The small town of Pai in Thailand’s Mae Hong Son province has created quite a name for itself due to its stunning surroundings and laid back atmosphere.
While Chiang Mai is still the kingpin of northern Thai charm and the place most travellers visit in this part of the country, Pai is becoming more popular with travellers looking for something a little more down-to-earth than the northern capital. The city of just 3000 people has experienced a boom in tourism in the last four to five years and there are now several agencies offering services to travellers.
Back to Nature
While Pai itself is a quaint little town, it is the surroundings that made it famous in the first place. Located in the mountains of Mae Hong Son province in the northwestern part of Thailand, the town is the perfect set-out point for those looking to explore nature. During rainy season from June to October the nearby rivers swell and make for some excellent white water rafting, while the valley and forest become lush and green.
There are also several waterfalls nearby, some of which are in walking distance from the town. Mae Yen waterfall lies just about seven kilometres east of town and the walk there is pleasant, passing green valleys and small rivers. Several guesthouses rent out motorbikes and bicycles for those wanting to venture out a little further.
Pai is also one of the stops on the famous Mae Hong Son loop, which is a 600 kilometres route that runs from Chiang Mai to Mae Sariang, Mae Hong Son and Pai, or the other way around, depending on the direction you choose to take. The route from Pai to Mae Hong Son is probably one of the most picturesque in the north of Thailand, and perhaps even in Southeast Asia, and even if you’re not taking the whole loop, the trip to Mae Hong Son by road is a great way to get out and see some of Thailand’s most rugged nature.
Cafes, Bars and Handicrafts
Pai town is little more than a few roads that can be walked in the span of an hour. The main road is an eclectic mix of souvenir stores selling more or less authentic handicrafts as well as rather hippie-influenced knick knack such as lampshades, postcards, mugs, bags, jewellery and clothing. Several cafes and restaurants vie for travellers’ attention as do travel agencies and tour operators. As with so many places on the backpacker trail, Pai has developed a somewhat new age feel, and several cafes sell kombucha tea, spirulina-powered shakes and vegetarian food. It’s all part of the charm, however, and a bit of fruit and veg never hurt anyone.
Come late afternoon, the main street turns into a night market of sorts; locals set up stalls selling a variety of local and western food. Indulge in naan bread with curry, northern style khao soy, which is soft and crispy noodles in a curried broth, burgers, gyozas, pancakes, wraps with chicken kebab, lasagna, barbecued meat, baked potatoes and much much more. The market has become so popular that some restaurants have given up serving food in the evenings because many travellers opt for the variety of the street food instead.
Get your Sweat on
Pai is more than waterfalls, batik trousers and kombucha tea. For those wanting to get their sweat on or learn something new, the town does not disappoint. There are a few cooking schools, where you can try your hands at traditional Thai dishes such as pad thai and green curry. There are also a few meditation and yoga retreats where visitors can come and spend a day or an extended time, practicing yoga or meditation in tranquil surroundings on the edge of town. Retreats are usually all inclusive and can be anything from a day or several months and depending on your level, the teacher will usually set up a program to suit your needs.
A little outside of town to the west lies a muay thai gym, where Thailand’s traditional martial art is taught Monday to Saturday, morning and afternoon. Like the meditation and yoga courses, students can come just for a single lesson or they can sign up for a longer period of time. The gym is run by a team of dedicated muay thai teachers and even though the sessions are hard, there is plenty of time for individual instruction.
- For most of the year, Pai is visited mainly by foreign tourists but during high season in December and January, a large number of Bangkok and Chiang Mai Thais travel to Pai to escape the city and enjoy the cooler weather. It is always a good idea to book accommodation in advance, but if you’re visiting during this time, it is a must.
- Kan Airlines operates flights from Chiang Mai to Pai a couple of times per week but most people arrive to the town from Chiang Mai by minivan or bus. The trip is famous for its many curves and it is not uncommon that people get sick along the way. Make sure to take a pill if you’re prone to motion sickness.
- One of the best ways to explore the surrounding area is by motorbike, but road accidents involving tourists are quite common. Only rent a motorbike if you are comfortable with the bike, and at all times adhere to the traffic rules. The roads are generally good, but due to the mountainous terrain, there are many sharp curves and some steep hills, so make sure you feel up for the challenge.