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A few days in the magical world of Pai
Thinking of traveling around South-East Asia!? Particularly Thailand!? Want to get out of the big cities and experience something a little different? If you answered yes to the above questions, then I’m going to put it to you that Pai might just be what you’re looking for.
So why Pai?
Pai is located high up in the mountains about 150kms North West of Chiang Mai and the scenery around here is simply staggering! Lush, green, jungle laden mountains as far as the eye can see with plenty of rivers, streams and rice paddies woven into the landscape.
Its just a completely different vibe from the cities. I was in Pai in mid-May and even with the hostels maybe half full, it was peaceful enough during the daytime but still had a good atmosphere at night.
People come to Pai for all sorts of different reasons. Some come for the jungle trekking, some for the landscape and scenery, while others come for the hippy vibe that Pai is pretty famous for. It really has got something for everyone.
If like me, a few hectic days in Bangkok, a sleeper/sleepless train and a few days in Chiang Mai leaves you craving peace and tranquillity then book that bus to Pai, you won’t regret it!
How to get to Pai?
In a nutshell there’s two ways to get to Pai:
1. Do what most people do and get the mini bus from Chiang Mai. It takes around 3-4 hours and stops off mid-route so you can go to the toilet and get a quick snack before continuing to Pai. A word of warning, there’s roughly 760 turns between Chiang Mai and Pai, so if you get travel sick, get some pills and a sicky bag. The minibus I used had a notice explaining that if you “chundered” all over the place you’d have to pay a 500 Baht fine. Let me tell ya, it quickly becomes apparent these minibus drivers use the same route everyday. Screeching tires and a racing line that Valentino Rossi would be proud of are just the norm. The minibus from Chiang Mai to Pai costs 180 Baht including hostel pick up and run every couple of hours. Just ask at your hostel/hotel reception and you can’t go wrong.
2. Hire a bike in Chiang Mai and ride to Pai. Two benefits to this. One, you’ll get to go at your own pace and stop at all the scenic spots for a quick photo and two, they’ll be no charge for “chundering” everywhere. Saying that though, there’s only one place its going to land…. If you hire your bike from “AYA service” in Chiang Mai then you can ride it to Pai and leave it at their centre in Pai. Expect to pay 300 Baht for this service but you get free baggage transfer.
What is there to do in Pai?
In the town centre… Not a great deal! Other than peruse the mandatory Thai night market on walking street, all the while stuffing your face with various street food. Without any doubt you’ve got to get a motorbike and explore!
Visit the Sai Ngam hot springs.
Roughly a 30-minute ride north of Pai you’ll find the Sai Ngam hot springs. You’ll have to pay 200 Baht per person plus 20 Baht per motorcycle at the checkpoint and then 20 Baht per person at the actual hot spring. As far as Pai prices go, it’s a little pricey for what it is.
Beautiful crystal-clear water and not too busy, I suppose it’s worth £5.50.
Just exploring on the motorbike.
This was one of my favourite things to do in Pai. I never ride a motorbike back home but then, we don’t have some of the best driving roads I’ve ever seen. Blue sky, 35C and an empty twisty road, oh I can see the appeal. I actually rode 50 miles past the Sai Ngam hot springs just because the road was soooo good!!!
Visit the White Budda a.k.a Wat Phra That Mae Yen.
The white Budda can be seen from the Slow Life hostel. Roughly a 5-minute ride away. With over 300 steps it’s a bit of a workout but something to see while in Pai.
As always, when visiting temples be respectful! Don’t go defacing or climbing up the Budda. Stay calm and quiet. Wear respectable clothing – shoulders and stomachs covered as well as knee length shorts. Also, don’t forget to take you shoes off as it’s a sacred site.
In all honesty though, I climbed the steps before sunrise to beat the heat and I’m not kidding there was a drunken tourist laid on the ground asleep… No wonder there are a lot of people in the world that don’t have time for tourists.
Do some jungle Trekking.
There are just so many hiking trails to explore in Pai. You could spend a year here and not hit them all.
Watch out for buffalo bathing in the water. I literally stumbled into this one as I walked back through the stream trying to cool myself down. Grunting, thrashing its head and tail round in the water it was not happy.
For any hiking enthusiast, or just any backpacker really, I can’t recommend downloading the maps.me app enough. It works offline and comes preloaded with all the sights, accommodation and restaurants. All you NEED to do is download the map for the area you’ll be visiting beforehand. I found this out as I jumped off the over night bus from Chiang Mai to Ayutthaya, tried to zoom in to see where the nearest hostel was and to my complete dismay “Download central Thailand!?”. I would if I had any bloody data!!! Don’t make the same school boy error I did!
Go to the land split.
Up until a few years ago, there was nothing wrong with this farmers field. Since the 2 earthquakes a few years back it is now completely different. You can actually walk through the split for a donation.
The local farmers offer free fruit to you as you pass through the split, also they sell home-made wine. Take an old water bottle with you and the wine will be a little cheaper. Let’s be serious it’s the wine you want to pay for the wine not the glass bottle it comes in.
Watch the sunset at Pai Canyon.
Although it’s dubbed as the Grand Canyon of Thailand, its not quite as grand. In all fairness though it’s an amazing place to watch the sun set behind the mountains of Pai. It’s free to enter and quite easy to find. Trust me you’ll know when you find it by the hundreds of motorbikes parked up at the bottom of the hill.
The day I turned up, everyone was leaving because the sun had already set behind the mountains. Wait another 20-30 minutes for all the clouds to come alive with colour.
It may even be a good idea to turn up early, it’ll give you chance to beat the masses and find yourself a nice spot to watch the sunset. One thing to be wary of is the fact that people turn up with a few beers to watch the sunset, which is fine but just make sure you’re still able to climb your way back to the start as there are some pretty big drops!
Check out the Paradise Bar…
Slightly out of town, this place is surreal!! Hammocks, floor mats and dreadlocks everywhere, all illuminated by neon and fairy lights. A real hippy vibe here.
Arrive at about 11pm for prime time. The bar closes at 2am but you can stay as long as you like. Just as well really, as looking at some of the patrons, there’s no way they’re fit for leaving.
100 Baht for a large Chang beer and a free pool table… well they did call it the Paradise Bar…
One thing I did notice here is that half the people walking around smoking something that you’d expect to be hanging from Bob Marley’s lips. While the other half are staggering round, paper cup in hand and completely mesmerised by all the lights.
Where to stay in Pai?
Talking to a local, apparently if you go back 5-6 years there weren’t more than 2 hotels in the whole of Pai. However, today this is a much different story! There’s hotels and hostels everywhere. I’ve seen dorm room beds going for as cheap as 80 Baht a night.
I personally stayed at the Slow Life Sabbadie hostel on the outskirts of town. Far enough away to not be woken up all night by passing motorbikes but only a 10-minute walk to the centre of Walking street.
I definitely recommend staying at the slow life, it does exactly what it says on the tin… Life’s slow! Prices start at 200 Baht for an air-conditioned dorm bed and free breakfast. The place is very clean, the food is good and the swimming pool is refreshing, what more could you ask for?
Where to eat in Pai?
In all honesty, as I’ve said before I’m tighter than a duck’s arse, so I tend to eat at the hostel where you could get chicken fried rice or pad thai for 50 Baht. Other than there’s always street food. I always try to find a stall that is
A. Busy with locals.
B. Has a small menu.
C. Cooks everything in front of you.
However, there was one night I just had the ultimate craving for burger and fries. I went to IP burger just off the main walking street. Double beef burger, fries and a beer all for 190 Baht… It was sooo good!!!
Getting around Pai?
To be fair, in the town itself, there isn’t really that much to do. To really get the most out of Pai, you’ve got to hire a motorbike, there’s just no two ways about it! Unlike Bangkok You won’t find any tuk tuks here! Neither will you find the red taxi’s of Chiang Mai.
Hire a motorbike and head out of town, the roads are good with nice smooth tarmac and very little traffic. An absolute biker’s paradise.
Hiring a motorbike in some ways can be a risky business. A lot of the places will ask for your passport as collateral. This is never a good idea, especially if you’re hiring from some dodgy place in town and not your hostel as once they have your passport, if they say you’ve damaged their bike when you haven’t, you’re at their mercy. Always offer a monetary deposit instead. This could be up to 2000 Baht. Better than your passport though.
If you do rent from your hostel, I feel it’s a little less risky as they’re not as likely to try and rip you off because without a doubt you’d give them a disgraceful review, and this would hurt their business. I hired mine from the Slow Life hostel, for 200 Baht per day. Prices in town start from around 150 Baht.
Bottom line, no matter where you rent one from always check lights, brakes and take plenty of photos before riding off.
Now that I’ve probably completely put you off from renting a bike here’s what you need to know to keep safe:
Ride on the left – lucky for us English.
ALWAYS wear your helmet – The amount of people I saw that didn’t bother was staggering. Fair enough most of the locals don’t but they’ve probably been riding a bike since they were 8. Police were giving the locals 500 Baht fines for not wearing one.
Have your driving license on you – Each of the four days I was there I saw police checkpoints. I got pulled over and asked to produce my license. Luckily, I had it on me.
Don’t drive drunk or on a mushroom trip – I saw many drink drivers, mainly young lads driving home after a skin-full, giving us backpackers a bad name. I even saw one that was trying to attach a cup of shroom shake to his handlebars, so he could drink it as he rode around town… what a “Farang!!”
Don’t ride at night – Pretty self-explanatory, same goes for when it’s raining.
How long to stay in Pai?
Now there’s a question! Me not being one to rush around from place to place, I stayed for 5 days which was plenty. Everyone that I spoke to had always stayed longer than they had planned. Some people planned to stay for just two days and ended up staying for over 3 weeks. It’s just so relaxed. It’s also pretty cheap.
All in all, I would suggest 3 days is enough to do most of the things on offer if you’re pretty efficient and don’t spend too long in bed after drinking too much Chang.
Be prepared to spend a lot longer than you expected to….
So, to roll it…. Sorry, wrap it up….
Pai, on the whole is something different to what you’ll be used to in the rest of Thailand. It’s a place that’s definitely young at heart, with plenty to offer (depending on what you’re looking for).
It’s a bit like a hippy commune where everyone walks around with bandaged limbs from riding motorcycles while drunk but are too high to give a shit.
It’s a cheap place to spend some time and its extremely good for anyone who loves hiking and to be outdoors. You can’t come to North Thailand without spending at least a couple of days in Pai.