Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Everything There Is to Know about Pai in Thailand

Everybody on the tourist trail in northern Thailand seems to want to go to Pai. This small town in northern Thailand used to be a "small town" in every sense of the word, predominantly inhabited by the Shan people, with a smattering of Hui, and getting regular visits from Hmong, Lisu, Lahu, and Karen hill tribes living nearby. As a travel destination, it was only the hippie, dreadlocked kind of backpackers that came here, a secret kept from the traveling world.

Pai, Mae Hong Son, Thailand

However, in more recent years, Pai, Thailand has grown to be a veritable tourist destination. This translated to a refurbished airport, increased hotel accommodations, and more 7-11 branches. Yes, that's a measure of development around these parts. Plus, ever since two Thai rom-coms were filmed here, local Thai tourists seem to want a slice of Pai, too.

So what is in Pai, Thailand that everybody seems to have the urge to head here? Luckily, Pai is very easy to figure out. Below are everything you need to know about Pai, Thailand.

1. Pai is in mountainous Mae Hong Son Province in northern Thailand.

Pai, Mae Hong Son, Thailand

Pai is located in a small valley in northern Mae Hong Son, a province in Thailand which largely forms the northwestern border from Myanmar. Pai is only about 80 kilometers from Chiang Mai, the de facto capital of northern Thailand. However, because the Pai valley is deep in this mountainous region, it takes four to five hours to get here, with the mountain roads reportedly having 762 bends. Yes, someone actually counted!


2. It is easy to get to Pai from Chiang Mai, the transpo hub of northern Thailand.

Pai, Mae Hong Son, Thailand

If you are heading to Pai or to any destination in northern Thailand, you will inevitably find yourself in my new city, Chiang Mai, the de facto capital of northern Thailand and the region's transpo hub. Once you get here, Pai will be very easy to access. Private minivans offered by travel agencies and hotels charge 170 to 200 Baht one-way. Public open-air buses from Chiang Mai's Arcade Bus Station charge more or less half of that range. The trip to Pai takes about four hours. The mountain scenery is amazingly beautiful, especially in the higher parts of the road. However, do take motion sickness pills. Like I mentioned, 762 bends.


3. It is possible to take a motorbike from Chiang Mai to Pai, Thailand.

Pai, Mae Hong Son, Thailand

Pai is part of what travelers refer to as the Mae Hong Son Loop, which is a circular set of highways that starts in Chiang Mai going northwest to Pai, tracing the Mae Hong Son valley south towards Mae Hong Son, the city, and Mae Sariang before heading east then north back to Chiang Mai. Doing the Mae Hong Son Loop on motorbike is particularly popular because of the mountain scenery and the various rural villages dotting the route. aYa service rents out their motorbikes from their office in front of the parking lot of Chiang Mai's Railway Station for tourists to drop them off at their office in Pai.


4. Accommodations in Pai, Thailand are plenty, even in high season.

Pai, Thailand

Because of the tourist influx, accommodations are plenty in Pai, Thailand. I visited in the high season, which is around November to March, and it was still easy to get a place to stay without pre-booking. The main streets and alleyways of Pai are dotted with accommodations of varying ranges. However, you might want to head to the banks Pai River (east of the town center) to find private bungalows, equipped with modern amenities. The one I got cost me 300 Baht for the whole bungalow. Other accommodations there may not come as cheap but will certainly have the proper setting for a peaceful riverside retreat.


5. It gets cold in Pai, Thailand. Really cold.

Pai, Mae Hong Son, Thailand

Pai stands at an altitude of around 480 meters. Not that high, yes. However, it is surrounded by the highest mountains in Thailand. It gets cold in the high season (December to February). Temperatures drop to below 10 degrees C at night. (Edit: A reader reports that in January 2014, temperatures dropped to 2 degrees C very early in the morning.)

Make sure your bungalow is equipped with a thick blanket. Temperatures drop quickly, too, faster than you can put on a jacket. It's pleasantly warm during the day, but as soon as the sun sets, you'll be shivering if you have no layers on and driving a motorbike around town. And yes, that's from personal experience.


6. Pai and la Dolce di Fare Niente

Pai, Mae Hong Son, Thailand

It is easy to spend a day in Pai doing nothing. That is what the people I met there told me. True enough, I spent most of my days in Pai lying on the hammock of my bungalow doing absolutely nothing. I went to the town center once in a while to get something to eat or a delicious yogurt smoothie, but let's face it, those hardly qualify as "doing something." So why not do all the tourist attractions in and around Pai then? I answer that in number 7.


7. The tourist attractions in Pai, Thailand are really touristy. Like really.

Pai, Mae Hong Son, Thailand

I have been based in Chiang Mai for quite some time now and I have to say that as great and exciting as the tourist attractions are around here, they are, well, very touristy. Apparently, I didn't know what I was talking about until I went up to Pai. One example: the Chinese village. It's a complete tourist trap. Nobody really lives in the quaint little houses there. Sure, there are Chinese migrants living nearby but they surely don't live inside that tea and candy store, or that clearly empty Chinese fort. Another example: the old Japanese bridge. It's a bridge. That's it. My advice: If you want to have an activity-filled holiday (zip lining, river rafting, cooking school, massage school, elephant camp, tiger kingdom, etc.), stay in Chiang Mai. Go to Pai to wind down. Doing nothing is the only thing worth doing in Pai. Get it?


8. It is recommendable to rent a motorbike in Pai, Thailand.

Exploring Northern Thailand on a Motorbike

If you do get the urge to explore, then do it with a motorbike. Most of the sights are 20 to 40 minutes away on motorbike and the roads are clear and flat-ish enough for even the most novices of riders. There are lots of shops in Pai that rent out fully automatic motorbikes for 200 to 250 Baht a day. They don't require much to rent one out, too. They asked me if it was my first time to ride a bike, I said, "in Thailand," which was technically true. Then, again, it would have also been true had I been asked the same question in the Philippines, Cambodia, Vietnam, or China.


9. Pai is romantic in an Asian cute-sy sense.

Pai, Mae Hong Son, Thailand

Many people say that about Pai, Thailand, that Pai is romantic. It is, in a very Asian cute-sy sense. You will see that with all the pastel-colored stuffed bears, key chains, figurines, t-shirts and what have you. I guess the Pai locals are just banking on the two Thai rom-coms that were shot in their town. People were looking for colorful, curvy, wavy fonts, so they delivered!


10. Pai has great night life.

Pai, Mae Hong Son, Thailand

Two things make for a good night life: live music bars and lively night market. At least, that is how it is in my book. Pai, Thailand has both, thankfully. The night market happens every night (at least in the high season) and it happens right at the city center. Along the same street and jutting off in the little sois in the area are live music bars playing jazz, reggae, etc. Edible Jazz offers great acoustic music and a relaxed atmosphere, with a bonfire to boot, keeping visitors warm on those bitterly cold Pai nights.


11. Food in Pai, Thailand is really good.

Pai, Mae Hong Son, Thailand

This I found quite surprising. The food in Pai is really good! The open-air restaurant at the intersection close to the bus station, serves some of the best bowls of Khao Soi I have ever tasted! Better than some of those I've had in Chiang Mai actually. Apparently, this restaurant in Pai slow cooks the meat and the broth for hours. I think that's all I needed to hear. And alright, the dumplings at the very touristy Chinese village were good, too. As good as those I've had just across the border in Yunnan province in China. The rotis and breads made by the Hui people, the Muslim population who came down from China, are very much recommendable as well.


VERDICT

That's basically everything you need to know about Pai, Thailand. It is a good town to visit, sure. Don't expect to learn much about local northern Thai culture, however, as hardly anything there now is authentic. For those types of experience, you will have to venture off the well-trodden path and Pai's paths are clearly well-trodden. For what it's worth, Pai is a really great, laid-back and relaxed vacation spot. Let's leave it at that.


* More photos in my Flickr set: Pai, Thailand.


Is there anything about Pai, Thailand that I missed? Have you been to this small town in northern Thailand? What did you think of it?


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