Sadly, much of the fare on offer in Pai consists of watered down and frequently overpriced versions of Thai dishes that supposedly appeal to foreigners’ delicate palates and fat wallets. The excuse is high rents; the misconception is that foreign tourists either aren’t interested in or can’t handle authentic Thai food; and the reasoning is that the town’s so busy the restaurants will fill up regardless.
Most downtown cafes and restaurants attempt to cover all bases in a single menu. You’ll see token Thai standards such as pad Thai, green curry, stir-fries with cashews and so on offered alongside burgers, pizzas, chicken Kiev, Greek salad and spag bol.
Conversely though, some of the Western options—particularly for some reason breakfasts—are very good quality. The better, more authentic Thai spots involve a stroll or ride away from Walking Street. Note that 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 250 baht at the luxurious Silhouette at Reverie Siam.
Almost universally excellent, locally sourced coffee is 40 to 60 baht a cup, while a small beer will set you back 50 to 70 baht. While these are tourist prices, the rent concerns seemingly go out the window when it comes to tempting backpackers in with bargain happy hour cocktail buckets. To eat and drink well and cheaply in Pai your best bet is to have three breakfasts per day, and drink nothing but mojitos.
Our clear favourite Thai cafe, which serves authentic dishes at regular prices, is no-frills Tamsena’s # , found just off Raddamrong Road. It would probably pass as merely above average in a typical Thai town, but in the Pai context, it’s a lifesaver. There’s no English sign but the locals know it, and you’ll find it on the left-hand side just down the alley off Raddamrong leading towards the Wednesday Market. Thai standards such as pat kraphao moo (fried minced pork with chilli and basil), fried rice or spicy chicken on rice go for 30 baht. They close at 17:00 so make sure you get here for brunch or lunch.
Around the corner, near the top of Raddamrong Road and conveniently opening at 17:00, is popular Na’s Kitchen # , which also serves up excellent Thai and northern Thai fare. They will add a decorative lettuce leaf or crinkle-cut slice of cucumber and triple the price so mains are 100 baht and up but the food is good, servings large and it’s often so full of locals and visitors that you’ll have to wait for a table.
Baan Benjarong # is another good, long-standing option for Thai and northern specialities. It’s however located slightly out of town, just past the petrol station on the left of the main road as you head towards Chiang Mai. While the food is good and reasonably priced—with most dishes going for 60 to 180 baht—the owner/chef (who claims to have cooked for the royal family) has a reputation for being somewhat temperamental, so opening hours depend on his mood. You’ll find excellently prepared, classic Thai dishes plus a few less well-known local ones. The banana flower salad comes particularly recommended.
Charlie and Lek Health Restaurant # on Rungsiyanon Road is a friendly cafe where you’ll find local punters amid the tourists, though we definitely got the impression the chef was tailoring orders to suit the latter. Perhaps try specifying “local style” when you order unless you prefer the milder, albeit blander, versions of the Thai standards. The health part of their name refers to their use of organic products as much as possible. While offering a wide selection of vegetable, tofu and fish dishes there are plenty of meat options on the menu. It’s a very popular restaurant but if it looks full when you pass by don’t worry, as they have a second dining room to the rear. Prices are midrange and portions large.
If you’re sticking to Walking Street then mum-and-pop style Green Restaurant # is perhaps your best bet, serving standard Thai dishes at sensible rates with, for example, a khao soi at 40 baht, pad Thai 50 baht and fried rice 30 to 50 baht. It’s almost next door to Aya.
There is also a group of street stalls on Chaisongkran—at the bus station end and stretching down to the beautiful old Mae Hong Son Provincial Court building—which rustle up rice soup and various noodle dishes from early morning onwards. The night market along Chaisongkran and the northern end of Rungsiyanon has a multitude of food stalls though these are largely generic offerings such as spring rolls, sate, kebabs and the like. It’s a good place to pick up a sticky rice and mango dessert though.
Just squeezing into the local food category is rustic and friendly Curry Shack # , found down the alley linking Chaisongkran and Wanchalerm Roads. They offer, as the name suggests, a selection of good and cheap though Westernised curries with vegetable or meat: red, green, massaman, panaeng, coconut or Indian formats are all whipped up. Large portions go for 60 baht, so this is a good deal for central Pai.
Some of the resorts and guesthouses do offer reasonable Thai food, though be warned that many of these close their restaurants and cafes during low season. An outstanding one that is open all year round is Pai Chan # , which conjures up not only some of the best guesthouse Thai food in town but to our minds some of the best food in town full stop. Their crispy pork with basil and chilli is just about the tastiest we’ve eaten anywhere, and we received a huge plate-full over rice in exchange for 60 baht.
A second in-house hotel eatery worth a mention is Pai River Corner’s Kanad Restaurant # . Location is their key selling point, with a wonderful and spacious riverside decking area. While their Thai dishes and frequent (high season) barbecues are good quality, you do pay a bit for the view. It’s a splurge for dinner rather than grab-a-quick-lunch sort of place, but they also have a full bar list of cocktails and wine so an alternative could be a sundowner with a couple of appetisers before moving on somewhere cheaper for dinner.
Another popular in-house restaurant is Pai Village’s well-placed Blue Ox # . It has a garden dining area looking onto Tesaban Road, and serves a mixture of Thai and Western dishes. Quality is good though it isn’t the cheapest in town, and they have occasional live music. As a word of warning—and this applies to many of the bars mentioned below—live music in Pai often refers to a stool-sitting Thai hippy twanging away Hotel California on a guitar.
Baan Benjarong Rungsiyanon Rd, just past the petrol station on way out of town, Wiang Tai; T: (053) 698 010; Mo–Su: 11:00–13:30 & 17:00–20:30.
Blue Ox At Pai Village, 88 Moo 3, Tesaban Rd, Wiang Tai; T: (053) 698 152, (081) 594 0677; .
Charlie and Lek Health Restaurant Rungsiyanon Rd, Wiang Tai; T: (081) 733 9055, (081) 951 3422; Mo–Su: 11:00–21:30.
Curry Shack in the lane between Chaisongkran and Wanchalerm Rds, Wiang Tai; Mo–Su: 10:00–21:00.
Green Restaurant Chaisongkran Rd, next door to Aya, Wiang Tai; Mo–Su: 06:00–02:00.
Kanad At Pai River Corner, Chaisongkran Rd, Wiang Tai; .
Na’s Kitchen Raddamrong Rd, Wiang Tai; T: (081) 387 023; Mo–Su: 17:00–22:00.
Pai Chan Cottage 191 Moo 1, Mae Hee; T: (081) 180 3064; Mo–Su: c. 07:00–22:00.
Tamsena’s Off Raddamrong Rd, Wiang Tai; Mo–Su: 08:30–17:00.
Chaisongkran and the centre of Pai abound in rather splendid coffee and breakfast spots. The former is predictable, with quality Arabica grown widely across the region, though Pai’s emphasis on quality breakfasts is less expected. Of course, most cheaper accommodation doesn’t come with an included first meal of the day and many midrange spots include them during high season only—and then of varying quality—so there is a market for breakfasts, but we’re tempted to put down such a remarkable blossoming of this Southeast Asian breakfast paradise to a certain Mr Big.
This local brekkie superstar runs the tiny Big’s Little Cafe # at the lower end of Chaisongkran, which consistently rates top or thereabouts on any Pai food guide you’d care to peruse. It’s not bad for a wooden shack with half a dozen stools and zero tables. Aside from their unbeatable full English at 130 baht, Big Little’s benchmark options include a variety of breakfasts, brunches, lunches and dinners, with choices such as sandwiches, paninis, burgers, hotdogs, omelettes and so on.
Being top of the local food charts with such a simple but effective formula has no doubt inspired local cafe owners to both copy his style and raise their own game. Along the same street the very friendly I’m Fine # , nearly opposite the bus station, serves up great brews and morning fare, and has the advantage of being one of the few early openers (at 06:00). Barista Corazon # , a little further down Chaisongkran, offers a wide range of cheap brekkies and lunches, including a faultless full English for 150 baht and no fewer than three pages of juices and shakes to wash it down with.
Also down Chaisongkran, long-standing Cafe de Pai # with a tempting bakery and Cafe Des Artistes # with a pleasant wooden alfresco seating area at the junction of Tesaban Road warrant consideration, while turning right onto Tesaban brings you to another of our faves, the awesome Witching Well # . Their huge range of teas and coffees in a very cute, cosy setting make this an excellent morning coffee or afternoon tea stop-off, especially if accompanied by one of their divine mango crepes with passionfruit custard. More than a tea shop though, they also have a full bar and wine list, and lunch and dinner menus.
Further south on Raddamrong, Coffee Home # deserves a mention for coffee and value for money breakfasts, with a tiny outdoor terrace or air-con interior to eat on or in, while turning right down the same alley as Tamsena’s brings you onto the Wednesday Market Road and the Pai coffee institution Cafecito # . Though coffee is roasted and blended on site, we confess to having had better brews in town (though that’s obviously a matter of taste), but their daily bakery selection and Mexican specials are justly reputed.
Almost next door to Cafecito, and worth stopping at for the decor alone, is Khaotao # , with teas, coffees and juices in a spacious, funky kind of artist’s loft-style setting. They also have a smaller second site, Khaotao 2, at the top end of Chaisongkran before it meets the bypass, if you’re in need of a caffeine fix on your way to or from Santichong and Nam Hoo.
Probably Pai’s most famous coffee shop is just out of town, on the summit of the hill at the southern entrance to town on Route 1095. 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 probably see more Chinese tourists here. Not the cheapest prices, but a good bakery selection and spectacular views are to be had; it’s so famous it features on several Pai sightseeing tour itineraries.
Barista Corazon Chaisongkran Rd, Wiang Tai; https://www.facebook.com/pages/Barista-Corazon-Cafe/461323837331742?nr Mo–Su: 08:00–17:30.
Big’s Little Cafe River end of Chaisongkran Rd, Wiang Tai.; Mo–Su: 09:00–21:00.
Cafe De Pai Chaisongkran Rd (around mid–point), Wiang Tai; T: (088) 407 8593; Mo–Su: 08:30–22:30.
Cafe Des Artists Chaisongkran Rd (junction of Tesaban Rd), Wiang Tai; Mo–Su: 08:00–22:00.
Cafecito 258 Moo 8, (on road leading to Reverie just before the Wednesday market), Wiang Tai; T: (086) 587 2107; https://www.facebook.com/cafecitopai/ Mo–Su: 09:00–17:00.
Coffee Home Raddamrong Rd, (just down from traffic lights), Wiang Tai; Mo–Su: 07:30–22:00.
Coffee in Love Highway 1095, (approx. 3 kms before Pai on the Chiang Mai road); T: (053) 698 251; Mo–Su: daylight hours.
I’m Fine Chaisongkran Rd, Wiang Tai; T: (085) 333 7644; Mo–Su: 06:00–17:00.
Khaotao On road leading to Reverie, just before the Wednesday market, Wiang Tai. ; Mo–Su: 08:00–17:00.
Witching Well Tesaban Rd, 97 Moo 3, Wiang Tai; T: (084) 366 4269, (083) 245 8966; https://www.facebook.com/witchingwell/ Mo–Su: 08:00–21:30.
As far as dinner goes, Pai has a rather uninspired set of options aside from the few Thai joints we’ve mentioned. Most of the Chaisongkran cafes offer very similar evening selections of toned-down local dishes plus burgers, pizzas and other Western comfort food. The somewhat outside the box Sugarcane # in the central section has rebranded as a Mexican cafe. Cheap and cheerful is the policy as they dish up all the usual Mexican suspects, and it’s a very popular evening address. When you see the knock-down prices you’ll understand why it’s so busy, though when you sample the food you’ll understand why it’s so cheap. They open till 02:00—catering to chucking-out time in the bars—by which time customers are probably past caring.
There are plenty of specialist pizzerias to be found, with Baan Pizza # , in a new location on the river side of Tesaban Road, serving genuine Italian pizzas and pasta dishes at sensible prices, though we’ve found the service decidedly ropey on occasions. Amido’s # on Raddamrong also dishes up an acceptable pizza.
In the bit-of-everything category, Hey Mom I’m In Pai # near the traffic lights on Rungsiyanon Road stands out, firstly for its amusing name, but also thanks to some imaginative fusion efforts such as pat kraphao bacon (stir-fried bacon with chilli and Thai basil) and smoked chicken khao soi. Paninis, bagels, sandwiches and salads also compete on their eclectic menu, with a choice of sitting on their outdoor terrace or well-decorated air-con space. Along with friendly staff and decent music, this makes for a good dinner option if you want to escape the bustle of Walking Street without walking too far. They open until 00:30, and also set up occasional footpath barbecues out front.
As far as fine dining goes, Silhouette Restaurant # at Reverie Siam is probably Pai’s best bet, with a sophisticated and tempting menu, extensive wine list, professional service and a classy setting. On top of that prices are 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 160 to 220 baht and house specials include a range of varied and excellently prepared tapas dishes.
Amido’s Pizza Raddamrong Rd, Wiang Tai; T: (081) 179 7283; Mo–Su: 10:00–22:00.
Baan Pizza Tesaban Road, Wiang Tai; T: (089) 615 0212; Mo–Su: 12:00–22:00.
Hey Mom I’m In Pai Rungsiyanon Rd, near the traffic lights, Wiang Tai; T: (086) 414 6648; https://www.facebook.com/Hey-Mom-Im-in-Pai-222799454823536/ Mo–Su: 08:30–00:30.
Silhouette At Reverie Siam, Wiang Tai; T: (053) 699 870; Mo–Su: 12:00–21:30.
Sugarcane Chaisongkran Rd, Wiang Tai; Mo–Su: 07:00–02:00.
Most guesthouses will sell you a canned drink or a cold beer, but a lot of the smaller ones don’t have bars or cafes as such, particularly open outside of high season. Those with gardens will probably have somewhere to sit and hang out often including a fire and wooden logs, which can be pleasant and welcome in winter, making for a good places to meet your co-guests.
Some of the better-placed resorts such as Belle Villa or Kanad at Pai River Corner come with very pleasant terraces and gardens to while away a quiet, romantic evening. Popular backpacker spots such as Pai Circus and Purple Monkey are large enough to create their own parties.
Otherwise, a lot of the early evening action moves into town and onto Chaisongkran Road, or Walking Street, where a few footpath bars set up, with even a couple of 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 Chang slugging, 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 running from 17:00 till 22:00. Around the corner, Tesaban Road is fast becoming known as Bar Street and is dotted with backpacker bars involving dayglow murals (probably involving Bob Marley), alcohol served in plastic buckets (probably either vodka Red Bull or mojitos) and liberally strewn cushions (in need of a wash). Most have loud, overlapping sound systems and drinkers spill onto the street outside as the evening wears on.
Amid this cacophony, we had a preference for Yellow Sun # , run by a welcoming bunch of long-haired southern Thai guys. A pool table, comfy chairs, good music and occasional live performances makes this a popular venue, along with longstanding Almost Famous # at the Chaisongkran end of the road. Something of a Pai institution, this particularly friendly bar is popular with both visitors and expats, plays decent music and organises a variety of specials such as ‘Sloshed Saturdays’ with 50 baht shots or 80 baht cocktails, and Sunday ‘Mojito Madness’ evenings. Mojitos are the house speciality; they make 16 varieties.
Carrying on up Tesaban you’ll find the Thai country-style Buffalo Hill # on the corner with Raddamrong. This attracts a more mixed crowd and also has live music and a full menu. Moving up the hill and turning left at the lights onto Rungsiyanon will have you find foreign-run Pai Pub # with pool, sports on TV and decent pub grub such as burgers, steaks and chilli.
Note all of these bars close at 00:30 at the latest, as they’re within the town limits and the mayor wants to keep things under control. After this, the late-night/early morning action moves just across the river, which apparently doesn’t come under Pai municipal regulations. Cross the road bridge at the end of Raddamrong Road and you’ll soon find Don’t Cry Bar # on the right-hand side. Don’t Cry is friendly and lively with a half-decent pool table and barbecue, and stays open until the last customers go home, which usually means 05:00 or 06:00. There used to be a few more late night joints in the area such as Bamboo Bar, which was closed when we last visited in rainy season, so more may open up for the party crowd during the busy period.
Almost Famous Tesaban Rd, Wiang Tai; T: (081) 672 3903; Mo–Su: 16:00–00:30.
Buffalo Hill Bar Corner of Tesaban and Raddamrong Rds, Wiang Tai; Mo–Su: 17:00–00:30.
Don’t Cry Raddamrong Rd 100m after the bridge on the way to Mae Yen, Mae Hee; Mo–Su: 18:00–late .
The Pai Pub Rungsiyanon Rd, south of the traffic lights, Wiang Tai; Mo–Su: 09:00–00:30.
Why Not Chaisongkran Rd, Wiang Tai; Mo–Su: 17:00–00:30.
Yellow Sun Tesaban Rd, Wiang Tai; T: (088) 409 1151; Mo–Su: late afternoon until 00:30.
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.