PAI

Pai (pronounced bpaai) (ปาย) is a small town (pop. 3,000) in Mae Hong Son Province, Northern Thailand. It is part of the Mae Hong Son Loop, which is Rte 1095 from Chiang Mai to Mae Hong Son. The city is named after the Pai River.  Set in a particularly picturesque valley north of Chiang Mai, Pai is a predominantly tourism-oriented town, offering a relaxed atmosphere with a broad tourist and pretty serious backpacker scene. The town’s permanent residents are a seemingly harmonious mix of Western hippies, Thai rastas, and muslims (there is a big mosque in the center of town) which gives the place a unique vibe which may be appealing to some, even if it isn’t traditional.

A sudden boom in guest house and bar construction from 2006 onwards has resulted in a great deal of spare capacity in the off-season.— There has been a large increase in Thai people visiting after Pai was featured in a romantic Thai film, Pai in Love. It can be hard to find a room during the busy season (Oct-Feb). There are now around 350 guest houses and hotels in Pai, and the city centre has transformed into a tourist centre containing Western-style restaurants, souvenir shops, live music venues, tattoo parlours, and bars that cater largely to the now significant influx of tourists and package tours.

Perhaps due to the popularity of the Chinese movie “Lost in Thailand”, which was shot in northern Thailand, Pai has seen a significant increase in the number of mainland Chinese tourists and group tours since 2014. Much of the signage in tourist areas of Pai now features Chinese characters.

While the growth of Pai has been rapid and more or less every farm in the valley seems to rent bungalows, development so far has been largely tasteful and the town remains relatively serene during low-season.

By road:

Rte 1095 which connects Pai with Mae Hong Son (50 km as the crow flies, but approximately 110 km by road) and Chiang Mai (135 km) is a very scenic route through the mountains which takes several hours (but is worth it). It’s a steep and winding drive, with 762 curves between Chiang Mai and Pai, so take a plastic bag and some motion-sickness pills if you need them.

By motorcycle:

Route 1095 isn’t as bad as people make it out to be. There isn’t much traffic and you can hear the cars and trucks coming. If you’re a little adventurous, rent a motorcycle in Chiang Mai and make the ride up to Pai. You can stop at the waterfalls and small towns along the way, and you’ll really enjoy the trip, as opposed to being motion sick in a bus for hours, and being forced to stop at the driver’s friend’s restaurant. Make sure to take some warmer clothing on your bike, as it tends to get a bit chilly in the higher portions of the ride. As a novice rider, expect the trip to take around 5 or 6 hours, including stops at sites and restaurants along the way.

aYa Service offers one-way rentals from Chiang Mai to Pai (or vice versa) with luggage delivery for “free,” though they charge extra for returning a bike in a new city after a 1-way trip. They will keep your passport and send it along with any baggage to aYa in Pai.

By bus:

Buses and mini-buses depart from Chiang Mai (Arcade station – tel:053304748) and Mae Hong Son. From Chiang Mai, regular public buses (no a/c) take around 4 hours and charge 78 baht, and there is only one bus at 7am daily (November 2014). The privately-operated mini-buses take around 3 hours. There is a 15 minute rest stop at the small half-way village of Mae Sae, which has very good Northern sausages, seasonal fruits, and traditional curries and soups available as well as snacks, drinks (excellent coffee!) and importantly, free internet & well-serviced toilets {3 baht}. Tickets sold by guest houses and travel agencies cost about 150-180 baht, however the best option is to head straight for the ticket office adjacent to the orange/white mini-vans and buses at the far side of the old Arcade Bus Station (across the road from the new bus station). Tickets are consistently 150 baht here, the buses are well-serviced and fitted with better quality brakes appropriate for the 762 unforgettable curves that carve their way across the mountain range, and even better, you can avoid complications from booking via guest houses (extra cost due to booking commissions; and poorer quality mini-vans that often have non-functioning air conditioning).

If your budget is extremely tight, take the public bus (one daily at 7am, 78 bath, 4 hours). It’s not highly recommended as the buses are older and less up to the task of the demanding mountain carriageway, however some travelers prefer the slower pace in order to ease the gravitational pressures of cornering on one’s stomach and to take in the scenery. But after traversing this road perhaps a hundred times or more, the orange buses are by far the best option and give you a better chance of getting to Pai in a timely way and unwinding at your guest house.

The buses described above generally operate hourly from Chiang Mai to Mae Hong Son via Pai and services commence from around 06:30 with last service around 17:30. In high-season season those services often increase to half-hourly.

It may also be possible to privately hire a small red pickup truck (known as a songthaew) that can carry up to a dozen people, from the Arcade station, but you would be looking at a minimum cost of around 1,200 baht which doesn’t compare with the much safer and economical private mini-bus service. If you choose this option, the view and wind in your face may be pleasant, but not the exhaust fumes, road grime, and seasonal humidity.

TOP TIP: From your guest house in the Old City precinct of Chiang Mai, walk to prominent Thae Pae Gate and flag down a red songthaew and ask “bai arcade satanee rot bat, mai?” (“Do you go to Arcade intercity bus station?). Most but not all, do or will go there and the fee is just 20 baht per person. Tuk-tuks will usually want 150 baht for the same journey. On your return from Pai you will be inundated by pushy tuk-tuk and private hire songthaew operators, but a simple “mai ow krap” (“No thanks”, said politely) followed by “tong khan songthaew bai Thae Pae gate” should see you directed to the small flotilla of waiting red songthaews, which involves a wait usually of no more than 10 to 15 minutes to get a shared 20 baht ride and avoid sole chartering at significant extra expense. If it takes too long, watch which direction the songthaew goes (towards the west and the distant Doi (mount) Suthep, and flag one down on the side of the road for 20 baht!

By plane:

Kan Airlines operates flights between Chiang Mai and Pai in a twelve seater Cessna Caravan. The frequency varies with demand according to the season. Flying time is 25 minutes. Passengers can make reservations and purchase tickets through the airline website, their call centres, or with a travel agent.

Pai Town

The town itself is compact and best explored on foot. Suggestions in guidebooks that Ban Santhichorn and Lisu Village might be reached on foot are optimistic.

For exploring further afield, bicycles (40-100 baht/day) and motorbikes (from as little as 80 baht/day) can be rented from many agents along the main street. The roads around Pai are steep and obtaining a decent mountain bike with fully functioning gears is surprisingly difficult. A motorbike is definitely the better option if you can drive one. aYa Service in the town centre rents motorbikes for 100 baht (and a 100 baht helmet deposit), plus 40 baht for damage insurance, 40 baht for theft insurance (passport taken as deposit). You also have the option to return the bike in Chiang Mai.

You’ll also want a motorbike if you’re planning on staying in some of the outlying bungalows in the valley around the town. Motorbike and 4WD taxis are also readily available.

Chinese village (Santichon). Village settled by Yunnanese hill tribes who crossed the border in the middle of the 20th century to escape Communist rule. Shops selling different Chinese teas with varying health properties, and other interesting oddities include a human-powered Ferris wheel. Well-worth a look, even as a brief stop on the way to Mo Paeng Waterfall.

Pai Canyon. Pai Canyon (Kong Lan), (signposted from the Chiang Mai Rd, approximately 8 km from Pai). Somewhat optimistically described as Pai’s answer to the Grand Canyon, it could more accurately be described as narrow red ridges with steep-sided valleys, both sides filled with pine and dipterocarp forests. The steep 50 m drop either side and stunning views over the surrounding countryside are impressive, but you’ll need to be careful here. The path is extremely narrow in some places and requires a scramble in others. A set of steps up to a viewing platform provides the safest way to admire the scenery and the canyon makes the perfect spot for a sunset.
WWII Memorial Bridge, (on the road to Chiang Mai, approximately 8 km from Pai). The original bridge here was built by the occupying Japanese. The current steel truss bridge which sits alongside the present main road was assembled in its current position rather more recently, but as with Pai’s canyon, the bridge invites very loose comparisons with the infamous Bridge over the River Kwai.
Village Farm (Pai Village Farm), 205 Moo 1, Mae Hee, Pai, Mae Hong Son, Thailand, 58130 (From Pai town, cross Pai River by the South East bridge. Then travel a few hundred meters down the road you will find a junction with a small drive way up the hill in between the 2 main roads. Head up that hill for a few hundred meters you will find the farm to the left.),  66 53 698 15210:00 – 16:00Less than 5-minutes from the center of Pai, You will experience a unique world of fruits, flowers, animals, including the star attraction, a lovely pair of Alpaca known as Rosemary & Aron. You will also enjoy local coffee and snacks as well as a souvenir shop. And a perfect opportunity for the most memorable photos of Pai. 40-80 THB.

Huai Nam Dang National Park:

  • The Land Split PaiPham Klang Village, Pai, Thailand (6,5 km South of Pai town). A giant crack in the land. Interesting to see, but the main thing about the place is the incredible hospitality of its owners. The variety of foodstuff offered by them (absolutely for free) is impressive. You can relax in hammocks and have you home-made rosella juice refilled as much as you want on the way to/from Pam Bok Waterfall. free.  
  • Huai Nam Dang National ParkMoo 5, Kuet Chang, Mae Taeng, Chiang Mai 50150 Thailand(25km East of Pai),  +665324 8491Huai Nam Dang National Park is positioned on top of the crest of hills and the same range as Chiang Dao mountain range. If you’re passing the panoramic vistas makes a great photo opportunity.  

Temples:

  • Wat Klang, (by the night market). is one of the more significant temples in Pai as it houses very old and revered Buddha statues. The most striking aspect about the temple is the Mon (Burmese) golden pagoda that houses and protects these statues.  
  • Chedi Phra That Mae Yen, (On a hill 2 km East of Pai). This small temple is especially interesting for its setting and the view overlooking the city you have from it. The 353 steps long staircase to reach the temple is charming even if you can skip it and take the road to access to Wat Phra That Mae Yen. The temple consists of two buildings and a few small golden chedis.  
Mo Paeng Waterfall
  • Mae Yen, (7 km out of town with no bikes allowed for the last 6 km of that. Head east over the bridge heading out of Pai and follow the signs. It takes about 2-2.5 hours each way, crossing the river every few hundred metres.).  
  • Mo Paeng, (12 km west of Pai past Santichon). A little more accessible than most of Pai’s waterfalls, this multi-tiered waterfall flows through a verdant green valley and is popular for its pools to swim in. The upper section of this waterfall is a natural water slide during the dry season. The rocks are smooth, just find a small section and slide on down like the locals do! Exercise caution, as people have died on the slides (as recently as May 2013, a tourist died hitting his head and drowning in the bottom pool. The ambulance took 30 mins to arrive.)  
  • Pam Bok, (on the road to Chiang Mai before Pai Canyon.). Nice secluded waterfall with high cliffs surrounding it, making this a very cool place to escape the heat. Go for a relaxing bathe in the shade during the dry season.