Why Pai Doesn’t Suck

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The small town of Pai in northern Thailand gets a pretty bad rap these days.

I’ve heard descriptions like “unfriendly”, “overpriced”, and “the Khao San Road of the north”. Jaded travellers insist Pai has become a parody of itself, with faux-hippy food, faux-hippy trinkets, and faux-hippy everything else dominating the town.

Supposedly overrun by dreadlocked backpackers and Thai holidaymakers alike during the high season (ie, now), all advice suggested visiting Pai was generally a pretty bad idea.

Disregarding that completely, we decided to jump on a scooter and go there anyway.

And guess what? Pai actually doesn’t suck.

In fact, I liked it.  A lot.

Until the eighties, tourism there was the last thing on anybody’s mind, with no decent roads leading to the town and a bustling opium trade in the area keeping danger levels high. Once the drug runners disappeared, electricity arrived, and the road from Chiang Mai was fully sealed, a trickle of backpackers started to show up looking for two things: adventure and weed.

Where cheap weed is plentiful hippies surely follow, and Pai became the place in Northern Thailand to turn on, tune in and drop out. Or at least to lie around in a hammock all day getting stoned. While the drug scene has been cleaned up (or at least mostly moved away from casual view), the laid-back bohemian culture has never really left.

Riding into town late afternoon, my impressions were mixed. It was a small town, with only a couple of main streets, and an abundance of cheap guesthouses, travel agencies and over-sized backpacks on legs. Hmm. Perhaps the Khao San Road allusions weren’t so far from the mark.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from the accommodation we’d booked at Pai Chan. It was somewhat expensive by Thai guesthouse standards, but as prices double in high season, that didn’t necessarily mean much.

I certainly hadn’t counted on this.

Pai Chan view

Yes, that hammock with the view over the rice paddies did quickly become my new home.

This place was literally two minutes by scooter from the banana pancakes and lentil burgers of Chaisongkram Road, but crossing the river felt more like crossing a border. Tranquil and beautiful, early morning was my favourite time as the sun chased the night-time chill from the air and the fog lifted over the mountains.

I imagine this was what Pai was like before the recent tourism explosion, and now knowing places like this exist nearby, there’s no way you’d get me staying in the town proper.

Other than eat, drink and nap there isn’t much to do in Pai during the day. The highlights lie in the surrounding countryside. There seemed to be various generic tours on offer (I guess those travel agents have to have something to sell), but as usual, a scooter provided much more flexibility and fun. Dozens of places will rent you one for virtually nothing if you didn’t bring your own.

The Memorial Bridge on the way into town was attractive without being anything special, while the nearby Pai Canyon was most notable for the cost savings generated by not bothering with safety barriers or warning signs. It’s no Grand Canyon, sure, but the views were pretty impressive nonetheless.

The highlight of the afternoon, however, was the ride up to a generically-named ‘viewpoint’. The countryside was beautiful, and the steep track winding through little slices of daily village life was generally well paved. Except for the bits that weren’t.

On the upside however, the views from the top took my breath away. Or perhaps that was because we’d had to walk the last part of the track when the scooter decided to have a sulk and not go any further uphill. One or the other.

Road to nowhere, Pai

Night time is when Pai comes alive. The walking market was a little kitsch for my tastes, but there were enough quirky aspects (a busking policeman, for instance) to make it worth the wander.

The live music scene is apparently one of the best in Thailand, and the sound of somebody forgetting the words to Layla was enough to pull us into a busy bar on the way home. The vodka and song list were enough to keep us there, and made it the perfect way to end the day.

The next day was more about eating and drinking than real exploring, and I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of both. There was plenty of dismal looking fare around town as well, but after stepping off the main street it wasn’t hard to find incredible smoothies and delicious food. Prices were higher than Chiang Mai — like everything else in Pai this time of year — but not ridiculously so.

Kicking back with a drink in the hammock that evening, I reflected on our few days in Pai. The ride there was incredible and the surrounding countryside was really what made the place special. Having a scooter was a requirement, and being away from the heart of the backpacker area gave a glimpse of how things used to be.

There’s no doubt Pai is far from the simple hippy nirvana it once may have been. Tourism will do that to the best of places, especially here in Thailand. Taking it for what it is now, however — a bohemian, laid back part of the world to explore and relax in — it still has a lot going for it.

It was totally worth the trip from Chiang Mai.

I’ll be back.

Main image via Shutterstock, other images via author

19 Responses to “Why Pai Doesn’t Suck

  • Take me there NOW!!! It looks so ridiculously beautiful. Great pics!

  • It looks gorgeous and you’ve made me definitely want to visit. Often with touristy places you don’t have to travel too far to get away from it all.

  • I’m in Pai now. Exhausted after a day of riding around, checking out everything from Wats, hot springs, and waterfalls to elephant rides and breathtaking views of Pai Canyon. Good times!

  • it most definitely doesn’t suck! i’m here now, but leaving soon. regretting the fact that i only allotted a few days here on my thailand journey. god food, great markets, stunning scenery, wonderful locals (no touts!), and nice laid-back fellow travelers. i should’ve gotten an i heart Pai t-shirt. haha.

  • I’ve heard great things about Pai and your post just sold me! 🙂

  • How long did it take from Chaing Mai? I am considering doing this trip with my son (12) on scooters but don’t want it to be too hard on him. Sounds amazing and just what I need, some lazing and touring around on my own!

  • Here in Pai now, I keep extending my stay! Do you know any other places like it in Thailand with a similar laid back vibe, beautiful scenery, etc?

    • There were quite a few chilled out places in gorgeous surroundings that I came across in my scooter trip around parts of northern Thailand. You’d probably need your own transport to get to some of them, as they’re not particularly on the backpacker trail, but for a relaxed local vibe, they can’t be beat.

      I wrote a series of posts about that trip – start here (https://whatsdavedoing.com/a-bit-of-a-ride-in-northern-thailand-part-one/) if you’re interested. 🙂

  • Well it looks like I’ve got another place to add to my destinations, your pics make it look like a place worth stopping in! The more posts I see about scootering around SE Asia the more hyped I get to do it myself. Keep it up and stay safe man, cheers!

  • I have been going to Pai on and off for the past 10 years and still think its a great place. Though I prefer to go in the non peak tourist period.
    November to March is peak tourism season for Pai and it is very difficult for accommodation or even getting around some of the small streets in Pai just due to the large numbers of tourists. Pai has some great scenery, rafting, hot springs, bike riding, nice restaurants and coffee shops, good live music venues and small bars and great for couples and familys.
    Really enjoy the post and pictures also.

  • Actually the high season ends tomorrow, February 28, 2013…I live in Chiang Mai and will be visiting Pai for the first time next week. Thanks for your info Dave.and I will be going there on a Click scooter…

    • Haha, best of luck! 😉

      Nah, I think a *good* Honda Click is a great, reliable scooter. A clapped-out one like I had on my trip to Pai, on the other hand? Well…..

  • i am heading to chiang mai next week. havent rode a motorbike before. what do you reckon about giving it a go. i am female is ther many problems along the way

    • What do I reckon about giving it a go? If you’ve never ridden a scooter before, the ride there and back is unfortunately probably not the best way to learn. Perhaps take the minivan there and back, and hire a scooter to go sightseeing around Pai instead?

  • That’s funny, was looking for information about Pai and checked out your page. Surprisingly, I’m staying at the same place you were at – really lovely vibe!

  • Personally, I think Pai deserves its bad rap. The locals are unfriendly, probably because the town is overrun by ignorant tourists who mispronounce simple Thai words, and gross hippie backpackers. I heard that Pai was known for its good food, good weed, and friendly vibes, and I was disappointed to find that Pai had literally NONE of that, less than everywhere else I’ve been to in Thailand. The drive there is nice, and the caves up north are cool, but Pai itself sucks pretty hard.

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