Pai is a small town of about 3000 people in a picturesque setting in Northern Thailand. It lies 90 km (55 miles) or so north of Chiang Mai. That 90-km trip from Chiang Mai takes about three and half hours by car though, as Route 1095 is reported to have over 750 curves, many of them hairpin curves, as it winds its way through the mountains. Rice paddies and other farms dot the landscape.
Pai has exploded as far as tourism is concerned since 2006. Prior to about 2006, most visitors to Pai were foreign tourists – lots of backpackers – but two Thai romantic movies released in 2004 and 2006 and the Chinese film Lost in Thailand shot in Northern Thailand have catapulted Pai into the spotlight for both Thai and foreign tourists.
We enjoyed our time in Pai, but will probably not return. I hate to use the term, “too touristy,” since my wife and I are coming up on two years traveling the world full time, so technically we are tourists everywhere we go, but Pai was too touristy for us.
There is an interesting mix of people in Pai. We were there in the off-season, so the crowds weren’t overwhelming. There are definitely a high number of backpackers. We saw quite a few Chinese tourists, but not as many as you would expect given the number of the signs in restaurants, bars and shops in the center of town written in English and Chinese. One thing I was not expecting was the Thai Rastafarians. I had no idea they existed, but there were plenty of dreadlocked young Thais along the walking street and every now and then you could hear Bob Marley tunes emanating from a shop or bar. Reading up on Pai, I saw a few references to there being quite a few older, Western hippies in Pai. We didn’t see any, but we spotted their habitat – vegan and vegetarian cafes, organic markets, and meditation centers.
Most of the accommodations in and around Pai are small guest houses with a heavy representation of hostels and budget locations. We stayed at the Pai Chan Cottage and Cuisine. http://www.paichan.com/ The property has 12 bungalows total. Our bungalow had double doors that opened right onto a rice paddy with mountains in the distance – very picturesque and very relaxing. The room had a fan, but no air conditioning, which was fine since it is relatively cool in Pai.
Being off-season, the café was only open from 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM, but the two lunches and one breakfast we had there were excellent. We liked the location of Pai Chan Cottage and Cuisine, close enough to walk across the bridge to the center of town, but far enough away to be away from the noise of the partying that I am sure goes on well into the wee hours of the morning.
Maybe the best part of the stay was the price. Granted, it was off-season, but we only paid $13.50 USD per night for our bungalow.
Getting there and getting around
We currently live in an apartment in Bangkok and found some inexpensive flights from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, about $40 USD each, return. We rented a car in Chiang Mai and drove. Our total trip this time was four nights, two nights in Chiang Dao and two nights in Pai. We saw lots of 10 passenger vans bringing tourists in and out of Pai, so that is another option for getting there from Chiang Mai.
If you don’t have a car, you can easily rent a motor scooter for $7 or $8 USD per day. Besides the town center, a lot of the things to see and do in Pai are not within walking distance, so renting a car, or scooter, or signing up for some tours are the only ways to get to see the major sights around Pai.
Pai Canyon is about 8 km (5 miles) from the center of Pai. It offers spectacular views and some great, light hiking. Many of the trails run along narrow ridges with steep drops on either side – no handrails. If you are afraid of heights, you might want to stick to some of the wider trails. We read that it is recommended to go early in the morning to avoid the heat and the crowds. We succeeded on both counts. There was one couple there when we arrived, but by the time we left, the parking lot was filling with cars and scooters.
Pai Land Split
This is an interesting site that we didn’t get to fully experience. The story goes that a farmer woke up one morning in 2008 to find an earthquake had split his land in two. Unable to use it for farming now, he turned it into a tourist attraction. Reviews I had read online said the best part of the Land Split was the friendly owner who serves up juice, tea, fruit, and snacks. There is no set price, just a donation box where you pay whatever you feel your snack and drinks were worth. Unfortunately, on the day we went, there was a hand-lettered sign telling us that no snacks and drinks were available that day as they were attending the funeral of a friend. Still, the split was interesting to look at.
Pam Bok Waterfall
There are a few waterfalls in the Pai area. One of the easiest to access is the Pam Bok Waterfall. You can park a few hundred meters (yards) from the falls and walk up to them. The falls themselves are not particularly tall, but the pool at the bottom is surrounded by high rocks and many people enjoy jumping off the rocks into the water. When we visited, there were quite a few people in the water or just hanging out along the banks. It looks like a relaxing place to spend some time.
The Memorial Bridge is on the way between Pai Canyon and the Land Split and runs parallel to the highway. It is a popular spot for people to stop and take selfies. During WW II, the Japanese used POWs and local forced labor to build many transportation links between Burma and Thailand. The most infamous of these is the Death Railway, which was the setting for the 1957 movie Bridge on the River Kwai. The memorial bridge in Pai was on a different route and was a vehicular bridge, not a rail bridge. The Japanese destroyed the bridge in 1944 as they retreated. The bridge was rebuilt by the locals after the war and improved and strengthened over time. The current steel bridge was built in 1973 after floods destroyed the bridge as it stood at that time.
Today the bridge is open to pedestrian traffic only and is a nice spot to grab a cold drink from one of the many nearby vendors and take a few photos.
The center of Pai covers three or four city blocks and is chock full of all the standard tourist town establishments: restaurants, bars, coffee shops, tour operators and souvenir shops.
I was a little surprised to see so many tattoo shops. Most of them had the words “Bamboo Tattoo” on them. At first, I thought that a company named Bamboo Tattoo had cornered the market on tattoo shops in Pai and that all the shops were part of the same tattoo chain. Later I learned that a bamboo tattoo is a method of tattooing where a needle is attached to, surprise, surprise, a piece of bamboo and the needle is manually dipped in ink and tapped on the skin by hand. Neither Susan nor I have any tattoos, so I am not really an expert on the subject. (Our son probably has enough to make up for our lack of tattoos, and probably enough for a couple of generations of Mossops.) From what I have read, bamboo tattoos are supposed to heal faster than machine tattoos, I saw conflicting information with some saying a bamboo tattoo is more painful or less painful than a machine tattoo. Many people claimed a bamboo tattoo is more spiritual, or authentic since the method has been used for thousands of years.
We found a good coffee shop, ate once at an OK restaurant and wandered the streets for a little while, but as I mentioned before, it is not really our scene.
Would We Recommend Pai as a Place to Visit?
We did enjoy our time in Pai and are glad we visited. Would we go again? Probably not, unless it was to use as a base to take day trips in the surrounding area to do some day hikes and explore the many national parks in the area. The mountains and other scenery are certainly nice. Alternately, it would be a nice place to hang out in a small guest house and lounge around for a few days just relaxing and reading while enjoying the view.