Once a sleepy village in the extreme north of Thailand, cut off from the rest of the Kingdom because of its isolated position and mainly populated by Shan people coming from the close by Myanmar; Pai started to get quite a reputation during the 70s becoming an important opium transit center. The construction of better roads and the better connection with the rest of the country came at the price of placing the small town in the drug route between Thailand and Myanmar. In the years that followed, Pai gradually dropped this role, but started to attract young backpackers looking for a chilled atmosphere, bucolic surrounding, and cheap weed.
The situation has been changing again: the tribal village today feels like a big souvenirs market; the weed smokers left the space to wannabes hippies and the little bamboo huts are leaving the space to bigger resorts. Pai is now a must do in everybody itinerary and is also a popular spot within Thai tourist wanting to enjoy some peace and quiet.
The atmosphere is definitely different from that remote village populated by northern minority tribes that you might expect; but its bucolic landscapes, a mix of lush rice paddies and green mountains that surround the quiet valley, are still intact. The town itself might feel like a tourist trap, packed with souvenirs shop and bars; but the picturesque cafes with river view, yoga classes, the laid-back pace and rural atmosphere make Pai the perfect place to cool off for a couple of days and swing on your hammock between a trekking and another.
Foreigners are not the only heading to Pai; the trendy crowd from Bangkok, tends migrate to the small town seeking some cool weather and a break from the frenetic capital. They bring along a new age vibe that translates in organic and vegan cafes, yoga classes, spas, and artsy shops. There is a good cafe scene which vary from organic places in leafy gardens, gallery cafes and very chilled hammocks equipped bars along the river.
The main walking street is dotted with small shops and stands selling handmade goods and souvenirs characterized by the colorful northern tribe style. The market has a much more laid back feels compared to the one that you find in other parts of Thailand, like Bangkok and Chiang Mai, but you can find very interesting things to bring back, like an incredibly soft silk scarf to which is hard to say no.
In terms of traditional sightseeing, like monuments or temples, there is not much to see; which, for someone, can be a relief considering the number of temples in the rest of Thailand. Even if you are fed up with temples, you should have a look at Wat Phra That Mae Yen, known as the temple on the hill, from which you can enjoy a fantastic view of the valley as well as admire the big white Buddha.
The town of Pai, which develop along Pai river, is pretty small and quite easy to navigate by foot, but the most interesting part of Pai is its countryside, and it can be explored by bicycle or motorbike. With your own transport, you can reach beautiful waterfalls, hot springs and gorgeous scenery.
Pai is about 150 Km from Chiang Mai, even so, getting there takes about 3 hours through the extremely winding road across the mountains. The road snakes through rich greenery and sporadic villages, giving you some sneak peek of the wonderful landscape that characterize the northern province between a leafy spot and another. I’m not gonna lie: it’s a tough ride if you get motion sick, made worst by the kamikaze minivan drivers without any concern on safety on the road or speed limits! The least you can do is try to forget about the imminent and inevitable crash by looking at the view.
Due to its location, Pai enjoys a slightly cooler weather than the rest of Thailand. In fact the average temperature is about 25°C with high picks of 35°C during the hot season and low one of 7°C during the cold one.
Another thing that attract a big crowd to the once sleepy town, are the prices. If there is one thing that I have noticed traveling through Thailand, is that the northern you go, the cheaper it gets. Pai is pretty much at the border with Myanmar and it gets quite cheap. The accommodation price range can vary from a USD 5 for a basic bamboo hut to a couple of hundreds of dollars boutique resort including all the options in between. You can find many options in Agoda.
Pai is no more the remote village reachable just by experienced travelers as described in guidebook few years ago; its fame is growing as well of the flow of tourists of any kind. It might be awake rather than sleepy, but that doesn’t stop you from enjoying the beautiful scenery and simply relax for as long as you feel like.