Fresh air, green mountains, friendly Lanna people — no wonder so many vagabonding travelers once decided to toss their passports and settle in the riverside town of Pai in Northern Thailand.
Situated in a valley just four hours north of Chiang Mai, Pai is a pleasant, easily accessible escape in the mountains when tourist hordes start clogging the moat around Chiang Mai. But the village-turned-town is certainly no longer the quiet "hippie" cove guidebooks once claimed.
Pai is a major stop for backpackers along the Banana Pancake Trail for lots of reasons, namely because the region is green and inexpensive. A handful of spiritual retreats set up shop. Yoga, organic food, and real coffee abound, as do options to earn a hangover socializing and then cure it later in the many juice shops and holistic health centers.
Pai remained one of Thailand's favorite backpacker mainstays until relatively recently when an improved road and popular Thai romantic movie put it on the map. Today, Pai is busier than ever with a spike in tourism. Thai, Chinese, and Western travelers head to Pai in greater numbers than ever, braving the winding road to see if the romance is still there.
Fortunately, the charm hasn't been all lost, but the vibe and clientèle have certainly changed.
Getting to Pai, Thailand
Route 1095, the scenic road to Pai, has become the subject of kitsch T-shirts and souvenirs.
The mountainous drive itself is growing into an "experience," much in the way that Route 66 became a pop-culture legend in the United States. The scenic drive passes through a national park and small villages along the way.
You have two options for getting to Pai: drive yourself for the fun of it or take cheap public transportation.
Buses and minibuses run daily from Chiang Mai to Pai (around four hours; $6). The audacity of speeding drivers and sickening twists and turns make the journey by minibus (usually a big van) less enjoyable. Fortunately, buses and minibuses stop right in the middle of the action along Pai's Walking Street.
With some experience on a scooter or motorbike, you can make your own way along Route 1095 through Northern Thailand. The road between Chiang Mai and Pai is a popular motorbiking route for travelers brave enough to take on the many twists and turns. Don't attempt the drive unless you are very comfortable with passing and being passed by large trucks hugging mountainous turns.
You'll want a scooter in Pai anyway, but if setting off on two wheels through the mountains sounds more terrifying than terrific, wait to rent one once you're in Pai. Daily motorbike rentals in Pai are cheaper (around $6 or less) than they are in Chiang Mai.
Tip: Fuel up! Pai is just out of range for most small scooters. Ideally, you should top off the tank somewhere on the main highway before entering the mountains. Once on the smaller road, there are only a few grandma-cranked petrol stations (a fuel drum and hand crank) that may or may not be open.
Where to Stay in Pai?
When visiting Pai, you'll have to make a crucial decision for accommodation: stay in town for convenience or stay just outside of town for serenity.
Although you can find very inexpensive accommodation scattered throughout the center of the tourist block in town, these are the places that receive the most turnover. They are also the noisiest. Taxis and tuk-tuks aren't a "thing" in Pai, so unless you drive a scooter, you'll probably want to stay in town so that places such as the nightly Walking Street are easily accessible. Staying central is also a good idea if you plan to take advantage of Pai's fun nightlife or care about having decent Wi-Fi.
If you're willing to stay just 10 minutes outside of town, you'll discover an abundance of good bargains for green, peaceful bungalows, ecostays/retreats, and isolated hostels.
These places are often quieter, friendlier, and less beaten up. Then again, if you enjoy the nightly after-party at the Don't Cry reggae bar just across the river, you'll need to get yourself home along rural roads in total darkness.
Tip: For the best of both options, cross the river on the bamboo footbridge just off the Walking Street and check out the many bungalow options. That side of Pai feels more rural and peaceful (there are no vehicles), however, you can safely walk home without needing transportation.
Getting Around Pai
You won't find the usual taxis and tuk-tuks in Pai. The town is very walkable, but there are some tantalizing attractions just outside of range. Your options for going farther afield are shared public songthaews (covered pickup trucks with bench seats), scooter, or bicycle.
Renting a scooter obviously offers the most flexibility — and it's fun! Many travelers learn to drive a motorbike for the first time in Pai, but that's not always a good thing. You'll see more than a few bandaged travelers limping around town who learned the hard way.
Aya Travel (located in the middle of the Walking Street) is the most popular travel company for renting scooters, however, there are several smaller shops nearby. You'll be asked to sign an agreement making you responsible for damage, then you'll have to leave your passport as collateral. Leaving your most valuable possession on the road behind doesn't feel good, but there's no getting around it.
Daily scooter rentals are among the cheapest in Thailand: plan on around $6 per day.
Tip: Request a free map then go directly for fuel. The gas stations are clustered together at the southern edge of town on Route 1095, the main highway.
Things to Do in Pai
Aside from relaxing, meeting other travelers, and enjoying the scenic surroundings, Pai has a few simple attractions on offer.
- Visit Waterfalls: Mo Paeng Waterfall is the most accessible of Pai's waterfalls; locals use a large, smooth rock which serves as a natural slide into a deep pool for swimming. Mae Yen Waterfall, slightly more impressive, is about four miles outside of town. Plan to swim.
- Visit the Hot Springs: A simple trail parallels a bubbling, sulfuric spring through Pai's small national park. Swimming is allowed, assuming you can handle the steep entrance fee, scalding water, and gagging smell!
- Enjoy the River: Much more serene than the party-scene tubing in Vang Vieng, Laos, both tubing and white water rafting are available between Mae Hong Son and Pai.
- Try Fishing: Bueng Pai Farm, a small farm and bungalow operation just outside of town, offers several pay ponds where you can purchase bait to fish by the hour. The staff are friendly and the setting is nice. The ponds are stocked with a large variety of exotic fish.
- Go to the Overlook: The overlook, located in a strangely set "Chinese Village," is more or less about enjoying the cup of tea included with the reasonable entrance fee while taking in green views of the valley.
- See the White Buddha: The giant Buddha statue on the hill just outside of town is a popular place for sunsets. Climbing the many stairs is a good workout for mind and body!
- Explore: The refreshing mountains and verdant rice fields surrounding Pai just beg to be explored by either bicycle or motorbike.
Tip: Pick up a copy of the Pai Events Planner (PEP), a free publication with useful map, to find out what's going on while you're in town. Chances are you'll find a workshop — or three — that interests you.
Shopping in Pai
The epicenter for socializing, nibbling, and shopping in Pai is the Walking Street. Although the market fires up in the evening, the street stays busy enough throughout the day.
Food, trinkets, and a large variety of handmade goods and souvenirs are available. Small souvenir shops line the street. The resident artist community always has interesting, handmade goods and jewelery for sale at tables and on blankets.
As with other places in Thailand, a little friendly haggling is expected. Small shops selling kitsch souvenirs and unique items are dotted throughout town — wander out of the main Walking Street area a bit!
Some good items to buy in Pai include:
- Art — handmade local art and jewelery abound!
- All-natural goods such as soap and beauty products
- Spices and natural medicines
- Handmade scarves and clothing items
Markets in Pai
Pai and the Mae Hong Son Province are home to delicious fresh fruit and organic produce, but don't overpay along the Walking Street. Instead, visit the "afternoon market" just a couple of blocks outside of the tourist area. Starting daily around 2 p.m., you'll find the half-covered market selling fruit, veggies, and practical goods (think: laundry detergent).
Various open-air markets pop up on different days in different places around town to supply the many restaurants and juice shops. Wednesday is a big market day in Pai.
Tip: Take advantage of the markets for trying whatever fruits are in season. Health-boosting mangosteens are always a hit.
Eating in Pai
The food choices, both healthy and otherwise, scattered around Pai are overwhelming. Vegetarians and vegans will be delighted. A hearty list of chilled-out, clean food eateries sell unique treats, baked goods, and even local kombucha and organic juices.
Of course, you could just sample your way along the nightly Walking Street. At $1 – 3 a treat, you can eat well. Some of the street food peddled from carts is prepared offsite and looks as though it peaked yesterday, while some is prepared fresh in front of you.
Tip: Despite Pai's green inclinations, most of the food carts give a styrofoam tray and plastic utensils for each small portion ordered. If you'll be eating from the Walking Street often, consider buying a reusable bowl and spoon ($1 – 2) from one of the homegoods shops to cut down on trash.
For comfortable places to sit and good food with healthy drinks, look for these Pai favorites:
- Om Cafe (open hours can be a little tricky)
- Earth Tone (located just outside of town)
- Art in Chai (free book library)
- Mama Falafel (a legend in Pai)
- Na's Kitchen (dinner only; slow-but-divine Thai food)
- Xin Chen Jai (inexpensive vegan buffet)
- Good Life (top-notch breakfast)
For a proper sit-down experience or date night, have a look at Silhouette or the Witching Well.
Nightlife in Pai
Surprisingly, the nightlife in Pai outshines the nightlife in Chiang Mai, despite the difference in size! You'll find plenty of options for music and socializing ranging from hip-hop and reggae to punk rock and many acoustic performers.
The Police in Pai
Unfortunately, the police in Pai have garnered a nasty reputation over the past decade for unprovoked harassment of backpackers and travelers. One Canadian tourist was fatally shot, and another was wounded by an intoxicated police officer in 2008.
The police have been known to forcefully perform drug checks in bars with their mobile testing platform. They frequently stop travelers who drive scooters — wear a helmet and know how to deal with local police who are looking for a bribe.