If you were lucky enough to visit Pai in the mid-1990s, before the road from Chiang Mai was finally sealed, you would have discovered a peaceful mountain valley crossroads where intrepid travellers drifted through traditional markets virtually unnoticed.
Nowadays Pai, as most people know it, is a full-on destination where visitors from all over the globe are catered for by a variety of resorts, espresso cafés, bars, elephant camps, and restaurants serving Mexican, Israeli, Italian, and French cuisines.
But that Pai is only half the story. In fact “Pai” is the name of an entire district, which is divided into two main tambon (subdistricts), Wiang Neua (North Town) and Wiang Tai (South Town), along with several smaller tambon.
It’s easy to spend an enjoyable weekend in Ban Wiang Neua, the main village in Wiang Neua tambon, without visiting “Pai” even once. Although only three kilometres north-northeast of Wiang Tai, the village remains largely unsullied by tourism, holding on to a strong northern Thai/Shan flavour that has been glossed over in Wiang Tai.
Most of the town’s roughly 4,000 residents make a living from farming, with garlic the most highly prized agricultural product. Six rice mills in Wiang Neua process local rice, which is surprisingly tasty.
Cottage industries include weaving, basketry, and the making of naem (fermented sausage). The town’s Shan craftsmen, renowned for their skill in building with wood bamboo, and handmade brick, are in great demand for the construction of resorts and restaurants in Wiang Tai. They’ve been joined by a new wave of migrants from Myanmar’s Shan State, which borders the Wiang Neua sub district to the north. These later Shan arrivals, many of whom fled political conflict with the Yangon government, tend to work as unskilled labourers for Thais or other Shan.
Wiang, a very old word of Sino-Thai origin, means “fortified settlement” or “walled town,” and was historically applied to key habitations found in northern Thailand and Laos. Wiang Chan, the Lao capital now more frequently spelled “Vientiane” in the French manner, was such a town, as was Wiang Pai.
When Shans from what today is north-eastern Myanmar founded Wiang Pai 800 years ago, they chose a fertile portion of the wide Pai River Valley just above the natural floodplain. They surrounded the settlement with 14kilometres of earthen wall and moat. These fortifications were put to repeated use during Thai invasions from the Lanna kingdom to the south.
In 1869, Lanna finally annexed Wiang Pai (today’s Wiang Neua), and as northern Thais moved in alongside Shan in habitants, it become customary for the two groups to use separate gates when entering and exiting the walled village .Both gates, Pratu Dam to the south and Pratu Wiang Luang to the north, can be seen at their original sites, marked by signboards inscribed in Lanna, Shan, and English.
During the invasion, virtually the entire village was burnt to the ground. Although most of the architecture in Ban Wiang Neua today is less than 150 years old, the village of mostly wooden homes nevertheless evokes a timeless rustic charm.
The village boasts two historic temples. The oldest Wat Si Donchai, was originally built as Wat Don Jong Mai in 1312 by Shan prince Phaya Mongsau. After attacking the village, rival Lanna prince Chao Srijai renovated the temple in 1477, installing an 800-year-old Thai Lu-style Buddha image and renaming the temple. A 2007renovation in Lanna style added extensive interior murals to the sim (main chapel). Wat Na Jalong in the centre of the village also boasts a Lanna-style sim, and may have been built by Lanna immigrants rather than Shan residents in the 18th or 19th centuries.
In classic northern Thai style, the earthen walls around Wiang Neua trace an oblong shape – some scholars refer to it as “amoeba plan” – with the remains along the southern perimeters being the most visually impressive. Two city gates along this section have been elegantly restored with handmade brick, without a trace of mortar in sight.
Ambitious walkers can trace the entire 14-kilometrevillage perimeter, stopping off at Wat Si Donchai along the way. Parallel to the wall runs a water-filled moat popular with locals who amble by to fish with rustic poles – nets are strictly prohibited – and to forage for a variety of edible herbs and plants that fringe the watercourse. Lined by tall teak trees, narrow dirt tracks run alongside both sides of the moat, atop the old city wall.
Wiang Neua tambon boasts five year-round waterfalls where locals spend weekends and holidays picnicking or enjoying the cool waters. The most well-known is Namtok Hua Chang (Elephant Head Falls, so named for the shape of the rock formations supporting the cascade). To reach the falls, head north from Ban Wiang Neua towards BanTan Jet Ton, and turn right at Pura Vida Resort. Follow the road as it winds through roughly six kilometres of rugged landscapes and garlic fields. Continue along the irrigation canal past New Moon Village, a long-running collective of Japanese hippies, until the track becomes too much for your car, scooter, or bicycle, and walk the rest of the way to the falls.
The surrounding hills harbour a half dozen samnaksong, rustic meditation retreats frequented by travellingBuddhist monks. Ban Muang Noi, 32 kilometres from Ban Wiang Neua at the western limits of the tambon, is a semiremoteShan and hilltribe settlement that was once a majorconduit for the regional opium trade. Today the peacefulvillage of mostly wooden homes is worth a visit just to viewthe mountain scenery along the way.
Several guesthouses offer reasonably priced accommodation in Ban Wiang Neua. One of the oldest and most appealing, Sipsongpanna (0 5369 8259 or 081881 7631; facebook.com/paisipsongpanna), features four adobe-style bungalows decorated with bright colours, elevated beds, and wide balconies overlooking the Pai River. A traditional Shan market in the village sells fresh local produce at ridiculously low prices from 5amto 8am and 4pm to 7pm daily. Several noodle and rice shops in the same vicinity provide cheap and tasty Shan and Isan meals.
Wiang Neua is best visited between November and March, when the surrounding valley is at its most beautiful. In December and January, you’ll need a thick sweater and a good pair of socks for mornings and evenings, and a sleeping bag or several blankets for comfortable nights. During the rainy season (June to October) travel to the remote areas such as Muang Noi can be difficult because of washed-out roads, but the village itself is cool and welcoming. During the hot season, however, the Pai River Valley fills with smoke from slash-and-burn agriculture.