Increasing visitor numbers have failed to dampen the peaceful spirit of this small, laidback tourist town in Mae Hong Son.
By Percy Roxas
This small town, situated within a laidback valley surrounded by steep mountains between Chiang Mai and Mae Hong Son, is one of my favorite retreats. Nobody knows how this former best-kept tourism secret became a popular tourist destination that it is today. But Pai attracts primarily because of its relatively “isolated from the outside world” setting.
Part of the lure of course, is that it is a part of Mae Hong Son, the “Shangri-La” of Thailand, and the fabled “land of three mists” near the Myanmar border. It is renowned for its natural beauty, eclectic ethnic culture, lush jungle greens, and their appurtenant wonders. The town was the traditional habitat of the Shan people (ethnic Tai whose culture is influenced by Burma), and while it thrives on tourism these days, it is still — in general — a tranquil little town with small quiet pleasures.
Pai has recently seen a lot of major infrastructure upgrades, including the development of a small airport offering several daily flights. Several small- to medium-sized luxury resorts and restaurants have been added to its more than 118 guesthouses and restaurants (as of June 2007), and a couple of live music clubs, beer bars, and two sets of traffic lights have been erected. The trace of progress though, has failed to dampen the small, peaceful spirit of the town.
Pai is a perfect haven for those in search of peaceful mountain retreats. The weather is temperate, natural and cultural wonders are a-plenty, and the surrounding is conducive to utter relaxation and recharging. A good reason to go is to experience the great white water rafting adventure down the Pai River.
If you are not after the adventurous rush, the generally relaxed atmosphere of the place that backpackers loved in the area when they “discovered” it in the late 80s, should suffice.
See & Do
Pai is endowed with many natural wonders and attractions: waterfalls, gorges, caves, and hot springs. The waterfalls and hot springs vary in temperature from 80 to 200 degrees Celsius in the outskirts of town, and some resorts tap the hot springs and feed the hot water into spas, private bungalows, and public pools.
Again, the most popular activity is white water rafting at the Pai River, the longest river in Mae Hong Son, and famous for its series of rapids dancing along to scenic gorges. On the town itself, the quaint magic of Pai made it appealing to visitors of all kinds: the young and the young-at-heart, the arty type, and more, besides those looking for peace and quiet in their holiday.
Pai’s location at the foot of the mountains also make it an ideal base for trekking and visiting hill tribes such as the Karen, Hmong, Lisu, and Lahu. Another notable attraction is the Wednesday Market, which brings large and colorful crowds of local villagers and tribal people from all around the Pai Valley.
The number of guesthouses and hotels in Pai continues to increase in recent years and most of them can be booked online whether you are looking for a budget guesthouse or a relatively full-service boutique resort. There’s no five-star hotel there yet.
Eat & Drink
As is anywhere in Thailand, there is an abundance of food and drink places for all kinds of tastes in Pai. Your own accommodation will probably have a restaurant or two, but you can also venture into the center of the town, where there are now a wide variety of restaurants, coffee houses, and even bars and music lounges to fill your thirst or hunger or your yearning for some entertainment. For an authentic local (Pai) experience you should not miss going to the town center early in the morning for a generous sampling of exotic local specialties.
When to go
Best to visit from November through March.
Daily passenger service from Chiang Mai International Airport started on Feb. 1 2007.
From Chiang Mai, private vehicles can take Route 1095 to Pai (280km), a very scenic drive. Regular bus services connect Mae Hong Son with Chiang Mai (Arcade bus terminal), and Pai is on the northern route. You can take either air-conditioned or fan buses to Pai from Chiang Mai’s Arcade Bus Station. The journey is long and slow journey taking between four and five hours, but the view is scenic. Probably the cheapest way to travel to Pai from Chiang Mai is the no-air bus, fare for which is just Bt72. Air-conditioned buses charge Bt101 and mini-vans charge Bt150.
Visitors can also choose to go to Mae Hong Son first by train and then drive from there to Pai.