“Pai is Falling in Love.” The phrase, or some iteration of it, is plastered across this sleepy little hippy (sorry, alternative lifestyle) town in northern Thailand. Pai is Love! Pai Love You! Love in Pai! I’m not really sure when Pai became the self-declared love capital of Thailand, but self-declared love capital it is. That’s okay. There really is something about this tiny little mountain town that makes you fall in love with it and its 2,500 residents.
Getting to Pai (pronounced more like “bye” than “pie” if you want to say it right) is, in itself, a small adventure. The vast majority of tourists get to Pai via Chiang Mai, which means overland travel through the mountains on a narrow, winding road. 762 twists and turns await you on the 135 km journey. If travelling by mini-bus, they leave pretty much hourly from Chiang Mai and stop about halfway along for travelers to grab a snack, use the washrooms, or purchase some motion sickness pills. (or all of the above). In Lonely Planet’s guide to Thailand, they suggest this mini-bus trip will take about 4 hours to get from Chiang Mai to Pai; but my mini-bus driver seemed determined to hurl us around corners at mach speed and throw our bodies across the van. Perhaps he was racing another bus, perhaps he just enjoyed seeing us try in vain to hold our bodies to our seats, but he easily made the trip in 2 hours, rest stop included. Take that, Lonely Planet. An alternative to this is to rent a motorcycle or scooter and drive yourself from Chiang Mai to Pai. Most hostels in Chiang Mai can arrange to have your luggage transported to your accommodation in Pai for a small fee. Armed with a somewhat confusing map, once you’ve made it out of the city, it’s impossible to get lost on Route 1095 to Pai. Driving yourself to Pai is a beautiful, and much more relaxing (if you ignore the other traffic) way to get there. You can stop off to take pictures or rest whenever you feel like. Get some fresh air and enjoy the somewhat cooler mountain air. Here’s 15 seconds of a low quality hyperlapse through the roads near Pai, Thailand to give you an idea, though at this point we were actually driving pretty slow. I wish I’d gotten the camera out sooner. (and figured out how to record in better quality….maybe I’ll get it figured out for next time?)
Arriving in Pai, I left the bus station and followed the directions from the hostel website to find my accommodation. I knew the town was small, but I was not prepare for just how tiny it really is! Based on the hand drawn map I had seen, I thought my walk would be about 10-15 minutes. It literally took 3 whole minutes to get there, and with 40 lbs of stuff on my back, I was not walking at a brisk pace either. Despite the rock hard beds (which are kind of the norm everywhere in Thailand), Common Grounds in Pai is hands down one of my most favourite hostels. If you go to Pai, I can’t say it enough, STAY THERE!! In true Pai fashion, it’s not fancy, but that’s kind of the whole point. Walking through the gate, you find yourself in an open air courtyard/reception area/communal hang out spot. Hammocks sway in the breeze, and a bunch of pillows and loungers circle around a few tables. Everyone at the hostel seems to congregate here during the day, probably because the best thing to do in Pai is to do nothing at all!
But back to Pai and love and all that stuff.
Pai’s proximity to the Myanmar border, and the large presence of Shan descendants (and other hill tribes) lends a different vibe to the town than you’ll get elsewhere in Thailand. Add to that a mix of Thai Rastas, Western expat hippies, and a load of backpacker tourists; and you’ve got the uniquely chill and relaxed atmosphere that is Pai. To me, I actually felt more like I was in Myanmar, than I did feel like I was in Thailand. As I said before, Pai is Thailand’s self-declared love capital, and residents (both locals and the backpackers who came for a vacation then never left) do what they can to make sure you feel it too. School children and adults alike greet you with big smiles. Strangers will sit down and have a beer with you. Souvenir shops sell hemp clothing and bags, as well as a number of other items declaring love in Pai. Despite the fact that there are more souvenir shops than what would you’d expect for a town this size, it still feels remarkably authentic. This might be due to the fact that you can walk the entire town from end to end north, south, east, and west within minutes. Something about being able to get everywhere on your own two feet just makes it feel so intimate, so welcoming, and so wholesome. I stopped at a “salon” for a manicure, and ended up getting my nails painted in the owner’s living room while her daughter did homework on the couch beside me, and her husband did laundry for tourists in the back room. It cost me about $5.
Every evening, the two main roads through town are more or less closed off to vehicular traffic, and a night market emerges. This is when the real souvenir shopping can begin, and when you can partake in one of my most favourite of all activities, eating food off of sticks for 50 cents a pop. Chicken, pork, beef, grasshoppers and other insects, fried potatoes, pineapples, and more. It’s all available on a stick, and it’s all so cheap it’s practically free! ummmm, is this the love everyone is talking about?!
If you wander the night market without visiting one of the tea stands, you’re doing it wrong. Choose your bamboo shoot, choose your flavour of tea, and the very entertaining purveyors of tea (dressed in some sort of robot costume that reminded me of how my Japanese roommate in Banff decorated our Christmas tree one year) will pour tea into your bamboo “cup” from an arm’s length away while talking a mile a minute. Hang on to your bamboo for the night, it entitles you to free re-fills, and trust me, you will want to visit again and again!! We mixed vodka in our tea, which just made the whole experience that much better, but the tea flavours on their own are pretty good if you’re not in the imbibing mood.
No one expects you to do anything while you’re in this town, other than laze away the days relaxing, reading books, chatting with new friends, and maybe participating in a card game or two. But for those wanting a somewhat more active holiday, there is lots to see and do in the surrounding area. Rent a scooter, or grab a taxi, and head 8km out of town to Pai Canyon, touted as Thailand’s answer to the Grand Canyon (but I think the person who decided this has not actually seen the Grand Canyon), and watch the sun set, romantically splashing vibrant hues of red, orange, and pink across the valley (see? more love!). There are stairs from the parking lot to take you to the top of the canyon; if you’re feeling adventurous you can scramble down the steep embankments and walk along the narrow, winding ridges, literally perching yourself on the edge of a 50m drop to the canyon floor below. Stay until it gets dark, and some great star gazing awaits you on clear nights.
Plenty of waterfalls splash their way through the mountains and they make fantastic rest stops to escape from the heat. Or if warm water is more your thing, make a stop at the sulphurous (and supposedly therapeutic) hot springs just 7 km out of Pai. There are caves to explore and endless winding roads and dirt tracks to traverse as you look for the perfect photo op. You can get off the scooter and hike on foot in to the hills, with options to go on overnight treks and spend time in the villages of various hill tribes. It’s worth asking your guide to plan an itinerary that will take to different tribes so you can get a true taste of the different ethnicities living in the area. Or stop off at Chinese Village, maybe the only place in the world that can boast of a human-powered ferris wheel? Other active pursuits you can do from Pai: white water rafting, zip lining, tubing down Pai River, offroading, mountain biking, pirhana fishing, or joining in the celebrations surrounding one of the many festivals that happen. Wat Phra That Mae Yen is a temple that sits on top of a hill near Pai, rewarding anyone who’s willing to take the 353 steps up with amazing views of the town and valley. (there’s also a road, but this is in the “active and adventurous paragraph, so we’re going to ignore that fact.)
If learning about stuff is more your style, you can take classes or workshops in any number of pursuits, including Muay Thai, yoga, meditation, massage, Thai cooking, or my personal favourite CIRCUS SCHOOL. Who wouldn’t want to learn how to dance with fire? Seriously.
In the evenings, once you’ve had your fill of food on sticks, tea from bamboo, and delicious green tea cookies from the night market, it’s time for the live music scene. Bounce from bar to bar and listen to heaps of great live music, performed by locals, expats, and tourists alike. Most of Pai shuts down around midnight, but a few bars stay open late and keep the party going well into the wee morning hours.
I feel like I should also warn you a little bit about the weather. Bring pants and long sleeves at the minimum. You might even want a jacket and a toque (or it you’re not Canadian: beanie, knitted cap, whatever), especially in the winter months. It has been known to snow in the dead of winter, but the higher altitude means even in summer the nights can get quite cool. It’s hot during the day, but the minute the sun went down, we were all changing out of our shorts. I would even go so far as to say you really don’t need to fork out any extra cash to get accommodation with air conditioning. Unless you like things to be really cold, you’re not going to use it.
Pai is falling in love, but not necessarily falling in love with a person (although that’s okay too). Pai is falling in love with the mountains, with the sun sets, and with the genuinely friendly locals. If you’re arriving after a stay in Bangkok, or even Chiang Mai, Pai is falling in love with the relaxed pace, the laissez-faire attitude of its residents, and the rural atmosphere. Pai is falling in love with lazy mornings, and afternoons spent sharing Chang with new friends you just met 5 minutes ago. Pai is falling in love with how happy you are to spend your days doing absolutely nothing of consequence even though the whole world is at your feet. Pai is that moment where you stop, look around and truly see your surroundings. It’s that deep breath you take, and that calm feeling you have when you slowly exhale. Pai is falling in love with being happy. And most importantly, Pai is learning to love being inundated with the word “love.” (But who doesn’t love love anyways?)
Check out this short video from Common Grounds for an idea of that it’s like in Pai: