The secluded northern village of Pai marries gorgeous views with a welcome injection of Zen.
When people talk about Pai these days, it is often with a sense of regret at what the town has become: an ultra-commercial Bangkok outpost, crawling with city slickers shopping for Pai souvenirs and photographing each other at every opportunity. Yet, this is only one half of the picture. Away from the hectic main strip, this little town in northern Thailand is still as charming as ever: loaded with sweeping vistas, cheery locals and natural attractions galore. After all, people don’t brave one of the windiest, most nausea-inducing mountain roads in the country – Highway 1095 – for nothing.
Nestled in a verdant, rice-paddied valley, Pai has for most of its history been a tiny trading village. After being “discovered” by backpackers in the 1980s it grew slowly, existing primarily as a jumping off point for intrepid trekking tours. Gradually it came to be seen as a destination in its own right, attracting longer-term tourists and expats looking for a peaceful, friendly escape from the modern world. Though higher-quality tourist facilities only started to appear about five years ago, the options are now abundant: the town and outskirts rife with bungalows and the odd luxurious resort.
Unsurprisingly, with the arrival of hordes of tourists each Thai winter, not to mention the K Banks and Black Mountain coffee shops, the character of the town has changed a lot, but there’s still a huge surplus of space and solitude to be had if you venture away from the main Walking Street. Furthermore, most of the higher-end resorts have taken special pains to integrate into the beauty of the natural surroundings, providing the discerning traveller with plenty of excellent, one-of-a-kind accommodation, and sparing Pai the fast-growth blight of many other former Shangri-Las.
One of the biggest downsides of Pai’s phenomenal popularity is that the locals – the mélange of Shan, Muslim, Northern Thai and hilltribes like the Karen, Lisu, Lahu and Meo – are less visible these days. Head away from the bustling four-block centre of town, with its fashionably quaint boutiques, bohemian coffee houses, art galleries and smattering of internationally inspired restaurants, though, and you can still find them going about their colourful everyday business. The town’s fresh market, on Raddamwong Road, at sundown is a good place to start.
This quizzical mix of diverse cultures in such a concentrated area has led some to distinguish the town from the country at large with the T-shirt-friendly sobriquet ‘Pailand’. One might even argue it already has a national flag of sorts – the ubiquitous rainbow-coloured hammock. Were Pailand a real country, its principal export would be lower blood pressure or cans of clean, cool country air.
The main attraction is, of course, the scenery. Cruising around the outskirts of the Pai valley on a motorbike or bicycle, a cool breeze tousling your hair (or dreadlocks), the fuzzy philosophical notion that the journey is the destination suddenly becomes as inarguable as algebra. There is no need to stop anywhere, unless it’s for a frustrating attempt to capture the endless acres of gobstobbing scenery on your wee point-and-shoot or smart phone.
For those beholden to actual destinations, however, there are plenty to choose from. Nature lovers can lap up an assortment of picturesque waterfalls, from Mor Paeng, 9km out of town, to the cave-like Pam Bok, 6km away. Just a little further are the bizarre, serpentine ridges of Pai Canyon. Reached via a walkway through a hillside tree orchard, it’s the place to get your widescreen shots of the area’s undulating topography. And further still are the Tha Pai hot springs – some of the pools are hot enough to boil eggs.
Facing out at the Chiang Dao mountain range, Huai Nam Dang National Park, on the road back to Chiang Mai, is also one of the area’s best kept secrets. Loads of Thai tourists come at this time of year to watch the sunrise over the jagged Chiang Dao peaks, which protrude out of a sea of mist that normally blankets the surrounding valleys – quite the sight in the pink pastels of dawn.
Those looking for more of an adrenaline rush can choose a 70km two-day white water rafting trip (shorter ones are available), a challenging trek to visit hilltribe villages, a bareback ride aboard a friendly elephant, and now even a session at a piranha fishing park. Visitors looking for a different sort of cultural immersion might check out ethnic villages closer to town, such as the “Chinese village” of Haw Chinese that fled the Cultural Revolution and sell some of Thailand’s best tea. Pony rides and traditional swing rides are also available.
Oriented more towards the material? Chaisongkram and Rangsiyanom Roads feature some of the cutest little homespun boutiques in the country (Pai-branded T-shirts and animal beanie hats are especially abundant), and your corporeal form can be tended to at assorted spas and hot springs just outside of town. The quaint walking street features interesting shopping and entertainment opportunities as well. Myriad bars, such as Lun Laa, Almost Famous and Be-Bop, offer hip places to hang out with cool tunes and cocktails and even raucous live music by truly world-class acts.
Given its small size, Pai crams in more stuff to do per square foot than just about anywhere else on earth. Yet oddly enough, the favourite pastime of most visitors is to do essentially nothing at all. Hanging out at coffee houses, scribbling on artistic, locally designed postcards is one of the things to do.
It’s not hard to derive utopian inspiration from Pai’s uniquely accommodating beauty and extrapolate it to the world at large. In fact, after a few days of hanging out in this inspiring international burg, sipping excellent coffee and watching smiling locals shuffle by, it’s easy to get a little ‘Pai in the Sky’ about the place.