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