Increasing visitor numbers have not dampened the peaceful spirit of this small, laid back northern townby Percy Roxas
Set in a laid back valley surrounded by steep mountains between Chiang Mai and Mae Hong Son, Pai used to be the one of the best-kept secrets in northern Thailand. Part of the lure of this small town was that it is part of the fabled “land of three mists” near the Myanmar border, which is renowned for its natural beauty, ethnically mixed culture, lush green jungles, and their appurtenant wonders. The town was the traditional habitat of the Shan people (ethnic Tai whose culture was influenced by Burma), and while it thrives on tourism these days it is still, in general, a quiet little town with small, gentle pleasures. The town has recently seen a number of major infrastructure upgrades, including the development of a small airport offering several daily flights, the proliferation of several small- to medium-sized luxury resorts and restaurants, and a couple of live music clubs and beer bars. But, it hasn’t lost that “isolated-from-the-world feeling” that you get when you make a visit.
Peace and tranquility are overused buzzwords these days but they are still the main reasons to visit Pai. It’s perfect as a mountain retreat, and visitors will enjoy the year-round temperate weather, the many natural and cultural wonders, and the range of activities that are conducive to relaxation and recharging.
SEE & DO
Attractions include waterfalls, gorges, caves, and hot springs whose temperatures vary from 80 to 200 degrees Celsius depending on the time of visit. Some resorts tap the hot springs and feed their hot water into spas, private bungalows, and public pools. The most popular activity, though, is white water rafting on the longest river in Mae Hong Son (the Pai River), which is famous for its series of rapids dancing along to scenic gorges. In the town itself the quaint magic of Pai appeal to visitors of all kinds: the young and the young-at-heart, the arty type, and more, in addition to those looking for peace and quiet in their holiday. There’s a vibrant night scene without the sleaze, and a music and art scene that you seldom find in other Thai destinations. Of course, Pai’s location at the foot of the mountains also make it an ideal base for trekking and visiting hill tribes such as the Karen, Hmong, Lisu, and Lahu. Another notable attraction is the Wednesday Market. There are many new attractions too, such as the Grand Canyon of Pai and the Chinese Village.
The number of guesthouses and hotels in Pai continues to increase in recent years and most of them can be booked online. Whether you are looking for a budget guesthouse or a relatively full-service boutique resort, there’s probably something to suit your requirements, although there’s no five-star hotel — yet.
EAT & DRINK
As is anywhere in Thailand, there is an abundance of food and drink options in Pai. Your own accommodation will probably have a restaurant or two, but you can also venture into the center of the town, where there are now a wide variety of restaurants, coffee houses, and even bars and music lounges to quench your thirst or sate your hunger. An authentic local experience not-to-miss is going to the center of town early in the morning for a generous sampling of traditional Pai specialties or maybe to try some Southern Chinese cuisine in the Chinese village.
HOW TO GET THERE
From Chiang Mai, private vehicles can take Route 1095 to Pai (280 km), a very scenic drive. Regular bus services connect Mae Hong Son with Chiang Mai, and Pai is on the northern route. You can take either air-conditioned or fan buses to Pai from Chiang Mai’s Arcade Bus Station. The journey is long, slow and takes between four and five hours, but the route is scenic.