Think of Thailand. You’ll likely conjure up images of tropical islands, beach huts, full-moon parties, temples, and the chaos of Khao San Road. What you might not imagine is mountains, canyons, and waterfalls. That’s because you haven’t been to Pai, one of Thailand’s better kept secrets.
Nestled in the mountains of the northwest, Pai is increasingly travelled in recent years but still off the beaten path, and especially popular with the alternative backpacker crowd. While Pai is surrounded by vertiginous scenery, its inner core is comprised of a network of laidback bars, restaurants and artisanal street markets. It’s the mountain version of a Thai Island, just with a little less party-party and a little more masala chai. Here’s why you should visit Pai, Thailand.
Hideouts & Hammocks
There is plenty in the way of typical Thailand tourism to be getting on with in Pai, but the charm of the city thrives in the places that are a little harder to find.
The Walking Street (the most touristic part of the city: think postcards and meat on sticks) is a joy to traverse and get lost in at night, but the hideouts down side-streets, at the backs of bars, through hidden doors and up secret staircases onto rooftop patios, are where you strike gold in this town.
I started out swinging on a hammock at the Edible Jazz, a stone’s throw from Pai River, drifting in and out of high-quality live local music. Then, as the nights went on, I migrated to smaller cafés and bars all over town, in even cosier and tucked-away settings. At one point I was reclined on a bean-bag on a bamboo platform, a multi-coloured light show beneath me and a canvas of stars above me. Pai is a town that rewards digging deeper. Once inside, you’ll feel about as isolated and safe from the rest of the world as can be.
Of course, spending your entire trip to the Mae Hong Son province – where Pai is located – drinking Singha beer and dozing would be something of a waste, so let’s look at what else is on offer in the way of activities and sightseeing.
Kong Lan Canyon
Sometimes referred to as Thailand’s Grand Canyon – admittedly, an immodest description – Kong Lan Canyon is a welcome way to walk away an afternoon. With beautiful sights and challenging hikes, this network of ridges and trails is certainly something hard to come by elsewhere in Thailand.
You can easily take a tour bus or motorbike from the main town to Kong Lan. Read on for more info on getting around Pai. The canyon views at sunset are popular, and with good cause, but a word of warning: there is little in the way of safety railing and maintenance, and some of the ridges can get quite crowded and narrow. Stay alert. The drops are sheer in places.
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The waterfalls in the area are so plentiful that it is not difficult to get one all to yourself. A little research, a little motorcycling around, and a map will put you in good stead.
The Mo Paeng and Pombok waterfalls are the most famous, and worth a visit on their own merit, but don’t stop there. The roads through the mountains, wherever in the region you’re headed, are an experience in their own right. The twists, turns, ascents, descents, and an ever-changing valley scene, are half the fun.
Visible from pretty much anywhere in Pai, this iconic statue and temple (Wat Phra That Mae Yen) watches over the valley from the east. It is easy to get temple-fatigue in Thailand – they’re ubiquitous, to say the least – but this unique set of structures is well worth the visit. There are 353 steps to the top (bonus cardio to combat the 660ml beers and pad thai), or you can cheat and stay fat and take the 400-metre road. Either way, once up there, not only is the architecture itself something to be marvelled at, but the views from the summit are some of the best you’ll find in northwestern Thailand.
The Land Split
The Land Split is a geological feature caused by an earthquake in 2008. Curated by a very warm host – who will offer you pay-by-donation roselle juice (cold hibiscus tea) and snacks without fail – this new and giant crack in the ground is now a quirk which perfectly befits Pai’s alternative subculture. As bizarre as the phenomenon is to witness, it is also great to hear and see how the farmers turned what could have been something disastrous for their business into something fortuitous.
No trip to Pai is complete without visiting the caves. Stunning rock formations, stalactites and stalagmites loom overhead and protrude from the cave floor, providing a welcome if haunting escape from the summer sun. The esteemed Tham Lod Cave looks like something out of a fairytale and is home to flocks of bats and swifts. Tours are available here, and are cheaper if you pay closer to the entrance.
If the canyon, waterfalls and caves aren’t enough, there is yet another natural feature in the region that secures its status as a relaxation hotspot: hot springs.
Especially popular in the winter months, you can bathe in piping hot water nestled in scenery that puts your bathroom back home to shame. You can expect to pay a bit for parking unfortunately, but the combination of the cool mountain air, the warm, steamy water and the unique wooded setting is a multisensory indulgence worth paying for.
Getting There (On the Cheap)
You can now fly to Pai from Chiang Mai, but if you’re backpacking that may or may not be beyond your budget. The most common method of arrival is by shuttle bus or motorbike. Heads up: the road into Pai is terrible, so be prepared. I don’t mean terrible in terms of safety (though I did witness a couple of cars in ditches). It’s well-paved and maintained, but boy, are the hairpin turns relentless. There were only eight of us on my bus and one girl still ended up vomiting into a bag.
If you fortify your stomach beforehand though, the views are stunning – watching the city slowly change into the mountains is a slow joy. And, of course, if you decided to travel to Pai by motorbike, you can stop, rest and gather your bearings at your own behest, rather than at the behest of the decidedly schedule-focused bus driver.
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Getting Around (On the Safe)
For a truly Pai experience, you should probably rent a motorbike. If you’re not experienced, my best advice is to assume it’s harder than you think. There are many accidents in the area, and medical care isn’t as readily available as it is out west. At best, you’ll embarrass yourself. Stay humble and stay safe.
Disclaimer aside, it really is the best way to see Pai. It’s fun, freeing, and it makes all the attractions easily accessible. Just wear your helmet and take it easy. There are numerous tour buses as well that offer excursions from the town’s core at reasonable prices, and without the stress of personal responsibility!
Of course, you are also in a beautiful and safe mountain town, with a river running right through its centre, and surrounded by green fields and forests. Honestly one of the purest joys I experienced travelling the entirety of South East Asia was simply wandering without agenda around this town and region on foot. The sights, smells and sounds of this secret Thai beauty will live with you for the rest of your life. Don’t miss Pai off your South East Asian travel itinerary.