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The Long and Winding Road To Pai!

Making our way by scooter to Pai, Thailand

 

We started out later than we had planned, as is our usual custom, and had our bags packed, our scooter fueled and our kickstand lifted by 11:01am. We were going to make the long drive from Chiang Mai to Pai and conquer all 762 winding, hairpin, narrow turns through the mountains… on a 125cc scooter.

Now, if you haven’t yet read anything about the drive to Pai let us tell you that most of the stories we read had us second guessing our decision to drive there ourselves several times before we actually left. Most of what we read suggested taking a bus or minibus but warned that due to the winding nature of the road, motion sickness is common, and the drivers will not stop if you feel the need to vomit (Check out our Daily Digital of a sign we saw after a particularly curvy stretch of road).

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We read comments about doing the trek yourself via motorbike stating it was “dangerous but beautiful”, “littered with potholes”, “watch out for oil slicks left by the trucks”, amongst others. We also read that travelling via motorbike is possible, allows you to stop and enjoy the scenery at your own pace and while requiring some caution, a confident motorbike driver should be okay. These all had us debating for quite some time about how we wanted to approach our trip to Pai.

Before we left for Thailand, everyone we met who had been already told us that we absolutely had to see Pai. This small mountain town was apparently THE place to go. So we knew we had to get there somehow and we figured if we were going to make the harrowing journey through the mountains, we might as well do it on our own time and our own way. So, on a scooter we went.

We were fortunate to have made friends with the host at the Airbnb we stayed at in Chiang Mai and he told us he would store some of our stuff at his place so we wouldn’t have to carry all of our belongings with us on the drive. As it was, he was concerned about the weight we were carrying on the scooter.

We were able to make our way with just one of our 45L backpacks with our belongings and our small carry-on backpack with our computer and camera equipment. Loaded up, we set off to find highway 1095 and the route through the mountains to Pai with Macrae driving, the equipment at his feet, and Carolann behind with the backpack strapped to her back.

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Since we were coming from South of the city, we first had to make it through the traffic and construction bordering the Chiang Mai. It was a bit hectic and busy, but it wasn’t too bad and we kept moving at a pretty good pace. We were only driving for about 30-45 minutes before we decided to finally grab some breakfast and stopped at a rest stop just shy of the 1095.

Not far down the road we also gassed up in preparation for the drive and in anticipation of limited opportunities to do so along the way. We were excited but also a bit anxious to tackle this daunting route. Highway 1095 started off fairly easy. Long, smooth turns through small villages with little incline.

At some point we started to climb. Steeper now, the bends got sharper, the lanes more narrow and the potholes were more prevalent. We enjoyed the fresh air and being able to chat with each other when we weren’t both silently enjoying the scenery.

We made sure to take breaks every once in a while to drink some water and give our backsides a rest and usually found spots with a viewpoint where we could snap a few photos or just take in the view.

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Want A Full Guide To Pai And How To Get There?


 

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It was less than half way into the drive when the road began to really get tricky. The turns were 90 degree or more, often hairpin and usually on an incline, either up or down. The traffic around us also presented another obstacle. The road was basically one lane each way the entire way.

Obviously our 125cc scooter wasn’t going to compete with pretty much any of the other vehicles on the road and so we were constantly trying to give way to those faster moving buses, vans, cars and motorcycles. Then there was the oncoming traffic. We read that the minibuses were fast and erratic and this definitely wasn’t exaggerated.

What wasn’t mentioned was that they take the corners so fast, they often move into the other, oncoming traffic, lane. Not only were we watching for the traffic behind us and the road ahead of us, we also needed to be vigilant of the cars coming at us from around each bend.

Macrae made sure to take it slow and careful and it really only took a short time to get used to being mindful of it all.

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There’s always time for a coffee break

Besides winding roads, there is one other thing you’ll most certainly notice along this mountain road: Coffee shops. For some reason, they are quite prevalent throughout the mountain areas and we passed by quite a few before we finally reached the centre of Pai.

Deciding we needed a break, we stopped at one and took about a half an hour to rest. The road is quite bumpy and you can try to evade the potholes all you like but you’re bound to hit a few. Even on a smooth stretch of road, an hour and a half of driving and your butt is going to feel it, so add in quite a few bumps and potholes and you’ll be hurting in no time.

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We jumped back on, refreshed and ready to keep going. Since there aren’t any gas stations on the stretch of 1095 between Chiang Mai and Pai, we gassed up where we could in a small hillside stand with a makeshift gas pump set up by the locals.

We had passed a few stands before with bottles of gas and while we figured there’d be a few more along the way we didn’t want to take the chance since there are quite lengthy stretches of road between one village area and the next.

It’s difficult to judge your gas consumption by distance because of the terrain you have to drive. The other thing we were worried about was whether our gas meter was correct as this was a rental and we weren’t too familiar with how empty, empty is.

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A little detour – Pong Duad Geyser

Not too long after we fueled up we came across a sign for a geyser. It said it was only 6km off the road and we figured, why not? Taking the narrow dirt road we headed on our adventure not really knowing what we had got ourselves into.

When we say dirt road, we mean dirt road, and after driving down a few steep hills we got a little concerned about whether or not the bike would make it back up again. Avoiding more large potholes, ditches and rocks, we drove through the forest for what seemed like a very long time. 6km can be a long drive on a small scooter, taking some of the hills at 20km/hr.

When we finally made it to the next sign, it was a ticket booth for the Huay Nam Dang National Park in which we would find the geyser. At 200THB ($7 CDN) per person for a foreigner, we felt the admission was a little steep for Thailand, especially as the price for a Thai was only 50THB. We have come to expect paying a farang (foreigner) price versus the usually much cheaper local price, but it still bothers us every time.

After the drive all the way there, we really couldn’t turn back without actually seeing this geyser, so we paid and drove into the park.

The National Park was actually quite pretty. Nice scenic paths, hot springs, and of course, the geyser. Since it was getting later in the day and we wanted to make it to Pai before sunset, we decided to only worry about seeing what we had initially come to see.

After walking the almost 1km path through the forest, we were hot and bug bitten and unnaturally excited to see our first geyser. Pong Duad Geyser is only about 25 feet wide and 15 feet long. Smelling of sulfur while bubbling and steaming, it was actually a pretty cool thing to see.

While we didn’t get any time in the hot springs down the way, the geyser provided us with a nature-made sauna while we took photos.

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The last stretch of the drive to Pai

Since it was so hot and sticky, we didn’t stay too long and headed back to our bike to finish the drive. The rest of the way saw the same kind of winding, narrow roads as before. At one point in time we were climbing a rather steep hill when our scooter, full throttle, decided it could only handle about 15km/hr. There we were slowly chugging up hill as cars past us, wondering if the bike was going to make it or give out.

We stopped just to see if it needed a bit of a break from the heat and the strain of trying to get the two of us and our belongings up and around so many inclines. We both held our breath as we turned the key to try it again and fortunately it started up again and seemed to have the pep it was previously lacking. We laughed a little afterwards at what we must of looked like, eyes focused on the road ahead, two helmeted individuals bouncing on along the hill on this little scooter going absurdly slow.That had to be the most challenging part of our entire journey.

After that we had no difficulties with the bike. We did see one scooter wipe out about 20 minutes outside of Pai. We were driving up a rather steep curve when these two bikes came flying down. A few seconds later another two followed and the one in the front wiped out and hit the guardrail. We stopped to make sure he was okay and waited until the first two friends of his came back.

He was fine, scratched up and bruised, but it could have been worse. It was fortunate he went into the guardrail and not oncoming traffic (essentially us at that point) and that there was a guardrail to begin with as some parts are without which means a very long drop down the mountain. You could tell that the curve was an especially tricky one as the guardrail looked pretty mangled from past collisions.

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After that, we drove even more cautious but made our way smoothly back down to Pai. It wasn’t long after we saw the first sign welcoming us to Pai and the first of the rice paddy fields that it started to rain. We quickly donned our ponchos but shortly after that the torrential downpour began. We pulled over and sought some refuge from the rain in one of the coffee shops along the road and waited it out.

We had made the drive, conquered the 762 turns and now only had to wait out the rain before we could make our way safely into the center of town and enjoy all that Pai had to offer.

Read about our tips for getting from Chiang Mai to Pai, no matter your method of transportation as well as our suggestions on: Where to Eat, Where to Stay, and What to Do in Pai!

Have you ever conquered a difficult journey? Comment below and let us know all about it!

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Our Anniversary Destination Is…

Today we are foregoing our Daily Digital as we are taking the time to celebrate our anniversary – which leads us to revealing on which island we chose to celebrate our 2nd anniversary. The island is…

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Koh Tao!!

 

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Alright, you’re probably wondering why Koh Tao was chosen. We’ve already been talking about being on the island; we’ve actually been here for a few days. It wasn’t even on the top of the voter’s list for where everyone else thought we should go. So why did we stick around to be here on our anniversary? Well, there are several reasons why this island won out above the rest.

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For one, just looking at the pictures tells you a bit about how gorgeous this island is. We’ve seen amazing sunsets everyday and, when we had a chance, a great sunrise. It just doesn’t get any better than watching these over the water of a beautiful beach. The island itself is quite spectacular. The beach by our hotel (pictured above) makes for a great afternoon or evening stroll when the tide is low and the rest of the island has several beaches you can go to during the day that make you feel like you are in paradise, such as Sai Daeng Beach.

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Secondly, the life of the island is so laid back and relaxed we aren’t in any hurry to leave, but it also has a good mix of entertainment and nightlife . It may be the beginning of high season but it hasn’t felt too busy or crowded yet. We are in a great little area for food (but really, where in Thailand isn’t good for food?) and if we chose, we could easily find a bar on, or off, the beach in which to spend the night socializing.

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Third, we changed our travel plans for the remainder of Thailand (more to come) and so it suited us best to stay on this side of the South, reducing costs and travel time as opposed to going to the other side or up to Koh Chang area.

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While all of these contributed to us settling on Koh Tao, the main reason has to do with how we chose to celebrate our anniversary. We’ll be posting about our anniversary celebration tomorrow, and we don’t want to give it away, but we will say that it is related to our Halloween celebrations as well.

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We’re incredibly excited to celebrate our 2nd anniversary in such an amazing place with such stunning views and can’t wait to share more about our time on the island! Thanks to everyone who voted and helped us decide. We were leaning toward what the majority was going for but in the end it was Koh Tao that offered us the best options for our anniversary.

Stay tuned to hear about our anniversary celebration! If you’d like to follow our journey, don’t forget to like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter and join our mailing list!

 

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Daily Digital – Beautiful Sunrise On The Gulf of Thailand

 

After a few days in Bangkok, we decided it was about time we headed South to the islands. We reviewed a few of our options. We could either take a flight, a bus or a train to catch a ferry over to Koh Tao, an island off the East coast of Thailand. We settled on the night bus from Bangkok to Chumphon where we would catch the ferry. We figured that we’d lose less time by travelling overnight and it was a cheaper option than a flight. We also had a pretty decent overnight bus ride from Chiang Mai to Bangkok and were hopeful we’d have a similar experience. We didn’t.

The bus was narrower and taller so it swayed a lot; the air-conditioning was on full blast and dropped the bus to near freezing temperatures; the seats were leather so we slid with every bump; and there were plastic blocks protruding from either side of the headrests. Needless to say we didn’t get a lot of sleep and when the bus dropped us off for the ferry at 5am, 2 hours before it was set to leave, we realized sleep was going to be a long ways away.

The bus ride, the wait for the ferry, and the sleepless night, was all worth it when, shortly after 6am, we started to see the first hints of dawn breaking. Stepping out onto the small beach by the ferry pier we watched one of the most beautiful sunrises over the water. It was an amazing start to the day and our time in Southern Thailand. Most of all, it made us realize that some of the most amazing things can be found at the end of a rocky path.

 

What amazing thing have you found at the end of a rocky path? Comment below and let us know!

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Bangkok: A City Of Contrasts…And Tuk Tuks

 

We heard mixed reviews about Bangkok before getting here. Few said they loved it; many said to get out as soon as we could. Macrae, having already been to this city, hadn’t been left with any strong urges to go back. During our stay here, though short, we’ve grown a little fond of this massive city.

Perhaps it’s because we have only stayed such a short time or perhaps we’ve observed the city with an especially open mind after being in Beijing and getting a taste of what a “big, dirty city” can really be like.

Like Beijing, there are parts of Bangkok that are clean and upscale, and like Beijing, there are parts that are far from it. That’s probably what you’ll find in any large metropolis.

Here, there are a sea of cars with seemingly erratic drivers (we’re pretty sure we saw at least fifty near-misses on the road in a period of 60 seconds); Tuk Tuks (like a motorbike powered rickshaw) stopping to see if you need a ride almost constantly (“Tuk Tuk!?” “Tuk Tuk!?”); and puddles of unknown origin popping up along the sidewalks (even when it hasn’t rained).

But all these negatives about Bangkok: the traffic, the tourist scams, the crazy nightlife and wild stories, the unidentified liquids, are all tempered by Thai culture and Thai people.

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Even here in Bangkok, there is a genuine kindness and willingness to help. While there are still scams and tourist traps galore, we’ve found that a vast majority of people are quick to offer help, free of charge. Overall, the people are still friendly, like they were in the North, while perhaps a bit more jaded by the big city life.

We’ve found that the rule of thumb in Thailand still stands in Bangkok: smile at a Thai and they will smile back. The subway and sky-train system isn’t too difficult to navigate and provide a great alternative to taking a taxi or tuk tuk. There are amazing street food vendors, markets and small local restaurants and although you will pay slightly more than the North, you can find decently priced food that almost certainly tastes great.

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We’ve only spent a couple days in Bangkok so we’ve barely seen any of what the city has to offer and while a majority of people told us a couple days would be more than enough, we’ve got to say we’re sad to go.

Walking down the less touristy streets you’ll find this perfectly blended combination of ancient Wats, blackened and run-down buildings and new constructions. A mix between old, older and new beginnings. We’d love to explore more of the complexities of the city but perhaps we’ll get a chance another time.

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There’s more to Bangkok than the wild parties and scenes from “The Hangover 2”. We think if you look close and with an open mind you’ll find Bangkok is actually an amazing part of Thailand and you don’t need to be in a tourist hub to find that’s the case.

It may be through a visit to a temple, a stroll through a market or a cruise down the river. For us, it was simply walking along the streets, seeing the contrasts and the unexpected. We’ve had one of our best meals of all time here, been to one of the world’s largest markets, and even had a few less than stellar experiences. More of those contrasts.

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If you’re planning a trip to Thailand and are questioning whether Bangkok is worth the stop, our answer would be yes. It may not be our favourite place in Thailand but it is certainly worth the visit. So yes, we’re sad to leave but we’re happy to have come here and to mark it on our list of places to which we need to return.

 

Have you been to Bangkok? What was your first impression? Comment below and let us know!

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Swiss-Lanna Lodge – A Relaxing Retreat In The Middle of Chiang Mai

Pulling up through the gate to the Swiss-Lanna Lodge in Chiang Mai, we parked our bike and had just started to take off our helmets when we heard, from somewhere through the doorway of the dark wood house, “Sawadee Kah!” (hello in Thai). When we first saw Miss Toto, our host, she smiled and welcomed us warmly. Actually, every time we saw Miss Toto she was smiling and making us feel welcome and invited.

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She quickly ushered us through the doorway where we set down our bags and were seated on their patio outside for some iced Thai tea that had been freshly made and was wonderfully refreshing. It was nice to take a minute and relax, unburdened by the weight of our backpacks. Miss Toto took some time to tell us about their breakfast menu for the following day, and waited until we were done before showing us around the property. We noticed that they made a point of putting a welcome to their guests on the chalkboard by the patio dining area. It made us feel special and it was a nice welcoming touch.

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The Property – Traditional Lanna and Chiang Mai Style

 

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Walking around with Miss Toto we learned that the Swiss-Lanna Lodge, which opened in November 2013, has a total of 7 rooms decorated and furnished with Chiang Mai handcrafts and hand carvings. The house itself is traditional Lanna style and, while over 80 years old, is immaculately clean and organized.

Click here for latest prices and more information.

We were shown the three rooms that were vacant at the time. All three were on the upper level and had a shared toilet and shower. The upstairs also connected at a common area where people were able to sit and socialize if they wanted and the common area opened onto a rooftop patio with lounging mats and a meditation area. Peaceful and serene the dark wood and beautiful decorations made the whole space stylish yet warm and traditional.

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The first two rooms we saw were the Buddha’s room and the Artistic room.  Two of the four standard rooms, both have two single beds and are decorated with the same type of handcrafted and handmade decorations and artwork as the rest of the property. The Buddha room keeps the theme of it’s name and showcases Buddha-image artwork. The third room we were shown was the Elephant room, with one queen-sized bed and, of course, elephant inspired artwork. These three rooms share a toilet and shower down the hallway and are an affordable choice for two travelers or a couple looking for something unique with a rustic, but comfortable, style.

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Buddha Room

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Artistic Room

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Elephant Room

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Elephant Room

The remaining standard room, the Lanna room, has it’s own washroom and air-conditioning unit with a bunk bed and has easy access to the upstairs common room and patio.

We stayed in the Deluxe Pasha room, very much for couples, but the two other deluxe rooms offer options for those who are travelling alone or as a family. The Deluxe Majestic Tree room is more for single travelers with its single bed and the Deluxe Lotus room for families, as it has one king and one single. Both offer a private terrace, washroom and air-conditioning.

We especially liked the fact that there were common areas where guests could mingle or relax if they wanted and the patio by the kitchen was a great place to sit and enjoy a hot or cold beverage while reading or doing work. The front reception is also super helpful if you have any questions about the area or about any tours and will help in arranging them for you.

 Our Room – A Thai Sanctuary

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For years Carolann has been on the hunt for a hotel swan towel. Every photo you see, resort or hotel, shows a perfectly created swan towel perched on the bed. It seemed as though swan towels were just some piece of fiction only found in promotional photos…until Swiss-Lanna Lodge. Opening up the doors to our room we saw them. Two large white towel swans with a beautiful flower in between. You can see for yourself in the photo, but Carolann was more than ecstatic to have finally found her swan towels. It was one amazing start to one great stay.

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The Deluxe Pasha Room where we stayed was beautifully decorated, clean and fully equipped with everything we could need. A minibar, snack bar, safe, closet, robes, mosquito lamp, air conditioning and satellite flat-screen T.V. Stepping outside to our own terrace and lawn, we could access a private Jacuzzi and washroom “under the stars” which, although it was intimidating at first to do one’s business outside, we got accustomed to it quickly since  the bamboo fence provided more than sufficient privacy. The shower was also outside by the toilet and was hot with amazing pressure.

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The first of our two nights there, we honestly didn’t want to leave the room. It was way too nice and relaxing. We could’ve been anywhere in the world in this sanctuary of ours. We did end up going out the first night, sleeping in the next morning because the bed was so comfortable, and ended up missing our chance to order breakfast as it ends at 11am.

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The Kitchen – Delicious and Homemade

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That first morning, we slept in and stayed in our room enjoying the amenities for so long that we missed breakfast. The kitchen opens from 8-11am to serve a reasonably priced selection of breakfast items, homemade by Madame Lose, one of the ladies who help make the place feel like a home away from home, and Miss Toto. They had freshly made croissants when we got there and although we had just eaten and didn’t end up buying one, they looked and smelled amazing.

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We did end up having some breakfast the second morning and our meals were a great start to the day. We weren’t aware of it during our stay but talking to Miss Toto on our last day we learned that guests will sometimes purchase groceries at the local markets or stores and bring them to the kitchen where Madame Lose and Miss Toto are more than happy to cook with them and show them how to make Thai dishes. If we are ever back in Chiang Mai we will definitely be heading over to the Swiss-Lanna Lodge and taking them up on this great opportunity.

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The Patios – Open and Inviting

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Like we had mentioned the patios and common areas gave the space an open feel and were an especially great idea for those guests wanting to be social as well as those wanting a peaceful place to relax, meditate, read or work. We thought it was great that there were several areas to use for different purposes and it really made use of the entire property.

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Our own private lawn and terrace was wonderful. We sat on the terrace for a bit, drinking our iced coffee and tea we bought from the front and enjoyed the moment away from everything.  The hotel’s tagline is “A quiet and peaceful place of quality” and that is exactly what is achieved throughout all of Swiss-Lanna Lodge, but we especially felt it while sitting on our terrace and again while out on the patio enjoying breakfast.

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The Location – Decent and Accessible

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Swiss-Lanna Lodge is in a fairly decent location. It would be most beneficial to have your own mode of transportation, but they rent out bicycles and motorbikes if you don’t already have one. It is not too far from the Night Bazaar and there are several restaurants and a 7/11 within walking distance. We would recommend making use of a motorbike rental, either from Swiss-Lanna Lodge, or elsewhere in order to really explore the area and have the freedom to come and go as you please. The Lodge itself is tucked away in a quiet and fairly residential area. It was in a different part of town than we had stayed so we loved the fact that we could see a new area and try new restaurants.

The Service – All the Comforts of Home

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In talking to Miss Toto, who owns the Swiss-Lanna Lodge, she said that her and the staff strive to make it feel like a home, like a family, and that they always strive to make their patrons feel welcomed and happy and do better for them.  Swiss & Lanna, she said, are both known for good service and cleanliness, always trying to improve upon what is already there and that is the inspiration for the Swiss-Lanna Lodge. You can tell that they take this to heart. Always smiling and helpful, the staff go out of their way to make you feel at home. It’s obvious that cleanliness is of utmost importance and keeping it that way seems to be a constant endeavor. Not only do they help with tours and finding your way around the city, they also offer bicycle and motorbike rentals as well as laundry service.

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Whether you are eating their homemade breakfast or cooking meals with them, relaxing on their patio or rooftop deck, or renting a bike to tour around the city, the Swiss-Lanna Lodge offers all the comforts of home and the staff goes out of their way to make you feel like that’s exactly where you are.

 

Heading to Chiang Mai? Find your own peaceful oasis in Swiss-Lanna Lodge!

Click here for latest prices and more information.

Swiss-Lanna Lodge

Wat Ket, Mueang Chiang Mai District

Chiang Mai, Thailand

053-246-126

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Daily Digital – A Bike Ride to Chiang Rai Through The Rice Paddies

 

We decided to take our 125cc scooter and head North to Chiang Rai. Though under 200km away from where we were in Chiang Mai, the drive took us 5 hours total, but included a few stops for food and coffee. As we drove, we were surrounded by beautiful and incredible scenery. Mountains in the distance and fields of green rice paddies on both sides. We happen to enjoy riding the scooter for our road trips when possible. Sure, it takes a little longer and can be a bit of a pain in the butt, literally, but the slower pace allows us to take it all in. We drive with the locals, instead of by them and we get to stop whenever we see something worth a second glance. When we passed by this particular rice paddy field, we just couldn’t help ourselves. We had to pull over and take a moment to enjoy the beauty of it before continuing on. We’re only half-way through our journey through Thailand and already it has provided us so many incredible things to see and experience, many of them, like our trip from Chiang Mai to Pai, happen while zipping around on our little scooter.

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Tiananmen Square & The Royal Gardens of the Forbidden City

With the recent protests in Hong Kong and their call to Beijing supporters to rally at Tiananmen square, we thought it was an appropriate time to write about our recent experience at Tiananmen in Beijing, China.

We started out that day planning to visit the Forbidden City. It was a Monday and as we’ve mentioned in our post about things to know about Beijing, many things are closed on Mondays, especially government run buildings. So, while we knew this, we decided we’d venture that way, see what was open and tour a bit.

Tiananmen Square – Where Things Feel Bigger-Than-Life

 

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We hadn’t walked that far before being stopped by a female tourist from the US who asked where the museum was. We all pulled out our maps and confirmed she had been walking the wrong way. Since we were going in the same direction, we invited her to join us on our walk. What we thought should have only been a short distance ended up feeling like we had been walking for hours, which we probably were. We weren’t aware that the distances indicated on our map were not proportionate.

All three of us eventually made it to the National Museum where our temporary travel companion was looking to go and we realized it was part of a huge complex of buildings including the Forbidden City, Tiannanmen Square, Mao’s Mausoleum and many other government buildings. The road along this stretch of buildings was, without a lie, a ten-lane road. The area felt massive.

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Giant towering buildings, the huge expanse of the road, the square ahead of us a wide open space and the large entrance to the Forbidden City had an imposing and intimidating effect. Added to that feeling was the heavy police and military presence on the sidewalks, the barriers to the buildings and on the roads and everywhere we looked there was some form of security check.

We reached a gated area which was covered with police where we inquired about the museum and the Forbidden City and learned that both were in fact closed, but that the royal gardens surrounding the Forbidden City were open and accessible for 2RMB (40 cents CDN).

Forbdden CIty, Imperial Gardens, Mao's portrait, Entrance to the Forbidden City

Our American friend had already been to the royal gardens and told us we should go on in and she would leave and continue exploring the area. We parted ways and went to the police officer allowing people through the gate. Since we noticed everyone was showing ID to get through, we asked if we needed to present ID. He asked for our passports, which we did not have (also in our post on 10 things to know about Beijing), he asked where we were from and after telling him we were Canadian, he took some time to chat with us about the gardens and a good area to grab some food.

He told us to make sure we had our passports with us next time and let us through, “I’m the police.” he simply said  “Of course I can let you in”. So, what at first looked like a very intimidating amount of police and security and an impenetrable gate entrance quickly turned into a friendly conversation and a quick entry into the main area.

Once we entered onto the walkways around the various buildings and Tiananmen, we followed the sidewalk down under the main highway and up onto the other side to reach the royal gardens of the Forbidden City

The Royal Gardens – A Walk Around a Forbidden City

entrance to the forbidden city, Forbidden City Entrance

The crowds were still large, although not close to what we had been used to experiencing thanks to it being a Monday. We stood outside the main gates for a while, looking at the giant portrait of Mao hanging over the entrance and watching the activity on the other side of the street at Tiananmen Square before passing through the gates to get our tickets. It wasn’t long after we stepped in line with our tickets to get into the gardens that we experienced the typical “budding in line” that we had come to know so well in Beijing.

We’re pretty sure at least a half dozen people cut in line before we made it close to the front and we were about three people from the front when we let our guard down. We made a mistake we hadn’t made in days since getting accustomed to the queues – We diverted our attention to putting our camera in our backpack and let a hair-width of space between us and the person in front of us…and we left that space unprotected.

By the time we turned back to face the front, maybe a couple seconds later, we realized something was off. There were several new bodies standing in front of us and a few new ones behind. We thought we were used to it, but for some reason it still took us completely off guard.

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After we got into the gardens, the crowds pretty much dispersed, or at least as dispersed as it gets in Beijing, and we took our time walking down the stone paths, looking at the old trees growing, the flowers, the buildings and architectural designs and the armed soldiers…wait, what? We weren’t too sure why there were so many soldiers lined up either. And a whole army (excuse the pun) of military personnel sitting in a group, fenced off and waiting to do something, or go somewhere.

This was our first real experience with so much military and police presence, first outside the government buildings and Tiananmen, and then again inside the royal gardens. We kept walking, because it seemed like the best thing to do, and continued to explore the very peaceful and serene grounds.

 

We walked around buildings, some part of the Forbidden City, and found some neat trees, gardens and other elements to explore on this large property. While we weren’t able to actually see the Forbidden City, we still had a great time in the gardens and found some interesting things. We saw many guardian figures on the rooftops of the buildings, a relaxing area of stone with a bridge over a stream, a rose garden, and an interesting large stone with a handle carved into it.

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There were several areas for which we had to pass through large red doors. We noticed that many people walking through would touch one of the large golden knobs of the doors as they passed. We made sure to do the same even though we had no idea what it meant but later learned it is custom to do so for good luck and fortune.

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We also happened upon a large court-like area with 7 bridges. Apparently, in days past, the bridge used indicated your level in the hierarchy of power, for example the center bridge was only used by the emperor. Carolann decided to take a walk on the emperor’s bridge as an emperor must have done ages ago.

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Tiananmen Square – Remnants of a Volatile Past

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Walking back down and under the busy street to where we started we tried to find the entrance to Tiananmen Square. We hadn’t come this far not to at least walk along this historic site.  Along the gated sidewalk we noticed a guarded crosswalk to the other side of the road and the square.

We crossed and found ourselves at another security checkpoint, this time with x-ray bag scanners. Again, we were asked for our passport, and again we were allowed in on the condition that we make sure we have it with us next time. And so, with ID check and bag scan complete, we entered into Tiananmen Square. Tiananmen is the scene of the 1989 student-led protests and hunger strikes for democracy which ended in bloodshed as the Chinese military advanced on the protesters with assault rifles and tanks.

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It is the road at Tiananmen square where the famous photo of the man with the tanks was taken. So while we were clearing security and preparing to walk around the square, we knew the significance and importance of this large space. That didn’t do anything to prepare us for the impact it left.

Looking around at the massive square, it was smoggy and only scattered with people unlike everywhere else we had been. We felt the gravity of the events that had occurred and both stood silently for a while taking it all in.

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At the one part of the square stand’s Mao’s Mausoleum and several monuments in honour of historical revolutionary struggles. It wasn’t open that day but we’re told that once inside there is no talking as you walk through.

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We took our time, quietly wandering a bit and after a while headed to the exit on the other end of the square and continued on our way.

tiananmen square, beijing attractions,

The day summed up our entire experience in Beijing. Overwhelming. Crowds, pushing, cutting in line, smog, military and police and security checks, massive, bigger than life buildings and attractions, the unexpected, and a truly amazing experience. I don’t think we’ll forget our visit to Tiananmen Square. It really was just a typical square, though massive in size, but it meant so much more and you could feel the weight of history while you there.

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Vote Now & Help Us Choose Our Anniversary Destination!

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We’re set to celebrate our anniversary in the South of Thailand… but where?

 

Our 2nd anniversary is fast approaching and it looks like we’ll be headed to the south of Thailand a week or so before. We’ve had such a great time in the North meeting new friends, like Uncle and the Wagoners; participating in interesting activities, such as the Scorpion Tailed River Cruise; and have stayed at some amazing places, like Soi One Bedrooms in Pai. We’d love to find someplace where we can have a similarly memorable anniversary celebration. We know we want to start exploring the islands after a short visit in Bangkok, but we aren’t sure on which island we want to celebrate our anniversary. So we thought we’d get some opinions about where everyone else would choose.

We’ve given a brief description of our top 10 contenders below…

 

but, if you’re looking for more information on any of the islands, click on each one for descriptions from our new affiliate, LonelyPlanet.com.  If you’re interested in purchasing any Lonely Planet travel guides, be sure to help support us and use this link.

 

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1. Koh Samui – We’ve read about street fairs, world class resorts and a bustling nightlife but we also know it is a major tourist attraction and Macrae has already been to this island.

2. Koh Pha-Ngan – This island has rain forests and beaches, temples and a nightlife but is also a pretty big backpacker destination.

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3. Koh Tao – Increasing in popualrity, Koh Tao is supposedly great for recreational activities and boasts a great nightlife

4. Koh Chang – While this island is considered a major attraction, it is less touristy than Koh Samui and has mountains, waterfalls, coral reefs and beaches.

 

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5. Koh Lipe – This is a small island but has recommended snorkeling and a fairly big nightlife.

6. Koh Phi Phi Don – This is close to Koh Phi Phi Leh where the beach was filmed and while Macrae has already visited both islands, Koh Phi Phi is one of his favourite places…ever.

 

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7. Koh Phing Kan – Also called the James Bond Island as it was featured in the film The Man With The Golden Gun, Koh Phing Kan has some pretty neat rock formations and beautiful beaches but is apparenty turning quite commercial with many vendors.

8. Koh Samet – Although considered overdeveloped, Koh Samet boasts white sand beaches, a large number of activities and an active nightlife.

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9. Koh Tarutao – This island has both rugged mountain and jungle scenery and, if Carolann had her way, there’s a chance to see some sea turtles as Koh Tarutao has a popular breeding and nesting ground on one of its shores!

10. Koh Kut – This island is mostly a destination for Thai weekenders so it has that local flavour and is not overly bombarded by foreign tourists.

Vote below and let us know which island you would choose OR if you know of a better location, leave a comment and tell us about it!

 

Where should we go for our anniversary?

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Scorpion Tailed River Cruise With New Friends

Scorpion Tailed Boat Ride, Chiang Mai Scorpion Tailed boat, Chiang Mai Attractions

Sailing down the Ping River with WagonersAbroad!

We woke up to the sound of our alarm at 9:30am and were about to hit the snooze button, again, for probably the tenth time when we realized what we were doing and set off into a panic. We had made arrangements to meet with a family of travel bloggers, the Wagoners of WagonersAbroad.com, and take the Scorpion-Tailed River Cruise along the Ping River at 11am. We still had to dress, eat breakfast and try and find the place with only a drawn map from the website and a Google map of a nearby landmark, a condominium.

We were excited to meet the Wagoners after following their site for a few months and some recent correspondence. We had only met one blogger (Emily), and we really wanted to connect more with our new community. Plus, this family just seemed pretty awesome in general. So while we were hesitant to shell out the 500baht (18.50 CDN) per person, as that was the majority of our budget for the day and we had read a few TripAdvisor reviews (although there were many good reviews) that had us worried, we knew the ride would be a neat outing and we could potentially make some new friends. Plus, the ride included a complimentary dessert, so how could we resist?

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Surprisingly, we arrived early and bought our tickets and since we had skipped breakfast, we decided to use the fifteen minutes we had to find something to eat.  After grabbing some pastries and coffee from a nearby café, we returned to find the Wagoners there. It’s a strange thing this blogging world. You end up knowing a whole lot about other people you’ve never actually met. So there we were introducing ourselves and shaking hands with people with whom we were already familiar.

We learned quickly that they were not only awesome people on their blog but they were truly great people in real life. Genuine, kind, funny and fun, this family is exactly what they portray themselves to be online.So when the tour was about to start and we saw that it was only our two groups boarding the boat, we were pleasantly surprised.  Our tour guide, complete with a headset microphone and a speaker secured to his waistband, lead us onto the boat with a giant smile and we set off.

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Starting along the river our guide held up cards with photos to show what the different buildings along the route used to look like and explained their significance. He went through some history about the river, bridges that were built over it, buildings of importance and the design and construction of scorpion tailed boats throughout history. Even though we couldn’t always fully understand him with his strong Chiang Mai accent, we got most of what he had said and laughed quite often at the many jokes he told. We particularly liked his one joke, after discussing the importance of elephants in Chiang Mai culture. He said that there is a saying in Chiang Mai, “Never stand below an elephant”, they eat so much food in one day, he said, so if you stand below, you better watch out…poo-poo. A neat aspect of the boat was that it was propelled essentially by a rudder attached to the engine of a Toyota Mercury, with a key ignition starter. it seemed odd when he told us but worked very well.

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In between explanations we got a chance to talk to our new friends about their experiences. They had recently lived in Spain for almost two years before leaving, touring around Europe a little and then heading to Thailand. You could tell they all found great enjoyment in travelling and we enjoyed talking with them all about their life in Spain and their success in relocating and developing their blog. The parents, Heidi and Alan, were kind of like us, but with kids. They seemed to love life and adventure and find enjoyment every chance they could. The kids were bright, engaging, fun to talk to and lucky for being able to learn so much through their travels. Honestly, we were a little in awe of this family and all that they had seen and accomplished. So with a great guide and conversation flowing when possible, we rode the boat at a leisurely pace first one way and then back down the other before stopping for our promised dessert.

Sticky rice and mangoes and a lesson in Chiang Mai gardening

Disembarking, we were lead through a garden of Thai plants, flowers, herbs, and fruit where we were given an explanation about each of the plants growing. We were shown dragon fruit and bananas, given parts of citronella and anice leaves to smell, and shown the different crops of jasmine and sticky rice. The garden was beautiful and interesting and our guide explained each one with great patience for all of our questions. It was an amazing learning experience that we were not expecting. While examining the different bugs we also found throughout the garden, we were shown a hammock made of just one piece of bamboo. Carolann decided to take a quick break before we were given our dessert!

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Guided to our seats for dessert, we were brought out some mango slices with sticky rice and a delicious lychee drink. We had seen a few street vendors in Pai selling mango and sticky rice and were interested in trying it out. The mango was flavourful and the sticky rice had a bit of condensed milk on it adding a sweet taste to match the fruit. While we were eating, our guide showed us snake and eel catching traps and explained how they work. He also showed us some cobra/scorpion whiskey discussing the supposed importance of combining both creatures to balance out the toxins. It was great entertainment while eating and he again told jokes and had us all laughing. After dessert, we headed back on the boat to return to the dock, the entire trip taking just over an hour and a half.

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Scorpion Tail River Cruise – The Best Ping River Boat Ride

The previously mentioned poor reviews that we read discussed the fact that the water was dirty, the guide held up cards to describe different parts of history and that he was hard to understand. What we decided about these reviews was that all of the comments were missing one crucial point, we are in Thailand to experience a culture different than ours and learn more about the places we visit so no, the Ping River during high season when the rains wash soil and sand into the water is not going to be pristine and clear as it is during low season or off the coast of some gorgeous island, the cue cards aid in explaining what we are seeing along the bank and the historical significance, and as far as accented English? We are getting a tour with a Chiang Mai local who is incredibly warm and welcoming and likes to tell jokes and explain his homeland, accent and all.scorpion tail river cruise, chiang mai river cruise, ping river cruise, wagoners abroad, wagonersabroad.com  scorpion tail river cruise, one modern couple, mango and sticky rice, palm hat

 

There were four things we noticed that set this riverboat cruise apart from the others we saw:

1. They don’t take commission. Many of the river boat cruises pay a commission to Tuk Tuk and taxi drivers for dropping tourists off. If you are an unsuspecting tourist looking for the Scorpion Tail River Cruise, even if you point it out on a map, they will take you to one of the others stating it is better and that the other one is no good. They then get paid a commission for doing so. The one we went to had a strict “No Commission” policy which we agree with and would recommend that if you are looking to take this river cruise, be prepared to tell the driver that you do not want to go to any of the others. Apparently the Wagoners experienced this trying to get there that day and told them explicitly where on the map they wanted to go.

2. It is all included. Unlike many of the other boat cruises you take, they don’t push you into buying other products or trick you into paying more for something you didn’t expect. We were told we’d get the dessert for free and we did. We actually received more from the cruise than we expected, like the walk along the gardens and explanations of all the plants. We even found out that where he had taken us for dessert and the garden walk was his own home.

3. They use LPG rather than the diesel fueled engines of the other boats which is better for the river and the environment and something we really appreciate

4. They had a funny and informative guide. We noticed that some of the other rides we passed had a driver but no guide to comment on what they were driving past or seeing. We enjoyed the information we were given, the tour along the garden and the entertainment during dessert. After the river cruise, we got to spend a little more time with the Wagoners, walking along the streets and markets and chatting along the way. We had a great day, both on the cruise learning about the Ping River, Chiang Mai and the local culture as well as meeting some great new friends.

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Finding The Best Place To Stay In Pai Is A Piece Of Cake

 Soi One Bedrooms – Best Place To Stay In Pai

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We were sitting in our hotel room in Pai (pronounced “Pie” and called “Pai Town” by some), listening to the strong patter of rain and the thunder of the storm passing through the mountain town. We had made it back from sightseeing just in time, with only minimal soakage (luckily we had our ponchos with us) and we were pumped to spend some time in our air conditioned, clean, beautifully decorated boutique room we splurged a bit on for the night. We needed it though. As sad as it may sound, after almost 3 weeks of travelling, staying in hostels, hutongs, even a beautiful guesthouse, we had yet to have a really good shower. We needed to feel clean, refreshed and relaxed. So when we met the owner of one of the cafes in Pai where we stopped in to do some work and grab a caffeine boost and he mentioned his four bedroom boutique hotel, we decided that if we could afford it, and they had an available room, we would book it for the next night. Luckily, Sunday nights are their slow nights and they had one room remaining for us to book. As we walked into our room we realized that we have probably stumbled upon the best place to stay in Pai.

 

The Room

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So there we were, freshly showered, feeling clean and probably smelling better than we had in weeks, kicking back in what felt like complete luxury. We were in the Gold Room of Soi One Bedrooms. One of the aforementioned four rooms, the Gold room is the only one with two twin beds, rather than one large bed, and had a small patio out front with a seating area.  The room was nicely decorated with various artistic touches throughout. From the handmade, colourful lamp shade hanging from the ceiling, to the beautifully crafted pillows on the wooden chairs, the decor fit wonderfully with the room and the feel and vibe of the hotel and of Pai. Perhaps it was the fact that we’d been travelling so long, but not only was it decorated well, it smelled amazing. We were impressed with the cleanliness of the beds, the room and the washroom and were almost brought to tears when we tried the shower and found it had hot water and good pressure.

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There was even a mini-fridge, kettle, coffee mugs and enough outlets to charge all our gadgets. It took quite a bit to get out of the hotel room once we were there. We wanted to enjoy the comfort and feel of the room but knew we only had that last night in Pai to wander and explore. So we went out that night and relished the thought of being able to rest our head on a comfortable pillow, in a nice room, with a hot shower awaiting us in the morning. We did contemplate staying just one more night, but all the rooms were booked and judging by our experience, we expect they fill up fast!

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The Property & Reception

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The property itself felt like a little oasis with a small central area enclosing the staircase to the upstairs rooms and a small dining area for the attached restaurant. The two workers at reception were incredibly friendly and helpful and went above and beyond to accommodate and assist us with all of our needs. It’s our experience that in general people in Thailand are genuinely willing to help, but these two exceeded our expectations. We checked out a little early to head back to Chiang Mai and the lady at reception offered not only to hold our bags, but to use her personal umbrella to get to a restaurant for breakfast in the rain! She then provided us with large black garbage bags to cover up our backpacks for the long ride through the mountain in the event the rain began again.

While we didn’t patronize the restaurant, or the spa/massage parlor affiliated with Soi One Bedrooms, the areas looked inviting and clean. Had we planned to stay longer in Pai, we definitely would have made an effort to dine at the restaurant and maybe even venture to the spa for a Thai massage.

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Overall, this was a hotel we were tremendously glad we were able to book and would definitely go back if we had the opportunity. It was located right on the Pai walking street and off of one of the major bar streets, which was great even if it was a little noisy until 11pm. Since it was in the heart of the city, and walking street, there was a ton of things to do and see right off the front steps including restaurants, bars, walking street vendors, souvenir shops, coffee shops and convenience stores. There were several scooter rentals nearby for those that took the bus in and wanted to explore outside the city to the many viewpoints, waterfalls and other attractions Pai has to offer. (Drivers beware: there are a lot of people driving scooters for the first time in Pai and we saw many a bandaged and wounded Pai tourist.) We were pleased at the great value we received for our money. The only real downside was there were only 4 rooms so even though, like most places in Southeast Asia, you can get almost half price for a walk-in, it fills up fast and you aren’t guaranteed a room if you don’t book in advance, But if you’re lucky enough to get a room, you wont be disappointed because in our opinion it’s the best place to stay in pai.

Click here for Soi One’s latest prices and more info.

If you can’t get a room at Soi One during your stay in Pai, don’t worry, there are many hotels in Pai to choose from, just check out How We Slice It – A Guide to Pai. Part One: Where to Stay for a couple great options, or find Pai hotels by visiting our friends from Hotels Combined and they will defiantly help you out for your search for some great accommodations.

We Also have other information that you might want to sink our teeth into… like “How To Get From Chiang Mai To Pai” and “What To Do In Pai” when you get there.

When In Pai… You Must Eat Cake

 

Pai Siam Bistro

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A visit to Pai Siam Bistro was what started the change in our plans and lead to our stay at Soi One Bedrooms. Walking down the street in Pai, we were looking for a place to escape the walking street for a moment, grab a coffee to refuel and get some work done. We happened across the entrance to Pai Siam, first enticed by the “gelati” stand out front but drawn in by the look and appeal of the narrow bistro. Sitting down at one of the tables we were immediately given a menu offering a range of tasty sounding food and coffeehouse style drinks. Opting for a hot and a cold cappuccino, we signed on to their free Wi-Fi and settled in to do some work.  Incredibly comfortable, with a great ambiance, this bistro was the perfect spot for us. We took a moment to enjoy the handmade lampshades decorating the space and the soft bluesy sounding music playing in the background.  The lampshades are made and sold in the partnering and attached shop next door and add some crafty elegance to the bistro.

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Our drinks were great. The smiley face in the hot cappuccino was a cute touch that had us chuckling. At a second visit the next day, we tried out an iced latte as well which was just as delicious. It was a great place for us to get work done and then just relax. Unfortunately we did not get a chance to try any of the food on the menu but we heard a series of compliments regarding the food from customers sitting around us on both visits. A neat aspect of this restaurant was the handmade lampshades (such as those in the room at Soi One Bedrooms). Like we mentioned, these were made and sold at the shop next door but all the lamps on display at the bistro were also available for purchase! It’s a great theme that flows between all the properties. We liked it so much here that we included it in our Top 5 Cafes In Northern Thailand post… well deserved.

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While sitting there, we started chatting with a very friendly man from Scotland whom we later found out owned the bistro (and Soi One Bedrooms) along with his wife. Engaging, warm and fun we enjoyed talking to him and learning a bit of his perspective on life as an expat for 15 years and his growing business in Pai. The bistro was fairly new, opening just a short time ago and complemented his boutique shop next door. We started eyeing their gelati stand again from our seat and were told by the owner that they had a selection of freshly made cakes and desserts in the display at the front. Taking a peek at the assortment, we were told the rainbow crepe cake was a must-try. So of course, we did! The many layers of rainbow coloured crepes were held together by some type of cream cheese frosting and topped with jam and a scoop of ice cream. The combination of the flavours were perfect and we devoured it pretty quickly. Definitely one of the best desserts we’ve had in a long time.

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We feel our visit to Pai was enhanced by our stay at Soi One Bedrooms and the coffee and dessert was a topping on the Cake (see what we did there?) from the little bistro called Pai Siam. Sure, we would have had a blast whether we stayed there or not, and there is a lot to do and see in and around Pai, but our night in the nicest hotel in pai, our smiley faced cappuccino and our delicious and unique crepe dessert made it extra special and extra memorable.

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Take a look at the map below to see how to get to Pai and where Soi One Bedrooms is located.