I got off a hot, crowded bus in Pai, North Thailand for the first time in 2007 expecting to stay for a weekend before moving on across the border into Laos for a trip down river towards Cambodia.
I ended up staying for 3 months, making several visa runs across to Burma, and generally loving every minute of my time in this tiny, fun filled town that nobody seemed to know about.
One of the things I love best about traveling is the discovery of these little gems – places you are just passing through but fall in love with, and which leave an imprint on your mind for many years after you’ve moved on.
I still can’t explain exactly what it was about Pai that made me stay as long as I did. It’s just a little town consisting of a crossroads in the middle of the mountains, but there’s something magical about it I can’t quite explain. Many other nomads have felt the same thing, and there are plenty of people who are there with absolutely no plans of leaving anytime soon.
This is a brief guide to Pai. Don’t miss it on your journey from Chaing Mai to Chaing Rai or across to Laos or China. Too many Thailand travelers are in a rush to take in the highlights and miss all the little places that make it special.
Pai, North Thailand – a Nowhere Town which Captivates Many
As I stated previously, Pai is a town in the middle of absolutely nowhere. You have to catch a public bus or a mini-van from Chang Mai to get there, which leads to a several hour journey through jungle-clad, winding mountain roads involving several death-defying right angle turns along the way.
When you get there, if you haven’t either puked or passed out, you’ll pull into what appears to be a single street, not very long, leading towards a tiny little river with some thatched huts perched on its banks. when I arrived the sky was full of lanterns, but this is not the norm, and depending on what time you arrive, you may find either everything shut (during the day) or a lively, yet not overwhelming nightlife, with funky bars and cafes playing relaxing music serving cocktails, buckets and ice cold Singha beers.
That’s all there really is in Pai. There’s absolutely nothing of note other than a mediocre Buddhist temple and some gorgeous scenery surrounding the place, but what it does have is an atmosphere which is difficult to pinpoint, but which captivates nomads and backpackers rolling through, keeping them in place for months and sometimes years at a time.
Where to Stay in Pai
There are plenty of guesthouses in Pai to select from, ranging in price from $2 per night to $25 or more. I never recommend places I haven’t personally stayed in myself, so I can only recommend the following three guesthouses in Pai.
1. Mr. Jan Guesthouse – This is a basic, run of the mill guesthouse bang in the centre of Pai. It’s just average, but is nice and safe and has hot water, air-con and is very close to everything. You can pick up a room at Mr. Jan for between $10-$30, depending on what you’re after.
2. Yellow Sun – This is my personal favourite, although it’s worth saying that the bar, which is also part of yellow sun, can get a little noisy as it’s one of the most popular and best-loved venues in Pai. Book, the man who owns it, is an absolute gentleman and a popular figure in Pai. Whatever you do, however, don’t play him at
Whatever you do, however, don’t play him at pool for shots as he will destroy you! I recommend staying at Yellow Sun because it has everything you need and the man running it goes out of his way to make guests happy and ensure they have a good time. This is definitely one for the younger nomads looking for a good time.
3. River Bungalows – This is not the actual name of the establishment, because every time I have returned to Pai the owners have changed, but these gorgeous bamboo bungalows can be found by walking straight along Pai’s main street to the river, where you need to cross a small bamboo footbridge and you’ll find the bungalows for rent. These are seriously cheap and won’t cost you more than $6 per night. Back when I stayed in 2008, I paid $1.50 per night to live in the bungalow pictured below.
What to Do in Pai
As I sad earlier, there’s not a lot to do in terms of sightseeing or attractions in Pai, but there is a lot more to do than initially meets the eye.
The number one thing to do is RELAX, but if you’re after a little adventure or action, you can do any of the following:
1. Take in the Scenery – Renting a motorbike in Pai is ridiculously easy and cheap, which allows you to travel all around the stunning countryside surrounding Pai. Mountains, jungle, mist covered hills, rice paddies and much more lies just outside this quaint little town, and if you know how to use a moped or dirt bike, it’s definitely worth exploring.
2. Visit Pai Canyon – This is one of the highlights of a visit to Pai. It’s nothing compared to the likes of the Grand Canyon, but it is awesome and you can see all the way to Burma on a clear day (so they told me, anyway).
I went out to Pai canyon several times. It’s a beautiful spot and is easy to access. I heard they’re now charging a small entrance fee, but it won’t be more than a couple of dollars and let’s face it, people have to make a living some way!
3. Enjoy the Nightlife – For such a small town, Pai is jam-packed with live music, cool bars and nightlife. I’m pretty sure this is one of the main reasons many stay as long as they do. From Pai Reggae House to Sunset Bar to Yellow Sun and plenty more, there’s endless Singha on chill and more vodka buckets than you could possibly consume and remain above ground.
Whatever your scene, you’ll find it in this tiny little party paradise.
4. Go to the Hot Springs – There’s a fantastic natural hot-springs about ten minutes out of town which can easily be reached by motorbike or a longer walk. If you need to unwind and relax, this is the place to do it. Anyone who has experienced hot-springs knows it’s an instant game-changer in terms of your mood and this is an ideal way to unwind after trekking in the mountains all day.
5. Meditate and Do Yoga – Pai has somewhat of an alternative, hippy vibe to it, and subsequently there are plenty of places to do yoga and meditate. There’s actually a Buddhist temple in the centre of town, so if you want to learn formally you can do, but there are also a few yoga studios and even a meditation centre (ask around for a man called Garuda). Check out the Open Mind Centre on the river as a starting point if this is your thing.
Pai remains one of my favourite places to this day. I’ve been in more places than I can even remember, yet it sticks out and even while writing this I felt a yearning to return.
One of the best parts of the nomad lifestyle is finding these little places where for some inexplicable reason you feel an instant connection and affinity with. For me, Pai was one of them.
Don’t miss this little gem because you’re in a rush to get from A to B. You’ll need at least a few days to let the initial perception that there’s nothing in it subside, and to relax and get into the Pai state of mind.
North Thailand has much to offer, but for me, Pai is the best of it. I hope you enjoy!