought it was a waste of money and that we really didn’t need them. Well, I don’t say this lightly, but Loren later will call this an “I told you so moment” and I don’t know when I’ll be able to live it down. Once I told the officer I didn't have one he showed me a piece of paper written in Thai and told me that I needed to pay a fine of 1000 baht (around $30). Foolishly, I thought I could outsmart the cop so I was like, “I don't have that much money.” He quickly pulled my keys from the ignition and told me to walk wherever I was going… Left with no choice I pulled out my wallet and paid the 1000 baht fine. The officer (at this point I am not even sure if they were real police) took the money and started yelling at me “Ok! Now GO! GO, GO!” Instead of asking him for a ticket or a receipt for the payment, I jumped on my bike and left as quick as I could. Mistake #2… not only that we paid a pretty substantial fine but now we had no proof of it, which meant that if we were stopped again we would have to pay another fee. Of course the same thing happened to Loren and Joe. Somehow In the midst of everything however, we managed to make a friend - Nathan who was also on his way to Pai but unlike us he had the Permit so he was in the clear. That prepared son of a gun.
We started asking ourselves, is this such a great idea? Do we even keep going or do we just turn around? The weather turned gloomy and wasn't helping our mood either. Despite the frustration, we said, “Screw it!” and off to Pai we went. Once we were out of town and we started going through the jungle, driving through beautiful mountains and amazing greenery we were back in good spirits.
The road to Pai consists of over 762 curves, steep hills, rolling rock, gravel and trucks and vans passing by despite the sharp turns and the small 2 lane road. We seemed to be doing well, keeping good speed, and staying together and mutually enjoying the ride and the view. Then it started raining… It wasn't pouring but it was raining enough to make the roads slippery and even more dangerous than they already were. Joe was leading the pack, followed by me, Loren and Nathan. We had a sort of a chain set up which worked well for us thus far. Anyway, Joe was leading, driving up and down the steep, curvy road… I don't know how it happened as I was so concentrated on the road and deep into my own head but I remember suddenly seeing Joe on the ground and then realizing that I had fallen down too. I quickly turned around and noticed that Loren was also on the ground… I shouted to Loren and Joe to make sure they were ok and then looked for my bike which was now in the middle of the road, slowly sliding towards the edge of the cliff. I jumped up, got my bike and moved to the side. We were all ok - mostly minor scratches to our knees and elbows, a little shaken and scared. Despite the shock and the fear it was a pretty comical situation, all 3 of us falling down like a game of dominoes and Nathan, the cool kid of the bunch trying to hold his laugh. Nathan seemed to be the only one that pretty much had his S#@% together but luckily he lost his sunglasses so that brought him to our level… well, not really but we kept saying that to ourselves in order to not feel like such losers.
The left rear view mirror on my bike had broken but my bike was fine otherwise! The other’s bikes were scratched up but technically sound, so we jumped back on and continued the trip. This time driving slower and more careful. As if what we experienced so far wasn't enough the weather decided to do us another favor - it started pouring. We were only 1.5 hours from Pai so we just decided to push through and drive in the rain which was fine until my glasses started fogging up. Now I am thinking, this is it… we are probably going to die.
And just when we thought that we had seen it all, we spot another police check point ahead of us. Did I mention this day was going really well? If you remember from earlier, we didn't receive any proof of payment from the last checkpoint so we were scared that we might have to pay again. In silence, all of us ended up stopping maybe 30 meters before the checkpoint like a synchronized swim team. Let me paint you a picture - four westerners on scooters, Joe wearing a plastic poncho, that looks more like a trash bag than a piece of protective gear, two wet and cold girls somehow still sweating at the brow and mustache, and of course dear Nathan who’s just as cool as a cucumber. So here we are, all lined up in a row and blocking the entire left highway lane. No one else would ever stop like this. On one end you have the four of us staring at the cops and on the other are the cops staring at us and probably wondering why are these fools stopped in the middle of the road? After a short deliberation we decided to man up and drive to them, considering it is the only way to Pai. Once we got there they told us to pull over and park to the side. Great, here we go again. One of them came to us and starts yelling at us in broken English that it’s extremely stupid to stop in the middle of the road and that we could've caused a major accident. We all started saying, “So sorry, so sorry!” in bad english accents, bowing our heads down and holding our hands in sort-of praying gesture… We don't know why we did that, but we did. We pretended we needed the bathroom and ran to the bathroom to catch our breath and our nerves. The officers seemed completely stunned by us, that they just let us go without any mention of fines. Ready for a quick getaway, we start riding off. Only to pull over because Joe ended up riding off without his helmet. Getaway fail.
Surprisingly we survived the last few kilometers with no hiccups and we arrived in Pai - a quaint, small mountain town buzzing with life, plenty of bars and shops! We had no accommodation secured but before we could focus on that, we decided our priority was to sit down to grab some food and a beer first… A few Pad Thais and Changs later we were all laughing about our ridiculous journey - we got scammed by Thai police, almost crashed the scooters and luckily didn’t get hurt, managed to get out of another police bribe and almost scared ourselves to death…
As awful as it was, it was also such a great story and we came out of it better friends than before! Eli had beat us there and found a hostel so we met up with her and ended up getting bungalows in the same place. We were all in separate bungalows but in a row together, so it seemed like we had our own small village! While we enjoyed some chill out time on our hammocks we decided we had to venture outside our village. The night market was booming so we headed that way and shortly after we ran into Emily and Felix, who we had met earlier in Chiang Mai. All reunited, we finished the day with good company, beers and lots of laughter!
In retrospect, despite everything that happened and the rough patches we hit on the road to Pai, we would hands down do it all over again. Yes, it was dangerous and yes, we ended up spending more money than taking the bus but it was an incredible experience which we were lucky to share with a few amazing people. This is exactly what travel is about - pushing your own limits, jumping into new adventures and making new friends all while enjoying a completely new and different country.
By no means are we saying that everyone should do it because it is dangerous and not having experience riding scooters could highly increase your chances of being in an accident. So please be careful, weigh in all pros and cons and make your decision based on weather, personal capabilities and finances. And if you decide to do it, please wear a helmet, follow all safety rules and again, be careful!