Pai's not an easy place to get to. It never has been. It's hidden up between jungle-clad ridges, far past the mystical temples of ancient Sukhothai and the stupa-topped foothills that surround bustling Chiang Mai.
Wiggling and winding like a Southeast Asian snake, the roadway that takes travellers there isn't one for the faint-of-stomach. It weaves past bamboo villages and around the borders of mist-gathering national parks before delving into the wide Pai Valley somewhere close to the border with Myanmar. Most people don't arrive without wobbly legs and a dodgy belly.
But there's something about the Pai of the Thai mountains that continues to magnetize more and more backpackers every year. Despite the big bends (some bus drivers quote the number of 762 full-kilter hairpins for the route), travellers do flock in their droves.
Perhaps it's the promise of an escape from the scorching heat of the Thai plains. Perhaps it's the prospect of seeing green-hued peaks rising high above the mystical reaches of erstwhile Burma in the north. Perhaps it's the way that all the expats of Chiang Mai speak of Pai itself: A town of highland relaxations, with great bars and chilled vibes. Not to be missed.
I remember the same sort of reputation preceding the tiny town in the hills when I first came to Thailand 5 years ago. It was spoken of in whispers from the kohs of the south to the electric bars of Bangkok. 'You've been to Pai, right?' – whispered by veterans of those infamous 762 turns as if a visit up there to the misty hills is some sort of rite of passage, akin to the Full Moon Parties of Phangan and the fire shows of Phi Phi.
It's still the same. Same same but different…
A Return To Pai
I'm sat munching a breakfast of oily omelette and chilli in one of the leafy veggie bars of Chiang Mai. They are everywhere in the Old Town of that Lanna city, and are great for pulling out the laptop and planning onward travels – just ask all the digital nomads that live here.
I'm planning my return to Pai. I haven't been for 5 long years and still remember the bamboo bars and dusty streets of Thailand's hidden mountain town with uber-fond memories. I remember partying until sunup with icy Chang beers and reggae-dub tunes. I remember swimming under the shade of palms and enjoying fruit shakes for brunch in the long and lazy afternoons.
I wonder if Pai is still the same. A lot can change in half a decade, especially in Thailand. Just ask the former fishermen of Koh Phi Phi. They'll tell you.
Fast forward half a day and I'm just alighting from the wobbling road that connects Chiang Mai to Pai. More than 700 turns down, weak knees and in need of a tonic water to settle the tummy, I hop out of the dust-covered minivan and survey the bustling Walking Street of the town that I remember from all those years ago.
It's still the pulsing vena cava of the place, only now there seem to be even more blood cells – that's backpackers and people in this metaphor, if you will – streaming past its bars and eateries, laundry touts and tour organizers.
I join the current of bodies and swing my backpack left and right as I dodge the clusters of folk in the thoroughfare. I'm instantly struck by the sheer diversity of people that now add Pai to their itinerary. Before, I remember it being largely the province of long-haired hippies and self-proclaimed New Age types with a penchant for future-telling orbs, energy fields, Chi and wheatgrass shots.
I'm glad there are more mainstream travelers now coming to enjoy the place, thinking as I settle into my bungalow on the edge of the slow-moving Pai River. I'm glad for two reasons: Hopefully it means I won't have to chat about aligning my chakras (something I've never been great at – I blame gin and tonics) as I sip my Chang beer later, and perhaps it means that the people of Pai are thriving.
I soon discover that both are true.
Pai After Dark
Face arranged and backpack dropped, I find it's almost evening. Evening in Pai means just one thing for me: Pai Night Market.
Years ago, I would wander the pedestrian Walking Street as the sun dipped behind the horizon, flitting between Rasta-Buddhist jewellery craft stalls and tie-dye shops. I'd munch on uber-cheap (we're talking like $1) pad Thai noodles and sip chilled beers in any live music bar that took my fancy. I really hoped I could fill my evenings with exactly the same this time round.
No disappointment. The Pai Night Market wasn't only there. It was thriving. I found it almost tripled in size, spreading down alleys and side streets and main roads in directions that it hadn't even thought of when I first arrived 5 years past.
Everything and more was there. Pad Thai maestros started the food off on the southern end of the street, whisking up radish and onion and chilli and lime and pepper and soy sauce on open-air hotplates that steam and smoke between the crowds and the bright lights. There are curry stalls bubbling with the strange scents of Rajasthan. There are samosa sellers and vats of hot fat churning out stacks of crispy spring rolls. There are burrito hawkers and chefs carving off the tops of coconuts with all the sleight of hand of a magician.
Then came the clothes and the trinkets. Stalls spill with shell-decorated bracelets and Bob Marley-inspired slogans. Others have hair braids or wooden sculpture works. Others are manned with painters crafting mystical images of the Thai mountains. They draw in front of your eyes. Visions of mist-plumed waterfalls fill your mind. Glimpses of jungle topped with cloud and filled with chirping birds the likes of which you've never seen before. It's a tantalizing intro to the wilds of Pai, all now shrouded by the growing darkness of the night.
Later, I head to the bars. I find my favourite street in Pai still peppered with more low-key places than those on Walking Street (just turn right at the end of the night market to get there).
I settle first in Almost Famous. It's a place I think I can remember. 'I think' being the key phrase. The Rolling Stones and Deep Purple echo from the speakers. A resident pooch lies akimbo on the floor. There are groups of dreadlocked Norwegians and Germans and Spanish chatting about their escapades in the nooks and crannies.
I prefer to sit at the bar and am soon deep in a haze of mojito. It's the speciality cocktail of the place. Buy 4 get one free. I aimed to get my gratis one, filling the meantime chatting with the uber-friendly bar lady and anyone else who sat on the high stools out front. I'm instantly reminded of why I fell in love with Pai's night scene so easily. You can talk to anyone. Anyone will talk to you. You get to know the place, feel like a local. All in just couple of hours. A couple of hours and couple of mojitos.
Pai In The Day
I wake. It's late. Mojitos still ring in my ears, but the mountain air is fresh. A breakfast of boiled eggs and sourdough cures the legacy of Almost Famous. Then I plan my day in Pai. It's bound to be a good one.
Preferring a bike to a motorbike, I'm soon rolling out of town on the main road to the south. It's hot and dusty but there's also an undeniable sense of freedom and achievement as I conquer the low hills that rise and fall around the city, lurching above the rice paddies and the maize farms.
I whiz past coffeeshops and strawberry farms. I see curious Swiss-style cottages with thatched roofs against the mountains. I skim down hills at 30 miles per hour in my lowest gear. I creep up hills slower than a slug in my highest, sweat pouring from my hair and forehead and body. Did I mention it's hot?
No matter. My aim is the Pam Bok Waterfall. It's one of the most popular waterfalls around Pai, and there are quite a few. It's one of the most popular because it doesn't require a two-hour hike through snake-infested jungle to get there. That's always a bonus in my book. And anyway, it was the one I visited 5 years ago. It's time for that nostalgic return swim, don't you think?
Up and down the backcountry lanes of Pai go. Rumbling past potholes and lakes, it takes me over an hour to reach the falls. I hike the short trail to where the water babbles over the hills and find far more people coalescing in the plunge pools than I remember. Back then it had just been me and couple of other people. Now there were nearly 20 folks, all chatting and dipping their toes in the cool streams.
I join them and have a natural shower in the refreshing cataract. I brush away the sweat of the ride and bob about in the murky, mud-hued pools as I look through the gaps in the jungle canopy, trying to spot monkeys, trying to spot snakes.
On the way back to the main road, I stop by the Land Split. It's a curious attraction, and one that you wouldn't normally think of. I stop because I remember the smiling fellow who mans it from my first time in Pai. He dutifully asked my travel buddy to hold his rooster while he did some farm-related things. There we were, standing with a large rooster cuckooing in our faces while some man we didn't know brushed his steps.
He's still there. He doesn't remember me, but I don't mind because he does offer a tasty tipple of pink hibiscus juice. It's cold and blood red and the perfect thing to rejuvenate my energies for the cycle. As for the Land Split. Well, that's something truly amazing: A huge cleft that's opened up in the middle of the guy's garden; a testimony to the metamorphic forces that are at work under the deceptively peaceful hills of Northern Thailand.
Next on my day plan is the Pai Canyon. Another hour on the bike brings me to the carved ridges where I'd been 5 years before. I hop between the crags and watch the afternoon sun arc over the tops of the serrated peaks in the distance. It's a great place to get a feel for the untamed wilds of Pai's region, and a fine spot to crack a beer with a view.
Then I hit the hot springs. Pai is famous for its steamy waters. The best ones are found just to the south of the center and are neatly placed for adding to a biking circuit. They are actually just within in the borders of a National Park, which means that they're well protected but also come with a surprisingly hefty price tag for entry.
I pay my dues and walk in. Beneath pine trees and waxy palms, I find a series of five or six pools bubbling with streams of clear water. There are loads of locals reclining and groups of Thai children playing. The hottest pools have hunched ladies dropping bags of eggs into the water – they say the sulphur content adds an extra eggy edge to the flavor. I decide I prefer to unwind, and spend the dying light of the day soothing my bike muscles in 38-degree liquid in the woods.
As I cycle back to my bungalow and the promise of more mojitos close to the hustle of the night market, I feel a deep sense of nostalgia for a place that I've only spend a grand total of 14 nights in. Pai is like that. It gets its claws into you. It makes you one of its own and draws you back. I watch the last rays of the pinkish sun fade against the Burmese peaks and think I'll definitely be coming again, someday. Perhaps in 5 years.
"Rich is a traveler, writer and filmmaker who's always after somewhere new to go. He's been hopping around the globe since 2011, from Poland to Paris, Mumbai to Ho Chi Minh. He runs several travel sites of his own, from Ski Eastern to Live Krakow to Crabs Move Sideways. When he's not planning his next trip, he's usually listening to 50s jazz, surfing in Wales, skiing in the Alps, or just swigging (too much) great craft beer."
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