Back in December, on a long weekend, a few of my fellow foreign teacher friends attempted to travel to a small town in the northwest corner of Thailand. This small town is a popular travel destination for many westerners, and we were all intrigued to visit. However, those plans did not happen according to plan. Welcome to the life of a traveling English teacher in a foreign country.
Thankfully, as the school year ended, I knew I’d have a little gap before my friend from America was here for a week visit, and it was the perfect opportunity to take the crazy route from Lampang to the town of Pai. Haven’t heard of Pai? That’s okay. Let me summarize it for you…one word…TURNS.
No, I’m not being a smart ass. That’s truly the best word to describe Pai. Pai is known throughout the backpacking and traveling community for its turns. In fact, on the road from Chiang Mai to Pai (there is only one), there are 762 turns, and that is not an exaggeration.
Side Note: If you can any type of motion sickness, then I HIGHLY advise you to take a lot of medicine. I don’t usually get motion sickness, but I took some anyway because I’ve heard horror stories from other travelers.
Pai is apparently, also known for a few other things among the backpacking community, though I didn’t know much about these factors before I arrived, I learned very quickly what those “things” are.
It has a hippie, laid back vibe with an active nightlife- party scene, that goes into the early morning (if you know the right place to go). It has a history of sucking in travelers who extended their stays, sometimes days others weeks or months. The drug scene, although quiet, is present more than any other place I’ve been to in Thailand, and Pai is home to the “Happy Shake” or “Magic Shake,” and NO, I’m not going to go into details.
Where to Stay
This is such a hard thing to narrow down. Pai is filled with a variety of options for the budget backpacker or traveler. It was really a struggled to find a place to stay. I wasn’t sure what vibe I was looking for which made the options endless.
There was an option to stay in a beautiful hostel on the outskirts of town called Deejai Pai Backpackers. I could have stayed at the largest party hostel called “The Famous Pai Circus Hostel.“
I wasn’t sure if I was ready for the quietness that Deejai was offering with its location. But, I also wasn’t sure I was ready for a full blown party hostel. From what I have been told the party can last into the early morning hours.
Ultimately, I chose to stay at Common Grounds Hostel. It’s a social/chill hostel right in the heart of town, just off the main road from walking street. I’m really happy I chose to not go the distance or party-style because I really needed the time to take a step back and pause.
I was coming off of my first semester teaching and needed some quiet time to reflect. Common Grounds was the best place for this. I could hide in the corner and do some work. Then when I was ready, I could join in the conversation at one of the tables. I could veg in a hammock and read or play pool with other hostel mates. I was really happy with this selection, but again, most hostels are going to offer a little something for everyone.
Eating in Pai
In Pai, one thing I learned quickly is that I would NEVER go hungry or thirsty. Countless restaurants, cafes, and food stands throughout the small town covered the streets! Pai’s food scene was definitely on point, especially since the combination of western foods and Thai food make “What do I want to eat?” the hardest decision of the day.
One of the best sandwiches, I think I have had in a VERY, VERY long time was at this amazing little diner place called Cafe de Pai! I mean it was a stuffed grilled cheese, not much could beat that! Their food was SO GOOD, my friends and I went back multiple times. Sandwiches, salads, breakfast, oh my!
I also ate Mexican food, for only about the second time since moving to Thailand and a small place called BaanSuan. It was exactly what I needed. It’d had been months since I indulged in Mexican food. Well worth it!
Smoothies were pretty much a daily occurrence. They were so easy to come across. I could walk down walking street anytime during the day and would have more than my fair share of choices. You do have to be careful, as if you don’t ask, they will put simple syrup into every smoothie. Thankfully, I learned quickly how to order them without sugar. Mai Sai or Mai Wan- helpful phrases!
Okay, enough about food. Let’s get into the fun, adventurous things my friends and I did in Pai, all via Motorscooters.
Driving and exploring by motor scooter is THE thing to do. Many travelers drive scooters from Chiang Mai to Pai, making the 762 turn journey. Two of my friends (who I didn’t know were coming to Pai at the same time) made the journey by scooter. They used the company AYA, who will take your luggage by van for you, so you don’t have to worry about your bag during the drive. However, if you choose to forgo that option, as I did, there are a variety of options to rent once you arrive in Pai. It’s the best way to see the sights.
Plus, renting a scooter in Pai is very budget friendly, many places charge about 140 baht a day. Since my friends both already had their scooters, and I feel more comfortable driving my own bike vs. being a passenger, I went ahead and rented one too! Also, crashing in Pai is a common thing so no way my friends and I were going to put ourselves at risk.
There were several different “Things to See” that were pretty easy to get to with the scooters, and my friends and I didn’t waste anytime exploring these places!
What to do In Pai
1. Sai Ngam Hot Springs
The first place my two friends and I decided to venture too was one of two different hot springs in Pai called Sai Ngam. It’s located about 11 km north from the Pai city center along the main highway and is easily, and I emphasis easily, doable by motorscooter.
The journey took us about an hour and a half and the drive was stunning! My friend Alicia was our leader, and once we turned off the main highway, we follow a very narrow two-lane road until the very end. The hot spring is on national park/forest land, so it did cost 220 baht to enter, and an additional 20 baht but I truly felt it was worth it!
Now, the word HOT might be slightly deceiving, as I wouldn’t necessarily call these Hot Springs, more like Warm Spring, but at this point in Thai weather I didn’t want them “hot,” so “warm” springs were perfect for my friends and me!
In fact, we ended up enjoying the hot spring for nearly two hours. We just sat there and talked the entire time. It was beyond relaxing, and if you like to be surrounded by warm water, I highly recommend a visit to the hot springs.
On our way home from the hot springs, we decided to take a little detour to some overlook I saw a sign for on the side of the road. Not going to lie, it was a great detour! It took us through this really cool little Chinese influenced village, up an extremely steep hill, to a dirt lot with a beautiful view. It was the perfect end to our day.
2. Lod Cave
Next on our Tour de Pai, was this cave we all read about, Lod Cave or Tham Lod. Lod Cave isn’t the only cave in the province, but it’s diffidently the largest, and we knew we wanted to go. We soon found out that it’s quite a trek to get to with over 300 turns, but the drive is extremely peaceful and beautiful! It took us about 2 hours to get there, and even though we didn’t leave until mid-morning, it wasn’t very busy (thank you off-season travel).
Once at the cave, you have to get a tour guide. It was 450 baht for up to 3 people, which in reality is a good price for a tour guide and it was nice that there were only three of us in our group, so we didn’t need to split up. Now, these tour guides don’t necessarily know how to speak English, but luckily, ours knew a few basic words and was able to point out some of the “landmark” rock formations, but don’t worry, there are also several signs throughout the caves too, which have some information on them.
Inside the caves, we followed a set path with our guide in the lead. The path takes you up and down several different “pockets” and includes a bamboo boat ride. You can choose to feed the fish that swim extremely close to the boat, but we passed. Still, the fish are so trained that the boats mean food and they will swim directly next to the boat.
Our cute little tour guide found out we were teachers, so for part of the tour, we counted, in Thai from 1-200. She was making sure we even were getting the right tone. It was a sweet memory from the tour. The whole tour lasts about an hour and a half, maybe slightly longer, but it’s worth a visit, both the drive there and the cave itself. I enjoyed myself on this adventure, and I think my friends did too!
When we returned from the cave, we ended up deciding to go out (a little harder than anticipated) with several of the people I met at Common Grounds (the hostel I stayed at). It was such a fun night out, but because of that it meant our next day was a little less exploration than we originally planned!
3. Pai Canyon
Pai Canyon was a mere 30 minutes (if that), drive from the heart of Pai and absolutely worth it. We were told to arrive early, as this is a popular sunset destination for travelers and backpackers alike, and I’m so glad we did. The sunset was spectacular and a perfect end to my 5-day Pai Adventure.
Overall, I was pleased that I chose Pai as the starting point of my 6-week backpacking/traveling adventure around Southeast Asia. Between the food, the adventures, and the countless amount of new friends I made, this town really had it all: relaxation, adventure, and a social atmosphere, truly a beautiful place!
4. Drink Coffee with Bunnies
This was one of those places my friend and I just sort of stumbled upon. It was an amazing find. It’s called the Rabbit Cafe and it’s right on the main bar street. You can literally sit at a table with beautifully, soft bunnies just sitting there.
One of the employees told us that the rabbits come from a local farm and they rotate them to keep them safe. I’m not sure if they are for sale or adoption, but either way, it was an experience drinking coffee with bunnies. They were SO soft.
Things I Missed in Pai
I wasn’t able to see everything there is to see in Pai, even with 5 days. I didn’t want to leave out a few popular destinations, I have been told about, just because I didn’t actual go see them.
There are several waterfalls located around Pai and the surrounding villages. There is Mo Paeng Waterfall, Pambok Waterfall, and Mae Yen Waterfall. Just to name a few.
It’s not that I just didn’t go see the waterfalls on purpose. I normally love waterfalls, however, when I visited Pai it was March. This means dry season and in Thailand dry season means DRY season. The waterfalls weren’t much of falls more of trickles or completely dried up. That is why I decided to skip them.
2. The Land Split
It also meant not driving out to the Land Split because a waterfall wasn’t on the other end. The Land Split is literally just that, a split in the land.
If you’re heading to Pambok Waterfall, you might as well take a pit stop and look at natural occurring split in the land. It was caused by earthquakes and naturally occurring erosion. The owner of the land has since capitalized on the concept, since so many tourist and travelers make their way to Pambok Waterfall.
3. Big White Buddha
Perched on the side of a mountain, Wat Phra That Mae Yen is a popular destination for the sunrise or sunset. You can climb the 353 stairs to the top and visit the Big White Buddha with amazing views of Pai, Thailand and the villages in by. It’s pretty easy to get to from town. Did I mention the view is suppose to be amazing? I’d add this to the list if you head to Pai.
4. Enjoy Coffee at Coffee In Love
Northern Thailand has a thing with really good coffee. Pai is no exception. There are countless coffee shops located within the city center. But if you have a scooter, head to Coffee in Love, a cafe with a view.
5. Love Strawberry Pai
I’m seriously mad I missed this location, but be advised Strawberry season is November to January/February. If you go out of this season, you might not get the fresh, fresh strawberries.