I have been to Pai thrice. The first couple of times were in 2015 when I volunteered with an NGO in a small village town, San Patong, near the second-largest city in Thailand, Chiang Mai. That was my first time in a foreign country. The third time was when I took my mom for her first international holiday in 2017 (coincidence? Not so much!).
My first time in Pai was as a solo traveller; the second time, a fellow volunteer teacher accompanied me.
Pai, for me, was love at first sight.
A tiny hippie hamlet located at a distance of 130 kilometres from Chiang Mai, Pai has been an absolute favourite among backpackers for the past few years. However, after this former market village featured in two popular Thai movies, it became quite a hit among local tourists as well.
Needless to say, the town’s economy thrives on tourism – think cheap guesthouses, endless restaurants serving local as well as international cuisines, magnificent landscape, shady bars with live music till wee hours, and of course, the usual parade of bare-chested, elephant pants-wearing travellers.
And, if you ask anyone about their feelings for the town of “Pai Love”, the response is “It’s aaaaaa-wesome! You have to go! There is so much to do and see, and you would never want to leave”.
Honestly, I had the same perspective the first couple of times that I visited.
Full discloser: I think it is important for me to mention here that if you have motion sickness, forget about Pai! The road from Chiang Mai to Pay is nothing but 700 turns around the mountains of northern Thailand and the jaw-dropping beauty of Thailand’s countryside.
Essentially, there are two main types of travellers that head to Pai – one, those looking to party and have a good time; another, those looking to unwind and detox themselves amidst the natural surroundings of the quintessential mountain town
+ Driving around in motorbikes
The first thing I noticed and loved about the town was the ease of travel to, from, and within Pai. You could easily rent a bike from Chiang Mai to travel to this hippie town. And, you could just as conveniently visit the splendid wonders that the town has to offer. It is also the cheapest mode of transportation in Pai.
Word of caution: You could come across a lot of travellers with ripe scrapes and bruises a.k.a Pai Tattoo.
This may make you nervous or hesitant at first, but I would recommend you to push past your fears and get on with it. Trust me, biking through the astonishing roads and sceneries with the wind in your hair is abso-freaking-lutely worth it! (You can thank me for this later.)
Tip: There are a lot of bike rentals in Chiang Mai as well as Pai, but the most common and popular is Aya. You can find the office near the bus station. They have extremely competitive tariffs as well as insurance options. Remember to check your receipt and make sure they note that you have paid. And, DO NOT lose your receipt (or save a photo of it on your phone to be on a safer side).
+ Exploring the Pai Canyon
Also known as the ‘Grand Canyon of Thailand’ (ha!), the Pai Canyon offers some of the most thrilling hikes and of course, the best sunsets in town.
If you feel particularly adventurous during your visit, come all the way down and spend hours hiking up and losing yourself amidst nature.
One of the most prevalent activities here though is to enjoy the sunset with a cold beer. But, mind you – you won’t be alone. However, the view will be worth every bit of it.
Also, there is no admission fee to the canyon.
Tip: Don’t forget to wear sturdy shoes, carry insect repellent and plenty of water, and watch your step if you decide to hike. Some parts of the canyon are extremely narrow and sketchy.
+ Wandering around Pai’s Walking Street Night Market
No Thai city or town is complete unless they have a ‘walking street’. Same holds true for Pai. Every evening, street vendors selling souvenirs, food and drink carts (banana and Nutella pancakes!), and makeshift massage stalls line the main street in the town.
Even if you don’t plan on shopping, go there for people-watching, fresh fruit smoothies, and of course, the food.
Exploring the Walking Street night market is the number one thing to do in Pai in the evenings.
Tip: Don’t miss out on the crazy 2 for 1 Mojito deals that almost all the bar and restaurants. If you are travelling alone (like I did the first time), these places are also the hotspots for meeting fellow travellers.
+ Climbing a million stairs to get to the Big White Buddha
I may have exaggerated the numbers a bit, but it’s still 353 stairs to get to the Big White Buddha, Wat Phra That Mae Yen in Thai.
If you have been in Thailand for a while, you have already had your fair share of Buddha statues and the elaborate Thai Wats. So, I agree that visiting another Buddha statue may seem repetitive or even a waste of time. But, believe me when I say this – the panorama from the top is nothing like what you have seen so far!
Of course, getting to the top of the hill is challenging (it sure was for me back then due to my lack of physical activities) and you would certainly work up a lot of sweat. However, once you reach the top and experience a bird’s eye view of Pai, the sore back and the breathlessness will be worth it.
Tip: It takes about an hour to walk the stairs up to the Big White Buddha. And, it is free to enter. Don’t forget to carry water and wear sturdy walking shoes. Also, remember, it is a place of worship for Thais so you must dress appropriately and be respectful.
+ Enjoying the ‘Art of doing nothing’
Undoubtedly, Pai has a lot to see and do – waterfalls, hot springs, the famous Land Split, tubing down the Pai River, and so much more.
Nonetheless, Pai also has a calmer, laid-back side that a lot of travellers come here for. It doesn’t have to either-or; it can be a combination of both. And, if you have already enjoyed your fair share of the many incentives this hippie town has to offer, it only makes sense to wrap your holiday doing ‘nothing’.
Due to the popularity of the town and the easy-going vibe, a bunch of yoga schools have begun to call Pai home. Most of them are spread out around the banks of Pai River. Sawasdee Pai Yoga, one among the most recommended yoga places in town, offers a morning and an evening class and costs 200 Baht (USD 6.50|INR 490 approx.).
Alternatively, check yourself into one of the guesthouses or lodges by the river and spend the day chilling in a hammock, tuned in to your favourite music, and catching up on some reading.
During my visit to Pai all three times, I realized that most attractions within the town are free to visit. There are a few waterfalls and hot springs around that charge you a ‘foreigner fee’, but more often than not, you would come across one that doesn’t and is untouched or at least not crawling with tourists and locals.
This brings me to the reasons that I have some second thoughts about this marvellous hippie oasis.
– It’s become too touristy
It is obviously nice to see and interact with fellow backpackers from around the world, but the overexposure of the town has resulted in an enormous amount of tourist influx, more than Pai can handle.
Accommodation and drinks are dirt cheap; most places are free to visit, and parties carry on till super late at night. Hence, the hordes of tourists.
While this could be fun for a couple of days, you could easily lose the fascination if you were to stay here longer.
– The local essence and vibe are fading away
Primarily, most people travel to other places and countries because they are intrigued by local cultures and lifestyles. And, that makes absolute sense because why else would you leave the comfort of your home to go thousands of miles across the globe in search of bizarre foods, beguiling traditions, and awe-inspiring landscapes.
However, the hundreds and thousands of tourists flocking Pai leave very less room for anything local. Nowadays, there are more pizzerias and pancake stalls here than authentic Thai food stalls. Instead of trying out the traditional Thai costumes, you see backpackers dressed up in “Chang” singlets and scanty shorts. Where exactly is the charm in that?
Pai was and should be known for its unabashed landscapes, peaceful leaving, and the community of locals who call this home. Of course, the economy needs tourism to survive or to thrive, but it could still be controlled.
All said and done, I would always be in love with the small hippie town of Pai – the one that is tranquil and gorgeous. And, I hope you do too.