Close to the Myanmar border and a dizzying 762 curves on the road north of Chiang Mai, Thailand, lies the little town of Pai. Let me tell you, if you are a sufferer of motion sickness, all those curves may well affect you. But take a couple of pills and a plastic bag along and brave the journey, for when you arrive in this picture-perfect mountain valley, it will be well worth it.
Pai is not really Thai at all but instead a quiet, simple place inhabited by people from all over the place; the few roads lined with guesthouses, cafés, restaurants, trekking agents, internet shops, launderettes, motorbike hire shops and bars. Equally popular among the local Thai people and tourists from around the world, Pai has the best of the Thai islands without the beaches.
The centre of the town is nothing to write home about, as quaint as it is. It’s the hilly green backdrop which reminds you that you are somewhere special. Just on the outskirts of the main town are several affordable backpackers and guesthouses with memorable views and even greater company. Beware that many do not offer air conditioning and Thailand is almost unbearably warm in the summer months. There should be a fan in your room, at least.
Pai is mostly accessible by foot and out of town excursions can be done by renting bicycles, scooters or motorbikes for around 100 Thai Baht a day. Apparently in the peak-season (December to January), Pai becomes quite crowded and congested with traffic. If you go in the off-season, you’ll have the roads mostly to yourself. Renting a scooter is certainly worth it. And if you happen to have a puncture, the scooter company will come to where you are stuck and replace the bike for a small fee.
Pai isn’t necessarily well-known for sight-seeing but for the experience and a good old relax. Many travellers visit Pai for a just a few days. Others never leave. There are several lazy activities (visit the public swimming pool and join the other backpackers for a fun day in the sun), restaurants galore (Mama Falafel for wonderful hummus, schnitzel and falafel faves or Amido’s Pizza for a treat), a very “alive” arts and music scene (reggae bars abound, so does live music) and history to be found in the temples, quiet back streets and afternoon market. You can even enter a pub quiz team and find yourself involved in paper jet design and flying competitions.
But there are also some fantastic sights to see here. Pai Canyon, 8km along the road to Chian Mai, provides a perfect spot for sunset pictures while looking out over high rock cliffs and the Pai valley. The Mai Yen waterfall is quite a trek but beautiful. Just 20 Baht will get you in to see the magnificent views from the Chinese Village. And you’ll be offered your very own pot of tea with matching ceramic cups from which to sip while taking in the panoramic picture. The Thai Pai Hot Springs are located 7km south-east of town. A stream flows through the well-kept park and mixes with the hot springs to make for rather scenic bathing areas.
Coming from any other of the “touristy” spots in Thailand, Pai is an absolute treat of a surprise. It’s relaxed yet vibrant; convenient yet quiet enough to allow you to forget about everything else. It is no wonder that so many of the souvenir shops sell “I love Pai” merchandise. It would be hard not to.