Pai, Northwest Thailand’s Mountain Paradise
By LARRY ANTHONY PANNELL
Of all the places I have traveled to date in Thailand, the small town of Pai is my favorite. It is located in a river valley high in Thailand’s northwest mountains.
To get there, I flew from Bangkok to Chiang Mai and then I secured ground transportation to Pai. There are three ways to reach Pai: rent a scooter and drive for four hours through the mountains, catch the bus or hire a private van.
I used the private company Prepracha Transport. The trick is not to book online, because you will not be able to choose your exact seat until close to the date you are leaving, so it is a gamble on where you will end up sitting.
All seats are the same price, about $5. If you reserve your seat early, you may be able to secure the front row.
Pai was once known as the “hippie” community of Thailand, but it has become more of a tourist destination as of late, despite a noticeable hippie vibe. There are numerous places to get a massage or do yoga and lots of schools available throughout the village.
Pai also has a very robust restaurant scene, with everything from simple local dishes to international haute cuisine.
If you do opt for food cart fare, the trick is to eat where the locals eat. Avoid places that have nobody or only a few people and head for the crowds.
Pai has some of the best and most diverse street food in Thailand. At night, Pai Walking Street is lined with numerous food carts selling everything from sushi to pad thai, fresh mangos with sticky rice to fresh strawberries, chicken wraps and tacos to barbequed meat on a stick. There are also a number of great little stores and stalls to shop in as well.
My favorite place to eat was the Pai Riverside Restaurant, which is surprisingly affordable. It is where I spent New Year’s Eve watching the tourist’s light fireworks and let go of flame lanterns as they floated off into the nights sky.
Other favorites are the Duang Restaurant, Dang Thai Café, Krazy Kitchen Restaurant, Sugarcane Restaurant and the Earth Tones Café.
There is a myriad of places in every budget range to stay in Pai.
I stayed in two hotels, the Kalm Pai Resort, 10 kilometers out of town on a rice paddy near the river run by a young couple with a breakfast buffet included, and the Bueng Pai Farm, about 5 kilometers out of town.
At the Bueng Pai Farm, my wood cabin sat literally right on a lake filled with fish. You could also rent a rod and reel and try your luck. I did see my neighbor catch several very large fish.
If you are looking for more upscale accommodations, the Pai Island Resort, located out of the town near the airport, is set in the countryside and has four unique villas and an open-air restaurant.
Pai’s other five-star resort is located close to town, just 1.2 kilometers away for the Pai Walking Street. The Reverie Siam has wonderful views of the countryside, two outdoor pools and a restaurant offering Mediterranean and Thai cuisine.
If you prefer to be right in the heart of Pai, on the river and within a few steps of the Pai Walking Street, then consider the Pai River Corner Resort.
From a tourist point of view, Pai is filled with places to create wonderful memories and places to take beautiful photographs.
To get around Pai, your best bet is to rent a scooter. Scooters in Southeast Asia are its lifeblood. Everyone has a scooter and rentals are very affordable.
If you have never driven a motorcycle or a scooter, don’t worry, the person renting you the scooter will give you a short crash course (no pun intended).
Be prepared to drive VERY defensively. Make sure to pay attention to everything going on around you, go slow and take your time and you will should no problem.
I was in Pai for 10 days. One my first day, I decided to go to a couple of the Buddhist shrines and the Wat Phra That Mae Yen. also known as the White Buddha shrine. It is located about two kilometers from town on a hillside.
The shrine faces west and sits on a large platform of red tiles. You have to climb 353 steps to reach the top, but it has a spectacular view overlooking Pai Valley, best to visit at sunset.
In another area of the valley, nestled in one of the canyons outside of Pai, is the Land Split. In 2008, a large earthquake shook the region and split the earth, creating a crack 2 meters wide and with a depth of 11 meters.
A hiking trail has been built ascending a small hill and then winding its way down to the bottom of the crack. Following the trail through the split with the earthen sides towering overhead, the path eases downhill and back to the entrance of the farm.
After your hike, near the entrance is an area to purchase fresh fruit, a drink, vegetables or a salad grown on the farm. Donations are gladly accepted as an entrance fee, food and to keep the site open.
Continuing to follow the road past the Land Split through the canyon, you will also come to a waterfall. Still further along, you encounter the Boon Koh Ku So, or the Bridge of Merit, known to most as the Pai Bamboo Bridge.
The bridge is made entirely of bamboo slats and stretches over a kilometer, winding through the rice paddies of a wide valley. At the beginning of the bridge, there are a couple of small cafes to have a drink or something to eat.
As you stroll along the bridge, there are places to stop and sit in covered structures that provide shade from the sun while you enjoy the view of the valley.
At the end of the bridge is a Buddhist temple, nothing lavish, but very peaceful and serene, set in a hillside forest.
I entered one the temples to find a Buddhist monk in deep meditation. I watched him for some time, unmoving not even a blink. I sat and meditated in his presence for about 30 minutes before taking out my camera to photograph the surreal scene.
Later, while wondering through the rest of the temple, one of the monks told me the monk in the temple mediating was one of the most revered Buddhist monks in all of Thailand. I visited the temple a number of times during my stay in Pai. Each time, the distinguished monk sat unwavering, as if frozen in time.
Another place I found fascinating was the Love Strawberry Pai hilltop café and fruit stand. Overlooking a valley and a small strawberry farm, I would sit enjoying a plate of fresh strawberries recently harvested by a small group of workers in the field below.
As I sat on a hillside bench relaxing, I observed a splash of color against the bright blue skies and white clouds in the form of umbrellas hung overhead, creating a dreamlike atmosphere.
On another day, I decided to ride 5 kilometers through a canyon outside of Pai. I continued up a mountain, taking a steep dirt and rock filled road to the Yun Lai Viewpoint where the views of Pai are spectacular, with lush green countryside.
Another interesting place to visit very close to town is the Karen Long Neck Village. Although absolutely a tourist attraction, there are tribe women and girls sitting in stalls weaving or with goods to sell.
Photographically speaking, one of the most crowded and most popular places you will visit in Pai is Kong Lan or Pai Canyon. Located about 8 kilometers outside of town, it is very accessible although once at the parking location there is a steep climb up earthen stairs to get to the viewpoint.
Once there you reach the top, you are rewarded with the outstretched canyon and a number of trails and places to stake your claim and wait for the sunset. Though the view is beautiful any time of day, the sunset is when the crowds are at their peak.
It is truly breathtaking as the sky changes from blues to orange and red and the sun sets behind the distant mountains.
If you are going with photography in mind, I would suggest arriving at least an hour ahead of the sunset to decide on which view and image you want to capture. If you wait until the last minute, the space gets crowded and limited for the best views.
Larry Anthony Pannell is a professional photojournalist originally from southern California who is also a licensed acupuncture physician with a degree in traditional Chinese medicine. Since 2010, he has served as an “acupuncturist at sea,” offering his services on several international cruise lines while traveling the Seven Seas. He specializes in landscape, travel, nature and wildlife photography, and more samples of his work can be seen on his webpage. He can be reached at email@example.com.