Pai wasn’t a destination on our original travel plan, in fact it wasn’t even a destination I had heard of before we started traveling, but as we spoke to others who were exploring northern Thailand it seemed everyone was recommending a trip to Pai. The unanimous praise and love for this northern town intrigued us and so we decided to tweak the itinerary and make our way to Pai.
The moment of horror and panic as I witnessed Russell being thrown off an elephant, a very big elephant I might add, more on that story later…
Visiting the beautiful natural hot springs 🙂
Pai (pronounced pie, like meat and potato pie) is a small town in the mountains of northern Thailand, close to the boarder of Myanmar. Once a sleepy and remote Shan town, Pai became a popular destination on many travelers “to do list” list about 15 years ago and since then the tourism has poured in. Once a tourist free, quiet town it is now almost a backpacking rite of passage. It’s about 150km from Chiang Mai so for us this meant a 4 hour minivan ride.
THE LONG ROAD TO PAI
The road to Pai is not only long its also very steep and quite possibly the windiest road known to man. Seriously, the curves and bends along this route are never ending and as the journey continues, higher and higher, those terrifying twists and turns just get sharper and even more hair raising. It’s not a journey for those who suffer with motion sickness, or for those who are hungover. One of our fellow passengers discovered this the hard way as he vomited into an empty 7-11 bag during a particularly bad bend in the road…. I think he might have had a few too many the night before.
Full respect to all you hardcore back packers out there who do this journey on a motorbike…you are very brave, mental, but brave!
If you can stomach the helter skelter style road then you will love this journey as there are some gorgeous mountain views to take in along the way.
Eventually the twisty, elevated mountain roads came to end and we were on Pai Walking Street.
IMPRESSIONS OF PAI
With the river running through the town and the mountain backdrop there is no denying that the scenery of Pai is spot on.
The town itself appears almost as if it was built specifically with back packers in mind. The streets are filled with launderettes, numerous travel agents where you can arrange day trips, cafes, bars, souvenir shops, a few second hand book stores, (great for getting rid of your old lonely planet guides and grabbing a new one for your next stop) budget guesthouses, motor bike rental services and hairdressers specialising in dreadlocks.
While all of the above may be present in many tourist areas of Thailand, in others areas you also see a slice of residential life or local culture but that seems to be missing here in Pai. There doesn’t even appear to be a great number of locals about and the tourists out number the Thais significantly. It is hard to imagine the town 15 years ago before the tourism began to pour in.
It is a real back packer hub and most people you meet here are on a long term travel break and not a fortnight away from home. The hippie vibe is strong and there is a definite Pai uniform of dreadlocks, elephant print baggy trousers and friendship bracelets.
It is a very chilled out place by day and generally people don’t come here to do full on days of sight seeing; or lots of activities beyond eating, drinking and napping, but more so to relax in a very beautiful place. For those who get bored of this there are activities and attractions in the surrounding countryside but not in the town of Pai itself.
There is also the option of cruising along the river on a bamboo raft, we booked to do this but unfortunately had to cancel due to bad weather.
WHAT WE DID IN PAI
Natural Hot Springs – This was my favorite day in Pai 🙂 Trekking up to the natural hot springs where you can wander around the springs and natural rock pools and even have a swim in some of them.
As you go uphill the springs get hotter and hotter (don’t swim in these ones for obvious reasons) and you are invited to purchase an egg which you can boil in certain pools, but not all of them so watch out for the signs.
After climbing all the way to the top springs we enjoyed strolling back down before another swim in the lower (and cooler) pools.
Wandering around the streets of Pai – Pai is not a very big place and with all the action basically revolving around 3 main streets you can probably cover the whole of the centre in under half an hour.
We enjoyed just mooching around the town checking out the coffee shops whilst people (hippie) watching before heading down to the river, exploring the waterfront area and crossing the rickety (and slightly scary) bamboo bridges.
Pai Walking Street Market
Every early evening the two busiest main roads are officially closed to traffic, although you do still get a fair number of motorbikes whizzing up and down, and the stalls are set for the Pai night market.
Keeping in line with the hippie theme of the town you can find some really kitsch and quirky products and stalls along here as well as a handful of the usual Thailand souvenirs. Various food stalls also set up selling everything from Indian snacks to Pizzas and burgers and, of course, traditional Thai cuisine. There are also various live music performances along the road, including reggae bands and acoustic guitar performances.
Pai Night Life – For a small place Pai has plenty of night time entertainment and along the main roads there are plenty of bars and pubs. Pai may be sleepy by day but as the sun sets it really comes to life. Many of drinking places have live music performances with reggae bands and jazz bands being a big favorite. The hippie/ backpacker atmosphere is reflected into the night time scene so it’s the not the kind of place where you will find posh cocktail bars but more informal and basic, but quirky pubs. Our favorite was What What bar.
It all shuts down along the main roads before midnight but if you are not ready for home there is a “secret” after hours bar named Cozy Space. Not really a secret as every backpacker in town knows about it but it is hidden away down an alleyway (sounds dodgy but I promise it is not!)
The alleyway leads to small open air venue which keeps going until about 2am.
Elephant Camp – If you ever find yourself in Pai DO NOT visit the Karen Elephant camp. In fact after doing research on various elephant camps in Thailand I would probably recommend not visiting any as there are many stories of animal cruelty and mistreatment. Of course it is a personal choice and anyone reading this who has their heart set on elephant activities I recommend checking out this Adore Animals webpage for information on ethical elephant experiences.
Arriving at the camp I knew straight away that it was not a nice place. The poor elephants were chained by their foot to posts to restrict their movements and were kept in a tiny cramped space. It was heart breaking to see them like that and it was at that point I had doubts about getting on. When I saw the heavy, metal framed chair they wanted to place on the elephants spine in order for us both to ride it I made up my mind that I wasn’t participating in this activity, it just seemed too cruel. Russ decided he would do the ride and I agreed to walk beside and take photos.
Lead by a young Thai boy who worked at the elephant camp, and followed by a second Thai boy on his scooter (I think he was the health and safety person in case anything went wrong, this didn’t fill me with much confidence because he looked like he was about 12 and more interested in his Iphone than actually keeping his eye on things), they began their walk down the road towards the Pai river. With this particular tour you get 15 minute ride on the road and 15 ride in the water and the water ride was about to begin.
They entered the river and all was fine for the first couple of minutes. After this point the elephant obviously decided she wanted to do her own thing and was pretty much ignoring all instructions and commands from the Thai boy. This is when he got overly aggressive with her and was using a hooked stick to try and control her movements. This was awful enough to watch but was about to get even worse as he reached across and began to pull and yank roughly on one of her ears. Understandably this was too much for the poor elephant and she made a cry of pain before lurching backwards and throwing Russ right off her back. To my horror Russ went flying off her, through the air and into the water. I didn’t know how deep that water was or whether it was full of rocks so I was worried he might have been seriously hurt. Health and safety boy was useless he just looked at me and said,
Before turning back to his iphone to continue his game of candy crush.
To my relief a few seconds later Russell emerged from the water without injuries 🙂
Thank god he was thrown off in the water and not on the road.
At this point the Thai boy encouraged Russ to climb back on but understandably he politely declined,
“Nah it’s alright mate I’ll walk from here.”
He later told me that just before the elephant launched him off her back she had just done a massive pooh into the water. That’s right not only was Russ thrown off an elephant into river water he was thrown off an elephant into poohy river water… Poor Russell.
Seen as there was no injuries and he lived to tell the tale we have managed to laugh at the elephant experience (I have anyway :D)
So our Pai adventure has come to an end… Did I enjoy Pai? Yes. Would I return to Pai again? Definitely. Did it live up to the hype? No not really if am honest. People raved about Pai non stop and phrases like, “the best place on earth.” and “the magic of Pai” were thrown around constantly. Now don’t get me wrong it is a great town to spend a few chilled out days, enjoy the natural beauty and chat to other travelers over a few beers but I would say the best place on earth is a bit of a stretch.
If you have been to Pai let me know your thought. Did you love it? And what were your best and worst parts?
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Next post coming soon all about our 3 night stay in the city of Chiang Rai.