Pai travel and tourist guide

The laid back lifestyle makes Pai popular

The laid back lifestyle makes Pai popular

Popular with backpackers and bohemian types, Pai is a delightful village midway between the northern cities of Chiang Mai and Mae Hong Son. The peaceful valley, rolling hills and lush misty mountain sides assure a relaxing atmosphere. It’s cheap, down-to-earth and unspoilt by mass tourism. Many spend months here at a time. The trip to Pai from Chiang Mai is worth the excursion alone, a roller-coaster ride through mountainous unspoilt scenery with fantastic views. You can also now fly there.

Although Mae Hong Son province is generally very mountainous, sitting as it does in the tail end of the Himalaya range, Pai itself occupies an broad elongated valley which can be very pretty in the rainy season when the rice turns it into a patina of green. The Pai river meanders across the patchwork and the small town is characterised by bungalows and a laidback atmosphere. However there are a number of activities on offer which include caving, whitewater rafting, adventure tours, trial bike riding and trekking to visit several different hilltribes who have villages in the area.

Most people come to Pai to get away from the action, and the sleepy town caters to a hippie traveller crowd. There are various markets held on different days and at different times, like the Morning Market and the renowned Wednesday Market, where you can soak up the local culture and pick up tasty Thai food. Hilltribers in their colourful costumes come to town to hawk their wares, giving a more authentic and less touristy environment than Chiang Mai.

There have been a few modernisations that have accompanied Pai’s rise in popularity, such as the establishment of banks, a few 7-Eleven stores and the appearance of gaudy neon ATM machines on the main street, but this was bound to happen if backpackers are beating a path to the place. Like most towns in Thailand, there are at least a few temples scattered around town. One of note in Pai is the charming Wat Mae Yen with its distinctive multi-tiered Burmese-style roof.

A mini Grand Canyon - the Pai Canyon

A mini Grand Canyon - the Pai Canyon

If a bout of physical exertion is what you’re after, there are some good hiking routes leading out of town and the Tha Pai Hot Springs to rest in afterwards. However, the hot baths at nearby Thai Pai Spa is much better value than the rip-off 200 baht for the national park venue. There are some beautiful waterfalls just a few kilometres out of town, including the popular and conveniently reached Muang Soi waterfall, and renting a motorcycle is an easy option.

Trekking companies operate out of Pai and it’s a good place to head off into the mountains for a few days. There is also the bizarre Pai Canyon at the southern end of the valley, although it could hardly be called ‘grand’. Venture farther afield to Soppong, halfway to Mae Hong Son, and you can explore the many remarkable caves here, and even sign up for ‘black water rafting’ on a subterranean river.

But the main reason many come is simply to chill out, either at one of the basic bungalows that line the river meandering through the valley, or in the many rustic restaurants and bars. There are a few bars in town to laze away an evening. The Bebop Jazz and Blues Club has live music most nights, along with a few other venues popular with the resident reggae crowd. For the morning after, a pleasant blend of local hilltribe coffee will get you moving at one of the many cafes.

Days can be whiled away with yoga classes, cooking, reiki and massage courses. Then one can participating in new age groups, creating art (especially at Sipsong Panna artists guest lodge), or even floating down the river on rubber tubes.


Pai has a police problem. Over the years, as Pai has attracted more and more dope smoking hippie types, the local police have become increasingly zealous and heavy handed in keeping order. The fact that Pai is near a major drug smuggling border compounds the issue. They periodically conduct random urine tests in bars and arrest travellers for possession, or even positive tests, locking them up for a few days before releasing them upon remittance of a ‘fine’ that is usually more than 10,000 baht. Pai is actually a laidback and safe place, but over the years law enforcement in this sleepy town has earned a reputation for thuggish behaviour with business owners complaining of unfair pressure. Finally, in January 2008 a Canadian tourist was shot dead in an ‘incident’ with an off duty cop. The official police version seems inconsistent with eye-witness and victim reports, and the accused was released without charge, only to be in the news soon after for murdering his young wife! When in Pai, avoid trouble and stay clear of drugs, otherwise don’t come at all if in doubt.

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