Wow, guys! It’s been a minute, huh? Well, unfortunately life took us by surprise and we sort of fell off the blogging wagon during the final two months of our trip. As a result, we’re WAY behind on our destination guides, but we’re back in action and I’m armed with pages and pages of notes to share all the details of the remainder of our trip with you. Please forgive our absence, but we are officially BACK!
Like Chiang Mai, Pai was on Alex’s itinerary when he visited Thailand for the first time back in 2012. Ever since then, he’s been waxing poetic about this sleepy little hippie commune nestled among the rice fields in the hills of Northern Thailand. I was eager to see the town with my own eyes after hearing so much about it.
But of course, places can change drastically over time - especially a place as popular with tourists as Pai. During our time traveling through Asia, we’d occasionally meet people who had recently visited Pai who complained about how touristy or lame or overrated they found it. Needless to say, Alex was terrified that the chilled-out little village he’d visited six years ago had changed beyond recognition, that it had become yet another victim of the tourist influx that’s made so much of Thailand crowded and overwhelming.
Fortunately we soon learned that wasn’t the case. Sure, the Pai of today is a hell of a lot different than the one-street town it was back then, and yes there are telltale signs of an upswing in mass tourism, but Pai is every bit as chilled-out and welcoming as it ever was.
Pai is situated about 150 km north of Chiang Mai and you can read about how to get between the two cities in our recent post on the subject. Basically, you can either take a van or drive a motorbike, and if you opt for the van you’ll likely want to secure a motorbike rental as soon as you get into town. We rented ours in Chiang Mai so I don’t have any company recommendations, but be sure to check TripAdvisor or Google for reviews because scams abound in Thailand.
Pai is pretty spread out and a lot of the ‘good stuff’ like the canyon, hot springs, and many of the best restaurants and guesthouses are all spread out in the rice fields surrounding the village, so you’ll definitely want wheels to get around. If you’re not comfortable on a motorbike you could rent a bicycle as well, but the roads are hilly in parts and you’ll definitely feel more limited. For better or worse, the vast majority of visitors here rent motorbikes and you’ll inevitably see some idiots/newbies fall over at stop signs or do other silly things while driving. Just don’t be like them.
One pro of how much Pai has expanded over the last several years is the proliferation of great quality, highly affordable guesthouses both in town and in the surrounding area. We stayed at Bannamhoo Bungalows which is about a 10-minute drive from Pai town, and highly recommend it. Definitely don’t stay here if you have animal allergies - the owners have rescued 16 cats and 3 dogs who hang around the property, and they’re incredibly loving and friendly but it’s still going to be an issue if you’re severely allergic.
The bungalows are absolutely wonderful. Because we had booked such a long stay, we were upgraded to the family bungalow which was huge with its own porch dining area, where we enjoyed coffee and kitty snuggles every morning. The bungalows aren’t air-conditioned, but with Pai’s elevation it gets pretty cool at night, and generally a fan is enough. Plus, there’s so much to do in the surrounding area that we hardly spent any time in our room during the hottest part of the day, and if we were home at that time we’d just hang out in the common area hammocks where it was nice and breezy.
I definitely recommend staying on the outskirts of town if you’ve got a motorbike. Since Pai town is really just a walking street and a couple other blocks, it can get crowded and loud - and backpackers here tend to stay up really late. Staying outside of town offers you the chance to get away from the chaos when you need a break - and if you end up staying a while (as most visitors do), you’ll definitely enjoy some peace and quiet.
Wherever you stay, there's plenty to do apart from lazing around your guesthouse all day (unless that's all you want to do - you do you!). Despite its compact size and sleepy, laid-back nature, Pai is chock-full of cool stuff to keep you occupied, whatever your interests. There’s beautiful natural scenery (plus killer sunsets!), cute cafes, stunning temples, and plenty of other stuff to do besides.
As I said, Pai Town is teeny-tiny - really just a few streets with shops and restaurants, all surrounding the original Walking Street which is home to a night market (every evening, weather permitting) where food and souvenir vendors set up shop. During the day the area is no less lively, with plenty of restaurants, hostels, tour agencies and motorbike rentals available. This is the main thoroughfare of town, and you’ll inevitably spend a lot of time here. At the end of the walking street the road turns right and continues on, with more bars and cafes located on this stretch.
As far as sightseeing, there are plenty of options in the area around Pai. Just hop on your bike and cruise through the rice fields. The scenery is so picturesque, you barely need any real sights to see, - rather, just enjoy what’s around you!
Sooner or later, everybody ends up at Pai Canyon for sunset. It’s one of the most popular sunset-watching places in town and it gets crowded, especially during high season. You’ll need wheels to get out there, but songthaews depart every night from the Walking Street if you don’t have a motorbike. They usually wait until they’re full, though, so you’ll likely need to be patient. The drivers wait at the canyon until the sun is finished setting to begin shuttling people back to town.
If you want to take photos, you’ll probably want to arrive early - an hour before sunset is probably sufficient - to stake out a good spot, because the canyon path is really narrow and it gets crowded. If you don’t care about that and just want to watch a pretty sunset, you’re fine to arrive later. I also highly recommend coming here at sunrise - it’s equally as epic and there’s almost never anyone there!
Another great sunset location, and overall awesome excursion, is the White Buddha aka Wat Phra That Mae Yen. It’s visible from Pai town and the road up to the temple is well marked. The Buddha is situated up a huge and imposing staircase, but it’s worth the trip! Again, this can get crowded at peak hours and it’s equally pretty in the mornings when hardly anyone is there, but be advised that you’ll want to wear polite clothes (e.g. no exposed arms or legs) to enter the temple complex. I always carry a shawl with me in Thailand, you never know when you’re going to find an amazing temple around the corner!
Other options on the outskirts of town include some of the area’s many atmospheric waterfalls and the local hot springs. The bamboo bridge is another favorite, and it’s a fantastic spot for photos. Do note that a lot of these sites are situated down poorly maintained dirt roads, so make sure your motorbike is up to the challenge before setting off, and wear a helmet!!!
The best thing to do in Pai, at least for us, is just hang out and explore the town. There are so many cute cafes, restaurants, and other hang-out spots that we did very little sightseeing, opting instead to give ourselves the time and space to relax. This also meant we got a decent amount of blog and photography work done, which was a plus!
Some of our favorite cafes included Khaotha Cafe and Easy Garden, both located south of the town center. They’re just up the street from one another and sometimes we couldn’t decide which cafe to visit so we’d just go to both! The lemonades at Easy Garden are unbelievably delicious, and Khaotha’s decor is quirky and retro. In town, we loved Boomelicious which serves yummy coffee drinks as well as an amazing assortment of brunch dishes.
Pai has no shortage of amazing food options, and one of the benefits of the crunchy hippie crowd that put this place on the map is the wealth of delicious healthy restaurants, many either completely vegan or with plentiful veggie options. We’re not vegan, nor are we super health-conscious, but after eating plant-based for almost every meal in Pai, we definitely began to realize the benefits of such a lifestyle. It’s easy to be vegan when you’re surrounded by so many great options at a really affordable price point.
Our favorite veggie spot was Earth Tone, located on the outskirts of town on the way to the White Buddha. Everything on the menu is fresh and healthy and delicious - we especially recommend the Buddha bowl, the hummus, and all the fresh fruit smoothies. Earth Tone also has a cute little shop selling organic items, baked goods, and the most delicious kombucha you will EVER encounter. Seriously, we drank almost a liter of ‘booch every day, it’s that good. Just up the street, FatCat is another yummy veg-friendly restaurant with a lovely outdoor seating area. In town, Om Garden is a fantastic - and wildly popular - choice, and the sandwiches are especially yummy.
Of course, there are also plenty of incredible Thai options in Pai, and we never got sick of curries and stir-fries. Na’s Kitchen and Pen’s Kitchen, both in town, are reliable and delicious choices, but be warned: ordering Thai spicy at either restaurant all but ensures you’ll leave with a very happy tummy and very burnt taste buds. Wash it down with a cold Chang and you’ll be fine. On the outskirts of town on the way to the Canyon, Paina Paita Home serves up smaller portions of truly home-cooked food, and the owner is a lovely woman who’ll sit down and tell you what’s best that day. It’s worth a trip just to try something a little more unique and local than your standard green curry or pad khee mao.
In addition to the excellent culinary options, Pai has no shortage of great bars to hang out in after hours, and that’s arguably one of the biggest draws of visiting this chill little village. The walking street is an attraction in itself, and it’s where everyone starts most nights out. You can pretty much take your pick of any bar along the walking street and you’re almost guaranteed to have a good time, although we noticed that some bars like to play really bad music really loudly at all hours of the day and night. Our personal favorite was Mojo Cafe, which has live jazz and blues every night at 8. We were there during the hottest part of the year, in April, so on particularly scorching days we found respite at the Pool Bar, which is exactly what it sounds like: a pool/bar combo. Nothing beats a cold Thai beer and some throwback jams on a 105-degree day, trust me.
A note on local etiquette: although it’s obviously 100% fine to rock your tiniest swimsuit at the pool bar, waterfalls, or hot springs, you should never walk around in a bikini on the street. It’s considered extremely disrespectful to the locals. Although there were signs all around the Pool Bar exit announcing this, we still saw groups of girls strolling around town in their skivvies. I’m all for body positivity and freedom of expression, but when you’re a tourist it’s important to respect locals and their culture, and not ruin it for everybody else. End of rant.
Look, Pai isn’t perfect. It can be crowded, the backpacker crowd can skew a little weird, and there are always gonna be those people who party too hard and kill the vibe. We met a lot of people during our travels who said they didn’t like Pai or found it overrated. I firmly believe that, although it’s certainly changed since Alex was here in 2012, Pai is still worth a visit.
This town can be whatever you make of it. Our favorite memories came not from any particular activity or place we visited, but from the afternoons we spent relaxing at the bungalow or spending time at a cafe or blues bar. Pai is best experienced slowly and lazily, and if you give it a chance, it’s still possible to discover that magic everyone hopes to find here.