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On the Road to Pai, Thailand

road sign between chiang mai and pai

with Super-Takumar 55mm f1.8

The first time I rode from Chiang Mai on the road to Pai, Thailand, (and back), I did so on a yellow and black scooter that was swiftly christened The Wasp.

Once the trip was over, I wrote The Wasp and the Great Red Shark.

It was a short piece on how a more famous road trip taken with a vehicle also named after an animal had in some way inspired me.

Some months later, with my time in northern Thailand coming to an end, I decided that I wanted to do the Chiang Mai to Pai trip again.

The only consideration was, having already taken those photos of that trip on the road to Pai, how to create a new set that were markedly different?

A classic road trip in northern Thailand

I still have dreams of doing the big trip across the States in a rented soft top, following in the tyre tracks of Kerouac, shooting it all in that monochrome road trip/street photography style and documenting it here.

I’ve even thought about getting it down in a book. Self-published, of course. It’s a massive travel/photography/bucket list cliche, but with good reason.

For now, though, I was in Thailand. And I had a scooter, not a Ford or a Cadillac. However, there was one thing I did have.

Monochrome.

And then I had something else: the idea to style my pictures in that road trip and street photography way, creating a set with consistency, a natural flow, and where every shot had a purpose.

The bright Thai sunshine, with all the colours of the days and nights, lends itself to the vibrant colour photography I took on my previous times on the road to Pai. That and the light is what brings your shots to life.

Looking back at those sets now though, there’s no real story. As much as I still like the individual images, that’s what they are: sets of individual images.

This time, I would leave my camera set to monochrome, use only the Super-Takumar 55mm f1.8 on my Sony NEX for consistency, and try to give the set a more vintage look. Simply shooting monochrome wouldn’t be enough, though. The subjects, the composition, and the feeling would have to match too.

Texture would matter more than sharpness, energy would trump technical excellence, and atmosphere would come above all else.

nescafe and motorbike

Waking early and excited for the trip, I fuelled up with a can of coffee and a 7/11 croissant and set off, unsure of how the On the Road to Pai, Thailand project would turn out, or what kind of story I would have to go with it.

This wasn’t about shooting a random set of images: I wanted it to have a beginning, a middle, and an end.

What follows are the shots from a five day trip condensed into a two day report, for the benefit of the article.

chiang mai to pai scooter

Riding on the road to Pai, Thailand

When riding from Chiang Mai on the road to Pai, the first 45 minutes to an hour are spent on a long, straight, and unpleasant highway, heading north until reaching what has become one of my favourite road signs in the world.

Left turn, onto the 1095, all the way to Pai.

Although there is still a smaller, quieter stretch of long straight road (seen in the first picture of this article), the turn off the highway marks the end of the urban and the beginning of the rural.

And that is when the road to Pai gets interesting.

chiang mai pai shacks

monochrome road

gas station chiang mai to pai

thai rural road

monochrome flowers

The distance from Chiang Mai to Pai is around 80 miles, or 130 kilometres, with highway 1095 famously providing over 760 bends that need to be negotiated. This means the journey might take a little longer than you’d imagine.

It took me over four hours, including of course several photo stops, but when the road to Pai is as fun to drive as it is, there’s no reason to rush.

After stopping off at the Pai Memorial Bridge and looking for a shot of Chinese excursionists that would fit my project, I headed on into town, checked into the ever reliable Mr. Jan’s, and took a walk around the streets; some were full of tourists, others were being dug up, and one had a shop selling the kind of tie-dyed t-shirts you’d expect to find in Florida.

While that may sound an unnecessarily precise observation (and do Floridians even wear tie-dye anymore?) I only make the link because they had a picture of Mickey Mouse and the word ‘Florida’ on them.

Welcome to Asia.

chinese tourists at pai memorial bridge

busy tourist street

pai street barbecue

pai tourists

thailand pai roadworks

florida t shirts thailand

The Buddha and the canyon in Pai, Thailand

A short ride out to the east of Pai, the hillside big Buddha and its surroundings are still being finished. I didn’t realise this when I’d been before, believing the white colour to be by design.

It’s not.

It’ll eventually be painted gold, and the steps leading up to it will also one day not be a building site. The first time I went, there was no choice but to scramble up the hill though, so things are progressing.

Shooting with my Super-Takumar 55mm f1.8, I knew I wasn’t going to return from the Pai big Buddha with anything like a full shot of it, nor any sweeping landscape shots of the vistas from above.

Again, though, that wasn’t the idea for the photography on this trip.

For the style I was going for, with the first of these images in particular, the ongoing construction actually helped me.

pai bug buddha construction

pai big buddha sign

pai big buddha unfinished

big buddha pai

While the big Buddha is one of the best places to watch the sunset over Pai, so I’ve heard, I had plans to see it elsewhere.

I wasn’t alone in this either, as arriving at Pai Canyon with an hour or so to explore before the light went saw me climb the steps to the top with a throng of other folk.

The presence of other people isn’t something I complain about anymore as far as my photography goes.

I want my shots to reflect reality, and that often means including the people who are there, or even using them as your subject instead of the place you thought you were going to photograph.

Personally, I think a shift in the mindset of the photographer in these situations can help their images a lot.

Instead of shooting pictures of the location and trying to minimise the number of people in your shots, think about how to shoot the people with the location as your backdrop.

Before I rode to Pai Canyon for the sunset, I didn’t know how the pictures I was going to take would fit in with the project.

I didn’t really want empty landscapes or shots that were only of the sunset.

But when I saw the number of other people present, I knew I had something to work with; something to add interest to the shots that make up the evening chapter of this set.

pai canyon monochrome

pai canyon drinks

pai canyon path

pai canyon selfie

pai canyon tourists

pai canyon photograph

pai canyon tree

pai canyon sunset

Nightlife in Pai, Thailand

The sunset at Pai Canyon, including of course the golden hour, seemed to have gone well photographically.

Despite being previously unsure of how it would turn out, I headed back to the town confident that I’d taken a number of shots that would fit the project.

The challenge next, after a shower and a couple of beers on the patio at my room, was to document a Pai night.

Gone are the days when I would be out until the early hours in clubs, but I didn’t really need to be for this.

The main streets of Pai become a market by night, with food, souvenirs, art, and street performers all competing for your attention and cash. I walked around, trying to capture the feeling through my lens, until I’d done two full circuits of the town and retired to some bars.

For those of you interested in the technical side of photography, I think it’s worth noting here that I didn’t use a flash.

Even for night time street photography, you don’t necessarily need to, as there are usually other light sources you can use.

Light bulbs, pool table lamps, spotlights – the four people in the 7th shot here were actually illuminated by an oncoming car.

It just took a little patience for one to come along at the right time, although I was sitting outside a bar by then, so I was fine waiting.

artist pai thailand

pai street food vendor

street photography unicycle

pai thailand unicycle

pai thailand 7 11

pai hotel sign

pai night street

pai thailand pool table

pai thailand open mic

Riding from Pai to Chiang Mai

The day I left Pai, I again woke and set off early, aiming to get most of the riding done before the sun was at its strongest after midday.

The journey back to Chiang Mai seemed to go quicker than on the road to Pai, which is always the way, and I actually felt a twinge of sadness as I neared the end of the 1095 and knew that every kilometre closer to the horrible, long, straight highway that would take me back to Chiang Mai was another kilometre further from Pai, and another kilometre of glorious riding that would be in the past, with no idea when I might be able to experience it again, or if I ever will.

I took a few shots of the journey home, but not as many as on the way to Pai.

Along the way were a series of identical, seemingly abandoned structures, the purpose of which I have no idea.

The one I stopped at made a nice subject though, and certainly went with the (random things you see on a) road trip aspect of the set.

thailand pai pavilion

road chiang mai to pai

Finally, I reached the bottom of the 1095, turned right past the road sign I’d been so happy to see a few days earlier, and thought about the final highway leg of the journey.

Within a few metres however, something caught my eye and made me pull over.

On a trip spent taking photographs that were trying to evoke a vintage feel, part road trip, part street photography, and just when I thought that I’d have nothing else to add to it, an abandoned petrol station seemed heaven sent as a way to finish off.

chiang mai old gas station

abandoned petrol pumps

thai energy drinks

There’s no way I could have planned to end the set on a shot of left energy drink bottles when I took the photo of my coffee can days earlier, but I like that the set is bookended in this way.

The images in this article were taken with my Super-Takumar 55mm f1.8 over the course of a five day round trip to Pai, Thailand, (and I would have stayed longer had I not needed to get back to Chiang Mai to cover the Nomad Summit), and presented as if shot over the course of 24 hours here for the flow of the article.

The actual time in Pai was as memorable as ever, the photography interspersed with drinking, people watching, talking rubbish that nobody would ever want to listen to, and the general messiness that Pai does so well.

There are no stories I can tell here, or even that I think are worth telling, but just the being there did what Pai always does.

I was soon to leave Thailand, as I was soon to leave Asia for a while, and Pai seemed like one of my last hurrahs.

There’s one more shot I took on the trip that didn’t make the set.

I think it sums up my time in Pai, my time in Thailand, and most of time I’ve spent in Asia since 2009.

thai road sign odd days

It also makes me crave the next trip, wherever that may be.

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Chiang Mai to Pai on a scooter. I'd done it before, but I wanted to do it again, and I wanted to do it differently. Photographically differently. The previous times I'd been to Pai I'd shot in colour, because that's what people do when shooting travel photography, isn't it? To make this trip different, I decided to go less 'travel' and more 'road trip'. A classic, monochrome, echoes-of-the-50s road trip. Come and see how it turned out.

 

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