Pai is a peaceful town in Thailand you’ve never heard of
NESTLED in the mountains northwest of Chiang Mai – Thailand’s second largest city – lies the small town of Pai, known commonly to travelers as a kind of hippie mecca.
Sleepy Pai sits in a valley in Mae Hong Son Province, and the main town is comprised of a few blocks dotted with restaurants, shops and galleries.
By day, Pai is a quiet, friendly place and by night… well, it’s not all that different. There are a number of places to grab a drink and mix with locals, fellow travelers and expats who have made their home in Pai, but rarely do they get crowded with most closing up at midnight.
Prices for food and accommodations in Pai are cheaper than Chiang Mai, though there is an abundance of quality eats for such a small town. The low-key atmosphere at all establishments contributes to Pai’s charm, which is mostly that it’s a place to do very little while pausing to really enjoy yourself while on vacation.
While the town’s reputation as a hippie enclave is well-deserved, thanks to the rastafarians and dreadlocked denizens who dwell here, there are also a number of families and retirees who flock to Pai to see what all the fuss is about. It is also becoming a popular getaway spot among Thais.
What to see
Pai is an idyllic place to rest and rejuvenate, and isn’t exactly a place one goes to do much sight-seeing. However, renting a motorbike and riding around outside the town affords visitors breathtaking views of the region’s natural beauty. There are also a number of waterfalls and hot springs on the outksirts of town, as well as the natural wonder of Pai Canyon. Whitewater rafting, tubing down the Pai River and jungle trekking can also easily be added to the agenda.
Pai is best enjoyed by taking leisurely strolls through the small town, indulging in the tasty local and foreign foods, and reading a good book while swinging in a bungalow hammock.
Yoga studios such as Xhale Yoga offer retreat packages that will appeal to those looking to stay fit and get in touch with their inner selves while in town. Visitors can also take a course in Thai cooking from a number of different vendors throughout Pai.
Where to stay
For a town of about 3,000 people, there are a great number of guest houses and accommodation options in Pai. Budget travelers might be interested in places such as Pai Loess Resort, which rents out riverside bungalows that include a semi-enclosed bathroom and WiFi for 100 baht a night (US$2.8).
For those who lack a tolerance for mosquitoes and the sound of animals moving outside their doors in the night, there are a number of moderately priced guest houses, including TTK Guesthouse, which offers large rooms for 250 baht a night (US$7). These come equipped with a fan, private bathroom with hot water and two bedrooms.
At the other end of the spectrum are a number of lovely resorts situated on the outskirts of town, such as the beautiful Oia Pai Resort & Spa.
Where to eat
Pai offers a plethora of dining options – a surprising amount, in fact, considering its size. Of course there are standard Thai food eateries, the best of which is the Curry Shack. Chef Lee cooks a perfectly satisfying dish every time (this author ate there three times in five days) and provides courteous service as well. In addition to the entrees, there are also fresh, tasty fruit shakes and smoothies on the menu, as well as refreshing Thai teas and coffees.
For a whimsical dining experience, the charming Witching Well is a must-try. The menu is extensive, including crepes, pastas, salads and a range of other dishes, and the food is fresh and well-prepared. Desserts are homemade on the premises and are truly delightful, particularly the blueberry cheesecake.
There are also plenty of street vendors selling an array of savory and sweet goodies at night along the walking street. Baked potatoes, corn, sushi, noodles cooked-to-order and deep-friend bananas are but a few of the choice dishes to nibble while perusing tables of handmade jewelry, shoes, clothes and other goods.
Where to drink
The nightlight scene in Pai is hardly a rollicking one, though there are a number of bars at which visitors can imbibe. Yellow Sun benefits from an exceptionally friendly staff who wave visitors in and invite them to sit down and have a drink. There are pool tables and deals on drink buckets for the crowd here, which mostly consists of young travelers and backpackers.
Almost Famous is a small venue a few doors down from Yellow Sun, and has a more mellow atmosphere. Cocktails here are as cheap as 50 baht (less than US$1.4) and the service is friendly.
For those unwilling to turn in at midnight, venues such as Don’t Cry and Bamboo stay open later. All are within walking distance of one another, so revelers can stumble through the town to try them all.
Where to shop
Pai is a fantastic spot for those who like to shop for souvenirs. There are a number of boutiques that sell jewelry and art here, and there are plenty of clothing shops as well. In addition to the standard flowing pants and tank tops, specialty shops, such as the local cobbler, sell hand-worked accessories and leather goods. It’s also easy to find natural beauty products, toiletries and massage oils for a good price.
How to get there
There are a number of ways to get to Pai, depending on your travel style. Mini buses run hourly from Chiang Mai and cost between 150–180 baht (US$4.2-5) each way. The trip takes around three and a half hours, including stopping at a rest area, and are a convenient way of making the trip.
Those who wish to go it alone can rent a motorbike and tackle the steep curves on the road to Pai themselves. This is a great way of taking in the Pai scenery, but those who opt to go the motorbike route should make sure they rent a vehicle suitable for the mountains, not a city bike.
There is an airport in Pai so it’s also possible to take a domestic flight. Check out Kan Airlines for prices and reservations.