I’d read about Pai and been told by people who had been there before that it was an amazing place for a real escape from the city: backpacker’s paradise. I was very excited to get a true taste of an off the beaten track, mountainous Northern Thai town and get a chance to explore the jungle and its natural beauty. Pai really is off the beaten track though. You take a three-hour bus ride from Chiang Mai on an extremely windy, steep and treacherous pass. This makes it a real detour as you have to pass through Chiang Mai each time. Trying to plan the transport to get there proved to be really tricky but I was determined to make the trip. It sounded amazing!
The drive to Pai was an experience in itself. We wound round countless hairpin bends as we climbed ever higher into the misty jungle mountains. As we left the city the banana trees grew in abundance and the lush hills boasted papaya trees heavy with ripe fruit. Upon arrival finding our accommodation proved to be impossible as google maps didn’t seem to have the correct location for Easy Guesthouse Pai. It got darker and my panic began to reach a climax as each person we asked didn’t seem to know the guesthouse’s whereabouts. We eventually got another guesthouse to call them and they said they’d come and fetch us. Two people arrived on some sketchy looking scooters. I don’t how, but each scooter somehow managed to carry two people plus our bulky backpacks and small hand luggage backpacks. Needless to say we breathed great sighs of relief once we had checked in and were safe inside our room.
Feeling a little out of sorts and irritable we decided we’d better go check out Pai’s walking street to lift our spirits. And lift our spirits it did! The street is lined with vendors selling anything and everything from fruit to kebabs to thai dishes to sushi to fruit shakes to coconut ice cream. We sampled bits here and there and looked at the beautiful clothing stalls. The street was buzzing with energy but wasn’t overcrowded or overwhelming. It was wonderful! For supper we had the most delicious coconut cream mango shakes and Phad Thai. After just one evening in Pai it was very apparent that this is a hippie town where travelers come and don’t seem to leave. There are more foreign locals than anyone else. The vibe is laid back and nobody does anything in a hurry.
After a good night’s sleep we felt rejuvenated and ready to check out what Pai had to offer. I’d read about a hike that you can do to the Mae Yen waterfall and was keen to check out the surrounds. However it seemed that just the start of the trail was far away and couldn’t be reached on foot and everything else we wanted to see was too far to walk to. The lady running our guesthouse suggested we hire scooters as this is the best way to see Pai and its surrounds. Neither Nic or I have ever ridden a motorbike before and the stats of how many bike accidents there are in Thailand are too many to comprehend. Not to mention what our mother would think. But it seemed unless we were happy coming all this way to Pai and just staying in our room, there wasn’t really another option. So we did it. We hired a scooter and the knot in my tummy tightened.
We both gave it a little go up and down our street and without out much confidence made a jerky, wobbly start in the general direction we thought to be right. Getting out of the town was a bit of a nightmare but once we got past that the roads became quieter and we became slightly more comfortable with the bike. We didn’t really know where we were going but reasoned that as long as we saw a bit of nice scenery, it would be worth it. The farmlands were beautiful with fields that hold rice paddies in the rainy season, banana trees and papaya trees.
We came across the most random Chinese village. A very manicured oasis with bridges over rivers, ladies dressed in traditional outfits, archery fields and a structure resembling the Great Wall of China. It was quite strange and felt rather out-of-place but it was interesting nonetheless.
We continued our journey and found the Yun Lai viewing point. This had stunning panoramic views of Pai with the jungle covered mountains and endless horizons. Pai may have been out of my comfort zone but it definitely was beautiful.
After taking in the stunning vista we crawled down the steep hill at snail speed hoping that we’d maintain our balance. We did and everything was alright for us to carry on in the direction of the Mohr Paeng waterfall. We seemed to be relaxing into this now and aside from the still anxious knot, we were beginning to really enjoy ourselves. Our tummies were grumbling and, so we stopped at a solitary restaurant far from any village. The lady was so kind and friendly, just like all the Thai people we have met along the way. They truly are a nation of happy, smiling people. We enjoyed delicious curries and Phad Thai. It was wonderful to relax and eat in nature. Just a few minutes’ drive brought us to the waterfall. We parked our scooters and clambered through the trees and bamboo to get to a beautiful waterfall with brown pools set against the rolling hills and jungle. People swam in the cool pools while others slide down the slippery rocks of the waterfall to land gracefully (or not) into the pool below. We relaxed here for a few hours just basking in the natural beauty of it all. We were glad we’d come to Pai and we were glad we’d rented the scooter.
We made our way back home through more gorgeous fields and spent the rest of the afternoon making the most of Pai’s chilled out environment to just relax and catch up with ourselves. Later we enjoyed another evening in the town experiencing walking street. Souvenirs were bought and street food was had. We ended off the evening at the local music spot: Mojo. Here we watched the extremely hipster Thai people running our guesthouse rock out to bluesy jazz tunes. Pai, what a weird and wonderful place you are!
For our final morning in Pai we decided against getting back on the scooter. We’d made it this far unscathed and didn’t want to jinx it. Instead we decided to take a walk across the river to the white Buddha on the hill. We made our way up a long staircase to a temple which led to another monstrous staircase to the Buddha on the hill. The views were once again spectacular. On our way back we found a spot to just sit back and relax in hammocks for a while. So wonderful to just put our feet up and sway back and forth while admiring Pai’s tropical jungle.
After a lovely lunch we went back and packed up then took the bus back to Chiang Mai. We had a few hours in Chiang Mai before our overnight bus to Bangkok. We were pretty bummed that we’d be spending New Years on a bus but because we had chosen to go to Pai this seemed to be the only option. We did however have some time in the evening in Chiang Mai before our bus to Bangkok. We arrived at the river and ate supper before going to check out the magic happening outside. Countless beautiful white fire lanterns were being let off on the banks of the river. We sat fully laden with our backpacks and watched the beauty happen as hundreds of lanterns lit up the night’s sky like stars. Magic, pure magic.
Travelling is incredible and an experience that truly grows and challenges you. But one thing is for sure: it definitely isn’t all glamorous!
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