Pai, pronounced “Bai”, is a tiny town surrounded by natural beauties in northern Thailand. Travelers often come to Pai after Chiang Mai and some never leave; it’s an easy place to stay.
When I first came in Pai in 2010, I was a bit turned off by it and was happy to leave after two nights. It was my first time abroad and I was inundated with tourists. There are times you forget you’re in Thailand and I was seeking for something different at that point.
This time around, however, something clicked. I had to put it aside that yes, lots of tourists go to Pai and most businesses are catered toward us. See past that, however, and you’ll find that it’s actually a wonderful place to be surrounded by like-minded individuals, treat your body well, relax, and take it slow. I wouldn’t recommend staying long in Pai if you’re after a more “authentic” experience in Thailand. Through all of my travels, I’ve learned that touristy places truly does represent the current culture of a place. After all, I am a tourist.But there is a limit on how many places like that I can handle.
We arrived thinking we would stay for two days or so, but that extended to ten. The first day was spent touring around the area on a scooter, visiting the highly trafficked spots (Mo Paeng waterfall, Buddha on the hill, Pai Canyon, etc). One or two days of that was enough. I won’t go into many details here because it’s easy to find that information on the web as these attractions are no secret, but I’ll post some photos. The countryside is gorgeous and one must step outside of the town and explore via bicycle or motorbike. If you want more details on how to get there, please comment below.
The rest of our time was spent attending meditation sessions, enjoying scenic bicycle rides, eating clean whole foods, listening to live music and poets perform while sipping on tea, and most importantly, constantly bumping into the same friends we’ve acquired throughout the week.
Making friends kept us there longer. After a while, it felt like we lived there. Since the town is so small, we always saw the people we befriended every day without really planning on it. I liked the small town feel.
In Pai, we challenged ourselves and tried new things. Inspired by the performers at open mic at Art in Chai, I began doodling mandalas and bought a harmonica to learn an instrument. It’s been a few months since I’ve created something and I forgot how therapeutic it is. For the first two months of travel, I usually reached for my Kindle and read during down time. Don’t get me wrong, reading is wonderful! But it’s just as important to actively create something than passively intake others’ words. In Pai, I put the books down and challenged myself to create and express myself. I’ve since began doodling more mandalas and sent them to people around the world for free via CREATE and GIFT.
On the second night, we met Joy. Her outgoing personality matches her name. Adam and her were connected by mutual friends for several years and they happened to catch that they’re both in Pai via social media. I’m glad we met her. She introduced us to Stephen, who has been living in Pai for the past year running an online clothing company, Illusion Ends, and selling homemade leather bags. The four of us conversed over some of the freshest foods I’ve consumed in Thailand. I would highly recommend eating at The Link, a low-key restaurant/guesthouse near the airport. The owner is an amiable woman who puts her soul into growing food and treating her guests like family. She is also a natural medicine wonder woman!
We ended up going to Stephen’s house/office where he taught us how to make our own leather goods. His home is stunning. I’m frankly inspired by his moving to Thailand and doing what he loves.
I’ve dabbled with practicing meditation for years, but never committed to regular sessions. Who knew sitting still could be so hard? In Pai, there are plenty of ways to learn about different kinds of meditation from free sessions to week-long retreats.
One evening, Joy brought us to a free meditation session. The bicycle ride was hilly and a bit tiring, but it wasn’t bad in the cool evening air among the rice fields. The session was at an Australian couple’s gorgeous home on a hill.
For the first few minutes, we listened to music, closed our eyes, and danced. Letting go of feelings of silliness and just moving your body how it wants to move felt rejuvenating. Although I’ve had my moments in college, I was never one to go dancing, especially without sucking down a few drinks. I’m quite terrible at rhythm even though I was a gymnast for the better part of my life. But in that moment, I didn’t care how dumb I looked. Why should I care when the others in the room also don’t care how my flailing arms and uncoordinated feet looked? Releasing those inhibitions was freeing.
We then sat to meditate, focusing on the third eye. The entrancing music helped me focus because otherwise, I have to try hard to push away thoughts. After the session, Frank talked about the introspection in his soothing voice. We shared our feelings and experiences in the safe setting. If you’re interested in this meditation session and other services and retreats they offer, check out their website: Awaken-Love.
The other meditation classes were at The Good Life, a relaxed restaurant serving homemade kombucha, kefir, decent food, and various kinds of tea. Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, there is a free meditation class at 11am. I went twice and it was the same exact thing both times, so I am not sure if the sessions are the same or vary each time. I wrote about my experience of letting go of thoughts here.
There is also the Open Mind Centre that offers meditation and retreats as well.
Where to Eat in Pai
Pai attracts a youthful crowd interested in natural healing. Nothing better than preventative medicine – eating well! In Pai, you can nourish your body well. Many of the restaurants serve up foods using local organic ingredients. Here are some of the spots I recommend, especially if you’re a vegetarian.
Earth Tone: Get your fill on tempeh, homemade waffles and ice cream, bountiful salads and sandwiches. There’s an attached shop for teas, kombucha, kimchi, natural soaps, bean salad, raw vegan desserts, and a plethora of other goodies. Highly recommend.
Chew Xin Jai: This no-frills pure vegetarian restaurant is perfect for a super cheap lunch. Get a plate of rice and pile on scoops of the various veggie dishes for mere pennies. I particularly fancy the pumpkin curry. Look out for the yellow signs.
The Good Life: If you don’t feel like making your way to Earth Tone, The Good Life is conveniently located in town serving up a variety of teas as well as homemade kombucha and kefir. We didn’t sample much of their food, but the Thai dish I did have was just mediocre. Relaxing environment though. You can participate in a fermentation workshop as well.
Fat Cat: Our friend raved that this joint serves up the best veggie burgers. We pulled up on bicycles but were disappointed that they were out of stock for the day. We settled on a kombucha and fruit/yogurt/museli dish, which came out wrong a few times for me. Make sure to ask what ingredients are available at the time. I was disappointed that the promise of cashews, pumpkin, and black sesame seeds weren’t delivered.
Art in Chai: A nice spot to sip on tea while journaling or browsing through one of the many books on the shelf. The brownie is particularly yummy, but they unfortunately don’t have a means to warm it up for you. There’s live music regularly and open mic every Thursday. Don’t miss it! If you have a story, a poem, a song, or anything you want to share, that’s the place to do so. The talent was frankly inspiring and entertaining.
Charlie and Lek: High quality dishes with fresh ingredients. We shared a phad thai made with zucchini noodles, a nice break from the carb filled rice variety. The sunflower salad was also delightfully spicy and fresh.
Na’s Kitchen: Service is a bit slow because it’s such a popular place and she makes all food fresh, so it’s worth it. The curries are noteworthy.
Night Market Street Food
Every night, the main road turns into a night market.
Vegetarian Wraps: The very end of the road has some of the best treats. Don’t miss the vegetarian wraps, loaded with fresh veggies, peanut sauce, sesame seeds, sometimes avocado/corn/melon, all squeezed inside a rice paper. It’s a huge spring roll for 40 baht. Lines can get long because she makes them one at a time. Her samosas are also decent.
Indian Food Stand: It wasn’t impressive to me as I had recently been to India, but other people were pleased with the food. We tried a veggie wrap with dahl.
Grandma’s Pancakes: The one and only pancake lady serves up actual pancakes, not the over fried crepe-like ones you get in Laos. The woman is really sweet; talk to her like your own grandma!
Miss Brownie: There is a brownie stall at the night market called “Miss Brownie” or something along those lines. Just a warning: they’re kind of dry. Better to get your fix at Art in Chai.
There’s lots of options at the night market – the above were just a few that stood out!
Nightlife in Pai
I’m not one to go out partying, but there isn’t much of a scene for that anyway in Pai. It’s more of a place to hang out with a few beers. Spirit Bar on the main strip is a cool place. Look out for the lights down an alley and a long-haired dude beckoning people to enter. Sunset Bar is a place to relax and be happy, if you will. Easy Garden, across from Art in Chai, is a nice place with live music. There’s also a hole-in-the-wall punk bar which drew me in as he was blasting music from my high school years (Streetlight Manifesto, anyone?).
Where to sleep in Pai
There’s plenty of accommodation for every kind of budget. After walking around the main area with our backpacks, we eventually settled on a room at Duang Guesthouse. The basic room with just a bed and shared bathroom is a steal at 200 baht (aboug 6 USD) a night for two people. The best part was our porch on the second floor. If you want to stay in a quiet area, cross the river and have your pick from the many bungalows. Some are dirt cheap, for 100 baht a bungalow. Don’t expect much, though. Don’t worry about accommodation in Pai; there are plenty to choose from. I would recommend just showing up and seeing for yourself rather than booking ahead.
Getting Around Pai
One nice thing about Pai is that we were not offered a tuk tuk once. This is a rarity in Thailand. Most people opt to get around themselves via motorbike. A scooter should cost at least 140 baht per day. Be sure to inquire about insurance and helmets. Take photos of the bike before you set off. I first learned how to drive a scooter in 2010 in Pai. It is a pretty safe place to learn, but keep in mind you are not invincible. We saw loads of tourists walking around with bandages from scooter injuries.
Bicycles should cost about 50 baht for 24 hours. Get a lock. The ride to Pai Canyon is rewarding but riddled with hills. I would recommend a nicer mountain bike over the cruiser I rented.
When your time in Pai is just about over, you can head to Mae Hong Son or Chiang Mai. Mini vans to Chiang Mai are 150 baht per person and it will take about 3-4 hours. Load up on Dramamine if you’re prone to car sickness, but I’m sure you will have found out from the ride there in the first place.
*One more tip in Pai! There are white maps with a booklet of information, events calendar, workshops, etc. around town. Be sure to get your hands on one!
People either love it or hate it. What do you think about Pai?