Pai, a Backpacker’s Paradise
In recent years, Pai has become one of Thailand’s must visit locations for travellers. It was not too many years ago when this little town was an unknown in the traveling community. These days, it seems that everybody has heard of this little town in the mountains, and for good reason. Pai is packed with things to do, there are caves to explore, waterfalls to swim under, long twisting roads to ride and delicious food markets to sample the local foods.
However, Pai is also a backpacking haven, which means that there are plenty of travelers here sampling the more hallucinogenic walks of life. Mainly it is just a bit of weed being smoked here and there. Most people love this place but there are also some who hate it. If you do not mind the occasional stoner or smelly traveler, then Pai will incredible destination to visit on your travels.
Where is Pai?
Located in the far Northwestern corner of Thailand, this is not an easy place to reach. Most backpackers arrive via Chiang Mai, as this is the closest city. A three hour shuttle bus from Chiang Mai will cost around 150 Baht per person. This is a spectacularly scenic route through the mountains, so the three hours will soon fly by. There is a pit stop half way where you can grab a bite to eat and use the bathrooms.
If you are competent on a motorbike, this is a great way to reach the town. It is possible to rent a bike in either Pai or Chiang Mai and ride to your destination. This is quite a dangerous drive as the roads are not very wide, but incredibly fun. Only travel by bike if you are experienced. It is cheaper to rent bikes in Pai than in Chiang Mai, so if you are on a budget you should wait for your return journey to rent bikes.
Where to stay in Pai
There is no shortage of accommodation here as this little town has blasted onto the tourist trail. From hostel dorms to luxury bungalows, all needs are catered for. Most of the budget hostels are very basic, offering nothing special, a bed and a curtain is pretty much all you get. However, they cost only a few dollars so you can not complain too much. If you are traveling with a tent, some of the hostels allow you to pitch it in their grounds and charge a dollar or so a night to use the amenities.
As a rule of thumb, most of the good accommodation is across the little river which runs through the town. To reach the bungalows you will have to walk through the food markets and cross a bamboo bridge over the little river.
You can find accommodation online very easy, just note that not all of the places advertise. We stayed at Purple Monkey Backpackers and it was fine for the price, although a little more expensive than some which did not advertise online.
Use sites such as Hostelworld and Booking.com to find the best deals if you would like to book before you arrive.
Renting a motorbike in Pai
Unfortunately in Pai you will have to rent a motorbike. The town sits in the middle of a huge natural park and most activities, such as waterfalls and caves are quite a distance from the town. If you are not comfortable on a bike, find somebody who is.
Before we go on, let us just say that riding a bike can be very dangerous. In Thailand many tourists are injured every year, sometimes fatally. Pai is the only place that we have ever seen insurance offered to tourists. If you crash, damage or lose your bike, all costs are covered for the ridiculously small amount of $4. This often makes people less wary and they do stupid things. Do not be one of these.
In Laos I (Dave) smashed my collarbone after being hit by a driver. What made this hard to swallow was that it was not my fault. I will be writing an article about this soon, keep an eye out for it. Looking back it is quite a funny adventure, at the time it was a horrible one.
Do not let this dissuade you, the roads around Pai are perfect, they are not to busy and are perfectly lain. They are better than many of the roads in Europe. In fact Pai can be the perfect place to learn to ride. Rent a bike, but stay safe.
Where to rent a bike
The most popular place in town to rent a bike is in Aya, which is located near the central bus station. They offer bikes for as little as 100 Baht and like we have already said, they also offer insurance. We had no trouble with Aya, but if you look around the web you will find stories of people being asked to pay again when they can not show a receipt and over sneaky little tricks. We can not fault them however. Just make sure you do not lose that receipt.
If you read the story from a couple of paragraphs up, you will know always to wear your helmet. It is not worth ruining your holiday, or even your life by not doing so.
Things to do in Pai
Once you have got your bike, you will be given a map of the surrounding area. There is lots to do here in Pai, which is why many Backpackers end up overstaying their initial departure date. Here are the highlights of this beautiful area.
Located 8 kilometers outside of the town. Pai canyon is a little wonder all in itself. However, it is also a health and safety officer’s worst nightmare. If you do not have good balance do not walk out to far on the canyon.
There are three lookouts which give beautiful sweeping views of the valley. The furthest lookout is also the one which offers the best views. This is also the least crowded as it is quite difficult to reach. Pai canyon is not a place for children to visit unsupervised and even adults should take care when wandering along the rim.
Make sure to wear trainers and not flip-flops, it also gets very hot out here, so take some water with you.
Mor Paeng Waterfall
Mor Paeng Waterfall is the most popular fall near Pai. For this reason, it best to arrive early as it soon fills up with backpackers and also the local children. Less of a waterfall and more a series of different pools, if you walk to the furthest pools you should find a quiet place to relax.
Also if weed is your thing, or you just wish to chill at night time, the locals in this area sell bags of weed. Don’t be stupid and DO NOT SMOKE AND RIDE.
There is also a restaurant at the entrance of the waterfall where you can grab some food, they also sell alcohol but if you are riding, stay away from the drinks.
Mae Hong Son loop
Technically this brilliant bike ride starts in Chiang Mai but there is nothing stopping you from setting off from Pai. From Pai to Mae Hong Son and back is around 350 kilometers and it is the best motorbike ride that I have ever done. The roads are perfect, winding up through the hills of the National Park. From horizon to horizon, only trees and hills fill your view.
Once you reach Mae Hong Son it is also possible to visit the Karen Hill Tribe. This Burmese Tribe moved across the border into Thailand because they faced persecution in their home country Myanmar. Although it is sad that the Karen must now show themselves off as a tourist attraction, this is the only way in which they can earn money. If you visit, show respect and have a glimpse of how their lives used to be.
The loop was one of the highlights of my trips to Thailand and can not recommend it enough. Make sure to set off early however, you do not want to be riding home in the darkness. Also take a jacket as it can get quite cold riding over the hills with the wind whipping past you as you race along on your bike.
Lod Cave is a spectacular site. The cave is so big that it has its own river running through it. The main tourist attraction is to float through the cave on a bamboo raft. This is another of the many great things that you can do in Pai.
You can not enter the cave without a guide and will have to pay 150 Baht. You will also have to pay for the bamboo raft which is 300 Baht. However, each raft can hold three people so if there are three of you, the costs are split amongst you taking it down to 150 Baht per person.
You may think that you have visited many caves and that you have seen them all. Trust me, floating through Lod Cave is really cool and not to be missed.
The cave is located 50 kilometers from Pai and should be looked at as a day trip. Do not try to combine it with any long rides such as the Mai Son loop as you will not have the time.
Many more things to do
This is just a taste of the many things to do in Pai. There are Chinese villages, lots more caves and waterfalls, cool looking bridges and also temples to explore. You will find delicious food markets, hot springs and even places where you can get a Bamboo tattoo. In Pai, it is impossible to get bored.
Every night on the town’s walking street, food and market stalls open for all the tourists. Although this is kind of a tourist trap, it is still nice to walk around and sample all of the different foods.
What I really thought of Pai
Just a few years ago, this little town in the northwestern hills of Thailand was unknown. Today the word is out and it has now become synonymous with backpackers. For the local economy this has been an unbelievable boon, bringing in millions of dollars. Some of the rural beauty has been lost but the lives of the locals has been improved greatly.
If you do not like a party atmosphere, then Pai should be avoided. This is a place for the young to have fun and for a while at least it will stay that way. If you are a backpacker or looking for a good time, Pai will certainly be a highlight. Maybe not the town itself as that has become a tourist trap. But the surrounding region is a place which is filled with beauty and will keep you entertained for weeks.
Let us know how your trip goes and tell us what you thought of Pai. Did you love the region but hate the town? Or did you hate everything about the place? We would love to hear your thoughts.