Around three hours winding the 762 road curves by bus from the northern city of Chiang Mai, and close to the Myanmar border, is the vibrant, quirky mountain valley town of Pai – a much talked about destination that isn’t one to be missed. Once a quiet market town, turned popular traveller hub, it’s fast become a backpacker haven known for its super-chilled, relaxed and hippy vibe… which you will appreciate after the dizzy journey to get there.
However, despite the multitude of guesthouses, restaurants and souvenir shops that you see so often elsewhere, Pai does things differently. Set within a stunning mountainous backdrop, Pai does it in colour, like a rainbow which decided to explode amongst a winding valley full of rolling green hills, and Pai does it in style – the quirky, original kind that’s as childish and fun as it is quirky and unique.
I bypassed Pai three years ago, heading straight to Chiang Rai after Chiang Mai to trek, but am glad I made it back this time. It exceeded my expectations, despite it not feeling very Thai at all, and while full of Thai Rastas and full-on hippies (which is not normally my scene) I enjoyed the decorative, carefree vibe that came with it. I happily spent four days quite literally doing nothing except casually roaming and lapping up the relaxed café culture vibe.
The small town and its main walking strip may look nondescript in parts, yet the shops, restaurants and cafes ooze character and creativity. It’s rare to find any that are plain in design. The coffee is amazing, the locals laid back and even the souvenirs are a bit more stylish than usual.
Only a short walk away from the main streets and guesthouses is the riverside and surrounding countryside, which includes hot springs, waterfalls and caves – untouched land that in parts makes you feel like you are the only person around. Yet to succumb to tourist ruin, Pai still looks like a perfect picture postcard; sometimes a bit like Middle Earth.
Exploring the Hills
Grab yourself a bike and set off on the exhausting, yet rewarding journey outside of Pai’s main bustling streets, which will bring you to a whole host of funky guesthouses, street artistry, houses that look like they are from fairy tales, and cafes whose imaginative themes jump out at you from every new corner you turn and hill you climb.
Pai, famous for its curves, may mean actually pushing your bike rather than riding it, yet the reward is the exhilarating downhill part. Signs in town and general word of mouth advise against moto riding for that very reason – unless you want matching ankle and elbow bandages like many of the travellers here.
My favourite café was the Strawberry Café – I’m one of those girls who likes hearts, stars and other cute shapes. My friend and I spent an hour or so here eating, drinking and sampling everything from strawberry shakes, ice cream, wine and vodka. It was one of the very first cafes we noticed on the bus ride in to the town, so keep an eye out for it!
Pai may be popular, but it doesn’t feel overcrowded. A traveller haven for relaxation, it hasn’t become ravaged by the continuous stream of visitors and even the small handful of bars there haven’t ruined the atmosphere with a raucous vibe. This town provides an escape from the cities and a window into the rural side of Thailand. Just don’t expect a fast pace there… or to make it out in a day or two.
The bus from Chiang Mai to Pai cost 150 Bhat, and took approximately three hours. There really is hundreds of curves and the winding journey, coupled with the desire to look out the window at the stunning scenery, may cause sickness, so be prepared.