Chiang Mai to Pai: Northern Thailand on Two Wheels

by Kshaunish Jaini

Everybody loves Chiang Mai. The city is designed to send unsuspecting travelers down an inescapable spiral of infatuation. Love-struck, I peeled myself off my weeklong Chiang Mai hangover to jump on the back of a motorcycle, heading on route 1095 from Chiang Mai to Pai. I’ll admit that I have quite an affinity towards travel analogies that fall in the category of romance. Thailand is a tricky one because it forces me to get into the complicated world of polyamory. Cosy in the affectionate embrace of Chiang Mai, I promiscuously took the bait and gave in to the draw of a new prospective lover. Potentially risking a great relationship for the lust for something new – isn’t that why we travel?

Pai landscape as viewed during motorbike trip from Chiang Mai

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Northern Thailand is travel gold and Pai is its crowning glory. Located in the highlands of Mae Hong Son, the little hamlet is perched in the center of the great Thai outdoors with connections to outstanding destinations. While the town center bustles with cafes and street markets with characteristic urban Thai chic, the panorama surrounding Pai is a green paradise of mountain trails, waterfalls and forests teeming with herds of wild elephants.

Chiang Mai to Pai

No longer off the beaten track, Pai is very well connected to Chiang Mai via public and tourist buses. But Pai is an adventurer’s destination and a motorcycle is an adventurous way to get there. Especially if you enjoy knee-scratching dips and extreme cornering manoeuvres.
Motorbiking from Chiang Mai to Pai

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The best place to grab your ride is Chiang Mai. Check your travel insurance and chose accordingly. A 200cc or above is better if you're two plus luggage. A 125cc will just about do the job, but a bigger engine will definitely help with all those hills. If you go for 125cc, make sure it's Japanese, the Chinese equivalents don't push out the same amount of power. Also, check to make sure that the bike is insured for third-party damage at a minimum.
Typical bends on Chiang Mai to Pai road

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For me, it was a Honda Phantom, 200cc single cylinder. The lower back support on the Phantom makes it much more comfortable for the pillion on accelerating and the cargo rack was great for the luggage and to keep a few warmer layers handy because the temperature drops quite quickly with the wind-chill on the bike. Goes without saying that a helmet, preferably with a full face cover, is an absolute must, though you’ll encounter quite a few riders without one. However, the road gets delightfully interesting and with all the safety precautions in place, you will feel free to open up the throttle and enjoy the smooth riding.
The iconic route 1095 connects Chiang Mai to Mae Hong Son. The real adventure starts when the climb begins up the twisty, winding mountain roads. The surrounding green blanket of flourishing jungles provides the perfect backdrop, as the bike frequently dips low around a dizzying follow-up of ultra-tight corners. A total of 762 bends await those brave enough to attempt the journey to Pai. Once there, a congratulation awaits in T-shirts and other souvenirs celebrating the ride.

Treks, Rivers and Elephant Poop

River Pai cuts through the town and is a hotbed for river sports. Rafting trips are popular and a great way to explore the deep hinterlands of Mae Hong San’s countryside and forests. For a much more relaxing time on the river, tubing is a popular activity which provides the perfect blend of Pai’s easy-going vibe and the picturesque outdoors. And unlike in Van Vieng, there are no bars playing loud music to take away from the sublime experience of floating with flow of the river. Mae Hong Son province is defined by the mountainous lifestyle of Shan culture. The mountains are marked by numerous trails that lead to nearby villages. Most guesthouses and locals will point you to nearby walks and routes, many of which lead to picturesque views of the mountains around. The hum of rivers and waterfalls mood the surrounding forests, inhabited by abundant wildlife. While elephant domestication is sadly culturally prevalent (Get the inside scoop on the Chiang Mai Elephant Camps here ), if you manage to get deep enough into the forests, it is not entirely uncommon to chance upon a herd of wild elephants. Even less uncommon is to go on a mission to find some elephant dung.
Mae Hong Son early morning

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Elephant poop is said to provide the ideal organic conditions for psilocybin mushrooms. Damp, misty mornings are the time to set out on a mushroom picking mission. If you manage to return with a mushy fistful, make sure you consult a guide like this one before deciding what to do with it.

Bungalows and Night Markets

Pai resembles a southern Thai island in more ways than one, both good and bad. On the bright side are guesthouses with beautiful, cheap teak and bamboo huts. On both sides of the river, in almost any direction, it is easy to find an excellent deal on a bungalow. Further away from the center, the town dissolves into a village of narrow streets and beautiful paths. But if you want to close to the action, there are plenty of beautiful bungalows with riverside views across the rope bridge. At first glance, the night market looks a lot like the main road in Koh Phi Phi. But where the islands are piled with “same-same”, mass-produced souvenirs, Pai is home to a number of local artists and designers who sell their work on the street after the sun goes down. From second-hand clothing to handmade jewelry, the night market is a great place to support local businesses, many of whom are remarkably creative.
River Pai through the village in Thailand

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Two Wheels

Riding further north takes you to the border with Myanmar. The roads further away from Pai are bumpier and less defined, but far more adventurous for it. If your bike has decent suspension, the ride up to Ban Rak Thai is a terrific 125 km adventure via picturesque villages that transport you to a bygone era. Allow at least two days for the trip there and back. Motorbikes are also a great way to access some of the more distant treks and to visit waterfalls and temples further away. By the time I strapped onto the Phantom again to say goodbye to Pai, I was in love again. But it was more than a consolation to know that Chiang Mai, my other sweetheart, was waiting for me on the other side of route 1095. Clearly, monogamy is overrated. Header picture by Espen Faugstad Why do YOU love Chiang Mai? Share your reasons in the comments section below!

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