The small town of Pai is not like any other town you may visit in Thailand. It has developed a unique and distinct character of its own, which is based on atmosphere rather than any special attractions. It has a remote location, not far from one of Thailand's most northern towns, Mae Hong Song, and next to the huge wilderness of the off-limits Shan State in Burma.
The town itself is situated in a mostly dry and flat area that looks similar to many other rural farming areas in this part of Thailand. Getting here is part of the fun as the narrow road winds over the top of some beautiful mountains. The forests are lush and dense, the temperature is cool and the vistas are truly breathtaking. Arriving in Pai makes you feel as though you have escaped the real world.
Pai joins many different types of people, from new age travelers through to those looking for some peace and relaxation. It's a far cry from the pollution and noise of Bangkok, or the upmarket hotels and commercialism of Phuket. There are none of the expensive and lavish resorts found elsewhere in Thailand.
The riverside bungalows here are the perfect place to stay and provide you with everything you need. The basic facilities and laid-back service are all part of the appeal, and the lack of development in the town has helped retain the chilled out reputation it has.
But do not be fooled in to thinking that there is not anything to do in Pai. There is a good choice of activities offered by numerous agents in the town including enduro motorcycle excursions, white-water rafting and trekking. If you do not want to be part of an organized group, then you can do your own thing by visiting Pai Canyon or by making a trip to the waterfall in the northwest of the town.
Another popular option is to rent a motorbike and cruise along some of the roads in the valley. The more adventurous might want to try some of the challenging off-road trails nearby. If, however, you just want to relax, then you will not be disappointed either. It's also worth taking the time to call in at the small elephant camp located a short distance from the town, and at the hot springs which are a great place to head to on a chilly winter morning.
Pai has a steady flow of visitors during the dry winter months when the weather is at its best. During the monsoon rains, tourist numbers drop and it's typically the backpackers that keep businesses tapping over. The town also has a small group of expats that have escaped their stress-filled lives in their native countries for something completely different. They somehow manage to get by with the odd bit of work and are happy to blend in with the local lifestyle.
Pai is not a place solely for foreigners as the Thais also are regular visitors. University students in particular enjoy the relaxed lifestyle and bohemian atmosphere, and they also benefit from the cheap lodgings and restaurants. Regular tour buses on their way to Mae Hong Song often call in for a brief stop.
If you have a limited amount of time and it's your first visit to the area, then it's a great way to experience this part of Northern Thailand. There is an established 'loop' that takes you to Pai, Mae Hong Song and returns to Chiang Mai via the southern approach and the impressive Doi Inthanon National Park.
There has been a steady rise in visitor numbers in Pai over the last several years, mainly due to its presence in various guide books and its establishment on the backpacker trail. The local people have benefited in many ways as they continue to build restaurants, bars, guesthouses and set up tour agencies. Fortunately, none of the international hotel groups have bought land or property in the area, so it retains a small town feel.
However, the old grass airport nearby has recently been paved, so it seems that that Pai will retain its special appeal forever. If you're planning a visit in the near future, then you will certainly enjoy the relaxed and laid back pace of life, beautiful scenery, traffic-free roads and the wide choice of great bars and restaurants.