Despite, or maybe because of, Pai’s popularity with tourists, there’s a rather poor choice of Thai food in the centre of town. Much of it consists of watered down and frequently over priced versions of local dishes that supposedly appeal to foreigners’ delicate palates. The excuse is high rents; the misconception is that foreign tourists can’t handle real Thai food, and the reasoning is that the town’s so busy the restaurants will fill up regardless. There are good Western options though, particularly for some reason breakfasts, but the decent Thai spots involve a stroll or ride away from Walking Street. Note while we were charged an absurd 100 baht for a standard fried rice (at Ruan Baan Pai), you can also eat roast chicken in thyme and apricots for a mere 220 baht at the luxurious Silhouette at Reverie Siam.
Generally excellent local coffees are 40-50 baht while a small beer will set you back 70-80 baht, so while these are certainly tourist prices the rent concerns go out the window when it comes to offering happy hour cocktail buckets! To eat and drink well and cheaply in Pai then your best bet is to have three breakfasts per day and drink only mojitos!
Some of the resorts and guesthouses do offer reasonable Thai food though many tend to close their restaurants and cafes during low season. In town, while the choice isn’t great, you'll find a couple of unnamed local cafes opposite the beautiful old Mae Hong Son Provincial Court building doing simple Thai standards at regular prices. The market area has plenty of noodle and rice stalls as well. Probably the two best local eateries in town are the popular Na’s Kitchen near the top of Raddamrong Road and Toa’s (known locally as Pii Toa’s) on Rungsiyanon Road just a few doors down from the traffic lights. Both do well prepared, authentic Thai dishes at reasonable prices though both are only open in the evenings and suffer from their own successes since you’ll struggle to find a table then struggle even longer to get served in high season, and sometimes during low.
Baan Benjarong is another good spot for Thai food though slightly further out of town, just past the petrol station on the left. While the food is good and inexpensive, with most dishes going for 60-180 baht, the owner/chef (who claims to have cooked for the royal family) has a reputation for being somewhat temperamental -- opening hours depend upon his mood. You'll find here excellently prepared classic Thai dishes plus a few less well known ones -- the banana flower salad was highly recommended to us.
Chaisongkran abounds in coffee and breakfast spots. Pai Lonely combines coffee and a variety of brekkies with being a bookstore; Why Not serves decent coffee and again a variety of simple breakfasts, and Cafe de Pai has a bakery to accompany your north Thai caffeine fix. Further down Chaisongkran Cafe des Artists has an excellent terrace area and does juices, coffees and breakfasts though you do seem to pay slightly extra here for their well placed al fresco cafe area.
One of Pai’s best known breakfast and lunch addresses is busy Big’s Little Cafe towards the river end of the same street, where a simple wooden cafe serves up full English breakfasts plus paninis, burgers, sausages, sandwiches and so on. It's a a great deal, it's open throughout the day and the food’s cooked right under your nose.
Round the corner on Rungsiyanon Road, Pai Phaya 2 (formerly Thai Country) has no fewer than four pages of breakfasts on their menu, though sadly these can only be accompanied by Nescafe and their Thai food is well worth a miss.
All the Chaisongkran spots also offer sandwiches, salads and so on for lunch but our favourite is the awesome Witching Well, just around the corner on Tesaban Road. Their huge range of teas and coffees make this an excellent mid-morning or afternoon stop-off too, especially if accompanied by one of their divine mango crepes with passion fruit custard. Continuing slightly up the same street, Baan Pizza serves genuine Italian pizzas and pasta dishes at sensible prices though we’ve found the service decidedly ropey on occasions.
Last but not least and an excellent spot for day-time eating -– it closes at 18:00 –- is Fluid, just a short walk out of town.
Probably Pai's most famous coffee shop is just out of town, on the summit of the hill at the entrance to town on the road from Mai Ma Lai. Coffee in Love used to be probably the only coffee shop in Thailand with police crowd control during the high season though it has quietened down of late with a decrease in Thai visitors. It's a frappe-feeding frenzy for Bangkok's well-heeled, though these days you’ll see more Chinese tourists here.
Real coffee aficionados should check out Cafecito, which takes brewing the local beans to an art form. They roast and blend their own coffee and will even make a blend to suit your specific requirements. Food-wise there are cakes and cookies and their speciality is a range of Mexican food – burritos, tacos, tortillas. It’s on the road down to Reverie Siam, so few tourists make it out here, but it comes highly rated by local expats.
Silhouette Restaurant at Reverie Siam itself is probably Pai’s best bet for fine dining with an eclectic menu, extensive wine list, professional service and a great setting. On top of that prices are extremely reasonable, so if you fancy a bit of a splurge then look no further. The daily special when we checked it out was a sumptuous roast chicken in thyme and dried apricots (for a giveaway 220 baht). The standard menu boasts a selection of pasta and pizza dishes for 150-200 baht and the house specials are a range of varied and excellently prepared tapas dishes.
Another spot worth mentioning if you have kids in tow is Village Farm, on the road leading out to Mae Yen Waterfall -- it’s just about walking distance from town depending upon how old the kids are and consists of some well tended gardens plus various animals such as ducks, sheep (very exotic for Thais), rabbits and alpacas. The cafe serves tea and pastries plus Thai dishes using their own produce. Entrance is 60 baht for adults and 30 baht for kids.
Bars and nightspots
Most guesthouses will sell you a canned drink or a beer, at least in high season, but not so many have bars as such. Many do have sitting areas, often including the almost de rigueur fire and wooden logs, which can be pleasant and certainly welcome in winter. These are often good places to meet your co-guests, though only some of the larger resorts will have fully equipped bars.
A lot of the early evening action takes place on Chaisongkran Road where a few pavement bars set up, with even a couple of Khao San-style VW cocktail bars taking over the bus station forecourt. In high season this street bears more than a passing resemblance to Khao San Road, with hordes of young Thais strolling up and down, mingling with bare-chested backpackers -- just swap the Akha vendors for Lisu ones. Why Not, roughly mid-way down the street, is a great people-watching bar with friendly staff and an extended happy hour 17:00-22:00.
Around the corner on Tesaban Road is the new location of long-standing Almost Famous. Something of a Pai institution, this bar is popular with both visitors and expats, plays decent music and organises a variety of specials such as a Wednesday night quiz, "Sloshed Saturdays" with 50 baht shots or 80 baht cocktails and Sunday "Mojito Madness" evenings -- mojitos are the house speciality, and they make 16 varieties. A little further up the same road is Yellow Sun, run by a welcoming bunch of long-haired south Thai guys. A pool table, comfy chairs, good music and occasional live performances make this another popular spot.
Carrying on up Tesaban, the Boom Bar is a very popular backpacker hang out with cheap buckets and a lively atmosphere while at the end on the corner is the Thai country-style Buffalo Hill. This attracts a more mixed crowd and also has live music. Turning right up the hill and then two doors down at the traffic lights brings you to C Bar, which is more of an expat and locals hang out, but still friendly and intimate. Turning left at these lights onto Rungsiyanon is the Pai Pub with pool, sports on TV and decent pub grub such as burgers, steaks and chilli. Finally in town another popular bar well worth mentioning is Edible Jazz, located down the small side street off Chaisongkran by Wat Pa Kham. Set in a garden with a pleasant seating area Edible have regular live music and open mic evenings.
Moving to the edge of town is the well known and heavily promoted Be Bop Bar. Also run by south Thais and with occasional live music, a camp fire set up and a mixture of techno and trip hop, it has a curious hybrid atmosphere, somewhere between a large guesthouse garden, trendy Bangkok bar and Haad Rin techno dance party. As with the earlier bars these all close at 01:00 as they're within the town limits and the mayor wants to keep things under control. After this the late-night action moves just across the river which doesn’t come under Pai municipal regulations.
Cross the road bridge at the end of Raddamrong Road and you’ll come across Bamboo Bar, a cushion-strewn bamboo terrace overlooking the river, closely followed by Don’t Cry. Bamboo's quiet and laid back while Don't Cry is friendly and lively with a half-decent pool table and barbecue. Both open until the last customers go home, which usually means 05:00 or 06:00. You'll see fliers for parties and live bands at places such as Almost Famous, Be Bop and Don’t Cry appear on the table before you, wherever you are sitting in town, throughout the afternoon and evening, so it's very easy to find out what's going on.
Na’s Kitchen: Raddamrong Rd; T: (081) 387 023; open daily, times variable but usually lunch and dinner.
Toa’s: Rungsiyanon Rd (near corner of Raddamrong); open daily around 17:00-22:00.
Baan Benjarong: Rangsiyanon Rd, just past petrol station on way out of town; T: (053) 698 010; open daily 10:00-15:00, 17:00-22:00.
Pai Lonely: 16 Moo 3 Viengtai, Chaisongkran Rd; T: (088) 185 9602; open daily 08:00-23:00.
Why Not Ba: Chaisongkran Rd (in the middle, nearly opposite Aya); open daily 08:00-24.00.
Cafe De Pai: Chaisongkran Rd (around mid point); T: (088) 407 8593; open daily 09:00-23:00.
Cafe Des Artists: Chaisongkran Rd (junction of Tesaban Rd); open daily 08:00-22:00.
Big’s Little Cafe: River end of Chaisongkran Rd; open daily breakfast and lunch.
Pai Phaya: Rungsiyanon Rd; T: (081) 208 1442; open daily 08:00-22:00.
Witching Well: Tesaban Rd (97 Moo 3) Viengtai, T: (084) 366 4269, (083) 245 8966; open daily 08:00-23:00.
Baan Pizza: Tesaban Road; T: (089) 615 0212; open daily, 12:00-22:00.
Fluid: Mae Hee; T: (087) 186 5320; open daily 09:00-18:30.
Coffee in Love: Highway 1095, approx. 3 kms before Pai on the Chiang Mai road; T: (053) 698 251; open daily daylight hours.
Cafe Cito: On road leading to Reverie just before the Wednesday market; T: (086) 587 2107; open Fri-Wed 09:00-18:00
Silhouette (at Reverie Siam): T: (053) 699 870; open daily 12:00-21:30.
Almost Famous: Tesaban Rd; open daily 16:00-01:00.
Yellow Sun: Tesaban Rd; T: (088) 409 1151; open daily, late afternoon until 01:00.
Boom Bar: Tesaban Rd; T: (093) 181 9255; open daily 17:00-24:00.
Buffalo Hill Bar: Corner of Tesaban and Raddamrong Rds; open daily 17:00-24:00.
C Bar: Rungsiyanon Rd, near the traffic lights; open daily 17:00ish-01:00ish.
The Pai Pub: Rungsiyanon Rd; T: (053) 698 135; open daily, morning until 24:00.
Edible Jazz: Soi Wat Pa Kham; T: (089) 532 6486; open daily 09:00-24:00.
Be Bop: Rungsiyanon Rd (at exit to town just before the Tourist Police Office); open daily 20:00-01:00.
Bamboo Bar: Raddamrong Rd, immediately over the bridge on the left; open daily 16:00-late.
Don’t Cry: Raddamrong Rd 100m over the bridge; open daily 18:00-late.
Village Farm: Mae Yen Waterfall Rd; T: (053) 698 152, (081) 827 7047; open daily during high season only 09:00-16:00.