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Pai

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Once a gorgeous sleepy town, Pai, while still rather gorgeous, is well and truly on the traveller map through northern Thailand. Old timers and more experienced travellers may sneer at it, as it's certainly not the "real Thailand" any more but if you're a young backpacker on a first trip to Thailand it can seem like a great scene and it is easily accessible in every sense.

Pai old city, situated on the left bank of Pai river by Wiang Nur village, dates back to the Lanna period when it was an important regional centre, though there's nothing much left of it to see these days. During the 1970s it was probably a fairly dangerous spot, being a Kuomintang-controlled area and an important opium transit centre. In the 1980s the area was cleaned up and a sealed road to Pai was built. The pesky KMT were offered decent farmland and Khun Sa and his Shan State Army were far enough away to not pose a threat, while the lingering KMT insurgency was restricted to remoter northern areas such as Nan, effectively making the area attractive to tourists at last.

Pai was relatively easily accessed from the existing tourism centre of Chiang Mai and soon became de rigueur on any northern Thailand trip. It was originally popularised as a rest-stop on what was once a far more gruelling bus trip from Chiang Mai to Mae Hong Son, but adventurous trekkers soon started to flood in along with a wave of backpackers looking for cheap grass, easily available opium and something to do while waiting for the next Ko Pha Ngan full moon party.

The drugs scene has now been seriously clamped down upon and Pai has had a bit of a rebranding as a rural Chiang Mai with wholesome activities, picturesque scenery and a chilled out scene. The influx of farang with northern Thai wives setting up cafes or guesthouses in Pai has been followed by a second influx of pseudo-hippy types from the further reaches of Chattuchak market and Ko Pha Ngan, who have set up resorts for weekender Thai yuppies from the big cities. Shops selling handicrafts, jewellery, tattoos, mojitos and traditional Lisu cheesecake and cappuccinos now abound.

Bangkokians looking for a sea change too have bought up land and built either resorts or personal homes in an attempt to recreate what they feel has been lost in Thailand's urban centres. A strong new age scene translates into an organic food industry and all manner of holistic courses being offered. Yoga courses and classes, Thai cooking schools and a near endless range of massage and spa treatments all vie for attention.

Unlike Chiang Mai and to a lesser extent Mae Hong Son, Pai doesn't have much to see in the traditional sense of sightseeing. Rather people come to either just hang out and bide their time, or to explore the hinterland. A plethora of activities are available, including exploring the countryside by foot, motorbike, elephant or bamboo raft. The mountainous scenery and proximity to the Burmese border has seen several ethnic minority groups settle in the area and these villages are often visited by the treks striking out from Pai -- as are some of the surrounding waterfalls. In more recent years white-water rafting has become popular and it's possible to raft almost all of the way to Mae Hong Son.

Thai tourists now far outweigh the backpackers during high season and Chaisongkran Road turns into a rural replica of Saturday night Khao San Road. You can be hard pushed to find a room, a table in a restaurant or get someone to serve you in a coffee shop and you'd be even more hard pushed to find a local -- even the Lisu vendors can come from anything up to 100km away!

Needless to say, Pai is best avoided during high season from November to January, when most accommodation prices double and sometimes even triple. Try out one of the genuinely bucolic rural villages in other northern provinces, though you may have to forgo the mojitos, cheesecakes and Facebook access, or move up to Soppong. If you can't avoid peak season but still want to visit Pai, look carefully as you'll still find some reasonable deals -- it's worth looking farther out of town to at least escape the crowds.


Orientation
Pai is a pretty small place with a very simple layout. Nothing is far away. Pai's main tourist drag is Chaisongkran Road, which winds from the river and footbridge up past the bus station to the crossroads with Rungsiyanon Rd before heading out west past the hospital to the town's edge. The section between the river and bus station is the liveliest being lined almost non stop with guesthouses, cafes, restaurants, trekking agents, internet shops, motorbike hire shops and bars.

The road side is bordered with Lisu vendors and there's even the obligatory 'Combie van cocktail bar'! Yes it's Pai's own Khao San Road and in the peak season can be just as crowded! Hoards of young Thais, seemingly permanently on their cell phones to their mates in Bangkok, wander up and down the street wrapped up in their winter woolies and groups of Western backpackers lucky enough to have found rooms sit around with their buckets of VodkaRedBull and laugh at the Thai dogs wearing Man Utd. T-shirts.

Rungsiyanon Road is the wide (well, for Pai) road that leads from the crossroads with Chaisongkran Road right through the centre of town, eventually mutating into the Pai - Chiang Mai highway once it leaves town to the south. The cafes, restaurants, banks, and 7-Eleven are mostly grouped at its northern end while small hotels and guesthouses dot both sides of the street. A small night market is open in the evenings.

Wanchalerm Rd runs parallel to Rungsiyanon and hosts a string of small guesthouses. Many of these are fairly cramped affairs, looking as if somebody with a large garden deciding to hop on the bandwagon, stick a few chalets or rooms in it and call it a guesthouse. Raddamrong Road is a wide road leading from the traffic lights on Rungsiyanon Road down to the bridge over the River Pai contains a good Thai restaurant or two at the top end and an average Italian at the bottom, a couple of bars and the interesting Unicorn.

Flood warning: In 2005 Pai was decimated by flash floods which washed away entire riverside resorts. Flooding in the wet season remains a threat, but the 2005 floods have been the worst in recent memory. If you're opting for a riverside shack in wet season, it's a good idea to opt for a sturdy one.

Pai has at least two ATMs in town. One is in front of Duang's Guesthouse, opposite the bus station, the other is around the corner, attached to Krung Thai Bank on Rungsiyon Rd. Inside the bank there is a full exchange service, open from 08:30 until 16:30 except on weekends and holidays. Many guesthouses also offer exchange services.

Internet cafes dot town and a small, but growing number of cafes and guesthouses offer WiFi services -- sometimes complementary.

The post office is a bit of a walk from the centre of things, towards the southern end of Khetkalang Rd.

There's a small hospital at the western end of town on Chaisongkhram Rd.

Related reading

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Text and/or map last updated on 30th October, 2013.

Last reviewed by:
Based in Chiang Mai, Mark Ord has been travelling Southeast Asia for over two decades and first crossed paths with Travelfish on Ko Lipe in the early 1990s.

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Why Pai?
By brujahwolf, 25 November 2011
4.0  stars

The Right Place for the Right Person
By KhowNeow11, 17 September 2011
5.0  stars

Pai - more than meets the eye.
By BruceMoon, 09 June 2009
3.0  stars

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