It’s possible you’ve never heard of Pai. This small town lies tucked away in the Thai landscape, a stomach-churning bus ride through the mountains west of Chiang Mai. While those who have passed through become fierce fans, it’s a town left off most travel routes. If you do make the journey and want to draw smiles here, tell fellow travelers that you only plan to stay a night or two. Every response is the same, a friendly caution. “You say that now, but wait…”
But no one in Pai is doing much waiting. Instead, they occupy their days bathing in nearby hotsprings and waterfalls, or eating and drinking in offbeat cafes. Visitors will find themselves getting Thai cooking classes, massage lessons, bamboo tattoos, and chatting the hours away with Pai’s eclectic population of passing backpackers and fun, friendly locals. After one or two nights, most travelers will gladly postpone their outbound tickets another few days, weeks, or indefinitely.
So what makes this town so exceptional? It doesn’t hurt to point out that Pai is undeniably beautiful, situated in the northern mountainscape. An easy motorbike rental allows access to the town’s nearby sites; waterfalls, hotsprings, elephant camps and explorer-friendly caves. Intrepid backpackers can use Pai as the base for jungle treks, hill tribe tours, and rafting trips.
But beyond the landscape, Pai’s charming small-town friendliness seems to be infectious, as strangers smile and say hello to one another on the street. It’s the town’s warm and relaxed atmosphere which makes it feel more homey than transient. Any traveler who has tired of busting cities and long tuk-tuk rides will delight in Pai’s walkable downtown. Here, travelers have drinks and chat leisurely at streetside cafes. On the main street, by the bus station, movie booths and art galleries line the road, among Khmer handicrafts and homemade jewelry stalls.
To a visitor, it feels that Pai has reached a happy medium of offering traveler-friendliness without being suffocated by tourism. Schoolchildren bustle home along the main streets, local artists sell their wares, a nightmarket on the eastern side of the town comes alive in the late afternoon. Though small in size, Pai’s active daily culture keeps it vibrant for local and tourist alike.
At the end of a long day, the town doesn’t quiet down. Fubar, a hilltop bar just across the bridge from the centre of town, is arguably the best nightspot in Pai. Here, you can catch the spectacular mountain sunset, as well as delicious local food. Even at nightfall, the town remains laid-back and social. After dark, Pai ignites as one traveler community, with people chatting and strolling around the foodstalls of the main street, off to sample the local Burmese-influenced cuisine, then to catch the live music at nearby BeBop. Not a bad way to spend a night, or two, or most likely more.
Anne Merritt is Canadian and has an English Literature degree. She has worked as a journalist for a university newspaper. She is currently living in Ayutthaya as an ESL teacher and is sharing her experience of Thailand with KhaoSanRoad.com.