If you have ever been to SE Asia, then you have probably been to Thailand, which means you have probably spent a few days in Chiang Mai, where you might have heard of Pai… and you probably even went there! The chances that all of this happened are high. Am I right or am I right?
Personally, all I knew about Pai was that it had a canyon (nothing like its Grand relative though). So when other backpackers began to tell me wonders about it on their way back to Chiang Mai, my expectations went over the roof, my curiosity won me over and ended up in the mountains in no time.
The one thing you should know before you even think of going there is that you should avoid solid food for at least 24 hours prior to departure. Maybe add ‘no sleep’ to that recipe too — trust me, you will want time to fly by in the blink of an eye. In fact, the road is 135km long and it has 762 freaking curves. No, I didn’t make that number up. Wikipedia it. If you go on your motorbike then you might be just fine, but if you go by minivan then make sure you take at least a motion-sickness pill (or a whole pack of ‘em!) and a plastic bag. Your stomach and your road buddies will thank you for it.
Pai is tiny, so don’t expect much. The aspect that attracts people the most is the fact that it used to be a hippies-only town and although that changed, it still preserves those chill vibes that are quite hard to resist. It’s a very quiet, almost ghost-town during the early hours of the day, until kids leave to go to school, their parents to work and new arrivals come join the rest of the backpackers.
You can easily walk around the entire town in a couple of hours, at which point you will either hate it or love it. But before you rush into any judgement, you should first rent a motorbike for a day or two and go explore the surroundings. Tour agencies will tell you there’s more than 15 hotspots you should go to (they even offer a half-day tour to go see them all; yes, they are Chinese), but don’t believe that. Though there are many points of interest, they are not always contemporarily either open or at their peak season, so you should first check which attractions are worth the gas.
For instance, there are a couple of waterfalls not far from town that people seem to love, but when I went there with a couple of friends/roommates, the disappointment slapped the excitement right out of us. It hadn’t rained in a few weeks and both waterfalls looked just like someone had left a water tap open at the top of the hill. Always ask the locals for the current status first if you don’t want to end up with crushed expectations.
The best time to go see the canyon is during sunset. The view will be lovely, though the place itself won’t blow you away. It’s interesting to see a red canyon in the middle of a sea of green trees, that’s for sure, but it’s not the most beautiful thing you will see in Thailand. It’s a great place to go see the sunset however, so you should definitely go. Just be careful not to fall!
On the second night I was there, my friends and I got talking and somehow we ended up making the brave decision of waking up at 4.30am to go watch the sunrise from the White Buddha statue that is higher up in the hills and has a great view of the town. We made that decision at 1am in the morning. I blame the ‘buy 1 get 1 free’ deals we enjoyed that night.
Surprisingly, we managed to stick to the plan and made it to the statue in time for sunrise. There’s a nice fly up the stairs that you have to do first, which will make you questions your decision, but once you are up there, the view is quite impressive. Although we soon found out the sun rises on the back of that hill and that clouds were covering up the entire sky that morning, we still enjoyed a very quiet moment with an almost 180 degrees view of the landscape surrounding Pai.
Although the place didn’t make it to my top 3 places to visit in Thailand, I hold a soft spot for the little Pai. The atmosphere is relaxing, the people are nice, the food is cheap and absolutely delicious (lots of vegetarian options!), the nightlife is just fun and I even met great people during my stay there. So I feel comfortable recommending it to you guys. If you are ever in Chiang Mai and ran out of temples to photograph or restaurants to try out, head over to Pai for a couple of days. It will be a nice break from the energetic and crowded streets of the city.