A GUIDE TO PAI, THAILAND
Little Pai sits nestled in the high hills of northern Thailand. Just a stone's throw from the border with Myanmar, it's a place of rickety bamboo bars and babbling rivers, dusty streets and enchanting local markets. In recent years, it's risen to become a favourite of the backpacking crowd, known for its laid-back vibes and long, lazy days.
People come to rumble over the scorched streets and wonder at the curious canyons. They come to sip cocktails as the pink-hued sun dips behind the horizon in the distance. They come to shop for mysterious Shan trinkets in the night markets and art emporiums. They come to party until the early hours to the sound of reggaeton and jazz.
We at LBW have been coming to this charming mountain town north of Chiang Mai to do all that and more for years, and we simply love it every time. Check out this guide if you're adding it to your Thailand itinerary this season…
How to get to Pai, Thailand
Even the journey into Pai promises real beauty. Most travellers will opt to ride a small minibus from the city of Chiang Mai. These leave regularly throughout the day from the historic Old Town area and weave into the mountains north of the city, taking around 3.5 hours from start to finish. Be sure to try and stay awake as the bus hairpins around the countless bends and reveals sweeping vistas of jungle-dressed valleys as it goes. You can expect to pay around 180 THB for the ride.
One alternative to taking the sickness-inducing bus to Pai from Chiang Mai is to fly. There are now just a couple of services run each week by Kan Airlines. The trip takes just 30 minutes and will cost around 2,000 THB in the high season.
Where to stay in Pai, Thailand
In the last couple of years, Pai has garnered countless accommodation options. That means it's worth shopping around for the best prices and places to stay. Some of the best can be found lining the Pai River and the street that runs parallel to it. These will tend to be more expensive choices, but offer beautiful gardens and great walking access to the main bars and restaurants. Alternatively, you could opt to stay on the far side of the water, which means paying less and being close to the wild mountains on the edge of town.
You can expect everything from luxury jungle cabanas to super-cheap bamboo huts; something to suit every budget.
Where to eat in Pai, Thailand
Pai has oodles of places to devour great food, both local and western. Any culinary trip should start on Walking Street, which is where bubbling curry touts and pad Thai sellers coalesce in the evening, offering quick and tasty regional dishes for next to nothing. Move up the road to the modern side of town and you'll also find loads of simple Thai kitchens that have no name but offer bargain Southeast Asian dishes that pack in plenty of chilli and spice.
For western food, be sure to head for a breakfast in Cafe des Artists, which churns out colorful fruit juices and healthy egg dishes in the morning. Or there's always-busy Big’s Little Café, with its large platters and full English offering to kick-start the day. For that ubiquitous Thai attempt at Italian, head for Baan Pizza, which is surprisingly good at mimicking the tastes of The Boot – even if there's often an overload of cheese. Finally, for date nights and a taste of luxury, there's nothing that can beat Silhouette Restaurant – a fine-dining joint with a rich wine list and full-frills service.
What to do in the day in Pai, Thailand
If you just want to spend your days lazing around the bamboo bars and little palm-spotted gardens that fringe the Pai River then we salute you – that's what loads of people do here. Be sure to head across to the Fluid Swimming Pool though, which is where you'll be able to splash about, mingle with other travellers, and sizzle off the hangover in the sun.
Another of the main attractions in Pai is the famous Pai Canyon. Sat some kilometers from the center of town, it carves through the dusty landscapes to create some dramatic walking paths and offers great views of the surrounding mountains of Mae Hong Son. Then there's the Sai Ngam Hot Spring, which bubbles up amidst the jungles on the edge of the Khong River to offer some empty and secluded wild bathing spots. It’s also worth heading to the cool waters of the Pam Bok Waterfall, which cascade down the hills on the edge of town to offer soothing swimming spots between steep-sided gorges.
Where to party in Pai, Thailand
Pai has developed into one of the top partying towns of northern Thailand, complete with more bamboo beer bars than you can shake a plate of pad Thai at. Perhaps the best thing about Pai though is how all the travellers get to know each other and continuously meet in each bar every night to drink and party.
Some of the top spots include the lively timber-clad shack of Ting Tong's, which sits just around the corner from Walking Street, offering cheap cocktails and prime people watching. For something a little more intimate, travellers who manage to discover the hidden al fresco barbeque garden of Spirit Bar are always welcome to talk healing crystals and Reiki. Finally, there's the uber-popular haunt of Bamboo Bar, which sits on the far side of the river and tends to be the place where everyone meets later on to sip Chang beers next to a roaring campfire.
If you've been to this gem of northern Thailand and have anything to add to this guide, we'd love to hear about it in the comments below! Or, if you think it's time you headed out to travel the fabled Land of Smiles, be sure to check out our great LBW tours in Thailand.