Pai, Pai, Pai.
Pai is so cool, great, mystic, scenic, funky. It’s like nowhere else in Thailand…
If you have lived in or visited Chiang Mai, then no doubt you will have heard this..
Heres the truth.. Pai is beautiful, but it is not all that. They streets are filled with a majority split of 1. Chinese tourists being ushered around in minivans or 2. backpackers playing hippy… There are other people there of course, but from what I seen this criteria makes up the majority.
As we had been in Chiang Mai for 3 months, it was about time we made a trip up to see the infamous town of Pai… My impression of the area before we landed was that it is Thailand’s ‘hippy town in the jungle’.. I had heard stories while on the mean streets of Koh Tao about why this sleepy little mountain village was so desirable… Here is why.
What is Pai like?
What is Pai like? I had heard from so many people “You can’t go to Chiang Mai and not visit Pai”, “Pai is the best place in Thailand”. Is this true? In my opinion, no.. It is pretty cool and very scenic but I would take the islands anyday!
The best way to describe it to those who have not had the chance to visit is this…
If you took Koh Phanang and Koh San Road and threw in the jungle – Pai is what you would get!
I was expecting a two street town in the jungle and was greeted by hundreds of backpackers, streets full of restaurants, psychedelic bars, souvenir shops and hotels & hostels.
Drug Tourism in Pai – Yeah I said it!
Pai has become a serious stop off destination along the South East Asia backpacker trail. The lax drug laws, drunk backpackers and funky bars which pump out transcendental dance music give Pai a vibe like nowhere else in Thailand – except maybe Koh Phanang…
Being caught with drugs in Thailand will land you in serious trouble, but most cops will be happy with a bribe as their wages are low.. I did not see one police officer while in Pai. The bars are all decorated with psychedelic paintings, comfy cushions and creative spattering of glow paint.. Your ear drums will vibrate to the beat of reggae or trance as you walk around the streets. FYI – Drinking on the walking street is not allowed. If this is your scene then you have arrived…
So this has turned what was once a true hippy town in the jungle, into a major backpacker tourist stop thanks to the abundance of weed and magic mushrooms. The bars all complement this type of tourism with very creative designs and bar staff openly smoking weed in front of you.
Health Tourism in Pai
Yoga, meditation, detox…. These are all words that coincide with the rising wellness tourism trade in Thailand.. Backpackers and travelers alike spend 1-6 months drinking Samsong buckets, smoking dirty Burmese cigarettes and then head for a body shock detox (costing $450 per week), where someone will feed you blitzed up veggies and greens to make you clean your intestines out in the name of good business and clean living. Pai is a major health tourism destination with many yoga schools, meditation retreats and detox options. You could try to make conscious choices and not poison your body daily or you can pay someone to shock the badness out of you… Your choice! It would be a nice place to do yoga as the setting of the schools are in the jungle.
Martial Arts training in Pai
I am a little bit gutted about my lack of knowledge about the Nam Yang Kung Fu Retreat in Pai. I discovered it while on Tripadvisor..
Training with Shaolin Monks has been in the top 5 of my life bucket list for years… I thought I would have to wait until I visit China but here you go! ‘Master Tan Soh Tin has 57 years of martial arts experience behind him and is the head of Nam Yang. All teachers speak perfectly fluent English. At Nam Yang, our arts are part of the direct Shaolin lineage as founded by the monk Tat Moh (Boddhidharma) approx 520AD. They are not modernised or simplified.’ That is a short bio from their website. Next time for sure.
The #1 attraction in Pai on Tripadvisor is actually a Muay Thai school called Charn Chai Gym. Why? Well they actually encourage people to go on and leave a review! Small business success in Thailand can be largely influenced by websites such as Tripadvisor, as this is where us westerners look for things to do.
Getting to Pai – Scooter or MiniVan?
Although the ride up would be a crazy white knuckle drive, as Amanda is now 8 months pregnant we decided to go to Arcade bus station and hop in a minivan. The cost to get to Pai was 150THB each. These minivans are notorious for driving erratically as the drivers rush to make the next pickup and are jacked up on M150 or Thailand’s extra strong Red bull… Fortunately for us the driver on the way up was pretty good. He did make calculated risks along the mountain pass but nothing to dangerous and there was more than one green face on the bus during the journey!
Warning – If you get car sick make sure you take travel tablets or ginger tea as the 135km trip takes 3-4 hours and has an insane amount of bends which will be taken at high-speed..
The road to Pai is notorious for crashes and many tourists are killed or injured along the route every year. If you are planning the trip from Chiang Mai, only do it if you have experience riding. It is a scenic and windy drive and if it rains it is a whole different ball game – especially on a scooter. Many backpackers wing it and make the trip with the usual no motorbike license and sweet feck all riding experience. Let me just say that it probably won’t be you who makes the mistake.
It is the Thai drivers in Nissan Navara’s, Hilux’s and the hundreds of Toyota Hiace Minivans who cart tourists up and down the road every day. These guys become impatient and take wild chances overtaking along blind corners many times on the way down especially. I understand that it can be frustrating to be stuck behind someone but when you have 15 people in the van and proceed to overtake 3 cars coming up to a blind corner it is just plain stupid.. But these guys do, and if you are on a little scooter coming around the corner then you may meet the engine.. So ride safe, corner tight and wear a decent helmet, jacket and long pants..
Transport – Have your own or stay in the centre!
So once you get to Pai, then what? One major disadvantage of Pai is the serious lack of transport in the area… There are no tuk tuks or song-taous available and motorbike taxis or minivans who charge the same price as the fare from Chiang Mai to do a 5 minute run out the road. Renting a scooter is difficult in Pai also, as there is so many tourists. To explore the area you really need a bike of your own. So this is the catch 22.. You need to bring your own bike from Chiang Mai or chance renting one when you get to Pai, but you might be out of luck…
Accommodation and Food
We stayed at the Aqua resort which was about 1/2km outside of the main town of Pai. I have decided to post an in-depth article about staying at the Aqua resort in Pai soon.. It cost 2000THb for two nights which is $60.
Our friends over at Screw the 9 to 5 stayed at the Soi One apartments. They were really good and centrally located. I recommend these!
The restaurants in Pai were great. We ate a delicious meal for two with drinks at Cowboy Steak House and listened to a Thai guy play the guitar on the first night. Total cost was 270 THB – >$10! I highly recommend this restaurant if you are there.
Ok, so as we were on a short trip with no transport of our own we needed to get out and explore the surrounding area somehow. Although I never usually go with a tour company this was the only way to get out and see what Pai has to offer tourists and to get a look at the scenery. We went with LetsGoPai which offered full day and half day options.. We went for the latter and were picked up at 9.15am from the Aqua Resort. The bus was full and we were the last two to board and we went to the first stop – A temple…
Itinerary for the half day 9-4pm – Lets Go Pai Tour..
Temple – Not very impressed after seeing the ones in Chiang Mai. Lots of rabid dogs!
Pai Treehouse – A cool resort set in perfectly manicured gardens with treehouse lodging.
Waterfall – I guess I have been spoiled as we went to Mc Clean Falls in New Zealand, so this ‘waterfall’ received a 3/10 from me.. You could not swim. I decided to climb up to the top (which is a little bit difficult and slippery) which was cool but all in all – I wouldn’t bother!
China Town – Really really cool.. You can rent costumes and walk around taking photos in traditional Chinese royalty dress, but not while on the tour… We had 30-60 minutes at each place along the way but if you were driving yourself you could rent the costumes and spend a day having fun taking pictures. I imagine China actually looks nothing like this perfect little movie set!
Hot-springs (200THB – $6) – This was the highlight for us.. These natural springs are about 12km from Pai in the forest. Foreigners pay 200THB to enter.. You don’t have to go in if you do not want to along the tour.. We did and it was worth it. Although 30 minutes was not enough.. The water bubbles out at 80°c and flows down through natural and modified pools to give bathing options at different temperatures such as 40°c, 37°c and 34°c. You can dip your feet or have a swim, up to you!
Temple #2 – This one was more photogenic than the first.. There was a shrine to a former general and well manicured grounds.
Coffee in Love – A coffee shop with a view but to Amanda’s dismay – they had no tea! Good coffee and a million dollar view of rice paddies and 50 shades of green.
Pai Canyon – A giant natural Canyon that gives a panoramic view of the surrounding area. Dodgy enough to walk around if you don’t like heights. You can see it in the video above…
Strawberry World – A weird place.. Think of Tellytubby land! Giant strawberries, every type of strawberry related product for sale from sweets to shakes to wine and everything in between. The Thais mix sugar and chili in with their strawberries!? Not the sort of thing I would do if it had have been on my own tour..
Pai is worth a visit, but not a ‘must see destination’ in my opinion. If you are into yoga, martial arts, hippy stuff or trippin’ in the jungle and lying in a hammock smoking weed – you are in heaven.. But the reality is that Pai has created with tourism in mind. Every hotel is pricy by Thailand’s standards and there will be bus loads of tourists at every attraction. You could avoid this and wander out into the hills by yourself with friends, but at every stop that is worth seeing expect to have 10 Chinese tourists with Nikons making peace signs….
If I had my own transport I would drive to the coffee shop first, then have a wander across the Canyon, visit the Chinese village and spend the days chilling by the Hot Springs.. Skip the temples and strawberry land.
If you want to see some more of my Thailand posts, how about…