When beginning my journey to and around Southeast Asia, one word was repeated over and over again: “Pai.” I heard it from the 20 something year old sitting next to me on my flight from Auckland, New Zealand. I heard it during my layover in Australia. I heard it in my hostel in Kuala Lumpur from the boys from Wales (who, in all fairness, may not have been able to communicate much more than that considering the amount of drinks consumed). And I heard it again in my hostel in Georgetown, from the beautiful Swedish boy that I might have stayed longer for- had the pull to Pai not been so strong.
Traveling to Pai
Once I made the decision to go to Pai, getting there is quite the journey, but worth it. From Chiang Mai you can rent a scooter and make the beautiful drive yourself. However, I would recommend having been on a scooter before. The hills and curves can be quite daunting in the 4 hour-ish drive, but hold breathtaking views and picture opportunities to make anyone envious. Or you can opt for the vans that travel up and down the mountain quite regularly. Be prepared for the advertised 762 twists and turns, packed full of locals and tourists alike. Families with young children, the tourist who may have stayed up too late the night before, and the over-packer with no personal space awareness are a few people you are guaranteed to have on your van; but for the price and the final destination, well worth it. There is one pit stop to stretch your legs, breathe some well needed fresh air, have a cigarette, and buy refreshments (I’d recommend staying away from any food until arriving in Pai-just in case). The ride is the perfect opportunity to get to know fellow backpackers and gain tips from locals. Being in closed encounters for that amount of time makes people willing to talk and share experiences. Especially if you are traveling alone, take advantage!
The Hostel Life
I would recommend having a hostel booked for at least the first two nights of your stay in Pai. It will give you a chance to become acclimated, and to find the next hostel you would be keen to stay in. Exploring the hostels in Pai is half of the fun of this amazing village. One of the most popular ones (and most likely to be full on arriving) is Spicy Pai. It is located about 10 minutes walking from the beginning of the main part of town. It is more recently built, with a beautiful thatched “common room” built on stilts overlooking the rice fields. It has a welcome breeze, full of music and backpackers lounging on laptops, reading books, and sharing their stories.
A bit further down the road toward the village is The Purple Monkey. This was my first hostel I stayed at in Pai, and holds a special place in my heart. The entrance is down an overgrown hill with a small walking path worn into it. The staff was helpful and friendly, and immediately invited you to drop off your things and come sit at the bar so they could give advice and share stories over a cold beer, while watching the baby monkey Ninja cling to one of the dogs that had made their home at The Purple Monkey. (I’ll let one of the staff tell you the story how Ninja came to live there.)
The hostel that I made my home during my 2 months in Pai was Common Grounds. On the other side of the village, down a one way street, it was easy to miss. What was so unique was the amount of scooters parked at the end of the street- on any given day, at least 20. Once I checked in, I understood why: no one wanted to leave. Once I became a “regular” I joined in the applause to another backpacker sheepishly extending their stay in the morning after denying time and time again the night prior that they were “for real not missing my bus this time”. Pai had a hold on everyone that stayed there, and to feel so welcome and at home in a small village was truly a life changing experience.
Immersing Yourself in the Culture
Unlike some other places I have traveled, Pai welcomes everyone immediately with open arms. From the tuk-tuk drivers teaching you how to say thank you (korp-kOOn ka for a female), owners of the many restaurants taking one look at you and saying “I know what you need” to save you the 15 minutes of trying to decipher the thai menu, to the stray friendly dogs that just want a pat on the head, everyone in the village has a smile and a friendly word for you. Want to rent a scooter? Want a local cold thai coffee? Need directions to the many waterfalls? Need a western meal? Everyone from locals to tourists will help.
First piece of advice: rent a scooter. Second piece of advice: practice before you go through the mountains. The road by the Spicy Pai is actually a great place to practice. Not too much traffic, and a decent straightaway. The village itself is quite busy, but as long as you are confident, navigating is quite simple. After you are surefooted (ha-ha) on a scooter (or find someone who is and jump on the back!), start exploring the outskirts of Pai. The first place I would see is Pai Canyon. The views are astounding, and where you can take the token picture of everyone jumping in the air (and the one person who misses the cue). When I was there, there was also a dizzying walk across a crevice to take that daring photo on the other end. This view makes you appreciate exactly what the countryside of Thailand has to offer.
All of the hostels will offer maps of the waterfalls and hot springs surrounding Pai as well. Don’t exhaust yourself seeing these all in one day- the rentals on scooters end up being about $1 USD a day. Take your time exploring every nook and cranny. One of the waterfalls features a stone slide into a shallow pool, as well as plenty of space to sun yourself. This is also a great opportunity to meet more people, as everyone is staying in Pai since it’s the closest village for miles around. As you make your way back to Pai, just be wary of the stray dogs and chickens on the road. There’s no need to go walking around Pai for the remainder of your stay looking like a mummy from a motorbike fall. (You will be surprised as to how many people this happens to.) Also, beware of a small, wizened woman trying to flag motorcyclists down. She is not in trouble, just trying to sell opium.
The street food in Pai is unbelievable. Every night, on Pai Walking Steet, a night market opens up with ranges of food, clothing, and homemade goods. There is an array of different types of food: from chicken kebabs, tacos, to a delicious treat of banana, cheese, and nutella. It all ranges from 20 to 40 Baht, which is a cheap, flavorful dinner! Getting to know the vendors was fun too- they had plenty of stories they were willing to share, and after a few nights of visiting them, they always had a new treat for me to try.
Hidden down a side street is the burger joint. They offer traditional burgers for the homesick westerners, as well as crocodile, kangaroo, etc for the more daring. As you wander past the night market, Pai Walking Street curved right and there are many different sit down restaurants to choose from. The Steak House portrayed cowboys and the best steak in Pai. It also held a well kept secret: the best toilet in the village! Continuing further was another burger place ran by a man from the States. Great ambiance, and a good place to easena bunch of newcomers to Pai. For the end of the night, the bar Don’t Cry was the place to be. Hidden in the corner was a small grill and an even smaller woman that will whip you up the best bacon and egg sandwich you will ever have- in any country. You have to get there early though; the amount of time in which she ran out of bacon was incredible. If there was no bacon to be had, across the street from Don’t Cry a man runs a Pad Thai food truck, a close second for the late night hungry backpacker.
If all else fails, stop by the 7-11 on your way back to your hostel. Buy a ham and cheese toasty, and ask the person behind the counter to warm it up. Anyone you encounter that has been to Thailand will tell you- the 7-11 ham and cheese toasties held magical properties at 5am.
For a village so small, the nightlife was surprisingly busy. Most hostels in Pai have a 10pm “quiet time”, where you leave the hostel to let those who want to enjoy an early night (mostly unheard of!) in peace. Down past Pai Walking Street where it curves right to continue into town, you can opt to go left. There you cross a bridge to the Sunset Bar. The entire bar is made of thatch, and pillows and mats are strewn across different areas, where you can enjoy other’s company and plan more adventures for tomorrow. There is also a pool table, and small TV that was always on the football game, as I traveled during the 2014 World Cup.
Instead of crossing the bridge to Sunset Bar, sometimes we traveled through a patch of woods to the Circus Hostel. (Another great hostel to check out in Pai.) Every night, the backpackers who stayed there practiced the trade they were working on (hula hooping, juggling, fire tossing, etc) in front of an audience, and more often than not, offered to give you a try. They always fed us with a great buffet too!
To get the full Pai experience, I’d suggest exploring every bar for at least one drink. Try a mixed drink-any flavor- and you will be handed a bucket with 40 colorful straws shoved into it. Despite the look of it, it’s not made for sharing!
For the end of the night, Don’t Cry is the place where all the backpackers end up. Opened the latest, it’s the perfect place to close down your first night in Pai. Every night to be honest. Even the bartenders from the other bars end up here, as well as the locals. Packed with pillows and mats, a huge fire pit, and a secret entrance to an air conditioned club, you will not be looking around in awe for long. Pulled into the circle around the fire pit to tell your latest story, swing dancing with a group of English boys wanting to show off, or pulled into the dark, cool, club blasting air conditioning and Thai rap music alike, you will find backpackers that will make lifelong friends.
The Motto of Pai
With the recommendation of Pai always came something along the lines of “It’ll change you,” or “You’ll never want to leave.” I didn’t quite understand the heavy truth of this until I arrived in Pai. When I stumbled off that van, slightly carsick from the 762 turns and a lot heartsick from a recent breakup, I saw a huge stand of shirts proclaiming “Pai Mends A Broken Heart”. And did it ever. There is no way to truly convey on paper the wonders of Pai; how it sucks you in in the best possible way; how it changes your outlook on life; how it opens your eyes to a beautiful culture so different from so many others; and how it does indeed “mend a broken heart.”