Famous for its location at the top of 762 bends on a mountainous pass, hidden in the mist and lush green forest of the Mae Hong Son province of Thailand, sits the small town of Pai. Often missed by those travelling the country of white sandy beaches, Pai is where rural traditional meets young bohemian. It is a climb of 146km (91 miles) between the city of Chiang Mai and Pai, with the climate being much cooler in comparison to Bangkok and even Chiang Mai. Elevated almost 500 meters (0.3 miles) above sea level, the trip is usually accomplished by a mini-bus or for those motorbike enthusiasts, this is sure to be a thrilling ride. Pai is situated in the north-west of Thailand, fairly near to the border of Myanmar – formerly Burma – and is one of the seven overland crossings to its neighbour.
Pronounced locally ‘bye’ not ‘pie’, the picturesque town is growing in popularity particularly amongst Thais and foreigners who are looking for a cooler climate and a different, ‘hippy-styled’ break from the big cities of Chiang Mai and Bangkok. Despite the crowded periods, usually in December and January, Pai does not lose its charm of a natural, laid back and friendly little town. The locals are themselves cosmopolitan, many originating in Pai and broader Thailand, whilst others from countries as far as Scotland having made Pai their home, as in the case of the owner of the Pai Siam Bistro. For the European traveller, if not for most worldwide, Thailand’s weak local currency, the baht, makes for an inexpensive getaway, with one Euro equating to about 40 baht.
A comfortable overnight train ride from Bangkok’s Hua Lamphong Railway Station to Chiang Mai will cost approximately 450 baht and is the perfect way to see the gradual change in Thailand’s landscape, as well as mingle with Thais. From Chiang Mai Railway Station, a modified van will take you at a small fee to the bus terminal, Arcade, where the best bet is an air-conditioned Prempracha mini-bus at 150 baht. Upon entering the small bus terminal in Pai, ask the driver for a drop off at your accommodation as there are far less taxis – whether in the form of motorbikes, tuk-tuks or motorcars – as compared to the big cities. Alternatively, head straight to one of the many outlets that hire scooters, which together with a tank of fuel, will cost very little.
The range of accommodation is from high-end to budget backpacker; there is something for any traveller’s budget and need. Guest houses and backpacker lodges ‘down town’ locate you in the middle of the hustle and bustle of the walking street market, where trade takes place from day into the night. With a scooter, one can venture a few kilometres (miles) and book accommodation outside of the main street. This is where Pai opens up into a maze of rice paddies and little huts on street corners where one can buy anything from fresh dragon fruit to Chang beer. Postcard moments are had here!
While there are a number of waterfalls dotted around the outskirts of the centre of town, Nam Tok Mo Paeng is the most popular for good reason. A scenic ride to the waterfall takes you through the heart of Pai’s nature, setting the scene for the large waterfall which has numerous pools to cool off in after a hot day. Be sure to take a costume, mosquito repellent and of course, your camera. On your way back, make the small detour to China Town, distinguished by its large red archway, where you can browse shops and have a sundowner at the view spot which looks right across the valley.
On the road travelling back towards Chiang Mai, 9km (5.5 miles) outside Pai, a small piece of history can be walked over as it crosses the Pai River. The Memorial Bridge was built in 1942 by Japanese soldiers to transport weapons and provisions to Myanmar during World War II. It is a quick sight-see as part of a trip out of town, at which point you can also visit the Pai Canyon. It is a small canyon, as canyons go, but it is worth the walk up the long flight of stairs where you will be met with an exhilarating view of the valley in which Pai sits. A must at sunrise or sunset is a walk along the ridge top, enjoying the quiet of nature.
No matter where you are in Pai, the Temple on the Hill or Wat Phra That Mae Yen is in sight and will leave the traveller intrigued until a visit is made. There is a long walk up to the top of the hill but it is well worth it, both for the view of the valley and the magnificent sight of the enormous White Buddha. It is currently under construction and once complete, will be golden like the rest of the smaller Buddha statues found around the temple.
The restaurants in Pai reflect its people. Both diverse in décor and food, the hungry traveller can find anything from German eisbein to pad thai from a street vendor. Most of the eateries and vendors are found along the path of the walking street market, some busier and noisier than others. Close to the Pai River is Edible Jazz, which caters for Western and Thai tastes, and has a laid back feel with hammocks to relax in while listening to live music from local musicians.
Fine Rice Thai Cooking School has cookery courses throughout the day and night, and is also open to patrons who feel less like doing the cooking and more like eating the delicious, often spicy Thai food. Be sure to ask for a coconut for a thirst-quenching drink with your lunch. Locals are often found here, an indicator of the authenticity of the cuisine. It is found at the top of the walking street.
Without question, Pai should be on the list of every traveller taking to Northern Thailand. It is a perfect spot to rest and catch your breath before diving back into the busy cities.