For every dedicated traveler, there is inevitably a destination or two that stand out as being anti-climactic- a path that was so steep, a journey so long or views so breathtaking that the actual peak you had aspired to reach was, upon arrival, nothing more than a molehill. Pai is not one of those places.
While just getting there is half the fun, lounging in this quiet mountain town certainly does not disappoint. Pai is located in northern Thailand, with a population of about 4,000, but it is usually bustling with almost as many tourists, both Thai and western. Located about 132 km from the northern hub of Chiang Mai, the road to Pai takes about three and a half hours to traverse. State highway1095 is a series of harrowing curves, the kind of hairpin turns where you have to honk at every corner in order to warn unseen oncoming drivers. These guys are veritable daredevils, speeding along at 60-70 km an hour when they can, and the rest of the time impatiently chugging around 180-degree curves and narrowly, expertly, missing bigger, slower buses or nimble little motorbikes.
For my own journey to Pai, I opted to take a mini-bus, which is really just a minivan and can easily be booked through any of the legion of agents scattered about the square that lies within the ancient wall in Chiang Mai (There is now a flight from Chiang Mai to Pai, but the prettiest way to get there is by land). Minibusses accommodate about ten travelers and are normally a bit more expensive than the government bus. In turn, though, they are somewhat faster and much more comfortable, making them a great option for kids with queasy stomachs. Those in the front seats can plan on getting the best vistas.
Along the ride, behold stunning views of dense thickets interrupted by the occasional farm plot, and layers of hills enveloped in hazy shadows. Closer to Pai, signs alongside the road advertise an array of hot springs and waterfalls found in the surrounding area. These are best explored by motorbike, rentals of which are ubiquitous, inexpensive, and relatively hassle-free. For an intrepid cyclist, however, this would be a great place for a long hard ride. While some of the hot springs seem to have overpriced entry fees (250 baht or about eight bucks) most of the waterfalls are free and some are really nice for swimming. Maps are available at the police information box and there's a map on the main road as well.
Highway 1095 continues to ascend until about the last 15km, where it begins to flatten out but retains its curves, assuring that you will soon be tucked neatly into the mountainside. About 5 km from the edge of town is an organic farm with bungalows, where guests can work in the field, and enjoy communal dinners cooked in a traditional Thai kitchen. Furniture, tools and most of the bungalows are constructed from materials found in the area. It's a very rustic and friendly spot.
Also in and around town are an herb farm, and a few establishments offering yoga and meditation classes. Fluid is a real treat, with its pristine man-made pool, music, great food and drinks, a grassy knoll for sunning, and shade huts (70 baht per day). From Pai, you can do treks similar to those found in Chiang Mai, which involve rafting, riding elephants, and visiting a local village. Just look for a tour agency and speak to one of the friendly staff for options and prices.
Pai attracts the free-spirited, artistic types, thus there is no shortage of live music here. Bee Bop and Edible Jazz are easily the most popular live music venues, but informal street jams (often accompanied by fire-dancing) are common too.
In the main tourist area, whose two main streets form a large plus sign, you can find everything edible from roasted corn to roti pancakes with a choice of thirty or so toppings, dried squid, a full Indian meal, or sushi, and that's just the street vendors. The narrow lanes are lined with restaurants and shops selling handmade tribal crafts, clothing, and t-shirts. People hang out on the street to smoke, drink, chat, eat, and generally aren't in a hurry.
Pai's reputation as a chill-haven and the relaxed, eclectic feel of the place has inspired all kinds of kitschy t-shirts emblazoned with puns like "Apple Pai", "Utopai" and other tongue-in-cheek slogans. One designer, however, has the right idea: this white silkscreen just says "Do nothing in Pai." That sounds about right. While Pai offers lots of activities that are a great way to spend your days, it is equally as easy to just curl up somewhere and read a book in the afternoon sun.
When it's time to sleep, head across a little bamboo bridge over a shallow river that leads to three or four sets of river bungalows, with restaurants each run by different owners. All are made of straw but the nicest ones have private bath, glass windows, wooden doors, and large patios facing the sun ($400-600baht). As a lone traveler and of the backpacker mindset, I opted for the simple yet cozy establishment Family Huts. I happily paid 250 baht to the friendly husband of the Family Huts family. For this price I had an all straw hut on stilts, with two beds on the floor, and a shaded patio all to myself (shared bathroom). Much like the edges of the path leading up to the abode, the entire grounds were erupting with fragrant agapanthus, marigold and allium blooms.
Whether it's for a night or for a week, Pai is a great place to enjoy the cooler mountain air and the slower pace of life, and makes for a relaxing Thai vacation.