Left, right, another right, now a hard left, hang on tight ! Another dose of Gravol. Left, left, right…. 763 curves later, we arrive at our travel destination.
Nestled in the mountains of Northern Thailand lies an artsy, picturesque, romantic settlement known as Pai. Close your eyes and let your mind paint a picture of a beautiful mountain valley covered with rice fields, flowers and trees. Breath in the fresh mountain air as the sun rises through the early morning mist. Revel in the warm, friendly, atmosphere and generosity of the Thai people. For this is Pai, this is the rural Utopia that you have been seeking, this is Northern Thailand.
The journey here is exactly that, a journey. Roughly three hours north of Chiang Mai, it is accessible by minibus, motorbike or taxi. There is an air option but it is quite pricey and difficult to book, at least from my experience. A motor bike would be a great option so you can travel at your own pace and stop along the way. However, I do not recommend it for a novice driver. The road is steep, curvy and unpredictable. The minibus is the most common method, but be aware that these drivers strive to get to their destination as quickly as possible. So stock up on water and motion sickness medication and try to sit near the front of the bus.
I chose the third method. My Thai travel companion found a wonderful taxi driver recommended to her by some friends. Mr Oh specialized in private excursions to Pai and other surrounding locations such as Chiang Rai and Doi Inthanon. The beauty of hiring a private driver is not only that he took us to Pai, but he also remained for the two nights we were there and drove us all around the area for the price we negotiated. I think I paid 8,000 baht including his hotel room, gasoline and tip. ($275 USD)
Pai was originally settled by Shan immigrants from Burma searching for new and fertile land some 800 years ago. Through a series of wars most of the Burmese were forced to flee at the hands of the Lanna empire by the mid 1800’s. Some Chinese immigrants then started to settle in the area and once the road from Chiang Mai to Pai was improved more immigrants arrived. Modern day Pai is now comprised of Thai Lanna people, Muslim business families, Burmese who fled from the military Junta that ruled Myanmar and Chinese who fled from Mao Zedong. All this has resulted in a wonderful mixture of food flavors unique to this region in Thailand.
We arrived in the afternoon to see the town of just over 2000 people alive with activity, although on a much smaller scale than Chiang Mai. It was apparent that Pai was establishing itself as a centre for travellers and lovers. The amazing surroundings were being developed with numerous cafes, gardens and scenic venues for beautiful photographic opportunities.
The walking street was the hub of the town. Every evening artisans and food vendors displayed their wares for the tourists and locals. It was wonderful to see so many different artists creating custom products. Shoes, tattoos, hats, leather works, paintings and a myriad of other goods were all on display.
But the main reason I chose to go to Pai was to photograph the beauty of rural rice farms in an incredibly picturesque setting and to bask in the serenity of this Thailand Shangri-La.
We arrived at our accommodations for this journey. I wanted to stay at a location in keeping with my goal to experience the solitude and beauty of this remarkable rural environment. A friend of mine living in Thailand highly recommended I stay at the Bueng Pai Farm.
This place was exactly what I was looking for. Located on the outskirts of Pai at the end of a little road in the middle of rice farms lay this charming bed and breakfast retreat. The owners Run and Orn have created the ideal sanctuary to live the ‘Pai” experience. From the moment we entered the gate we felt a peaceful warm friendly atmosphere envelope us. There were about a dozen or so bamboo huts surrounding a small fishing pond, each with either a walk out deck facing the water or a veranda overlooking the rice fields.
I lay back, my body disappearing into the hammock, the warm breeze gently rocking my stress away. To my right the bamboo hut, to my left the fishing pond, in the background, the nearby mountain peaks shrouded in blue haze, and in my hand, a Singha beer. My mind briefly thought about the minus 25 degree weather back home in Canada. But that moment evaporated very quickly with the sound of a fish jumping in the pond. This was one of the rare moments when my almost adult ADHD mind stopped racing.
As the sun was soon to begin to set the golden hour for photographers was about to be unveiled. I merely had to walk out the front gate to become immersed in Thai rural farm life in the evening. The smell of fires cooking, smoke and mist filling the air created a surreal atmosphere captured frame by frame with my camera. I wasn’t just capturing a moment, I was in essence, being present within the moment… and the sun set.
The next morning at 6:30am our driver was eagerly awaiting. “Come quick come quick we have to go” he exclaimed. There was an overlook 20 minutes away with the most brilliant of sunrise views. He drove us to a parking lot at the foot of a hill and then we all hopped into the back of a quarter ton truck that shuttled us the rest of the way. We arrived to see a few dozen people there already drinking in the view. The sun peaked out from among the clouds, the valley and the town of Pai enshrined in mist, this view was for lack of a better word, epic.
We weaved back down to the base of the mountain where part of the old village was restored. The site contained a walled fortress, a few temples, restaurants, huts and of course, numerous locals selling souvenirs.
After a stroll we happened upon a breakfast place with the most amazing assortment of dishes. It fascinates me how North Americans seem to be so glued to the breakfast items of cereal, toast, eggs and pancakes but in Thailand and other Asian countries as well, the menu is the same all day long. Vegetables with pork, duck, steamed fish or chicken drenched in hot chili sauce taste just as awesome at nine in the morning than at seven at night.
What you can photograph at Pai often depends on the time of year you visit. The beautiful green terraced rice patties simply were not to be seen in December. All the hills were brown as harvest was nearing its end. But if you want to photograph a Thai rice harvest, November and December is a great time to go.
As we were enjoying a latte on one of the many coffee shops overlooking the valley, I happen to see a group of locals in the distance gathered together in a field. I looked at our driver and said “take us there!” A few back roads and fifteen minutes later, we arrived.
In front of us was a group of at least a dozen farm workers harvesting the rice. This was far from a technological marvel. A giant tarp was laid on the field. As I approached I could see two distinct piles. The first pile was a mixture of grain, straw and chaff. The second pile was pure, clean rice. One man with a rake was combing through the pile removing some of the straw, three or four workers with plastic bowls were gathering the rice and throwing it into the air towards the clean pile. The wind and workers waving fans separated the rice from the chaff. Finally, one man with a gas powered oversize “weed wacker” blew away any remaining dust.
It was quite the process to watch each component of the operation work in unison cemented by many years if not generations of knowledge. I am sure that I raised more than a few eyebrows and chuckles among the smiles as I walked among them capturing the events.
The next morning at Bueng Pai Farm we were presented with the most incredible wholesome breakfast options, muesli (15+ ingredients) with home made yoghurt, omelette with home grown herbs served on a banana leaf, fresh organic fruit, banana and chocolate pancakes and of course, fresh ground coffee and numerous herbal teas. It was a fitting send off to a wonderful retreat. I highly recommend it ! Apparently I am not alone, Bueng Pai Farm is rated by Trip Adviser as the Number 1 bed and breakfast in Pai.
Click Here for a full gallery of my photos from the Bueng Pai Farm Bed and Breakfast !
As we packed our belongings to head back to Chiang Mai a feeling of content and fulfillment crept over me. Pai offered me the authentic experience of real Thai rural living while at the same time incorporating the modern conveniences of today’s technology at a slower pace, non rushed, utopia.
No journey to Pai is complete without stopping at least once at Coffee in Love. They have the most amazing assortment of beverages imaginable and a million dollar vista of the valley to match.
The journey to Pai was surreal and was going to be etched in my memory forever. The tranquility, the fresh mountain air, the wondrous viewpoints, and of course, the road of 763 curves. It was, for me, epic.
Click Here for a complete view of all the photos I took while visiting Pai.