The Life of Pai: 11 Days in Northern Thailand Paradise
I was still in Cambodia when I realised that I had no plan for Thailand, my next destination. Apart from a few pinned places on my map, I had no concrete itinerary. I found out that the best way was to ask fellow travellers coming from Thailand for tips and recommendations, in exchange giving the same about countries I had visited. My list and map were getting filled with useful information, but one name stood out in particular – Pai.
From travellers I met to my friends back home, everyone was talking about Pai as a ‘must see’. That made me want to see what all the fuss was about, and especially why it got the nickname ‘Paihole’. My itinerary solidified when my good friend, Ildemaro, confirmed he was also on his way to Northern Thailand. Half an hour later I had booked my flight from Siem Reap to Chiang Mai.
11 Days in Pai, Thailand: Getting there
I reunited with Ildemaro in Chiang Mai, but after two fun days there we were already impatiently heading to Pai. Pai is a little idyllic town close to the border with Myanmar with only around 2,300 inhabitants. If you feel adventurous, the best way to get there from Chiang Mai is to rent a motorbike and ride for couple of hours through the scenic, picturesque landscape on a steep, winding road that contains more than 700 sharp curves. However, we decided to take a 3 hour minivan ride (for THB 180) since the weather was not looking good. And we still perfectly enjoyed its beauty.
The first impression
When we arrived, the sky cleared and the van dropped us on the ‘Walking Street’. As soon as we jumped out to look for our hostel, although neither of us could explain why, we both felt that it looked like a place where we would spend much more time than the initially planned 3 days. We booked a dorm in Pai My Way hostel (THB 150 a night). A smiling host and her daughter welcomed us and led us across a vast backyard/garden that serves as a common place where even some events are held. We immediately liked the place due to its very central location, the garden and trees, the cleanliness, quiet setting and the bar/restaurant at the entrance with good food and quality coffee. There were only 2 dorms, each with 8 beds and few other guests.
To give you a better idea about Pai, there are basically 3 main streets. Walking Street contains all the street food stalls and variety of shops. Then, there’s a bar street packed with restaurants and bars of every kind. The third has a 7-eleven supermarket and a bridge crossing the scenic Pai River. This friendly, dreamlike town is surrounded by endless green hills, a beautiful canyon, rivers, streams, waterfalls, hot springs and caves. The best way to explore and enjoy the surroundings is to rent a scooter or bike and just cruise around.
Apart from all the typical activities you can do there (like rafting, swimming, hiking and so on), doing nothing and chilling is one of Pai’s visitors’ favourite sports. When you’re in Pai, it seems like nothing else exists, like it is a world in itself. The life is slow and the days are lazy. It’s impossible not to notice the very relaxed atmosphere and chilled vibe all around. Buzzing in the evening and sleepy during the day, this laid-back town offers something for all types of travellers.
The Life of Pai
The first day
Since we arrived in the evening, we didn’t want to do much but walk around and have a beer. After a few bites that we bought on Walking Street (sticks with veggies and meat for THB 5 each!), we entered the first bar that was decently crowded. In front of it, they had a free barbecue that anyone passing by could taste. We ordered a big Chang and sat down to catch up on our travels since we last saw each other.
As the time passed by, the live music was replaced by a DJ and more and more people came in. Soon, we realised that we were in one of the most popular places in Pai – Boom Bar. It got crowded and lively almost every night with Europeans and Americans, but also local people and other Asian travellers. We went to another bar or two with a few German, Dutch and Thai people we had just met.
Next few days
The following days all went in similar fashion. After waking up, first thing to do was book one more night in the hostel. Then, we would go for a breakfast and coffee at different places. Most of the time that was some kind of ‘western’ breakfast including toast, eggs, sausages and fresh fruit. One of the most interesting places was the Rabbit Cafe where rabbits walk around freely (even on tables) and you can pet them.
After one lazy hour of waking up, we would sit on our rented scooters (BHT 100 a day!) and go to one of plenty natural spots just outside the town. There are 2-3 different waterfalls, rice fields with a long bamboo bridge and a Buddhist temple, a big white Buddha on the hill, 2 different hot springs, a beautiful canyon where amazing sunsets can be seen, a Chinese village and a few viewpoints etc. All of that was 10-20 minutes drive away. This was the ideal way to get back to nature, calm down and recharge the batteries from bustling cities, high tempo and fast paced traveling from place to place.
In the afternoon, we would come back to town for lunch. Again, we had plenty of choice! One of our favourite restaurants was the friendly family-run Two Sisters, where they served tasty Thai food for THB 50. It comes with a free platter of fresh fruit or a smoothie. Another one we visited quite often was Air, open until late in the evening. This restaurant offers a variety of local dishes for as little as THB 35-70. My favourite was the green curry with coconut cream and rice.
In the evening we would go for our usual walk down the main streets, meeting new people and trying out different bars. Each of them had different kind of live music, like jazz, blues, house and techno, rock music etc. Another place worth checking out is a little night market along Rungsiyanon Road.
Pool Bar was our usual starting point with happy hour all day long and Fernando from Chile playing guitar. Although he played the exact same playlist every night with a lot of technical problems and made the same funny comments for every table in the bar, we never got bored of his silliness and playfulness. We often see him later the same night, performing the same playlist in another bar.
By the end of the fifth day we realised that we didn’t want to leave this place quite yet. Now the nickname ‘Paihole’ started making sense. Some people who were initially supposed to stay only a few days were there for weeks or even months, volunteering or working there. Apart from doing close to nothing, travellers in Pai end up extending their stay from one day to another. That’s exactly what happened to us as we kept doing it up to 11 days.
We left our first hostel and moved to Paitopia on a hill nearby. The name says it all. We stayed in a bungalow next to a little stream, with a swimming pool, table tennis, hammocks, a pool table and a bar. All in nature, surrounded by rice fields and a forest, complemented by amazing sunrises and sunsets every day. Combined with the other people we met there, we couldn’t imagine anything more ideal.
The Pai family
At that time, we already had a group of people we were hanging out with most of the time. The encounter with Sarah and Max was particularly funny. An English couple who Ildemaro had met previously in Malaysia just bumped into us randomly on the street. I witnessed people jumping and yelling from pure joy and excitement at accidentally reuniting in another country. Then, there was Annie, an American girl who worked in a few hostels around Pai, always energetic, happy and organising events for us or guests of other hostels. Meritxell, a Catalan friend of Ildemaro’s, joined us a few days after we had arrived.
A few days a week there were events where the whole town would appear. One example is the fire shows and the open mic nights in Paradise Bar. The bar was packed with the same old and new travellers wanting to enjoy the show, play some songs or just relax with a drink or two while dancing and hanging out with fellow travellers. People who wanted to keep partying would end up in the only club open till very late, named Don’t Cry. If you end up there and stay until 4 or 5am, don’t worry. Street food vendors have got you covered, waiting in front of the club until the last person leaves!
Visiting other hostels in the afternoon or evening is not uncommon. A lot of people hostel hop if there are events or if there’s a free pool. That’s how we visited Purple Monkey, UP2U, Paitopia, Happy House Backpackers, Sunset Bar and others.
11 Days Later: See you soon, Pai!
These 11 days in Pai were unreal for me. The fact that I saw my old friend Ildemaro in such a random place in the world certainly helped. But the place itself and the people in Pai made my stay there perfect. There was the hostel owner who wanted to hire me as an English teacher, and a barbershop where I spent 2 hours chatting. The owner of Two Sisters always reserved the same table for us and other villagers we talked to. Then there was always the fellow backpackers, volunteers and groups of people we were hanging out with. Everyone was friendly, warm and full of positive energy, something I found only in Pai. That’s why I absolutely recommend this place.
If you happen to be in Northern Thailand, reserve some days for this fairytale town and take it easy. Although in recent years it grew a reputation of a paradise for western backpackers, weed smokers, excessive parties, hippies and yoga teachers, Pai is much more than that. Immersing into its green surroundings, getting in touch with the nature and having some peaceful time to read a book in a hammock can perfectly describe your stay in Pai as well.
I was very sad to leave, but at the same time the happiest person to have experienced these 11 days in Thailand’s beautiful Pai. On the way back to Chiang Mai, I realised once again what travelling is about and could hardly imagine myself going back to the office life anytime soon. Priceless.
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