Things To Do In Pai
Nestled in the northern hills of Thailand, the valley town of Pai is often surpassed for its larger regional rivals, Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai. However, though Pai’s size and distance make it something of an underdog, the town has developed its own personality – a laid-back natural escape from Chiang Mai’s motorbike-filled highways. A three-hour ride from Chiang Mai, Pai has everything one could want from a valley village in the northern jungles, and not a bit extra.
Pai is a town steeped in cultural history. With strong Burmese influences from its neighbors to the west, Pai’s oldest inhabitants have called the city home for over 5000 years. The secluded region remained incredibly difficult to reach by road until the mid 1990s, when the Thai government finished paving Route 1095 between Chiang Mai and Mae Hong Son. Now, the spot is a popular tourist destination, with cheap bungalows, a wide range of Thai, regional and western foods, and a number of laid-back shops and storefronts. It’s new hippie vibe has somewhat taken over the town, but it remains a quaint escape from the bustling areas of Thailand while still maintaining levels of convenience and novelty.
When To Go:
November to February is the dry season in Pai, which often comes as a welcome respite from Thailand’s pouring rain. Temperatures are cooler during these months, but rarely warrant much heartier outerwear than a light jacket in the evenings. From March to June, temperatures rise, and can start to swelter in the early summer months, though Pai’s elevation and latitude keep it relatively cooler than Bangkok or Thailand’s southern islands. The monsoon season begins in earnest in June and July, and though the area is often spared the level of downpour that southern Thailand endures, the area will remain wetter than usual until around October.
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Daily shuttle buses carry passengers from Chiang Mai, Chaing Rai, and even Luang Prabang in Laos. However, the most popular route is by motorbike. Most visits to Pai are short – three days to a week – and when renting a bike for less than $7 USD a day, the freedom of the 3 hour hilly from Chiang Mai ride is well worth it. Keep in mind, however, that not all bike rental shops are created equal, and many wheels aren’t cut out for such long tours. Travel with a friend or a group so that popped tires don’t ruin your whole retreat.
Here is a list of all the amazing things to do when in Pai, Thailand...
What To Do:
An hour or so from the city, Mae Hong Son holds one of the most spectacular limestone caves systems in southeast Asia. The Lod caves are sectioned into three parts, and it takes roughly an hour to scratch the surface. Lantern-bearing local guides steer bamboo rafts through cavernous rivers and provide some insight into the spectacular rock formations, as well as the hundreds of bats who call this place home.
Fish food for sale at the entrance can entertain guests while feeding dozens of fish who swim right up next to the boats. At each cave, visitors dismount and walk around the vast caverns, between stalactites, stalacmites, and other limestone formations. The caves also house several prehistoric wood coffins, and the remnants of many of them can still be seen.
Mo Paeng Waterfall
As northern Thailand is completely landlocked, travelers in the hot months will often find themselves seeking whatever water is available to provide respite from the heat. None is better than Mo Paeng Waterfall, about a 15 minute motorbike ride from the city. There are several swimming areas spread over these rocks, and during the rainy season, some of the falls turn into steep and slippery natural rock slides. Daredevils should be wary – none of the pools are much deeper than around six feet, so this is not the best place for cliff jumping. However, the swimming holes offer welcome respite from the sun.
Whether or not you’re up for a big hike, Pai Canyon is a site to behold. Winding paths weave around a valley of trees, with cliff sides stretching for miles. More active visitors will enjoy exploring the area, while sedentary types will still enjoy the scenery. The canyon is especially radiant at sunset, when purple and blue hues color the rock walls. Pai Canyon is located a few kilometers from the city center on Route 1095, slightly to the south of the town.
While the areas around Pai Canyon, Mae Yen Waterfall, Mo Paeng Waterfall and Huai Nam Dang National Park are great for exploring on your own or with a group, a number of registered trekking agencies are located on the main streets of Pai for those who want a more robust and organized trekking experience. These vendors offer options to see the local countryside on foot and include trips to to hilltribe villages and secluded spots that are inaccessible without a tour guide or trip operator. Most popular are three-day, two-night trips or two-day overnight trips that visit local Lisu, Lahu and Karen villages in addtion to natural attractions such as waterfalls and hot springs. Generally two people are required for a departure, but if you have a loose schedule, most agencies will attract other participants to join the trip.
Prices vary depending on the number of people, the length of the trip, the activities provided and the season, but basic treks rarely reach past the 1000 baht (30 USD) per day range. Bamboo rafting and elephant riding are often optional extras that agencies will add to your trek for a few hundred baht per person per activity. It is usually possible to organise your own trekking trip if you have specific desires about location, distance and duration. Mr Chart is a popular freelance guide who has gained local fame in Pai during his years operating out of Bamboo House. These tours offer not only waterfalls and beautiful scenery, but also interaction with secluded hill tribe communities, jungle survival education tips and rare and dangerous delicacies.
Not all of Pai’s greatest qualities are outside of town – while far from a bustling urban nightlife, the village has a friendly and lively scene, filled with an ever rotating cast of characters. Each night, Chatsongkram Road is live with vendors selling everything from shirts to spring rolls. The quantity is nowhere near that of overwhelming night markets in Bangkok or Chiang Mai, but the variety is comparable. Pai’s vendors have a more intimate and artisan feel, and if souvenir money is burning a hole in your pocket, you won’t leave empty-handed.
If you took the more traditional bus route to Pai, you might still want a scooter or motorbike once you’re there. Rentals rarely cost more than 100 baht (around $3-4 USD) per day, and are essential to reach the outer regions of the area, giving you access to canyons, treks, waterfalls and hikes. The main street in town, Chatsongkram Road, has several operators that rent bikes per day (and you can probably haggle the price down if you know you’ll be using yours for several days).
If you don’t want to take control of the wheel, but still want full mobility, see if you can tag along with a friend or new travel buddy. Most bikes can accomodate two adults - just make sure to get a bike that’s 125 cc or higher if you’re travelling with two.
Chinese Village (Santichon)
Santichon, on the way to the Mo Paeng waterfall, is a quaint village once settled by Chinese hill tribes who crossed over into Thailand in the 1950s to escape Communist rule. The refugees have formed a tight-knit but welcoming community, and has become something of Pai’s version of Chinatown.
Shops sell various herbal teas, health prodcuts, odd trinkets and out-of-the-box souvenirs. The village also is home to a popular restaurant featuring traditional Yunnanese fare, and a beautiful lookout point with a small wooden Ferris wheel overlooks the entire Pai valley. Santichon is well worth a visit, especially en route to the waterfall.
Pai Zip Line
The jungles of northern Thailand are a sight to behold, particularly from above. Pai used to offer several zipline tours in town, but all operators have closed except one, an adventure zip line course roughly 8km from the town.
The 14-station tour takes around 2.5 hours and includes a lunch. It also ends at the Pam Bok waterfall, so adventurers can make a day of the trip, cooling off after their tour through the trees.
Thom's Elephant Camp
Elephant camps may be a dime a dozen in northern Thailand, but Thom’s in Pai is as good as the next. While many camps build cruel wooden seats on the elephants’ backs or don’t feed the animals well, Thom’s Elephant Camp offers humane service. Visitors can feed and put the elephants, and even bathe with them in the small stream surrounding the camp. Visitors can also ride the elephants, though tourists should always remember that elephants are wild animals, and treat them with respect.
However, elephant camps offer a safe and stable environment for elephants who were formerly used as a means of transportation in the logging industry. When logging was made illegal in Thailand in 1991, the country suddenly had an overpopulation of domesticated elephants. The animals couldn’t survive in the wild, and didn’t have much jungle left to move back into. However, they also weren’t suited for urban life, and poachers often took advantage of these newly submissive creatures. Humane elephant camps and parks in Thailand like Thom’s Elephant Camp in Pai offer a safe environment for the elephants, a source of income and livelihood for their owners, and an unforgettable experience for tourists and visitors.
1 Pai Traditional Thai Massage
Thailand is known for its abundance of low-cost, high-quality massages, and Pai is no exception. A number of shops on the main road service weary and luxury-seeking visitors alike with a range of standard back and shoulder massages, foot and calf massages, and full-body traditional Thai massage.
Many locations even offer classes for newcomers to learn the massage skills that will make them a hero to their friends and family. An hour-long typically costs around 200 baht - less than $7 USD.
Xhale Yoga Retreat
Many people visit northern Thailand to escape. Yoga is not as prevalent in this region as it is in the iconic Indian and Indonesian ashrams, but northern Thailand’s yojis are just as well-equipped. The most popular retreat accessible from Pai is Xhale Yoga retreat, a fully-encompassing live-in yoga and wellness experience.
Live in residents enjoy raw, healthful and nourishing meals in between yoga sessions, meditation, lectures and free time. Detailed instruction is given to ensure that the retreat is more than just a series of yoga courses, but a full-on experience.
Pai Circus School
While yoga retreats might be plentiful throughout southeast Asia, Pai Circus School is definitley unique. Drawing off of Pai’s laid-back bohemian vibes, the Pai Circus School is less of a rigorous academic institution and more of a community of interesting people who can do a range of cool body tricks, from fire dancing to slacklining.
The school costs around 600 baht for a one-time membership and offers lessons from from experts teachers in staff, juggling, poi, a rhythmic weight-swinging performance art, and more. The schools is located on a hill overlooking the valley, with gazebos surrounding the area for those less inclined for athletic and artistic pursuits.
Tha Pai Hot Springs
Tha Pai’s sulphuric hot water springs can reach temperatures of up to 80 degrees Celsius. These baths are not so unbearable, though - the wading pools for visitors are man-made areas where the spring meets a stream, cooling the water temperature down to comfortable jacuzzi levels. A trek through a small national park is required to reach the springs, which are only open during the day.
The hot springs close at 6:00 PM, but park guides allow visitors to stay longer if they arrive before that time. These are best visited during the cold season in December and January, and can be downright unpleasant during sweltering May and June, but during winter evenings, the hot springs are a great way to warm up.
Ting Tong Bar
While Pai doesn’t have an answer to Bangkok’s multi-level clubs, any of the bars on the main street offer a sizeable crowd and cheap drink specials on any night of the week. Because of the prevalence of visiting backpackers, the standard weekend-weekday dichotomy does not exist in a town like Pai.
Ting Tong Bar is always a fan favorite, a funky and colorful hippie hotspot providing drink specials and beanbag chairs in equal measure. Reggae music is this most popular choice at this bamboo-filled hippie shack, but live bands perform on occasion, and the DJ can sometimes be persuaded by a strong-willed crowd.
Where to Stay
While Pai offers no end of quality budget housing, there are some stronger candidates than others. You might make different choices depending on whether you’re with friends or alone, staying for a week or just a few days, on a shoestring budget or willing to splurge.
Spicy Pai Lounge
Spicy Pai is one of the most popular backpackers in Pai, if not in all of Thailand. The bungalow-style farmer huts feel like treehouses and include dorm style rooms, private and double accomodation. It’s a bit removed from the main town, but you’ll probably want a motorbike for your adventures anyway. Spicy Pai’s laid back atmosphere is full of hammocks in the common area and is a great place for solo or group travellers to meet new people. The hostel includes free wifi, hot showers, and free tea and coffee. But even if you’re not spending the night here, Spicy Pai is a great spot to meet other travellers.
Pam Bok Waterfall
Unlike the Mo Paeng Waterfall, Pam Bok is somewhat more difficult to access. This secluded spot is located high in the hills, and over 6km of the trail leading to it are inaccessible by motorbike.
For those willing to engage in adventure, however, the trek is worth it - due to its removal from the typical trail, Pam Bok is rarely overcrowded and always provides a refreshing and cool spot to escape the hot summer months. It’s located on the road to Chiang Mai, some distance from the town but not quite to Pai Canyon.
The Land Crack
On the road to the Pombok falls is one of Pai’s more unique local attractions. The Land Crack is true to its name - the spot is named for a crack in the ground that has grown for several years, beginning when soil erosion caused farmland to shift inward. Rather than fret over the loss of farmland, the local owner decided to turn his home into a unique tourist destination.
Visitors won’t come away from the land crack on an empty stomach - this friendly, generous, and talkative proprietor offers fruit, vegetables, snacks, even alcohol all in exchange for whatever donation you deem suitable. The friendly family is a paragon of Pai’s laid back and generous atmosphere, and the Land Crack is certainly worth a stop.
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