Pai, Why we love this little town in North Thailand
The small town of Pai has resonated throughout our thoughts ever since we visited during our round the world trip back in 2005.
The peaceful laid back settlement, a dot among abundant hills and vegetation densely cloaking the land, stayed with us long after our departure.
The rich green lands enveloping Pai are home to waterfalls, hot springs, rice fields and Karen, Lisu and Hmong hill tribe villages.
Surrounded by mountains and up near the Burmese border, Jmayel’s heritage just a fleeting distance over the trees to the west.
On our previous voyage through Pai, I remember being down beat on the day we took the bus back down to Bangkok, not knowing if I would ever be returning.
All the yearning and reminiscing of Pai from our sofa in England and now, here I am, 7 years later, with my Husband and dog in tow, we had returned.
The universe putting us firmly back on the path to Pai.
The 1095 highway leading out of Chiang Mai snakes its way upwards towards Pai, just half an hour after waving the city goodbye you enter REAL Thailand territory. The Northern Thailand that you see in the magazines, dense landscape, alive with rich greenery, passing sporadic villages along the way, road side coffee stalls everywhere as you pass by local coffee plantations.
The majestic views stay shyly hidden by the plant life until the winding mountain road reaches a peak, it is there you get a glimpse of the landscape.
Northern Thailand in all it’s glory.
The trees unravel to display the beauty of their land, allowing you to capture the scene before taking it back into the safety of their covering, as you continue along the curving roads.
We had booked a room at the pet friendly Baan Tawan Boutique Guesthouse, right on the river, opting not to stay at Charlie’s Guesthouse, where we originally stayed in our back packing days in favour of somewhere more ‘grown up’.
Our visit this time round was for a weekend break from Chiang Mai to celebrate our first wedding anniversary.
After marrying in the Moroccan desert last year, we thought it was only fitting now we were back in Thailand to celebrate in the place that stole a shard of our hearts as innocent 21 year olds.
Arriving in Pai, 3 and a half hours after leaving Chiang Mai, it felt as if it was just as we had left it.
Time seemed to have stood still.
As the rest of the world rushes to stay ahead, Pai had sat patiently, preserving its laidback, easy charm and free spirited atmosphere.
Pai doesn’t need to live in haste with the rest of the world. It just waits for the world to come to it.
And they certainly do come.
Despite its rural location, Pai has been a travel hotspot in Thailand for years.
Many travellers get sucked into life in Pai, some don’t ever end up leaving, meeting a partner and setting up their own business, extending their visas and renting a house or taking up rooms in many of the ‘long stay’ accommodations.
As well as foreign travellers lost in the haze of Pai contentment, this little town is a major draw for Thai holiday makers during the peak months of Nov-Feb, turning the small roads into a congested nightmare.
The town’s popularity came after it was used as a filming location for several romantic Thai movies, including Pai in Love in 2009 and The Letter: Jod Mai Rak, 2004.
We have only ever visited Pai out of peak season and feel that a different view may be had if we were there in the midst of all the tourists.
It’s easy to be in Pai. There is nowhere to dash too, no time constraints, no stresses. In our 7 year absence everything had stayed the same.
What I loved about our weekend in Pai was how friendly the community is. Within 20 minutes of arriving we were already engaged in a conversation with a family of 6 from Israel on a moped with sidecar, with a new addition to their brood, a tiny fluffy puppy, we talked about Eden and their travels around Thailand.
Every other person you look at is smiling or calling out hello. Chatting openly to friends and strangers as they walk down the street.
It’s pretty hard to not feel happy in Pai.
Pai town centre itself is nothing near spectacular. Four roads hatched across one another lined with restaurants, bars, coffee places, gift shops, galleries and guesthouses. It’s the hilly green backdrop jutting up in the distance, never letting you forget that you are somewhere special, a constant reminder of the surrounding natural beauty.
There are tour companies offering to arrange trips into the hills, to visit the tribes, elephant camps and waterfalls.
They will take you rafting along the Pai River or you can let off some steam on dirt bikes. You can even go piranha fishing or learn the ancient art of bamboo tattooing.
Renting a moped for a day costs just 100 baht and will give you the freedom to explore the surroundings at your own speed.
One of the best views in Pai can be found up at the ‘Temple on the Hill’ Wat Phra That Mae Yen.
It is a nice walk from the town, 1 hour each way, or a mere 5 minutes with your own transport, 3 km out of town past Fluid open air swimming pool. Follow the Mae Yen Pagoda signs.
The Temple on the Hill is reached by climbing the 350 steps and the reward you get at the top is worth that and more. The whole of Pai laid out in front of you invitingly, benches and seats lined up under the pagoda to sit on and take in the view and watch the butterflies flutter by.
When we were up there we had the view to ourselves, the peacefulness at the temple interrupted only by the tinkling wind chimes hanging on the Cheddi.
The nearest waterfall to the town is Mo Paeng, just 2 km from the center of Pai. The journey there takes you through some stunning scenery and through Chinese and Lisu Hill tribe people villages.
The tiered waterfall drops down in layers through tropical jungle, the main part of the falls has a pool that is suitable for taking a dip and cooling off.
It can get busy in peak season, but there was only one other couple there when we visited.
While Pai’s close proximity to the bordering countries and its rural location is all part of its enchantment, it also puts it on the Opium drug route from Burma, with Burma being the world’s 2nd largest producer of the drug after Afghanistan, Opium is rife and the army checkpoints permanently set up at the entry and exit into Pai are there to minimise the trafficking, stopping cars for random searches.
On our way up to the waterfall, we had two offers of the drug when going through the Chinese village. In town though, while I’m sure drugs are a way of life for some, it is less obvious and there are no open displays or pressure.
You can shield yourself from it quite easily yet unfortunately it is an issue that will always be there, the drug trade is a billion dollar business and it’s not going away anytime soon.
Pai takes its name from the river that runs through it, The Pai River.
At 180km long the river curves through the town, flows across the Mae Hong Son Province and then crosses the Burmese border.
It is popular for white water rafting, which can be done from Pai.
You are not short of restaurants to have a meal in Pai, whether you want Traditional Thai, Steak, Burgers, Italian, BBQ street food, Pizza, Vegetarian, it’s all here.
One of our favourites that we visited more than once during our stay was Na’s Kitchen. Home cooked style Thai food, an extensive menu of appetizers and mains. With a big choice of hot and cold drinks. Shakes, juices, iced teas and coffee.
Na runs the rustic looking wooden restaurant, she’s very friendly and has time to chat with her customers.
I recommend the spring rolls and the Penang curry.
An Iced Jasmine tea to finish off the meal, delicious.
Another of our must visits in Pai is ‘All About Coffee’ a small wooden coffee shop with decadent cakes, notably the yummy chocolate brownie. Great breakfasts with homemade bread.
A large selection of beverages and an art gallery on the 2nd level.
Pai is a place to release your inner hippie, tattoo parlours line the roads, and yes I was tempted to get one. Dreadlocked travellers stroll the town as others just watch the world go by at a cafe or mosey in the shops for cards and souvenirs.
Pai is a treasure of Northern Thailand, making us already think about our next trip up there.
It is a place to relax and totally chill out.
It is a place to fall in love, and forget about the rest of the world.
Watch Our Anniversary Episode 🙂
View Pai Thailand in a larger map
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