A free-wheeling tour of the North’s most chilled-out traveller mecca
There are 762 curves on Route 1095 between Chiang Mai and Pai. Just about everyone who has travelled this road in either direction will agree—all 762 are shattering, especially so when encased within the rambling death traps we call minivans. But, lo and behold, there is another, often overlooked method of transport that eschews these stomach-turning switchbacks entirely: airplane. Specifically, a 12-seat, Kan Air single-prop plane, the kind of tin can that hides like someone’s kid brother behind the bigger, shinier, less terrifying commercial liners on the runway. As luck would have it, your aerophobic author found himself locked inside one such tiny bird on a recent visit to Pai, along with various members of the Thai media.
From Chiang Mai, our plane climbed over the western edge of the city, caressing the edges of clouds as it droned above the veiny peaks and valleys and tortuous roads of northern forests. We landed twenty-five death-rattling minutes later on 800 metres of tarmac just off Pai’s main artery. Never mind that the pilots had gone the whole way with Mickey Mouse sunshades on the dash or that one of the two may have only recently graduated from secondary school—the flight was electrifying. The bird’s-eye view revealed beautifully tessellated rice paddies, hills so lush they looked like Chia Pets, Pai Canyon, the murky Pai River, and a handful of other familiar tourist attractions. The aerial view was a clear reminder of the outdoor charms that drew outsiders to this region in the first place. And, conveniently enough, it also played into my narrative—as I was back in Pai for the first time in more than four years, angling for a fresh perspective of the North’s legendarily laid-back outpost.
Shortly after landing, we were shuttled over to a place called Sushi Hill to have lunch. Despite the name of the venue, our spread was totally Thai: variations of pork, a crispy omelette, some stir-fried mushrooms that had been picked from the hills behind the resort’s bungalows, and a spicy salad of what appeared to be glass noodles, but were actually translucent strands of lakeweed. At the time, it seemed odd to have gone out of our way to eat at a guesthouse instead of a stand-alone restaurant, but almost embarrassingly late in the trip I realized that Pai’s economy was such that the townsfolk couldn’t operate just a restaurant. Pai gets a comparatively small number of tourist arrivals each year, and, apart from agriculture, there isn’t any industry other than tourism to speak of. So individual financial stability depended on diversity, like attaching restaurants, cafés, and gift shops to guesthouses and hotels. Fortunately, every hotel kitchen we visited during the three days we spent up north made really good food—the larb kua (minced pork fried with pig’s blood and spices that was way more delicious than it sounded), gaeng hang lay (a Burmese-style pork belly curry seasoned with star anise, cinnamon, and so much more), and nam prik noom (a green chilli paste that lacked the fishiness and funk of most nam prik) at Belle Villa Resort in particular.
Still, the best meals during our trip came from two very disparate places. The first: a Yunnanese feast in Ban Santichon, a Chinese village in the hills that toes
the line between tourist trap and authentic community. Beyond cheap charms, the village was also known in certain circles for food so delicious it could justify a visit by itself. I wouldn’t have minded skipping cheesy photo-ops and going straight to the restaurant. Before we ate, the more intrepid writers took turns riding a terrifying-looking swing that spun around like a windmill, a supposedly time-honoured tradition done for good fortune (I chose to take my chances with lady luck rather than risk a broken spine). Our feast here featured mantou (a chewy bun popular in Chinese cultures) served two ways—fried and steamed—“thousand-year” pork layered over pickled mustard greens and cabbage, an unforgettable pork knuckle stewed in Chinese herbs, and a famed, very herbal black chicken soup, among others.
The second most memorable meal for me—an avocado cheeseburger, of all things—was purchased from a kiosk on Pai’s well-known Walking Street for a mere B120, and shared with the whole media gang over pale ales at Jikko Beer, which is easily the most entertaining nightlife venue in Pai (more on Jikko later).
Cuisine may open a window into culture, but Pai served up more than burgers and black chicken. Even at ground level, the emerald rice paddies were stunning, and so were the sky-high viewpoints on the road to Mae Hong Son. There were other attractions still: Pam Bok and Mo Paeng waterfalls, both at their mighty best in the rainy season; the alien landscape of Pai Canyon, a series of narrow red ridges dropping off steeply into valleys teeming with pine trees and brush; Baan Jabo, where a noodle shop lets visitors dangle their feet in the air as they take in the limestone peaks (and soup!) that this little village is famous for; Pai Hot Springs, where one can actually hard- or soft-boil eggs in an 80°c pool; and the oversized cucumbers and avocados sold by Lahu women at roadside markets. Since I’d been to many of these places before, I didn’t always feel blown away by their novelty (their beauty was striking, though). But history, a different element, did hook my attention this trip.
A rickety wooden bridge—still somehow able to bear the weight of foot traffic—represented one of a couple vestiges of the Second World War. The Japanese had used Pai as a link between Burma, which it occupied, and Thailand, which it technically did not. Soldiers had apparently built this bridge to speed up their travel to Shan State. And the airport itself, I discovered, had been constructed for use by Japanese bombers; only decades later was it finally renovated for commercial use. Going even further back in time, during a morning run around Wieng Nuea (“North Town”), I stopped to read signage beside a rebuilt city gate that traced the village back to 800 AD, when the 14-kilometre-long moat that still outlined this mostly Shan community had a practical purpose: keeping out Lanna invaders.
Of course, nowadays few people picture history, or even natural attractions, when they think of Pai. For most, it’s a hippie haven—a place to shack up for a month and do nothing—or a guidebook recommendation for Chinese nouveau riche. All these preconceived biases pigeonhole Pai into identities it doesn’t always embody. For starters, accommodation offered includes more than just homestays and hostels. Some amazing resorts speckled the hills, including Puri Pai, a posh collection of villas and cabin-like deluxe rooms overlooking a valley near Baan Na Chalong. What’s more, there were signs of cosmopolitan life: the cool boutiques on the Walking Street selling handwoven scarves and blouses, the cafés brewing local beans, and Jikko, a craft beer bar where this writer spent two nights chatting up two downright gregarious bartenders. One, a co-owner of the bar, talked about everything from the wax he spun when he DJ’d in New York, to the politics of craft beer, the Thai-made brews from their friends at Happy New Beer they sold when in stock, and their plans to do contract brewing abroad in the very near future. He and his partner-in-crime also frequently hollered at familiar faces walking past. They may have doled out way too many Sangsom shots, but they knew how to encourage conversation.
Upon returning to Bangkok I took stock of the Pai I had just experienced. It didn’t feel like backwater for hippies, but rather a budding destination for people who liked culture, nature, and (occasionally) the finer things in life. Pai didn’t seem to have lost its soul, as some public officials lamented over dinner with us one night—it was just beginning to grow into its own skin.