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Pai could easily be seen as just another town on the tourist track. It used to be a sleepy town in a valley in Mae Hong Song Province until recently, when a couple Thai movies were filmed here and tourism exploded for the wealthy Thai. Luckily best parts of Pai is the environment of the surrounding hills.

Climbing from Chiang Mai, you find yourself passing through coffee plantations up to vistas that seem another world away from the plains of Bangkok. The apogee of the drive takes you through what would be considered alpine here, the drier sides of the hills home to long-needled pines, this is another place altogether that I fear I won’t get to fully explore.

Pai is approximately 50 miles from the border of Burma. There is no border crossing in this province, they are few and far between with the volatile neighbor. That doesn’t stop illegal animal trading, drug trafficking, and the hill tribe Karen of the region fleeing over the border into a slightly more tolerant Thailand. The modern sense of borders is certainly challenged here, regional consideration of the people and land seems more important than much else.

While it is a quiet place to relax, there has been turbulence in the past. I suspect people have moved through this region much more recently than 800 years ago, yet the first recorded settlement was of the Shan ethnic group of Burmese origin in a place called Bang Wiang Nuea near modern Pai. This land however was seen to be a part of the Lanna Kingdom of Nothern Thailand. Loyal Lanna were expected to migrate to the outer regions to secure them and soon conflict arose, forcing much of the Shan to migrate back North (established families were allowed to stay by the Prince of Lanna). In the late 1800s there was another push to populate the borders to secure Siam from foreign interests of France (via Laos) and England (via Burma) which resulted in further fighting between the Shan and the Lanna. This one burnt the village to the ground in 1869 and the rebuilding resulted in the modern placement of Pai.

Away into the hills here there are many birds and you would never know of the extensive human history nearby. It remains still one of the remaining expanses of intact forest left in Thailand (Thailand may be 12% National Park, Wildlife Area, etc. but the rest is startlingly devoid of habitat). Being the dry season here, hillsides are turning red and yellow. The Dipterocarp trees (I believe the predominant species being Dipterocarpus tuberculatus), deciduous in response to lack of water, tower above the rest of the forest lofting their massive, withering leaves down to earth. In a month fires, natural or otherwise, will begin to stride over the horizon.

With almost a week here we’ve seen a lot of nature. And while this is not “real” Thailand in a cultural sense it’s been a good introduction to getting about and self sufficiency. 110cc mopeds serve as our transport, an ideal freedom, which we will certainly take advantage of in the future. Simple exploration of the weedy fields adjacent to the guest house has revealed many new birds included our first birds of prey, Common Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus) and Rufous-winged Buzzard (Butastur liventer). Dazzlingly adorned Wire-tailed Swallows (Hirundo smithii) slip over the soft hills and Indian Rollers (Coracias benghalensis) flash bright blue wings against a dusky gray body. The birds still are spectacularly shy and difficult to photograph. My biggest hope is that in long established National Parks (Khao Yai, is the oldest est. 1962) further south will hold better opportunities.

Waterfalls are all about, pouring out of the hills into the valley. Every one of them has a lattice of PVC pipe running out of them, necessary for the fields all about the lowlands. Water attracts birds, which means we’ve explored several, some you can drive right up to and some taking hours over optimistically placed trails to reach.

Elephants used to live in the wild here but now serve only as tourist attractions and further out for work in the forests. They’ve been an important aspect of culture here for ages both symbolically and in practical means. Scott and I both avoided the topic of riding elephants because we expect the other would find this an overly touristy option. After playing in the river with two forty year olds, I realized that even if this was exploitation (which is a western idea certainly), it certainly provided good contact to build an appreciation for the declining Asiatic Elephant (Elephas maximus).

In terms of bird life, thus far I’ve seen nearly 80 new species of birds. That seems paltry considering the wealth of species here but without extensive knowledge of bird song or guides, I think we’re doing pretty good. Trying to catch glimpses of birds in bamboo undergrowth or high above in back lit flowering Dipterocarps towering over forest, means we inevitably miss things. But if the goal was to arrive and tick off every species, I likely wouldn’t even bother blogging about it and I would likely be a much wealthier person.

Scott, Ryan, and I are parting ways at this point. Scott is headed to India on Tuesday and will stay another day in Pai after we leave tomorrow. Ryan and I plan on getting back to Pai early, renting mopeds, and heading to Doi Inthanon National Park to explore the tallest mountain in Thailand.


  1. Alison Wysong

    Just back from Patgonia–put that in your future file. Amazing! Sounds like you’re having a great time. We bird sewage ponds, why not garbage dumps!

    • Brendan

      Can’t wait to hear about your adventure too – I’ll look forward to visiting in April?

  2. Jean Mills

    I am enjoying your travelogue. Since I have visited there I have a bit of a feel for the area you are enjoying. Keep well Jean

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