Pai is a gorgeous little hillside town north of Chiang Mai in northern Thailand. It’s the kind of place you go to to chill out and to take a break from feeling like you have to be out sightseeing every second of every day. That’s not to say there’s nothing to do there – just that the pace of life is significantly slower when you visit Pai.
WHERE TO STAY WHEN YOU VISIT PAI
The first decision you’ll have to make is where to stay when you visit Pai. Some of the top guidebooks and hostel booking sites recommend a hostel called SpicyPai, but there’s a wonderful hostel on the same road across the rice paddy that only opened a week ago. Like Spicy, it attracts a fun young crowd, but because it’s a little smaller, you also get that homely feeling.
The highlight of Lazy Hostel is its owner Kaew. She really goes out of her way to make you feel comfortable, to the point that you wonder how she makes a living. We received welcome drinks on arrival. She then encouraged us to go and sit with a group of other travellers before going into detail on the places we could visit nearby. When we expressed concern about riding our own motorbikes without a license or any experience, she arranged for her friends to take us out for an afternoon, and when we returned with matted windswept hair, she sat outside and brushed it for us! She made delicious meals, showed us the best places to go out in town and gave every guest a motorbike lift to the bus stop at the end of their stay – all for 150 baht a night. The mark of a great hostel is leaving feeling like the owner is a lifelong friend, and that’s what happened at Lazy.
Another option is Mad Monkey Pai. This is one of a chain of fantastic hostels in Southeast Asia with a focus on sustainable tourism. Here, you can rent bicycles to explore the city or simply enjoy relaxing surrounded by the stunning local landscape. The location of this hostel is very handy, with some famous temples such as Wat Phra That Mae Yen (Temple on the Hill) very close by. Mad Monkey Pai is less than a 15-minute walk from downtown Pai, making it easy to explore the city on foot.
WHAT TO DO IN PAI
Pai is very relaxed. You could spend hours wandering along its streets, people watching from its coffee shops and restaurants, and sampling the global cuisine of the night food market.
If you’re keen to get involved in some exercise, you could join a Thai boxing club or even a circus school. There are also yoga classes every day from 9:30 am.
Other activities include getting a massage or a tattoo. There are some incredibly talented artists in town, accounting for half of the bandaged tourists you see there. The other half have been the victims of motorbike accidents…which brings me onto the sightseeing.
VISIT PAI ATTRACTIONS BY BIKE
With daily rental charges of 100 baht and heaps of incredible places to visit in the surrounding countryside, it’s little wonder that almost every visitor to Pai ends up riding around on a motorbike for most of their stay.
If you don’t have a license or don’t trust yourself in the driver’s seat, there are a number of options.
At least one of the main rental stores offers lessons in addition to rental. This could be the perfect way to build up your confidence before you set off on the open road.
If you’re staying at Lazy Hostel, or a place with equally welcoming hosts, you will probably be able to find someone local to take you out. The advantage of having a local guide is that they know the area inside out. They can find the cheapest hot springs or those little-known scenic spots you might not otherwise come across. They’re also very experienced on bikes. Alternatively, you could hop on the back of a fellow traveller’s bike, but make sure you ask if they’re used to taking passengers.
Finally, some of the destinations, such as Pai Canyon could be reached by taxi or tuktuk, although it would probably cost you significantly more and be much less fun.
WHAT TO SEE OUTSIDE PAI
Once you’ve figured out how to get around, there are plenty of choices for places to visit.
Pai Canyon is a popular stopping point. It has a narrow elevated path surrounded by trees. In parts this can get a bit hairy, so go with friends who can help you over the gaps if you’re a bit wobbly on higher ground.
PAM BOK WATERFALL
While there are lots to choose from, the best Pai waterfall is Pam Bok. Especially after the rainy season, it’s really forceful. You can climb up the rocks and throw yourself back into the plunge pool or just sit back and admire its beauty.
On the road to Mae Hong Son, there’s a turn off on the right hand side that leads to some natural hot springs that only cost 20 baht per person (although you may also be charged for your bike and any additional passengers/guides). The ride there is a lot of fun as the roads get so steep you might have to get off the bike and push it.
THE WHITE BUDDHA
If you’re staying at Lazy Hostel, it’s only a short walk up the road to some steps that lead to a huge white Buddha statue on the hill. The views from here are pretty good too.
There are also numerous viewpoints in the surrounding area. Your hostel owner or other travellers are the best source of advice on where else to check out. Most of the joy is in the scenery as you ride, so wherever you choose to go you’ll have a great experience.
Visit Pai for the perfect opportunity to mingle with other travellers. Most hostels have a bar, or at the very least a fridge with a few beers and the potent Sangsom whiskey. A law in town means that places aren’t allowed to continue playing music past midnight, so it’s best to head out by 10 pm if you want to fit in a few games of beer pong, pool or darts in a bar in town. The two places that stay open the latest are conveniently located on the road to Lazy Hostel. Don’t Cry is a raggae bar with a great vibe, while Sunset bar is usually full of spaced out hippies on mushroom shakes.
Getting to Pai is really easy. There are hourly minibuses between Chiang Mai and Pai that only cost 150 baht. If you’re prone to car sickness, take motion sickness tablets before you set off as this is one of the windiest roads in existence. Alternatively, you could rent bikes in Chiang Mai for a few days and take them with you to Pai if you’re confident riding them that far.