It seems everyone that has been to Pai has a strong opinion about the place.
As it is well on the Thailand Backpacker trail, it either attracts intense love or hatred. I can kinda see how it could go either way but for me it was definitely the former.
Pai is a small town in Thailand’s lush and jungly north, several hours by bus from the northern capital of Chiang Mai. The road to Pai is long, windy, and motion sickness inducing with over seven hundred twists and turns through the mountains.
This once sleepy town has experienced a tourism boom in the past few years which has left a lot of return visitors lamenting that it has changed, and not for the better. I think a large part of why I had such a great experience there was because I was visiting at the end of the low season so it wasn’t too crazy with people yet, and that I stayed out of town in a peaceful bungalow.
I liked the town centre with it’s numerous eateries and quiet side streets. Set on the scenic Pai river, it is a lovely little town to wander. I found the locals friendly and the vibe was super chilled.
But the best part of visiting Pai in my opinion is not the town centre itself, but the drop-dead gorgeous surrounding scenery which is best explored by getting out on a scooter. With abounding rice paddies of vibrant green, jungled mountains and hilltops, gushing waterfalls and natural hot springs, Pai is a nature lovers paradise.
Our bungalow was on a quiet property in a small local village, 5km out of Pai’s centre. Along with a dozen simple but comfortable bungalows, there was a restaurant on site and about eight pet kitties. My kind of place. We would start our mornings chilling with the kitties, eating fresh fruit and drinking delicious brewed coffee in one of the open garden huts. It was so peaceful.
A Perfect Pai Birthday
The day after we arrived was my 33rd birthday and I felt extremely lucky to be able to celebrate it in such a beautiful place. After reading birthday messages from friends and family over breakfast, Kerry and I headed out on our scooters for an adventure.
I love driving a scooter through the countryside, it is one of my favourite ways to get around. Pai is a great place to do it because the roads are generally in good condition and they aren’t too busy. We had a ball zipping around.
After walking around Pai town and down to the serene river, we took the scooters to the Mo Paeng waterfall where we lay on the rocks in the sun and swam in the cool waters of the rock pool. We watched some crazy people slide down the slick rock face beside the waterfall into the pool below.
On the way back from the waterfall we stopped for lunch at small restaurant. It had gorgeous views over a verdant valley and a cluster of simple but tidy houses. There are definitely worse places to live.
We drove the scooters on the roller coaster roads to the Sai Ngam secret hot springs. They weren’t exactly a secret, with loads of other tourists soaking in the warm waters, but the natural setting was beautiful and we quickly relaxed into the shallow, clear water of the thermal springs.
I love natural hot springs and this one was fantastic with a smooth pebble bottom and vines hanging down low to the water. It was different to any I had been to before.
As the sun began to go down we drove to our last stop for the day, the giant white buddha on a hill above Pai. Following our noses, we took the winding roads above town as the light began to die.
The view over the countryside and the town was beautiful from the top and the sky lit up pink as the sun dipped below the horizon. We rode back in the dwindling twilight to town to check out the night market and grab some dinner.
Pai’s night market is located along walking street which is closed off for the market every evening. The eclectic shops along the street offer locally made items along with the general Thai mass produced clothing and souvenirs.
I bought a handmade blue faux leather handbag, a purple sundress, a locally made elephant print makeup bag and a floaty singlet top – my treats to myself for my birthday.
The market stalls mostly sold food items and there was so much to choose from. Passionfruit smoothies, mango sticky rice, banana and nutella roti, skewers of succulent chicken, small mushrooms wrapped in bacon and grilled, gyoza pork dumplings, crispy spring rolls. I ate so much and it was all surprisingly cheap as well as being super delicious.
To cap off my perfect birthday, we had a couple of two for one mojitos at a local bar. Can’t beat a passionfruit mojito. I only hope that next years birthday will be as good.
There are so many activity options in Pai and we ended up partaking in a couple during our time there including a Thai cooking class at the excellent Savoei (A Taste of Pai) Cooking School.
Learning to Cook Thai Food in Pai
The lesson began with a trip to a market where we were shown some of the local and fragrant ingredients we were going to use to make our dishes. A swirling mass of slimy black fish writhed in a tank, ready for sale. Pungent herbs and spices punctuated the air with exotic smells.
Back at the cooking school we started on our first dish of four. Each of the seven people taking the class were able to choose from three dishes for each of the four courses to make. I chose to make a chicken and cashew nut stir fry, mango sticky rice, a clear noodle broth soup with minced chicken and egg tofu and a chicken penang curry including making the paste from scratch.
There were five instructors for the seven of us so we were pretty much given one on one tutorials. The instructors were easy to understand and friendly. I was impressed.
Between each course we sat down to enjoy the fruits of our labour, along with getting to know the fellow students in our class. At the end of the class we were given a cook book with all of the recipes in it. Once I have a home again I would definitely like to try a few out.
Tubing in Pai
The other paid activity we chose to do was tubing the Pai river. There is only one company that offers this and we didn’t see anyone else doing it. We were dropped in the middle of nowhere and drifted on our inner tubes the 1 1/2 hours back to Pai, passing locals fishing and tending their land along the way. We didn’t see a single other tourist.
The river was mostly a gentle current with a couple of small rapids and waterfalls along the way. Rather than being an adrenaline fuelled activity it was relaxed and peaceful. Right up my alley and a wonderful way to spend a hot and sunny afternoon.
Exploring Pai Canyon
Another popular attraction around Pai is the orange-hued Pai canyon, a short scooter ride from town. We visited in the late morning when the heat of the day was starting to intensify. The canyon is full of trees and is traversed by very narrow pathways with steep drops on each side.
Exploring the canyon is not for the faint of heart and involves some climbing and scrambling over boulders. I got myself in a couple of hairy situations when I was exploring and with the heat starting to take its toll, we left to cool off.
Visiting a Traditional Yunnan Village
Near our bungalow is Santichon, a small Yunnan Chinese village. The villagers are descended from Yunnan Chinese that crossed over the border into China to escape the Communist regime.
It is a bit of a tourist attraction now with numerous shops selling chinese tea sets and other trinkets. There are also a handful of restaurants selling authentic Yunnanese food.
It is a cute little place and we wandered around, looking at the shops and traditional mud houses.
Pai turned out to be one of my favourite places in Thailand for the delicious food, the stunning scenery and all of the fun activities. What’s not to love?
I am firmly in the pro Pai camp and I couldn’t think of a better place to have spent my 33rd birthday.
Have you been to Pai? Did you love it or hate it?
If you liked this post, why not check out some more of my Thailand content:
- Thong Nai Pan: A Quieter Side to Koh Phangan
- Why I Didn’t Love Koh Tao
- Scaling Cliff Faces: A Rock Climbing Adventure at Railay Bay
- Koh Phi Phi Island Tour: A Day at ‘The Beach’
- Koh Lanta: The Imperfect Island of my Dreams
- Koh Lipe Snorkeling and Island-Hopping Tour
- Koh Lipe: A Real Thai Paradise
- Temple Hopping and Stuffing my Face in Chiang Mai