Song of the day: Helter Skelter by The Beatles
Today we’ve been through purgatory and ended up in paradise (again).
I’m sat on the bed in our room. In front of us is a set of french windows that lead out to a veranda, beyond which is a large pond where fish constantly bob up to the surface to prey upon mosquitoes. There’s a little floating hut on the water and the pond is surrounded by various tropical vegetation such as palm trees and bamboo. Two hours ago we were clinging to the headrests in front of us until our knuckles were whiter than the summit of Mont Blanc, exchanging nervous smiles with our fellow minibus passengers and telling ourselves that the situation was “under control.” Such is the duality of our experience of Thailand so far – days and days of ecstatic discovery blended with madness, and the very occasional dollop of terror.
Yesterday we bought two minibus tickets to Pai for 170 baht each – about £3:40. We were chuffed with the price which seemed cheap even by Thai standards, and looked forward to the luxury of a 12-seater minibus rather than a lumbering public bus lacking the glorious gift of air-conditioning. This morning we rose early and packed, checked out and enjoyed our last complimentary breakfast. A songtheaw came to pick us up at around half nine and for a while we panicked that this would be our mode of transport for the next three hours or so. As it turned out we were only ferried by the songtheaw to Chiang Mai train station, where we transferred to a very swanky-looking minibus. All was well in the world at this point as we chugged through the sprawling suburbs of Chiang Mai. The driver seemed steady and our fellow passengers seemed devoid of annoying habits.
We pulled into a petrol station to fill up, and a couple of Dutch lads got out for a smoke. A Chinese lady got out of the bus to go to the toilet, leaving her daughter in the minibus. The driver seemed disgruntled that part of his fare had left the bus. He filled up and drove round from the pumps to wait for the passengers to return. Just as they all got back on, the Chinese lady’s daughter decided she couldn’t go any further without going to the toilet to. The driver exclaimed loudly in Thai and waved his arms about a bit. When she returned he slammed the sliding door behind her and proceeded to shunt out of the forecourt at a rate of knots.
The traffic grew thinner and our driver’s foot got closer to the floor. Pretty soon we were out of Chiang Mai and ascending into the breathtaking mountains that surround Thailand’s second city. Whoever designed the 80-100km stretch of road between Chiang Mai and Pai was a sadist. It’s as if a load of road planners did no work all year, got hammered at their Christmas party and then decided to plan out the whole stretch of road in the early hours of the morning. The 1095 road between Chiang Mai contains more hairpins than Marge Simpson’s barnet. It requires a cautious, pragmatic approach with one foot constantly hovering over the break to ensure that one ends up in one’s destination intact. Our driver did not take this approach. Each corner was a nauseating cross of his hands, spinning the steering wheel as if it was an episode of the Magic Roundabout stuck on fast-forward. His human cargo were left to brace themselves as best they could as he took bend after bend like he thought he was Colin Mcrae.
After about an hour of this nerve-racking carry-on, he swung the bus over to the other side of the road and pulled up on the “hard shoulder” (a dusty ditch). We spent ten minutes wandering around a roadside cafe. I went to the toilet and considered finding one of the many Buddhist shrines that line the road in these parts to beg for safe passage. We gingerly hopped back on and he revved us off again. About two miles down the road, a young Thai lad said something rather urgently to the driver, who immediately slammed on the breaks and got out. He slid the minibus door open and asked in Thai what was the matter. The lad turned round to face the rest of the bus with a look of sheer terror on his face and said in English “Sorry, I forgot my bag”. The driver took off his sunglasses and I swear in the pupils of his eyes I saw the tiny mushroom clouds of a nuclear explosion going off. Every orifice in my body sealed itself shut as he performed a U-turn and caned it back down the mountain to the stop of ten minutes ago. The lad collected his bag and put his hands together in the praying position, apologising to all and sundrie for his absent-mindedness.
It was at this point that the driver became possessed by the wandering spirit of one of Emperor Hirohito’s Kamikaze pilots. These minibus drivers are apparently paid on their quick turnaround and he was buggered if he was going to miss his bonus. We went up the wrong side of the road round a blind hairpin to get round a little Toyota Yaris that was daring to chug along at 50kmh. We almost kissed the bumper of a lorry full of logs before swinging out in front of a truck in order to overtake it. At one point we nearly rammed a songtheaw full of sleeping soldiers as we descended a sharp corner to find it almost stationary at the bottom of the bend. Hollie and I shared a headphone each and listened to Helter Skelter on full blast, trying to block out the rising chimes of terror in our heads.
Do you remember the bag I described two paragraphs ago that we had to go back for? It came in handy. As we descended into Pai and the worst was almost over, the bag’s forgetful young owner grabbed it and jettisoned the contents of his stomach into it. HEEEEYURGH URGH….HEEEEEYURGH URGH…. He sounded like the girl from The Exorcist. Hollie and I turned to each other and nodded at the irony of the bag situation as an aroma of warm carrot and coriander permeated our nostrils.
Not long afterwards we rolled into a wide valley, in the middle of which Pai is situated. We got off the bus and completely blanked the driver before wandering over to a roadside cafe for a brew to steady our nerves. The lesson we have learned is: take the largest, slowest bus to Pai if you value your life. I don’t believe a coach would make it up the 1095 – some of the narrower hairpins also ascend at a gradient of about 40 degrees – and as a result I reckon it would probably follow an altogether flatter and less hair-raising, hairpin-saturatd route.
We were collected from the cafe by a Thai lady in a motorbike and sidecar – infinitely preferable to our previous journey. Ten minutes out of town we arrived at Oasis Pai hostel. The Thai lady who picked us up is the joint proprieter along with her husband Connor – a Brummy expat who could not have done more to make us feel at home. He sat us down with a map of the area and drew rings round the things he recommended, the things he thought were overated and the places to steer clear of. He made us feel so comfortable that we’ve already extended our stay here from three to four nights, and we look forward to having a few beers and a chinwag with him at some point over the next few days.
At around six we headed into the town, accompanied by Connor’s dog, Reg. Reg is like no other dog we have met. She’s a crossbreed of God knows what, looking a bit like a cross between a staffy and a smaller Rhodesian ridgeback. Without any encouragement from us, she walked by our side for about a mile into town, barking at any stray dog who crossed our path. She sat under the table whilst we ate dinner without begging, and wandered off shortly after we got up from dinner. Later in the evening we went to the “Casuals” bar, which is a favourite haunt of Connor and his wife. We sat chatting with Connor for an hour or two whilst Reg came in off the street and slept under the table. When we got up to leave she got up with us and escorted us all the way back to the hostel! We didn’t come out here to get emotionally attached to more animals than we already do back home, but Reg seems to have broken down our defences already. For the record we would like to state that although Hollie’s sister’s basset hound Alfie has never escorted us anywhere, and would steal our dinner in the blink of an eye, he is still our favourite dog in the entire world.
First impressions of Pai suggest we will like it. A lot.
Peace and love,
Tommy and Hollie x