Photo: Where the fields go and go.

Introduction

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Once a sleepy and somewhat remote Shan town, the town of Pai,set in a picturesque valley in Mae Hong Son province, is these days well and truly marked on any tourist itinerary of northern Thailand. Old timers and more experienced travellers may poo-poo it for not being the “real Thailand” anymore, but if you’re a young backpacker on a first trip to Thailand it can be a great fun scene and it is now easily accessible in every sense.


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The original settlement on the left bank of the Pai River, at what is now Wiang Nua village, dates back to the Lanna period when it was an important regional centre, though there’s nothing much left to see these days. During the 1970s it was a pretty hairy spot, being controlled by the Kuomintang (KMT or Nationalist Chinese) army and forming an important opium transit point.

River scenes. Photo taken in or around Pai, Thailand by Mark Ord.

River scenes. Photo: Mark Ord

In the 1980s, Route 1095, originally built by the Japanese during World War II, was finally sealed and the Thai government began to exert more control in the area. The pesky KMT were offered decent farmland if they agreed to behave themselves; drug lord (and/or freedom fighter, depending on your point of view) Khun Sa and his Shan State Army were pushed far enough away to no longer pose a threat, while the lingering Communist Party of Thailand insurgency was restricted to even remoter northern areas such as Nan, effectively making Pai and its surrounds accessible to tourists at last.

Pai was relatively convenient to visit from the existing tourist centre of Chiang Mai and soon became a standard stop on any northern Thailand trip. Adventurous trekkers flooded in along with a wave of backpackers looking for cheap grass, (then) easily available opium and something a bit different to do while awaiting the next Ko Pha Ngan full moon party to start. The drugs scene has now been seriously clamped down upon and Pai has received something of a rebranding as a rural extension of Chiang Mai, with wholesome activities, picturesque scenery and a chilled out new-age scene. A strong backpacker slant does still linger with tubing, day-glow bars, parties and cocktails served in plastic buckets.

Holy crepes (and a holy temple). Photo taken in or around Pai, Thailand by Mark Ord.

Holy crepes (and a holy temple). Photo: Mark Ord

The influx of foreigners with northern Thai partners setting up cafes or guesthouses in Pai was followed by a wave of southern Thai hippies fleeing the perceived commercialism and over-development of Samui, Krabi and so on, who arrived to set up bars, cafes, tattoo parlours and new-age accoutrement stores. Shops selling handicrafts, jewellery, hill-tribe gear, mojitos and frappuccinos now abound. Pai has a comprehensive range of accommodation options, from affordable guesthouses and hostels through to quite fancy resorts.

Well-heeled, big city Thais looking for a change of scene also bought up land and built resorts or personal homes in an attempt to recreate what they feel has been lost in Thailand’s modern, urban centres. The strong new-age scene translates into a smattering of organic cafes and all manner of holistic courses being advertised. Yoga classes, massage and spa treatments, shamanic healing, meditation courses, detox programmes, tai chi as well as kung fu and muay Thai all compete for traveller attention.

Never far from something sweet in Pai. Photo taken in or around Pai, Thailand by Mark Ord.

Never far from something sweet in Pai. Photo: Mark Ord

In truth, Pai doesn’t have many sights to see, but people rather come to just hang out in a bucolic setting. A plethora of activities on the other hand are available to compensate and tempt you: bamboo or white-water rafting, tubing, trekking, cycling and of course exploring the surrounding area on motorbikes. Several ethnic minority groups have settled in the area and their villages are often visited by 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 and increasingly Chinese tourists now outnumber Western visitors during high season, when 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 100 kilometres away.

Wat Luang. Photo taken in or around Pai, Thailand by Mark Ord.

Wat Luang. Photo: Mark Ord

Pai is perhaps best avoided during peak season from mid-December to mid-January, when not only is it crowded, but most accommodation prices double and sometimes even triple. Try out one of the rural villages in other northern provinces instead, though you may have to forgo the mojito buckets, cheesecakes and parties.

Popular attractions in Pai

A selection of some of our favourite sights and activities around Pai.





Best places to stay in Pai

A selection of some of our favourite places to stay in Pai.


Orientation
The small town of Pai lies on the west bank of the Pai River in the centre of the valley of the same name. The valley runs roughly north–south and averages a couple of kilometres or so in width. It consists of farmland—predominantly paddy—and is dotted with several villages including Mae Hee, Mae Yen and Wiang Nua (the original valley settlement) to the east and Santichong, Nam Hoo and Ban Mor Paeng to the west.

Go find a waterfall. Photo taken in or around Pai, Thailand by Mark Ord.

Go find a waterfall. Photo: Mark Ord

The town itself forms a rectangular shape, with Chaisongkran and Raddamrong being the principal east–west axis and Rungsiyanon and Route 1095, as it runs through the town centre, the main north–south roads. A modern bypass circles town to the west while the river forms the eastern boundary. Tesaban Road, increasingly known these days as Bar Street, runs parallel to the river and links up the two former streets. Chaisongkran is commonly known as Walking Street though the northern end of Rungsiyanon also lays claim to the same appellation. These three streets are home to the majority of Pai’s bars, cafes and restaurants and is where you’ll find most of the motorbike hire and travel agent shops.

ATMs are scattered across town, while all major Thai banks have outlets along Rungsiyanon. One block to the west, Route 1095 slices through Pai and is where the municipal market, post office and Pai’s main temple, Wat Luang, is found. Hardwares and shops selling household goods, farm implements and of course mobile phones line the street, as well as several local cafes.

Wandering the Pai Canyon. Photo taken in or around Pai, Thailand by Mark Ord.

Wandering the Pai Canyon. Photo: Mark Ord

No doubt reflecting the size of the transient rather than permanent population, Pai has a large police station on Rungsiyanon Road at the corner of the side lane leading down to the Wednesday Market and Reverie Siam. A tourist police office is on the right side of the highway just as it leaves town to the south. Remember, whatever your impressions, drugs are illegal and wearing helmets is compulsory on motorbikes. There is also a sub-office of Mae Hong Son’s immigration department opposite the Afternoon Market and while we doubt they can do much visa-wise, they can of course advise.

The government-run hospital located on the upper end of Chaisongkran is well-practised in patching up motorbike accident victims and ought to have a stock of snake anti-venom but for anything else serious you’ll need to grab a taxi down to Chiang Mai. You will find a couple of dentists in town as well as English-speaking pharmacists.

Immigration: Opposite afternoon market, Wiang Tai; T: (089) 233 6630; open Mo–Fr: 09:00-16:00.
Pai Hospital: Chaisongkran Rd, west of the traffic lights and junction with 1095, Wiang Tai; T: (053) 699 031, (053) 699 211, medical emergencies: 1669; open Mo–Su: 24 hours.
Police: Rungsiyanon Rd, Wiang Tai; T: (053) 699 217; emergencies: 191.
Post office: 76 Moo 8, Ketkelang Rd, near junction with Route 1095, Wiang Tai; T: (053) 699 208; ppen Mo–Fr: 08:00–16:00, Sa: 08:00–12:00.
Pai Tourist Police Service Unit: Route 1095, just south of town, Wiang Tai; T: 1155.

The eastern end of Raddamrong leads to the road bridge over the river, after which the road forks left to Wiang Nua, eventually performing a wide loop before hitting Route 1095 north of town by the airport. The right fork passes Mae Yen village and links up with 1095 just past the Memorial Bridge as it heads off to Mae Malai and Chiang Mai. A bamboo footbridge at the foot of Chaisongkran connects town to the east bank resorts, though don’t count on it being there during the monsoon. A few hundred metres upstream, just past Pai River Valley, a permanent steel footbridge links the two banks year-round.

How about a cooking class? Photo taken in or around Pai, Thailand by Mark Ord.

How about a cooking class? Photo: Mark Ord

The provincial capital, Mae Hong Son, lies approximately 100 kilometres northwest while to the southeast Route 1095 flows into Route 107 and on to Chiang Mai, some 150 kilometres away. An alternative, Route 1265, which cuts through spectacular mountain scenery to Samoeng, near Chiang Mai, was receiving its finishing touches at the time of writing in mid-2017. The route north to Wiang Haeng is still unsealed and impassable for all but the most experienced off-road riders.

Safety
Pai is a very safe destination for tourists. Reports of robberies and burglaries or street crime such as bag snatching or mugging are few and far between. The biggest scam we came across in town was some of the restaurants’ menu prices. That said, Pai hospital’s emergency department does see a regular file of foreign visitors largely due to one cause: motorbike accidents.

Even if you are an experienced rider, many others grabbing scooters from Chaisongkran rental shops aren’t, so you never know what may come flying around a corner at you on a country lane. Even if you have ridden a bike or scooter before take care on the winding roads as well as the side tracks, many of which aren’t sealed and can be tricky to negotiate, in rainy season in particular. The steep climb up through Santichong and the viewpoint struck us as particularly challenging.

Unlicensed? What are you doing hiring a scooter? Photo taken in or around Pai, Thailand by Mark Ord.

Unlicensed? What are you doing hiring a scooter? Photo: Mark Ord

Furthermore, country lanes may be light on traffic but they do tend to come with attached country lane hazards, such as dogs, chickens and cows. We had something of a surprise en route to Mae Yen Waterfall when a two-metre cobra slithered out of the ditch right in front of the motorbike. Don’t wait for moments like these to test your brakes; check both sets thoroughly along with horn, tyres, air pressure and lights before you leave the rental shop. Pay the few baht extra for insurance, which covers accident damage to the bike, but not passenger and if you don’t have your own travel insurance cover and license then don’t hire a bike. Finally, though you may think you look cool cruising down Walking Street with flowing locks, you’ll look far less cool with your brains spread across Route 1095. Wear a helmet at all times.

Talking of brains, we’re wracking ours for other safety issues in Pai. Apart from falling off a cliff at Pai Canyon or jumping into the wrong temperature pool at the hot springs, we can’t think of much else that could happen. Do remember that, despite the town’s past reputation, drugs are illegal in Pai. You will be prosecuted if you’re nabbed by Pai’s boys in brown.

Weather in Pai
As is the norm for northern Thailand, Pai experiences three distinct seasons in a year with a cool, dry period between November and January, a hot dry season in March and April and a hot wet, or monsoon, climate during the months from June to September. October, February and May are intermediate, change-over months and can swing either way from year to year. Furthermore, as for everywhere else on this planet, general weather patterns are becoming less reliable, so showers may occur in dry season, or dry spells during traditionally wet months, or hot periods in cool ones.

When to go
Our decision would be influenced by several factors. Firstly, in a town where accommodation rates can skyrocket between low and peak seasons, budget consideration is important. Low season rates, generally in line with standard rates at less popular destinations in the region, will be available from May to September, with prices starting to increase from October onwards. High season tariffs, which are usually applied in November through to February, will see a 50 to 100% hike, while during peak season over Christmas and New Year, plus Thai New Year in mid-April, room rates spike even higher. Designated seasonal charges, as well as percentage increases for high season, do vary considerably though, so have a good look through our accommodation suggestions and check online booking agent rates as well.

A wet season visit need not mean torrential rain. Photo taken in or around Pai, Thailand by Mark Ord.

A wet season visit need not mean torrential rain. Photo: Mark Ord

We would say that it’s hard to find any resort or hotel in Pai that can justify their peak rates so we’d recommend skipping that period. Better deals during high season will book up well in advance, so if you do see a manageable rate on offer at a spot that tempts you, then reserve as far in advance as possible. Weekends and public holidays are particularly busy when local tourists inflate the numbers of Western and Chinese holidaymakers. If you don’t like crowds and don’t appreciate waiting ages for your dinner to be served, then maybe avoid high season months even if you do find a good deal.

Intended activities will also influence your decision. Trekking for instance can get a bit heavy going during periods of high rainfall, and rafting is curtailed during drier months. The scenery is at its lushest and prices lowest during the traditional low season months but then you will have to be prepared to sit out a shower or two. Before you accuse us of sitting on the fence a bit here, we’ll say take a risk and compromise with an in-between month!

What next?

 Browse our independent reviews of places to stay in and around Pai.
 Check prices, availability & reviews on Agoda or Booking
 Read up on where to eat on Pai.
 Check out our listings of things to do in and around Pai.
 Read up on how to get to Pai, or book your transport online with 12Go Asia.
 Do you have travel insurance yet? If not, find out why you need it.
 Planning on riding a scooter in Pai? Please read this.





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