Worth the Hype: Pai, Thailand
Pai is One of the Coolest Places in Thailand
As we made our way to the beautiful bohemian town of Pai nestled majestically in the mountains of North West Thailand, braving 762 gut wrenching twists and turns up a 4 hour, narrow mountain pass from Chiang Mai, we started to wonder if the journey is worth it and more importantly, if the valium would hold up!
Thankfully the answer for us was a resounding yes. Pai ended up being one of our favourite spots in Southeast Asia and one of the few places we’ve visited that we believe is doing tourism right. Although they have seen a steady influx of both backpackers and local tourists (due to a popular Thai romantic comedy set there) they have done a great job not over saturating the little mountain village with heart sucking resorts and chain stores. Yes, a few big name franchises have moved in here and there and there is an obvious attempt to cater to the Japanese penchant for all things “cute”, uniqueness still reign supreme. There is a strong likeminded expat community who obviously work hard with the locals to keep Pai’s character intact.
One of the things we love about Thailand (and there is a lot to fall in love with) are the cheap accommodations. Take our place in Pai for instance, Mountain View Guest House: we had a fantastic private bungalow with a beautiful sunrise view for only $8 a night. They also make a wicked breakfast, just try to find a better yogurt & muesli for less than $3 in Asia.
We’ve now been all over Southeast Asia and we can confidently tell you that you are not going to find value accommodation like this in many other places.
As soon as we took our first walk around, we realized this isn’t like any other place in Thailand. There is a real bohemian vibe to the place, as artisans of every kind seem to have found a safe haven here. You’ll see yoga, meditation, Reiki, mandala drawing workshops and every other conceivable type of holistic practice promoted here. There’s a Muay Thai, Karate and even a Circus School in town.
There is a true uniqueness to the types of shops you’ll see here, each so different from the next. The cafes, bars, tattoo shops and restaurants are thoughtfully chocked full of thought-provoking paintings, wood work and street art. You have hill tribe women selling handmade scarves next to a local peddling doggy clothing next to someone skillfully painting portraits, beside someone selling organic mountain honey next to someone selling specialty tea and on and on it goes.
One of our absolute favourite things about Pai is the Night Market which runs every evening along the old strip. This market has to be one of the most unique, not only to Thailand but Southeast Asia as you have one of the most eclectic collections of vendors you’ll ever see. There are a plethora of food vendors from around the world – classic toy vendors, artisans, hill-tribe women hawking purses and scarves, t-shirt vendors selling clothing that you won’t find anywhere else in Southeast Asia. Did we mention the rockstar tea vendors in viking hats selling you tea in refillable bamboo tubes? The Night Market is a real treat and by far the best place to check out for dinner, the variety is endless.
Speaking of food, Pai has a TON of unique food options, some of the healthy vegetarian variation along with some of the indulgent & delicious variety which means something for everyone. We would highly recommend two places in particular, Art in Chai for the best handmade chai tea you’ll have in Southeast Asia and Om Garden Cafe for the best vegetarian food we have EVER had. After discovering these two gems, there was hardly a day that went by that we weren’t at one or both of them.
Although it’s true that the village area has a lot to offer on its own (and you can spend endless hours and days in the myriad of cafes), you absolutely need to spend at least a couple days exploring the gorgeous countryside. For about $4 USD per day we rented a brand new scooter and spent the next two days exploring the surrounds.
Our first stop was the Pai Land Split. About 15 minutes outside of town, sits a perfect example of human ingenuity in tourism. In 2011, a family of farmers saw their traditional agricultural lands erupt and split creating a massive crevasse. Rather than abandoning the area and moving on, they cleverly created a place to showcase their amazing hospitality, produce and the mind-blowing change in landscape. Upon arrival we were served a generous platter of hibiscus juice, fresh bananas, papayas, passionfruit, peanuts and tamarinds – all from their land and we were not charged a cent for it.
After our refreshments, the family showed us around garden and we walked to the top of the hill behind the farm where the crevasse is most apparent and there’s a great view of the countryside. The family graciously accepts donations and they sell delicious homemade banana chips and jams. We loved the community “pay-what-you-can” concept, often seen in playhouses and yoga studios back home, but were really impressed with how they’ve applied it here. The Land Split is definitely worthy of a stop on your way to visit the surrounding natural beauty in the area.
On the way back from the Land Split, we stopped by the Pai Hot Springs which we had heard about online during one of our regular searches of “weird things to do in…”. Most people who’ve been to a hot spring (onsen) know about their legendary healing powers but we were mostly there for Pai’s hottest hot spring, where you can actually boil yourself up some eggs and then have a little picnic with the locals. The setup and atmosphere is really quiet nice, with large natural pools increasing in temperature by about 1 degree centigrade as you make your way up a hill and a pretty equal mix of tourists and locals all seeking the healing properties of the natural springs.
At the very top of the hill are two boiling hot springs with a row of bamboo baskets with stick attached to the ends resting in the water. We had found our cooking area! We were definitely more excited about the fact that we would be cooking eggs in a hot spring than actually eating them and it was a good thing as we had thought we had left our eggs in long enough, even putting them back in twice, but alas we ended up with only half boiled eggs (we have trouble following well marked directions apparently). This combined with the fact that I had just stepped knee deep into mud trying to get a cool photo made us pretty popular with the locals. Not as friends, but rather the days’ entertainment. Totally worth it.
The next day we drove around more of the countryside taking in waterfalls, rice fields, mountain views and crossing the bridge the Japanese built as an “I’m sorry for occupying you” present. One of our favourite things to do in Pai was to just get on our bike and go for a ride. The day before we had spotted a sign for Pai Canyon and thought it might be a great spot for sunset so we decided to stop there.
The canyon was really breathtaking. It reminded me a little of the badlands area in Southern Alberta where hoodoos spring up from the desert. The wind and water carved formations stretch throughout the valley. Some people use these thin rock formations to walk through the canyon side and I can tell you that some are passable but most take some serious guts to cross as they are very narrow, have no side rails and have a huge drop off on either side (you would never see this shit in North America!). You just may want to opt out if all you have are Asian trekking shoes (i.e. flip-flops). If you have a good insurance plan, we say go for it 😉
Pai is one of those places that we wouldn’t have visited if not for hearing first hand from other travellers how much they loved it. After hearing it over and over again we decided that although we had already “done” Northern Thailand during our first round in country, we would take the trip to check out Pai. We really hoped it would live up to all the hype and it didn’t disappoint.
We loved going to the market each night and seeing something different – new and bizarre buskers or artisans selling incredible crafts we didn’t notice the night before. We loved taking the bike around and exploring the breathtaking countryside seeing unique and picturesque landscape like the canyon, land split and hot springs. We loved the chai tea, the crocodile burgers, the bars where you drink (inside?) around a bonfire watching the stars, and the healthy food options around every corner.
We loved the types of people Pai attracts: creative & interesting, fun & introspective, worldly people – in other words, a little less of the bros and hos looking to get hammered every night that you see in other parts of Thailand.
Thailand has so much to offer in terms of experiences, culture and vastly different landscapes; the mountainous northwest really shouldn’t be missed. Some of the people who were there during Pai’s “glory days” (when it began its transition from Burmese drug smuggling hotspot days to a little bohemian utopia) claim Pai is not what it used to be, and with two 7-11s, that’s no doubt true.
Times change, Pai has grown up but they’ve done a good job differentiating themselves, keeping the development to a minimum and because of this it’s easy to see why the town remains popular for both foreigners and locals.
Ross & Alyse