Peace truly is what comes to mind when you’re hanging out in Pai. This is the place where I truly learned the meaning of the Thai phrase “Mai Pen Rai” which means “no worries” – it’s basically the Hakuna Matata of Thailand.
Pai is a small town comprised of laid-back locals, hardcore hippies (dreads and all), and miles of beautiful, mountainous landscape. It’s the perfect place to hide out for a while when you’re feeling peopled out (and Southeast Asia will do that to you pretty quick). Aside from Walking Street, which is constantly packed with white tourists, you won’t have a hard time finding wide open spaces. There’s plenty to explore both on and off the beaten path and, if you’re like us and have been traveling for months, you’ll be pleased to hear that there is no shortage of Western-style food available at the evening market on Walking Street (pizza, baked potato, French fries, brownies, etc). Its nice after a few months of noodles and rice to get a little taste of home!
Depending on if you’re a glass half full or glass half empty person, Pai could either be perceived as boring or relaxing. You can certainly find enough things to do to fill a week if you’re willing to trek around a bit, but Pai is best known for its relaxing atmosphere. Hammocks are strewn all over bars, backyards and hotel common grounds and chilling in them seems to be the favorite thing to do.
We did enjoy the relaxing (especially after our crazy time in Chiang Mai) but we found much more to do in Pai than just lay around.
Our Favorite Places
1.The Bamboo Bridge
We happened upon this one accidentally on the road from Pam Bok waterfall (which was dried up and extremely disappointing). It is a unique and free (donation only) attraction where you can walk across an elevated bamboo pathway and watch water buffalo graze beneath you.
If you continue on the path until the very end (which is quite far) you’ll reach a wooden door that leads to a beautiful, isolated Buddhist temple on a hill.
TIP: If you’re a lady, make sure to dress modestly (covered chest, shoulders and knees), or bring something to cover up with. Similar to all other Buddhist temples, they do have a dress code. Though the temple was empty when we visited, it’s best to play it safe and be respectful.
Ok, anyone who knows Pai knows about this location and to be honest, it is a bit overrated. But it’s something you have to do once. It costs you 450 Baht at the gate (for up to 3 people) and 20 Baht for a bag of fish food (which I would recommend since I love fish, and it’s pretty cool watching them swarm). I have read in places that you can bypass the gate and go straight down to the cave to hire a guide for a fraction cheaper, but they didn’t seem to want to let us pass without payment – still, could be worth a try!
The best part of the cave is definitely the bamboo boat ride through the cave, and it was slightly upsetting to see that the boat driver was only paid 50 Baht out of the 450 Baht we gave our tour guide. Not that the tour guides are useless by any means, but they don’t speak much English and while they may know a lot about the caves (in their own language) they can’t explain much to you other than “This rock looks like a monkey” and “This one looks like a crocodile”. There are, however, a few signs along the way explaining certain cave formations that you can read for yourself.
Like I said, it is overrated, but it’s a fun one-time-only experience and the bamboo boat ride through the hundreds and hundreds of giant carp and catfish is pretty neat!
TIP: If you can, its best to rent a bike or scooter and drive to the cave yourself from Pai. It’s a long but absolutely beautiful journey! Just be sure to take it slow as the road winds through the mountains.
3.Mae Yen Waterfall
Let me preface this by saying, we never actually made it to this waterfall. We left way too late in the day and it is about a 2 and a half hour hike. BUT this is a secluded waterfall (which is hard to find) and just the walk there is fun by itself. The “trail” isn’t really much of a trail.
We walked through the river (which is shallow currently being that it’s the dry season), hiked through dense jungle, passed through a very kind farmer’s field, and even managed to make friends with a friendly, dog-like cow wanting some head scratches. It’s a fun journey and from what we’ve heard, the waterfall is beautiful! My one regret of the trip is that we never made it to Mae Yen.
TIP: The path is not well marked so either follow the river at all times or use a GPS. I use Maps.me which is a life-saving (FREE) app that works offline – genius!
There is more to explore in Pai aside from our 3 favorites: The White Buddha, Mo Paeng Watefall (lovely, but crowded), Pai Canyon, and much more. Pai is a beautiful place and, as long as you know how to beat the crowds, you’ll have no trouble unwinding there.
Pai is an incredibly cheap place to stay. Fan bungalows start as low 150 Baht and scooter rentals are between 100 and 200 Baht a day. If you want to save money on food, steer away from the Western style food as it is far more expensive. You can spend 50 Baht on Pad Thai or you can spend 120 Baht on a small helping of lasagna – your choice.
We budgeted 350 Baht per night for accommodation, 330 Baht per day for food (for 2 of us), and 200 Baht per day for our scooter. It was very easy to stay within our budget (unless we splurged on Western food – in which case, we were dipping into our “Extras” fund). If you plan on hitting the bars during your time in Pai, there is a huge bar scene and the drink prices are fairly standard for Thailand. A SongSom (Thai rum) and Sprite will usually run 80 Baht per drink which is about the same as most Thai beer. For our budget, it would be a choice between eating for the whole day or having 2 drinks each – so, we choose eating :).
We tried our share of both Western and Thai food during our time in Pai and here are some of the favorites (along with prices):
Loaded Baked Potato (Mexican)
Our biggest craving this trip has been potatoes. Anything potato. French fries, potato chips, and yes, baked potatoes. When we saw the Baked Potato stand on Walking Street I had to have one. At 120 Baht a potato, I was pretty much using up my food budget for the whole day but it was oh so worth it. Loaded with tomato, cilantro, cabbage and cheese (holy cow, cheese! How long has it been?) the Mexican baked potato was music to my taste buds.
Noodle Soup with Chicken
No, this is not “Chicken Noodle Soup” – at least not in the American sense of the name. It’s much, much better. Chicken, rice noodles, fresh cilantro – just add some chili pepper flakes and boom! You’re in business. It’s served at Nong Beer Restaurant and at 40 baht a bowl, you really can’t beat the price.
Minced Pork with Thai Basil
Not for the faint of heart, this spicy dish will leave your nose running for days. It goes by many names, but if you see anything with “basil” and “pork” in the title you know you’ve got it right. Depending on where you go, the dish ranges from “hot” to “my face is melting”. Many places serve this dish, and the fair price is 50 or 60 Baht. Make sure rice is included, some places charge you 10 Baht to add it – which in my stingy mind, is a rip off.
Chips (French Fries) with Vinegar
Another Western favorite – head down Walking Street and you should see a small food cart that says “Proper Chips”. They are 40 Baht and they are, as the sign says, PROPER chips. Not the freezer french fries most places try to sell you. The girl who runs the stand is very sweet and speaks good English – we had some good conversations with her (since we sort of became regulars at her stand).
There are hostels available in Pai for cheap, but in our opinion, it’s worth paying for a private bungalow. We use Agoda, a hotel booking site, and it has served us well in finding the best deals on hotels and bungalows. The cheapest bungalow we found was 150 Baht a night, which is even cheaper than most hostels, but that of course is fan-only, no air-conditioning. We spent a little more – 350 Baht per night – and got an adorable air-conditioned cottage at Pai Tara Resort (also known as Pai Backpackers Paradise). It is located about a mile from Walking Street – a fairly easy walk, but far enough away to avoid the noise. Though there is a bar located on the property, it’s very quiet at night. The resort is set up in the middle of farmland so expect to see cows and maybe some rebellious, escaped goats. We loved it at Pai Tara – so much so, we extended our stay by 5 nights. And no, we are not paid to promote any hotels (if only!).
The bad and the ugly
Tourist attractions can get fairly busy as Pai seems to be quickly growing into a popular vacation destination for Westerners. The best way to avoid the crowds is to get going in the morning. Pai is well-known for the availability of certain drugs (which I’ll get into later) and people are often strung out and up all night. Bonus for non-users, that means peace and quiet in the mornings!
If you want to eat, you’re likely going to have to brave Walking Street to find what you’re looking for. Despite it being named “WALKING Street” people still attempt to drive through it. It’s hard to take a relaxing stroll and enjoy looking at all the handmade goods when you’re constantly worried about being run over by a car or motorcycle. The street also gets jam-packed with people in the evenings so prepare for some feelings of claustrophobia.
The trip from Chiang Mai to Pai sounds great. I mean, I hate minibuses but only 4 hours? I can handle that!
No. So much no.
When taking the minibus expect to get packed inside like sardines along with everyone’s luggage. The minibus is air-conditioned, but with the amount of people inside, it proves useless. Okay, maybe not useless, but you certainly aren’t feel “cooled off”. The first part of the trip isn’t so bad, but once you get into the last 2 hours and you start winding through the mountain trail at 40 mph, you start feeling quite nauseous – even if you thought you’d gotten past your childhood motion sickness, like me. You are stuck in your seat, trying to focus on not blowing chunks everywhere while also fearing for your life as you careen around corners hundreds of feet in the air. If money was no object, flying would be the better option (there is an airport in Pai).
Drugs and Corrupt Police
Pai is a sleepy town during the day, but it comes alive at night with young partiers.As there is a surplus of hippies in Pai, there is also a surplus of drugs, and it’s not uncommon to have people casually approach you to ask where they can buy shrooms or if you want to go halfsies with them on some weed. “Shroom Shakes” are available at some bars and weed is also easily accessible. If you go out at night, keep an eye on your bag and always check thoroughly inside it before going anywhere else. There have been reports of people getting stopped at police checkpoints, having their things searched, and getting fined because drugs were planted in their belongings. There are bars notorious for working with the police to get tourists in trouble to make a few extra bucks.
TIP: There is a checkpoint on the way to Lod Cave, so check your things before heading there.
All that being said, Pai is a beautiful, relaxing place and the good certainly outweighs the bad. If you are planning a trip to this quaint little town you won’t have any problem finding things to do. Whether you’re there to relax, party, or explore the unknown – there is something for everyone in Pai.
Chok Dee Na – Good luck to you on your journey (wherever it may be) and enjoy the video!