Set in a picturesque valley approximately 135km north of Chiang Mai is the captivating little town of Pai, these days a little tourist-orientated, and a bit of a hangout on the hippy trail but don’t let any of that deter you.
Okay, I DID see a dude meditating on a street corner (probably psyching himself up for his morning soy latté); YES there are lots and lots of dreadlocks; also QUITE a bit of bare-footed strolling around (haven’t these dudes heard of flipflops?); there are UNTOLD AMOUNTS of colorfully thai-printed (and tie-dyed) clothing; and of course, it all just wouldn’t be the same without the ‘how-cool-am-I’ attitude. But that’s okay too.
Because, having said all that, I found it quite entrancing and very relaxing – it’s a chilled-out place where even the dogs* – and there are lots of them – all wander the streets as if in a torpor, probably because, while the overnight temps are lovely and cool, the days soon heat up like the rest of Thailand, but you’re in a valley, so it feels even hotter.
*(The dogs can get a bit hairy at night tho – that’s when they come out to PLAY! – back away slowly, make some noise and scoot off home or to the nearest bar!)
The town itself is fairly compact and easily explored by foot, or bicycles can be rented very cheaply – around 60-100 baht per day.
Further afield, sights like the local Hot springs, Waterfalls, Pai canyon and various scenic viewing spots are all best done by motorbike at around 150-180 baht per day.
**Keep in mind that you can relax and have a few beers at some of these places so care is needed on the drive back Yes!?
My mate and I only stayed a couple of days due to time constraints, but in that time we managed to get a pretty good grip on the place and liked what we saw.
Every night there is a walking street in the centre of town with lots of locals selling a large variety of delicious street food and natty handicrafts, plus there are some pretty nice restaurants and bars in and around the area selling local and western food etc.
Beers were around 70-100 baht for a large bottle, and food as ever was cheap, cheap, cheap!
Accommodation prices we found to be pretty similar to Chiang Mai and the rest of Thailand – it was easy to find, and 550 baht got us a very comfortable room each, and just down the road from walking street so very handy, and many more were in the area offering Dorm beds from as little as 100 baht. There is also camping in the nearby area which are well sign-posted.
Tip: for something a little away from things (but not really), head to the northern end of Walking Street and cross the little bamboo bridge (pictured above – 5 minutes tops) – there are a string of nice Thai-style bungalows all along the riverfront – most are pretty simple affairs but most are also sporting hammocks to laze away the day, and at only around 500 baht for river views, that’s pretty good in my book.
A quick word on High Season – it’s also Burn-off season, where the surrounding farmers use slash-and-burn techniques to burn off the leftover rice-stubble in readiness for the new planting season – this can make conditions pretty hazy and smoky.
Anyone averse to these conditions would be advised to wear a mask (available in local shops and pharmacies) or maybe avoid the season altogether! We found it pretty hazy but not too bad!
Getting there is a small issue – we took one of the minibuses available from almost any tourist shops or guesthouses in Chiang Mai, and I have to say – Never Again! Better to fly (less than 1 hour) or take a motorbike (3-4 hours) where you can stop every now and then to take in the scenery at the various small stops along the way.
Whilst cheap at 150 baht each way, 15 westerners crammed into a minibus with dodgy air-con, and with 762 turns (apparently) up and down a steep and winding road, it’s definitely no picnic, and no wonder that they offer sick bags before the trip (3 grueling hours with a very welcome 20 min stop along the way). You have been warned!
All-in-all though, if you can survive the minibus, Pai has a lot to offer.
It’s down-to-earth and relaxed, with a very chilled, small-town vibe and well worth a few days on your travel itinerary – it’s already getting pretty crowded with not only Western but Chinese and Thai tourists, so the local Thais are starting to show signs of the ‘world-weariness’ usually reserved for the likes of Bangkok, Samui or Phuket, so get there quick, and enjoy!
All pics are by the author unless otherwise stated.