Three hours and 762 curves north of Chiang Mai will lead you to the hill hidden hippie haven known as Pai.
Although the winding bus ride to Pai is nauseating and somewhat akin to deep space G-force training, it is a worthwhile journey.
The town sits a on a picturesque background of farmland and mountain terrain. Despite it’s small size, the peaceful town has a lot to offer tourists. We only meant to stay in Pai for two days, but ended up reluctantly leaving after four.
Since we have so many fond memories of this sleepy mountain town, I wanted to share our experiences with you guys, and give you some ideas of what to do, should you ever end up in this sleepy mountain town.
Hike Pai Canyon
Just outside the main area of town is a roadside pull marked by a small wooden sign and bike shelter. Pull off and follow the cement path walking path up to the top of the canyon. The view is spectacular, an eyeful mix of high green hills, and desert-like dusty rock paths. Climb around and explore the trails if you are feeling adventurous. Everywhere you look is a sight to behold, and there is even an old wooden bridge at the bottom of one of the trails that looks like it is straight off the set from Raiders of the Lost Ark.
A word of caution though, wear a hat that will keep the sun from scorching your face. When we were there it was 90 degrees F plus, and there isn’t much cover between you and the big open sky.
Visit Circus School
The Circus School offers bungalows at a cheap price, but even if you don’t stay there, this zany spot is a must-visit destination.
The Circus School offers crash courses on, you guessed it, basic Barnum and Baily Circus talents like juggling, tightrope-walking, and unicylcing, just to name a few. But even if you don’t decide to study hard in the clown curriculum, become a proud graduate of circus school, abandon your current career path, and travel the globe with your newly developed skillsets, watching people repeatedly tumble off a unicycle is a titillating pleasure that, if given the chance, everyone should indulge in.
Did I mention they have a bar, and an infinity pool?
The Circus School is situated on a hillside that looks down into a valley. Unicycle there at early dusk, and catch an amazing view of the sunset from the pool.
Grab an organic snack where the land has cracked
A couple of kilos outside of town is a really small lake where you can find tons of locals barbequing, fishing off handmade boats, blaring Thai music, drinking and having a good time. If you’re not weirded out by being the only foreigner at the lake, it’s fun to walk around and smash glasses together with all the Thais.
Directly across the street from this lake is an odd gem in Pai, known as the Land Crack. A man and his family lived on the piece of land for a long time. One day, with no geological warning, he woke up to find a huge crack right down the middle of his property. The crack in the Earth caused the man’s farm quite a bit of problems, and became a huge set back. Eventually, he opened his farm as a tourist destination to show off the unique geological anomaly, and he slowly grew his farm back to health. Now you can visit his farm, and he will feed you banana chips, papaya, tamarind, roselle liqueur & juice, vibrant jam, and sweet potatoes, all grown organically on his farm.
The taste is phenomenal, and oh yeah, the whole spread is completely free. There’s a donation box if you want to give some money, but the man never even mentioned the donation box the entire time he was serving us fresh food.
Make sure you sign one of the many guest books, and if you happen to come across my blurb or Krissy’s blurb, take a picture and post it in the comment section! We’d be delighted.
Do the open mic at Edible Jazz
Although the nightlife is relatively quiet in Pai, Edible Jazz is a bar on one of the side alleys off the main street, and it has a rocking open mic. Ok, so maybe not rocking… the vibe is actually pretty mellow, but when we were there, tons of travelers from all different homes with all different musical styles and influences, sang their hearts out on the stage, and it was a joy to experience.
Don’t worry if you left your guitar at home, they have an in-house guitar and they don’t mind if you pluck it. They also have really strong, cheap bucket drinks. So, swallow a passionfruit bucket of courage (& vodka), and sing your heart out.
Natural Hot Springs-Huai Nam Deng
As if the other stuff on this list didn’t already prove Pai to be a hot spot, even Mother Nature gave it the thumbs up, as just a little bit outside of town is Huai Nam Deng, home of several natural hot springs.
There’s a small fee to enter the park, but it is 100% worth it. Once inside the park, it is a really short hike through Autumnesque wooded trails that lead to the hot springs. There are three sections, each one of them swimmable, and each one hotter than the next.
Supposedly there are holistic healing qualities to the naturally sulfuric water, but all I can say is that it felt damn good soaking my bones in that toasty natural hot tub.
If you get burnt out (get it!) on chilling in the springs, walk past the initial springs, and follow the trail around a short wooded hike that goes past another grouping of hot springs that are too hot to swim in.
Huai Nam Deng is an awesome stop, especially if you have been on the go for a few days and need some relaxin’ and maxin’ time.
Feel like you’re lost on the way to the Pai Viewpoint.
I saved my favorite memory of Pai for the last segment on the list– when we tried to make it to the Pai Viewpoint.
We started the mission by taking our rented Scoopy scooter down some poorly maintenanced roads, a few kilos outside of town to a small waterfall hike. The waterfall hike was pretty sweet, but nothing compared to the adventure that would follow.
Just outside the hike was a huge sign that read Pai Viewpoint. We went with our gut, and decided to follow the sign. Poorly maintenanced roads turned into questionable gravel lanes, then dilapidated wooden bridges over small creeks, dirt paths, and finally steep rocky inclines with seemingly no evidence that a road had ever existed.
Each time we felt like we had gone too far, and that our rental bike would break down and strand us in the middle of the Thai wilderness to be eaten alive by poisonous snakes and bugs, a small wooden sign with worn letters would taunt us, reading that the viewpoint was just a few kilos further.
There were points where the hills were so steep only one of us could be on the bike, and in order to drive it up the hill, we had to zig zag back in forth in a slow determined struggle. At any moment, I expected the front wheel to fly off, and roll down the jagged terrain.
After steadily climbing higher and higher into hills, we eventually reached the path that leads to the viewpoint, and much to our dismay, the path was closed. After an hour and a half of the most intense off-road scootering I had ever survived, we were stopped just short of our destination.
In a frustrated haze of denial and determination, we abandoned our bike at the bottom of the trail, and attempted to march straight up the almost 90 degree 4 kilo long trail to the top. Less than a kilo in, and the death defying trip downward still in the back of our minds, we decided that our pilgrimage had to come to an end.
But the journey was far from in vain. We had experienced the true beauty of rural northern Thailand, water buffalos crossing dirt paths, farmers clad in giant sunhats sickling at tall crops, groupings of small thatched houses, and confused smiles from the locals we passed by. I was also convinced that after the knuckle-shaking dive down the hills, I had mastered the Scoopy motorbike.
Our failure to reach Pai viewpoint was my absolute favorite memory of the trip, and I recommend that anyone who heads out that way rent a motorbike, and allow yourself get lost in the sweeping green hills.
Here’s a few pics from the journey.