Whether you seek adventures in nature or pure relaxation you won’t want to miss out on a few days exploring Pai during your trip around northern Thailand. There are quite a few half-day trip excursions to take but one of the best things about Pai is that there really isn’t that much to do but plop down in a hammock by the river and unwind. Here are 15 reasons why you should visit Pai ASAP.
I was a bit uncertain about whether or not I’d enjoy Pai as the quaint city has a reputation of being a hive for drug-induced party backpackers which is so not my scene. Drugs are absolutely illegal in Thailand and you risk deportation, imprisonment, or death if you don’t abide by local laws. Luckily, if you spend most of your time just outside of town you can avoid this crowd altogether and simply enjoy nature in the mellow river valley surrounded by mountains.
Pai is located just 3-hours away from Chiang Mai. I suggest booking your shared minivan in advanced and online in order to confirm your seat and departure. I’ve been on some awful bus rides and even been in an accident on the edge of the Himalayas but this route is the only one that makes me physically ill. Bring crackers and sparkling water, you’ve been warned! The van drivers seem to be racing each other. For a more comfortable ride with the price tag to match, you can hire a private driver to transport you to the hill station. There are flights from Chiang Mai to Pai but this is the worst possible option for the environment so consider it wisely. It’s also possible to go to Pai directly from Chiang Rai.
STAY IN PICTURE PERFECT ACCOMMODATION PAI
The crazy backpacker scene in the center of Pai town isn’t for me so I stayed a 10-minute motorbike drive out of town. I loved my experience at the luxury bungalow I stayed in at the locally operated resort Bulunburi which I found on Airbnb. The bungalow was in a serene natural setting nestled right on the river. Waking up here to the sounds of nature each morning was pure bliss. Save US$40 off your first booking of US$75 (or €32 towards your first trip of €61) on Airbnb and by using my referral link.
WALK THE BOON KO KU SO BAMBOO BRIDGE
Tucked away in a remote area of Pai among golden fields is a gigantic 815-meter-long bridge made out of bamboo. The Boon Ko Ku So Bridge (Google Maps) was originally built as a walkway for monks who traverse through the area. Anyone is allowed to take a stroll along the bridge. This was one of my favorite experiences in Pai. It was so simple, yet so beautiful.
VISIT THE WHITE BUDDHA AT CHEDI PHRA THAT MAE YEN
From all over the tiny Pai town you’ll be watched by a looming majestic white Buddha at Chedi Phra That Mae Yen (Google Maps) in the distance. Fortunately, you can easily go visit this beautiful Buddha image. The spectacular statue can be reached after climbing up a daunting number of stairs. The vista of the Pai valley from the top is well worth the trek as well as the tranquil ambiance that surrounds the gorgeous white Buddha.
INDULGE IN DELICIOUS AND CHEAP VEGAN EATS
Earth Tone Cafe (Google Map) is my absolute favorite vegan restaurant and is conveniently located at the base of the White Buddha! Earth Tone offers a massive plant-based menu of health-conscious local dishes. They primarily use veggies from their backyard garden, making Earth Tone close to having 0 food miles. While I love the food here (tempeh! black rice! smoothie bowls!) what really draws me back are the assortment of drinks–from elixirs, kombucha, coffee, juices, kefir, and more! The prices at Earth Tone are about half that of most vegan spots in Chiang Mai. A liter of fresh passion fruit kombucha costs 100 Baht, and you get your third one free. Earth Tone also has a small shop of ethically sourced grocery products, beauty, home, and fashion items including a variety of plastic-free and sustainable items such as bamboo straws, straw cleaners, reusable water bottles from Trash Hero, and more. There’s also the zen setting of the open-air cafe which is surrounded by greenery and throw pillows.
LEARN HOW TO MAKE KOMBUCHA
I didn’t have the chance to do this and seriously regret it as learning how to make my own kombucha would be fun and cost efficient! Good Life Dacha (Google Maps) make their own kombucha and operate fermentation classes for curious travelers. The classes run daily from Monday to Saturday from 11 AM to 3 PM. For 500 Baht you’ll learn about the science of probiotics and their medicinal value as you perfect the fermentation process.
RELAX AT ONE OF PAI’S MANY SWIMMING POOLS
Pai can get scorching hot and there’s no better way to cool down than going for a dip at one of Pai’s many swimming pools. Knowing this I intentionally booked Bulunburi on Airbnb that had an infinity pool with sweeping views of impressive natural surroundings.
If you don’t stay in an accommodation that boasts a pool you can still go for a swim while in Pai. Fluid Pool (Google Maps) is a popular place for backpackers as it’s just 80 Baht for a day pass. If you’d rather buy a drink instead of a day pass then head to The Pool Bar (Google Maps) where you can get a coconut and an iced coffee for 120 Baht and use the pool all day long. Guests are welcome to swim in the pool at Pai Circus School (Google Maps) but must stay overnight at the property in order to partake in classes. Check availability at Pai Circus School for a unique accommodation experience where you’ll be able to pick up on some new schools and swim whenever your heart desires!
TAKE A DIP THE NATURAL POOL OF A WATERFALL
If you prefer to swim in a natural watering hole head out to the Pam Bok Waterfall (Google Maps). The falls are easy to reach but the path can sometimes be slippery so you’re best off wearing sneakers. The small natural pool can feel quite full if there are many bathers so you’re better off to visit early in the morning so you can float as long as you’d like. Many daring travelers seek out this waterfall as the water is usually deep enough to cliff jump, however, the water is murky and you can’t see the bottom so I strongly discourage cliff jumping.
FLOAT IN THE HEALING SECRET HOT SPRINGS
The Sai Ngam Hot Springs (Google Maps) are some of the best in Thailand due to the transparent water and natural setting. However, they’re not so secret and there’s a fee to enter. When the water level is high it pours over the edge making natural whirlpool-like jets that can massage your neck and shoulders–bliss. I stayed here until dusk and had the entire park mostly to myself which was magical. My floats were only interrupted by a local girl who challenged me to a rock skipping competition–she won.
CHOW DOWN ON VEGGIE STREET FOOD
The Pai Walking Street comes to life every night at dusk with the best street food market in all of Thailand! The long line of food stalls has a massive variety of fantastic cheap eats. From falafel, pad thai with cashew nuts, fried veggie dumplings, Burmese tea leaf salad, taro and coconut pancakes, and colorful exotic spring rolls it was a treat to try various foods at the street market each night.
Quench your thirst by starting out with a fresh juice with exotic fruits like dragon fruit or passion fruit but remember to bring your own bamboo reusable straw! After dinner, I loved picking up a fresh herbal tea to help me digest, how darling is it that they’re served in bamboo cups? My favorite flavor is the pandan tea but I also love roselle tea, mainly because the flower it is made from is so beautiful! You can bring your cup back each night to reuse and take it home as a souvenir as it makes for a great flower vase or pen holder!
GET WHIPPED INTO SHAPE WITH A $5 MASSAGE
At the opposite end of the street food stalls on the Pai Walking Street is a hole-in-the-wall massage parlor that offers 1-hour Thai Massage for just 150 Baht! Be sure to get a massage before you eat dinner!
FORAGE FOR YOUR OWN FRUIT
Pai is quickly becoming a mecca for organic, integrated, and permaculture farming methods. The man behind this movement is Manop, the founder of the Life Development Center. I had the privilege of volunteering with Manop this year to help him develop an agrotourism site to support his grassroots efforts in nearby Chiang Dao. However, he works with many farmers in Pai who are eager to welcome visitors to their farms and will allow guests to pick their own fruit according to the season!
GO HIKING AROUND THE PAI CANYON
I visited the dusty red Pai Canyon, locally called Kong Lan, (Google Maps) at dusk and was a bit underwhelmed. It was extremely crowded and I wasn’t appropriately dressed to hike around. For a better experience go at dawn and bring hiking gear. Proceed with caution though as much of the path are tiny ridges that don’t have any sort of safety railing and have steep drop-offs. Don’t expect to be reminded of the Grand Canyon in the US though, instead, you’ll find breathtaking natural scenery and panoramic views of giant mountains.
EXPLORE BEAUTIFUL TEMPLES
Pai certainly isn’t home to over 300 Buddhist temples like Chiang Mai but that doesn’t make the few that are here less worthy of visiting. The temples here aren’t a common attraction for tourists so it’s possible to seek solace and experience the sheer beauty of the wats in solitude.
Wat Luang (Google Maps) was my favorite as it’s easy to access and has a beautiful white and gold stupa. Wat Klang (Google Maps) is a gilded temple located near the Pai walking street. Two temples that are worth visiting but are further from town and would require a motorbike or tuk tuk to visit include the stunning Wat Nam Hu water temple (Google Maps) and the incredibly intricate Wat Si Don Chai (Google Maps).
EXPLORE THE COUNTRYSIDE ON A MOTORBIKE
The best way to get out there and explore Pai is to rent a motorbike! It’s also the most cost efficient and will provide you with the most freedom to discover unique places to visit. A normal price for a daily motorbike rental is around 100 Baht. The best places to visit in Pai aren’t within walking distance so if you’re like me and are afraid of driving a motorbike you’ll need to make friends who are experienced drivers, join crowded group tours, or get around via expensive tuk tuks.
DO ABSOLUTELY NOTHING
This is the most challenging suggestion in my opinion as I’m terrible at doing nothing but with so many beautiful places to simply unwind and be one of the best things to do in Pai is to do absolutely nothing. Float for hours in some water. Read an entire book in a hammock. Meditate by the river. There’s beauty in simplicity so the opportunities are endless.
WHAT NOT TO DO IN PAI
Please don’t pay visits to the human zoos that are Karen long neck villages. These women are refugees from Myanmar and are being exploited as eye candy for tourists due to their custom of wearing gold rings around their necks. Also, pass on any sort of elephant experience that encourages human interaction–riding, bathing, feeding, and touching elephants is not ethical. I made the massive mistake of doing both of these things in 2015 before I was aware of the impact of my thoughtless tourism experiences. But now I know better, and so do you.
Don’t forget to get travel insurance for your explorations of Thailand from World Nomads. Better safe than sorry!
Are you excited to visit Pai? Which spots will you visit or have you already seen in the past? Let me know in the comments!
Where to next? Get inspiration by reading about these adventures in Thailand.
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