Pai Travel Guide

Tour Northern Thailand



Mountainous Artistic Community

Half way between the postcard-perfect Mae Hong Son loop that winds from Chiang Mai to Mae Hong Son, a small mountain village has been attracting the free spirited and the alternative lifestyle travellers. It wasn't until the late ninety's that Pai – situated in the larger Mae Hong Son province – became recognized as a destination in its own right, and since then, there has been no turning back.

The size of Pai allows the town to retain a small village vibe, while its middle-of-nowhere location lends to its appeal as a commune hideaway hidden in the valley and surrounded by lush peaks. Strewn around the mini-town are picturesque coffee shops, artistic guesthouses, and boutiques selling hemp souvenirs, all adding up to a charming bohemian ambiance.

A Charming Bohemian Ambiance

Pai town center comprises just a handful of sleepy streets, easily explored on foot. A river runs through the town, open up a few more water-based activites. On the whole, however, the list of to-do's in and around Pai is not extensive, but that is the whole appeal of the place; Pai is the kind of destination where one puts away the watch, unplugs from the world, and enjoy life moment by moment.

Visitors can easily spend a day away wandering around the city center or floating leisurely down the river on a bamboo raft. The outskirts of town are sprinkled attractions and points of interest, including hot springs, a sprinkling of temples, and hiking trails. Back in town when the sun sets behind the forested mountains, kindred friendships can be forged at any of the town's watering holes.

For visitors who use holidays to slow down and smell the proverbial roses, Pai makes a perfect destination to while away days on end. If the pace of life is too slow, visitors can also consider taking a one- or two-night detour from Chiang Mai, which is just three hours away by car on one of the most scenic stretches of lazy winding roads in Thailand.


Doing Nothing

Pai's crown jewels are its natural attractions, but travellers will be pleased to hear the small town does have its fair share of cultural spots that, though the don't warrant a day trip, make for interesting pit stops on a day out exploring the countryside. However, it is recommended to keep in mind that Pai is more of a “do nothing” destination, so some might find the attractions so-called purely for tourism sake.

Located at the end of a long flight of some 350 steps, Wat Phra That Mae Yen is a traditional however humble temple. You can also take a car up to the top, but the view across Pai is that much more satisfying when you've put in the effort to get there. There is a massive Buddha statue seated hilltop nearby, which is expected to open no earlier than 2015.

Just outside of town, the WWII Memorial Bridge remembers the region's history when it was occupied by the Japanese army; there's not much else to do but to walk across it and take photos, but it does provide a poignant reminder of the area's past.


Adventure

River Activities

Bamboo rafting down the Pai river is as low key as an activity one can engage in. Just as the name suggests, the passive activity allows plenty of time to admire the riverscape. River tubing is a new arrival on the Pai river scene – again a relaxed activity to sit and watch the world float by – but it doesn't quite have the hedonistic vibe as Vang Vieng. A few outfitters also organize white water rafting starting from about two hours away from town. Other than the river gorge, day or overnight trips usually take in other sites, which include hot sprints and a spot of trekking, a day trip which costs approximately THB 1,500 (~US$48) give or take a few hundred.

Caves

About an hour's drive from Pai off Soppong / Pang Mapha, the cave system known Tham Lot is known for spellbinding stalactite- and stalagmite-filled “cathedrals”. The river runs through the cave, and every evening, hundreds of thousands of swifts and bats swarm the skies before flying into the cave, making for a spectacular scene. The area is riddled with caves – best book on a trekking tour with an experienced guide. Teakwood coffins found in these caves have suggested a pre-historic settlement from millennia past.


Trekking

Waterfalls & trekking

Mor Paeng, located about nine kilometers (or a two hour trek) from town near Santichon Village, is perhaps the most visited waterfall in the area. It's not the most impressive of cascades, but just like its host city, it's not about flashy wow-ness. There's a discernible difference in water volume between rainy and dry season. Smooth boulders act as a water slide, so bring your swimmers just in case. Pam Bok Waterfall is also a good choice, while Mae Yen is slightly further at about three hours (trekking) one way.

Hot Springs

The natural mineral waters from Pai Hot Springs trickles through the forest, featuring several pools of varying degrees of heat, including the hottest source pool, the latter too hot to dip but perfect for boiling an egg snack. A THB200 (~US$6.40) national park entrance fee is levied on foreigners, but especially after a long day trekking, riding, or a soak during cooler winter evenings, is well worth it. A bit further some 35 kilometers from town, the Muang Paeng hot springs make for a scenic backdrop for a stroll through nature, but unfortunately are too hot to soak in.

Markets & Shopping

Though not a primary shopping destination (nor secondary for that matter), visitors won't be able to resist a spot of street market peppered with a smattering of food vendors.

Every Wednesday, Pai Walking Street sets up from around sunset in the middle of town, which during winter high season, increases to a nightly frequency and balloons in size with additional vendors joining the fray. In the cool night air under the glow of exposed lightbulbs, vendors sell everything from handmade crafts, paintings, and souvenirs that proudly display the town's name. As with any night market in the kingdom, there is street food galore with plenty of local delights for visitors to take a break from browsing. Many shops also cater to the “postcard from Pai” trend, where you can send a “wish you were here” taunt to your loved ones.

Other than the walking street, Pai Town is also home to a handful of shops that are open for business during the day time, selling trinkets, handmade bags, and all boho-essentials.

Ing Doi Guesthouse also organizes regular Sunday Farmers Markets where visitors can pick up fresh baked breads, organic juices, and other produce from the surrounding land. Do check in advance with the guesthouse, because this isn't held every week without fail.


Coffee, Tea or Chai

Sleepy towns call for cutesy coffee shops, something Pai has in abundance. All About Coffee on Chaisongkram Road is the holy trinity of cafes, comprising strong coffee (different blends served in varying options), divine homemade cakes, and an artisitc homely vibe. The free WiFi is just icing on the cake. If it's a lush valley panorama backdrop you're looking for to go with your cup of joe, head out to Coffee in Love (along with everyone else in Pai, so best to go early). Amongst the other cafes littered about town are Madame Ju Coffee, Pai Now (a Black Canyon cafe cloaked in Pai-ness), and Sincere Coffee, collectively proving that when in Pai, “coffee shop-ing” should be an activity in itself.

In line with the town's late-to-wake attitude, Art in Chai, a hippy hangout if you will, opens at 11 a.m. from Mondays to Saturdays, including jam nights on Saturdays. If live music floats your boat, check out Edible Jazz on Chaisongkram Road on Thursdays and Sundays and try one of their famed burritos. The Witching Well is a cafe slash restaurant with wooden interiors and a parking area for brooms (of course) with a hearty all day breakfast that rivals that of Boomelicious Cafe at Soi One Corner Plaza.

Pai After Dark!

For more local tastes, Baan Benjarong serves quality Thai cuisine with all the favorites ranging from dip appetizers, curries, and yam (Thai-styled salad). Chew Xin Jai near the police station makes delicious meatless food, as does vegetarian eatery Earth Tone, located near Phra That Mae Yen Temple.

Nocturnal venus close relatively early in Pai town, but those on the outskirts tend to stay open later. Some of the livelier nocturnal venues include the compact Blah Blah Bar, where they serve no-nonsense beer and whiskey, rocking tunes, and a friendly vibe. Almost Famous is definitely famous with the locals, while Bebop Bar and Buffalo Hill both feature nightly live music. Al beach towns in Thailand and many other popular tourist spots seemingly have a Reggae Bar – Pai's, located on the road leading to Chiang Mai, is as laid back as they come.


Getting Around

Around Pai

Pai is not big enough to warrant public transportation – in fact the town is small enough to get around by foot. If you're not staying in “downtown”, and would like to explore the surrounding countryside on your own, consider renting a car, motorbike, or better yet, a bicycle.

110 cc scooters go for about THB100 (~US$3.20) which can go up to THB700 (~US$22.40) per day for a Honda CRF motocross and trail bike from rental shops.


Getting In and Out

In an out of Pai

Pai has somewhat of a “hard to get to” reputation. Granted, it might not be as easy compared to more well developed destinations such as neighboring Chiang Mai, but it all adds to the sense of journey discovery when you finally reach the town.

By Air

There are no direct Bangkok – Pai flights. The only airline that services the small Pai Airport is Kan Airlines, which flies from Chiang Mai once daily at 10:20 a.m. – a 25 minute flight that costs just under THB2,000 (~US$64) per passenger.

By Train

The closest railway station to Pai is Chiang Mai. There are five trains that leave from Bangkok every day, from 8:30 a.m. (arriving 12 hours later) to the last one leaving at 10 p.m. (arriving about 15 hours later).

From Chiang Mai, buses and mini-buses leave the main Arcade Bus Station off Kaew Nawarat Road regularly for a journey that takes give or take between just under three hours to five hours. Budget THB200 for the fare, which leaves change for a drink during the mid-way pitstop.

Alternatively, if the budget allows, the last leg of the journey can be via Kan Airlines from Chiang Mai.

By Bus

There are no direct buses from Bangkok to Pai. Sombat Tour is one of the few (if not the only company) that plies the Bangkok – Mae Hong Son route leaving thrice daily (3, 5, and 5 p.m.). The ride is some 17 hours long, so if the budget allows, go for their VIP buses for THB 905 (~US$29). From Mae Hong Son, travellers would have to make their way to Pai via bus or minivan.

Plenty of bus companies leave the capital's Mo Chit 2 bus station to Chiang Mai, where travellers would again have to change to another bus or minivan for the final leg of the journey to Pai. Travellers can also complete the Chiang Mai to Pai leg on a Kan Airlines flight.