Slice of PAI: The Hippiest Town in N.Thailand.
Pai is one of those places you pretty much will love or will hate. A fairly sleepy town approximately 80km north of Chiang Mai that has become more popular over the years. Although a tourist hotspot, it has still retained it’s laid back vibe, even during the peak tourist season of November to late January.
The first thing (in my opinion) you may notice about Pai town center is the feeling that you are no longer in Thailand. It seems to be a place of it’s own, not really feeling “Thai” at all. I am always taken aback by how few local Thai there seems to be, which is outweighed by the non-Thai visitors, expats and long-stayers. In more recent years I’ve also seen more Chinese visitors. (In fact, Chinese tourists are traveling over a lot of the Northern region. There has been an influx of Chinese tourists since the famous Chinese movie “Lost in Thailand” was released. Plus with the dramatic strengthening of the Yuan currency and the freedom to travel, the Chinese have been enjoying a level of spending power and freedom never before experienced). Pai vibe is also generally a young vibe. There are older visitors and families, but in general it is has a young backpacker-hippy vibe about it. Something to keep in mind when visiting.
Well lets get onto my personal top recommendations and things to do and enjoy when in Pai:
Pai Canyon is a popular attraction 8km from the main town. The easiest way to get to it is via motorbike/scooter, but you can also arrange transportation at one of the tour agencies. For the super fit, you could cycle there. The best time to visit in my opinion is just before sun rise or sun set.
*Spoiler*: The canyon is not huge, so don’t expect something epic or you will come away disappointed.
Waterfalls (Mo Paeng & Pam Bok)
Mo Paeng is the closest waterfall to get to from Pai town. Again the most simple way to get there is via motorbike/scooter, but transport can be arranged. With it being the closest, it also makes it the busiest, so don’t expect a tranquil waterfall setting. Many like to test their mettle by sliding down the waterfall on the slippery rocks. This comes with risks, so I am not advocating it, just informing. It’s a
good place to hang out if looking to make new friends, but not a place if you are looking for tranquility.
Pom Bok Waterfall is on the route to the Pai Canyon and a little further from Pai town. This waterfall is less crowded than Mo Paeng and more tranquil. It does attract local people also, so you will see far less foreigners here in general.
On the way to Pom Bok waterfall you will pass by a small privately owned property titled as “Land Split” (see waterfall map above). This venue offers delicious fruits and drinks to passersby for a donation fee. “Land Split” was once a small commercial agricultural piece of land which was cultivated by the owner and his wife. However, one morning in 2008 they awoke to find a giant crack in their land, rendering the land unusable, essentially destroying their family business. In order to sustain their livelihood and life they turned to offering what was left of their fruit trees produce to passerby’s at no cost, but on a generosity basis hoping for donations. It was a brave move on their part and admirable. They are lovely people. Its worth stopping off to enjoy the fruit and meet the couple. Just remember to leave a donation.
Santichon Chinese (Yunnanese) Village
On the way to Mo Paeng Waterfall you will come across Santichon Village (see waterfall map above). It is really mainly just set up for tourists, offering souvenir shops, small tea-shops and restaurants. Still, it is an interesting stop off point none-the-less.
Walking Street (and street food)
Pai walking street comes alive in the early evening when vendors set up stalls selling trinkets, accessories and food. There are permanent shops and eateries along this strip which are open in the daytime and evening, but the best time to enjoy the street is when the sun goes down. There is usually a large variety of street food options which includes vegetarian and vegan. During off-peak seasons the road is more quiet with less vendors setting up along the strip, but at peak season they are in full swing.
Pai memorial bridge is approximately 9km from the town centre and is a popular point for visitors. Originally the bridge was built during World War II by Japanese soldiers, who wanted to create a route from Chiang Mai to Mae Hong Son in order to attack Burma, which at the time was a colony of the United Kingdom. The original bridge, which was created in 1941 using forced labour and the power of elephants, was burned down, but was replaced at a later date.
I need to say that I am not an advocate of riding Elephants (or worse, seeing them perform acts or paint pictures) and there is a multitude of information on the net about why this is harmful practice (so i wont get into it on here). I am however an advocate of supporting elephant camps that provide proper care and rehabilitation for elephants (such as Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai). For this reason I prefer not to promote any kind of elephant camp unless I know for sure about the ethical treatment that goes on there. Please do read TripAdvisor and other reviews for any place you intend to visit that involves animals or children.
There are several hot springs dotted around Pai area, including a few hot spring Spa Resorts. I have personally only visited one, around early January 2008, for a short camping trip within the Huai Nam Dang National Park. My memory of this place was feeling a bit out of place as I was the only non-Thai at the time. As a young Western woman with a Thai partner I felt like a curiosity which made my visit a bit uncomfortable. However, these days it is far more common to see foreigners, so I am sure it would be a very different experience if I were to go again. As I haven’t visited any others in the area, especially those closer to the main town, I cannot personally recommend any to go to. There are plenty available from cheap to higher end, if that is an experience you would like to have.
Pai town comes alive at night and the streets and bars fill with people. Keep in mind that the hippy vibe is still the thing, so night time still has a laid back feel about it even when people are in a party mood. The most popular bars for early evening are around Wiang Tai street and up through walking street. Later in the evening people tend to head to Don’t Cry Bar or Bebop Bar.
Other activities and pursuits
There are plenty of activities and excursions you can book through any travel agent in Pai (and there are PLENTY of travel agents!), such as water rafting, cycling tours, and the like. One place to consider is Lod Cave, which is situationed in Sappong, between Pai and Mae Hong Son. This spectacular cave is well worth a visit as is the guide fee of approx 450 baht (one set fee for up to three people). Best if you get there early as can get quite busy with tourists, especially during high season.
Pai also offers meditation retreats and spiritual guidance options for those who wish to engage in spiritual and holistic pursuits and/or alternative lifestyles. There is also a circus school which offers accommodation.
Pai offers a variety of accommodation to suit a variety of budgets. Plenty of backpacker hostels around and a lot of small resorts. My personal favorite place to stay is a little out of the main town section at a resort named Pairadise. Not the cheapest price, but offers a nice chilled out quiet place to relax. The beds are very comfortable and the hammock on the balcony is a nice way to wind down.
Plenty of scooter and bicycle rental places dotted around, with the most popular being “Aya“. Aya also allows you to rent a bike in Chiang Mai and drop it off in Pai (and vice-versa). The offer a variety of tours and excursions and arrange mini van transportation.
Drugs in Pai…
When talking about the town of Pai the subject of drugs often pops up. Drugs are available in Pai, mainly the type you smoke and the type that gives you a happy buzz. You will likely encounter a few local hill people shouting out to you on the way to Mo Paeng waterfall, as well as a few places offering options after hours. Whatever you decide please do keep in mind that drugs are illegal in Thailand and penalties are harsh.
Drugs are not taken lightly in Thailand.
Getting to Pai
There are several road routes to Pai, the most popular being the 1095 from Chiang Mai (My easy guide to this road is HERE). There is also 108 route from Mae Hong Son. Or, for the more adventurous minded, the back road from Chiang Mai/Samoeng via Wat Chan. (I did this back route trip and you can read more about that HERE). Obviously my personal choise is by bike, but there are plenty of private and public transport options. If you prefer to avoid the road altogether you can fly, as Pai has it’s own airport.
So..has this been helpful?
..and those who have been to Pai, did I miss anything?
Let me know in the comments! 😀