Time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time.
– John Lennon
Backpackers flock to this countryside retreat to decompress from their long journeys and connect with other like-minded explorers. Expatriates living in Chiang Mai come here to escape the hustle and bustle of city life. Local Thais visit this home away from home, maybe for a relaxing weekend getaway. Whatever your reason is for visiting Pai, you are bound to take a slice of Pai with you in your heart and mind.
It was once a quiet little market village, but now Pai has become a growing tourist destination for those travelers following their path around Northern Thailand and maybe even its nearby neighbors, Burma and Laos. Imagine a beautiful countryside with rice fields, farms, waterfalls, hot springs, canyons, viewpoints, and valleys.
The countryside surrounds the small town center which is comprised of restaurants, coffee and souvenir shops, bars , massage spas, and guesthouses, most of which, are all within walking distance of the other.
Even if you stay across the Pai River, it’s not a far walk from one end of town to the other.
You don’t really have to do much of anything, but relax on the porch of your bungalow in your hammock if you prefer.
It seems most of the bungalows and guesthouses will have a hammock and pillows somewhere.
Also, this is a place where you will want to do more daytime activities because shops and restaurants shut down in the early evening.
Pai is not a late night town. Bars and restaurants close at midnight, but this curfew varies. There are a few bars on the outskirts of town like Don’t Cry, that will stay open a little later.
The few rowdy backpackers that are leftover from the Full Moon parties will try their hardest to get wild here, but Pai just isn’t the place for all night raves.
This is the only place where I actually saw the police come in and tell the bar to shut off the music. It was the last bar open in town, so every one flocked to it. I took this as my cue to start heading for the exit, even though the place was still packed with young revelers, and my friends still wanted to hang out.
The first time I visited Pai, I met with classmates Doug, Rose, Petra, Matt and Gemma. The second time our friend Kory from the U.S. came to Chiang Mai to visit and wanted to see what Pai was all about, so Tyson and I took him there. We set out to cover as much ground as we could in 2 days. They spent the first 2 nights at the Countryside Resort.
By the second day the guys wanted to stay an extra night and decided to book their last night at Darling Viewpoint Bungalows where I was staying the past few nights. The Countryside Resort was a great family oriented resort a little further out into the country and surrounded by rice fields. It was a little more expensive, like $15 US/night with air-con.
Despite the comparatively low rates, I still tried to save a little more. My bungalow, I believe was somewhere between $8-$10US/night.
I want to mention that in the months of October and November when I visited, it was mostly warm and hot at times during the day, but at night, it was cool enough where I felt I didn’t need air-conditioning.
OK, let’s get to the list.
5 Things To Do or Not Do in Pai
5. Do Chase Waterfalls.
I don’t know who said “Don’t go chasin’ waterfalls, stick to the rivers and the lakes that you’re used to…” and, I don’t know what they were talking about!
OK, I’m lying. I know it was one of my favorite R&B groups TLC from the 90’s. I had a crush on all three of them…R.I.P. Left Eye 🙁
I actually had to go back and watch the video and listen to the words again to understand why anyone shouldn’t chase waterfalls. I realize what they meant has nothing to do with my interpretation. You can check it out later, if you are curious. Wait! Keep reading.
I am always chasing waterfalls, waves, rivers and just about anything beautiful and natural…hmm?
Well, anyway, Mor Paeng Waterfalls is just one of several waterfalls in Pai. On our first trip to Pai, Tyson and I visited Mor Paeng Falls late one afternoon after a scenic motorbike ride through the countryside. See the video here.
Basically, you drive down some country road on the northeastern side of town for about 2 miles or 3 km until the road turns to dirt and eventually to a dead end at a river where you will see a few more bikes parked under a tree.
If you look to the right you will see a sign and entrance to the Happy Mountain Bar.
Stop there for a drink after you park and prepare for a jungle trek through a shallow running river until you find a dry foot path on the left side that I guess will eventually lead you there.
Good luck finding it!
The truth is we never made it to the Mae Yen falls because it is apparently an all day trek, and you need to start early in the morning in order to make it there and back in enough time before dark.
We did not find out until we found a few other travelers heading back, claiming they had hiked over an hour and didn’t make it there. Oh well, maybe next time.
We did have a few beers at Happy Mountain and got into some deep conversations about technology and the future.
I remember the bartender was actually playing Groundation which is a roots reggae band I believe from California. It was a nice happy vibe on the mountain, for sure.
4. Soak In Hot Springs.
On another day we rode our motorbikes around the entire valley on the outside of town and passed these really decorative coffee shops with giant signs and beautiful viewpoints in the background. Coffee In Love is a popular one but unfortunately for this post, we did not stop to take pics. That day we were on a mission to Pai Canyon, and after we did a little hiking around the canyon, I showed the guys the way to the hot springs, since I had been there once before.
The hot springs are apparently in the middle of some renovations near the entrance, its a very lush jungle area and as we began our walk up the hill to the hot springs you could see that they were preparing for the growth of tourism in this area. So far, it seems to me that they are doing a good job of maintaining the area and using lots of natural materials to keep it eco-friendly and also tourist friendly.
As you walk up the hill on the path, there were certain soft spots in the ground I noticed, one moment you are walking on hard ground and the next you were stepping on what kind of feels like the insoles of your shoe, but on the ground. Not muddy, or wet like a sponge, just soft, and very weird.
On the right of the path, the flow of the hot water comes down the hill in tiers of pools where you can sit on the edge and put your feet in or go all the way in. The further you walk up the hill the hotter the pools of water get.
The last pool that you can swim in, was pretty darn hot! I think everyone I was with eventually got in it, but you need to ease yourself in very slowly. It is known to be therapeutic and healing for you to bathe here. After the last swimming area, you can walk further up the hill to find more pools, but these you cannot swim in. You can see steam rising from them.
I know of one person who absolutely despises the smell of sulfur. Yes, the smell is unpleasant for most of us, but this friend of mine might have a problem here because the smell is definitely in the air.
I think you can give one of the locals who works here some money and they will boil an egg for you. Seriously.
I had a good time, on both of my trips to the hot springs and was happy to show it to my other friends. I believe it was 200 Baht for foreigners for the entrance fee.($7USD) A little expensive, but, as I would hear many times in my travels around Thailand…”It’s up to you.”
3. Climb Death Defying Canyons At Your Own Risk.
There was no entrance fee to Pai Canyon, but we paid a small fee to park our motorbikes if I recall correctly. It was pretty warm at this point of the day, so we bought some water bottles from the vendors at the roadside where we parked and proceeded over to the path towards the canyon.
On the way up, a hilltribe lady passed by and smiled at me.
I asked her for a picture, but at first she did not want to. She would ask me something and smile at me but whenever I tried to take her picture she would turn away.
Now, I don’t think she was asking for money, but possibly. I think she may have been flirting with me!? I swear!
Eventually she did pose for me, but she was definitely teasing me. I just could not understand what she was saying. Maybe she was flattered that I wanted to take her picture. The guys were already long gone, by the time, I got her picture.
I continued up the neatly paved path to the top of the canyon. When I caught up with Tyson and Kory they were totally preoccupied with taking pictures of the scenic vistas.
The landscape was pretty stunning. Two paths led either left or right. The path to the left was definitely a dangerous one. It was no more than 2ft. or a half a meter wide.
One little stumble might not have been deadly, but you would be severely injured. I turned back around once I realized neither Kory or Tyson were behind me. I crossed back over the narrow path I had begun and saw Tyson climbing down a steep trail on the other side.
The path to the right was a lot wider, but, at a certain point it became very steep. I backtracked and followed Tyson and Kory to the point that they decided not to go any further.
I wanted to go further to cross this bridge at the end of the steep path. In the end, I followed the right trail down into the valley, and all the way back around to the trail I originally decided not to do. There was no turning back so, I carefully climbed up the partially broken trail back to the beginning.
2. Explore by Motorbike – Viewpoints, Chinese Villages and Hillside Temples
My favorite thing to do in Pai, since there isn’t much traffic outside of the town center, is to just cruise around. Some of my friends have even taken the treacherous route from Chiang Mai to Pai by motorbike. I am not sure I would go that far, but definitely riding around gives you many, many photo opportunities.
The first viewpoint I saw was after our trip to Mor Paeng Falls. Nearby there is a viewpoint that requires a scenic ride through some smaller villages and a very steep climb up a road barely a car width across. Whatever you do, do not stop when going up this hill. I am not sure what the name of this viewpoint is, because it is written only in Thai. It was another nice place to visit and worth the ride up this sketchy hill. First we were greeted by a kind old man who told us the only admission was to buy some tea from him. I don’t remember how much it was, but it was not much. He returned after a few minutes with a kettle and some cups.
Tyson and I were the only foreigners. There was a cute young Thai couple that were having a great time taking pics and another group with a young Thai teacher and her students. They were also laughing and taking silly photos around the heart at the top center of the viewpoint.
After our tea time and photo shoot, we rode down and stopped at the Chinese village, to see if we could find something to eat. This was more like a plaza in the country with authentic looking huts and shops.
Only a few of the shops were open and most of the ones that were open only sold different types of teas and utensils. There appeared to be a restaurant near the front, but it was closed. It was getting dark, but we kept walking around until we saw a large group of people coming out of this well lit area way in the back of the village.
We kept walking until we found a restaurant where they all just finished eating. It was just in time, because they were about to close and we ended up having the place to ourselves.
So, that was one of those days where a little curiosity, exploration and patience helped us find a nice little gem. I am sure there are many more interesting places to find in this area and I would like to see what it is like when all of the shops are open.
Oh wait! There was another place that we accidentally found while trying to find the road to the White Buddha. Kory and I took a wrong turn up this road and found a little gazebo with a view. Kory happened to fall off his bike and into ditch trying to climb this steep hill, but he wasn’t hurt. Tyson didn’t hear me beep when we made the turn, but he eventually found us. There was no one and nothing up on this lonely hill but the gazebo.
We eventually did find the White Buddha on the hill that you can see from almost anywhere in Pai.
It is still a work in progress, and we had to trek up a slippery dirt road to get to it.
1. Do Nothing – Lay in a hammock, eat, drink, and take pleasurable naps.
The most important thing is that you don’t have to do much of anything, and still enjoy your time in Pai. The main street in the middle of town will be your main source of excitement, if you decide to leave your bungalow or guesthouse. Besides, you have to eat.
In most cases, the place where you are staying won’t be serving food, for every single meal of the day. So you will be making several trips in and out of town, during your stay, even if you are out in the countryside.
There are quite a few restaurants we visited on more than one occasion, because it was just so good. One in particular had great choices for a western style breakfast. I just don’t remember the name. It had a delicious variety of smoothies, great coffee, and a great American Cheeseburger for lunch! I think the second time we went, Tyson and I ordered two meals at once, and these were not the usual small servings. Its directly across from the corner of the big temple on the main street.
Pai was also the first place I tried Pad See Ew. It is similar to Pad Thai but made with a wide and flat noodle with soy sauce, bok choy, meat, egg and other vegetables. It’s my favorite noodle dish now. Yummy!
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