Chiang Mai is the one of the best-known cities in Thailand, and regularly attracts thousands of visitors to the relaxing, chilled out, inviting atmosphere you’ll find here. It certainly doesn’t have a big city feel – no skyscrapers, no city buses, and, while there are plenty of people, it doesn’t feel especially crowded.
Nonetheless, for all its charms, Chiang Mai can sometimes seem too much for those who have come to Thailand to take a load off and relax, meditate and find some inner peace. For those seeking an escape from the city, even a temporary one, Pai is the place you want to go.
Located about a three and a half to four hour drive in the mountains north of Chiang Mai, Pai is a small town that has become a backpacker haven. There’s not much to do in Pai besides relax, get massages, hang out and reflect. Most of the major restaurants and bars are concentrated within a few blocks, so it’s easy to walk wherever you need to go. There is a nightly walking street where you can purchase lovely souvenirs such as didgeridoos, and handmade jewelry and clothing. You can also make a full meal out of all of the delicious foods sold from the street stands, including bruschetta, burritos, spicy sausage, ice cream, crepes and a smorgasbord of other tasty items.
There are a number of great restaurants in Pai, including several that specialize in Western foods. You can get pizza, pasta, burgers and some truly fantastic desserts just about anywhere you go.
You can rent a bungalow in Pai for as little as 100 baht (about $3 USD) in the low season. These are pretty spare rooms, but that adds to the charm. Most come equipped with a mosquito net, which is handy because those buggers are aggressive here. In some bungalow areas, you’ll find people often hanging out in their hammocks and playing music, and it’s easy to make friends.
If you’re feeling the urge to get out of the hammock and see more of the surrounding areas, rent a motorbike and take a tour of the gorgeous mountains. You can hang out at a waterfall or hot springs, and hike the Pai Canyon, which, while not impressive compared with the Grand Canyon, is quite beautiful. There’s also a land split – a farm land that was rendered mostly un-usable after it began to split – where you can relax and admire the gorgeous Thai countryside and enjoy complimentary snacks and fresh roselle juice. It’s all free, although a donation is suggested.
It’s understandable why Pai seems to attract many of the hippie or hardcore backpacker variety, although sometimes you do get the sense that some of the people visiting there are trying a bit too hard to make that their reality. But who can blame them – after all, isn’t it everyone’s dream to live in paradise and spend your days making art, philosophizing and enjoying good company?
If you’re in northern Thailand, do yourself a favor, take a load off and spend some time in Pai.