Three hours drive north of Chiang Mai is a real life paradise on Earth in the form of the village of Pai. Nestled in the mountains and boasting the most breathtaking scenery I have ever seen, Pai started as a hippy enclave for Chiang Mai bohemians who would come to hang out by the river, chilling and playing guitar. Word spread and now the town has become a must-stop for most travellers during their time in Northern Thailand.
Built into the banks of a lazy river, Pai’s laid back vibe and friendly locals are what calls most backpackers there. The small town is brimming with delicious and cheap street food; a large quantity of which is vegetarian, and a great variety of cafes, restaurants and bars, including one which sells mushroom shakes if altered states are your thing.
Every evening the main road, the pedestrianised ‘Walking Street’, becomes a hive of activity as the market stalls set up selling everything from the usual tourist wares you come to see everywhere (if you’ve yet to pick up your obligatory elephant top or trousers you’ll be sure to find them here), to the more revered handmade jewellery, dreamcatchers and inspiring art.
The town of Pai does not offer much in the way of attractions directly within its locality. Again, it is somewhere you’ll need to hire a moped to explore (or hop on the back of one if you’re a scaredy like me) or you could book onto tours from the numerous travel agents along Walking Street.
My friend and I visited most of the sights by moped in one day. The Pai Canyon at sunset was pretty special as was the impressive stature of the White Buddha. The Lod Cave was great too although the guide left something to be desired and I always get the giggles in awkward situations when I shouldn’t so… I don’t think that went down too well.
The hot springs are definitely worth a visit but there are two. One which charges 300 baht for foreigners and only 50 for locals, and one which is further out of town, on the way back from the Lod Cave which charged only 30 baht plus 20 for the bike. This one is really just a natural pool whilst I hear the other has built in baths and is more maintained but we saved ourselves a few bucks and had a less touristy experience at the same time. I would definitely go earlier than we did though. Pai gets cold at night (which felt very strange) and driving back for half an hour in the evening in wet swimwear is not something I would advise. I caught a chill and was ill for a couple of days.
There are a vast amount of guesthouses to choose from in Pai depending on if you want scenic views or proximity to town, party hostels or private bungalows, river hammocks or circus school (there is actually a circus school hostel!). Whatever you choose, in high season book ahead. I personally chose Darling Viewpoint Bungalows. I have mixed feelings about it. The room was not cleaned once whilst I was there and the owners were actually quite rude. There is a farm next door and the cockerels start their morning call at about 1am and don’t stop until it gets dark the following evening. This makes sleeping off that inevitable hangover nearly impossible.
It is also about a ten minute walk out of town, which isn’t a problem as it is a nice walk over the bamboo bridge and the river, but it is dark at night and I didn’t like walking it on my own. Bring a torch (although you should always carry a torch if you are being a good hostel room mate people!).
That being said, I LOVED chilling out here. There are multiple balconies around the hostel site with hammocks and beds, suspended egg chairs and vast viewing benches. This makes for a great sociable experience as well. I looked forward to coming back here each evening and watching the world go by below.
For me, the real attraction of Pai was the town and the aforementioned lifelong friends I made there. I normally feel like I’m wasting my travels if I become stuck in one spot for too long, not doing anything but vegetating. However, somehow in Pai, it felt different. I happily spent six days here. I could easily have spent my whole time in Thailand here, exploring its winding streets and character filled cafes for weeks, getting lost in each one’s different charisma. From the Easy Garden Bar with the live acoustic music, to the BoomBar with its indoor fire pit. Lazing in the hammocks watching the sun set over the mountains, laughing with new friends and riding mopeds exploring the wilderness.