I’m going to give you a little heads up if you’re heading out on the Southeast Asia backpacking trail:
At some point – likely, multiple points – you will meet someone who will wax poetic about a little town called Pai. Their eyes will glaze over as they carry on about how AMAZING it is and how much they LOVED being there. When you press them for more detail as to what makes Pai so great, they might mumble something about bungalows and what a “chilled out” place it is, never quite explaining why it is that you simply MUST go there.
And so, with no less than 5 recommendations, and little more than a vague notion of what Pai was all about, I found myself on a minivan to this hippie town in Northern Thailand.
Where Should I Stay in Pai?
By the end of my 2013 Asia trip, I barely even gave a thought to where I was going to stay when I reached a new town. I left the Pai bus station and started walking in the drizzle through town, past countless guesthouses toward the river, where I’d been told was where the bungalows were. Of course I hadn’t bothered actually researching this – I’d just figured I’d walk until I found some bungalows.
Well guess what? I didn’t see any bungalows on the river, just a bar that looked all but abandoned, and a restaurant that wasn’t open. And the drizzle had turned to rain. And I was carrying a 20kg backpack. AND AND AND all I wanted was to find a cheap bungalow to stash my bag and dry off in.
A wrong turn and a soggy walk back later, I decided to veer off the main road and up a steep dirt driveway where I saw a bunch of signs for accommodation, which led me to – tada! – the land of bungalows, aka the Ing Doi House.
Ing Doi House
Ing Doi is quite literally an oasis in Pai. Imagine a lush green field bordering rice paddies and farmland, facing the mountains, and dotted with bungalows throughout. Allow me to illustrate:
Ing Doi is actually comprised of two sets of accommodation: I opted to stay in one of their bungalows in the Yawning Fields, which are cheaper and do not include a bathroom inside. Which is TOTALLY OKAY when the shared bathroom facility is like stepping into a rain forest! Open air toilets and showers might sound weird (yes, there were plenty of bugs), but you have plenty of privacy.
I stayed in the bungalow to the right above ^^, which had a porch equipped with a hammock, table, and cushions to sit on. I hung out there every day reading and writing. When I felt like a change of scenery was needed, I’d mosey on over to the reception area with my laptop. Ing Doi was the perfect setting to take it easy and get some work done.
You know what else was perfect about it? The fresh fruit and muesli breakfast! OH MY GOD, it was just the best. I had every intention of checking out all the cute restaurants in town, but never made it for breakfast because I had to have this meal every morning. Best fresh fruit of my life! Throw in some yogurt and muesli and you essentially have heaven in a bowl. The excellent coffee was also a nice surprise – in fact, I’ve declared it the second best coffee I had in Thailand (after Size S in Bangkok, of course!).
If you want peace and quiet, scenic views, private bungalows for less than the price of a dorm, a cool jungle bathroom, and fantastic food, stay at the Yawning Fields at Ing Doi. I could have (and maybe even should have) spent the entirety of my time in Pai doing nothing, never leaving Ing Doi, and been completely content.
What Can I Do in Pai?
Check out the Night Market
Every night there are vendors set up on the main street in town selling food and crafts. I went here most nights and sampled random eats from whatever stalls happened to strike my fancy. For a couple of dollars, there’s your dinner. My personal favorite was the pancake lady’s stand (shocker!); she made tiny silver dollar-sized pancakes, each with a thin banana slice cooked right in the middle of it, which you can slather with as much chocolate/maple syrup/honey as you want – aMMMMMMazing.
Sample the cafes and shops in town
It won’t take you long to stroll down the main street in town, unless of course you get lured into the many shops selling jewelry, handicrafts, clothing, and other hippie paraphernalia. Far more tempting for me were all of the cute cafes and restaurants that I never ended up trying because I was hooked on the Ing Doi breakfast and Night Market dinners.
Hit up happy hour at the bars
From what I gathered, the bars in town are great for meeting awesome fellow travelers, perhaps even coordinating excursions with them. I’m not sure if this is typical for the wet season, but when I was there in June the bars were DEAD. Some were even closed entirely. Nothing much was going on at night in Pai, which I was secretly glad about because I really don’t enjoy the bar scene in general.
But, I did reluctantly have one night out. I was just finishing up an enjoyable stirfry at a plastic table on the street at the Night Market when a guy asked if he could join me. As much as I wanted to be a hermit and head back to my comfy bungalow, as a rule you NEVER turn down a cute guy with an accent.
We ended up at one of the dead bars in town, where he revealed himself to be a
somewhat pompous German. Edit: 19-year-old pompous German (no comments from the peanut gallery, gefallen!). In my head I was debating how soon would be too soon to cut out on him when he made the grand claim that New York City was located in New Jersey. He essentially told ME, the NYC resident, that I was wrong about which state I lived in. Suffice it to say that I confidently googled that ish for him, won the argument, and made my exit.
Where Can I Go Near Pai?
If you want to explore the area around Pai, rent a motorbike and drive around the countryside. The undulating roads will take you through the mountains and to numerous scenic overlooks and waterfalls. The scenery is absolutely beautiful – at least, from what I saw on the bus. As a solo female traveler who doesn’t know how to operate a motorbike, I unfortunately did not get to experience much outside of Pai. I’m committing to learn how to ride on my next trip to Southeast Asia!
I DID manage to do a couple things outside of Pai town, though:
Hike (walk) to the Temple on the Hill
There isn’t a whole lot to see in Pai, but Wat Phra That Mae Yen (the temple on the hill) is easily accessible just on the edge of town. I schlepped there on foot, past a slew of other guesthouses that looked really cute but closed for the season. You have to walk up 220 very short stairs to reach the temple, where you’re rewarded with a view over Pai and the valley.
My verdict? Call me jaded, but the temple on the hill is nothing special, and the view from it is not that impressive.
Rent a bicycle
On my last day in Pai, I was feeling uncharacteristically lazy and thought I should do SOMETHING other than lay on my bungalow porch. Against my better judgment, I rented a bicycle and started riding north out of town toward Mae Hong Son.
Now, keep in mind the fact that I bike almost daily at home in NYC, commuting 10-18 miles on work days and crossing bridges with heinous inclines. I have massive(ly strong) thighs as a result. I figured I could manage some hills by just beasting through them, no sweat.
Wellllllll, partially yes. I’ll pat myself on the back for making it up a fair amount of hills, though not without sweat. I even made it up to a waterfall (which was up a whole other set of hills on a dirt road, oy vey), but I can’t say it was worth the effort or literal butthurt. I didn’t even realize how high I had cycled until I was biking – nay, flying – downhill on the way back into town.
The waterfall I made it to wasn’t that impressive, and even further tainted by the fact that there was a noisy group of about 10 other backpackers there who had driven up on motorbikes. Ah well – if nothing else, it was a crazy workout!
I’m a huge advocate of cycling, but honestly? You don’t need to cycle in Pai. The town is small enough to be covered on foot, and the surrounding roads are far too hilly to negotiate without a motorized vehicle – as I found out first-hand.
Should I Visit Pai?
If you have limited time in Thailand, I would not make Pai a priority in your travel plans. It’s more of a nice-to-visit than a must-visit place. However, if you are traveling long-term and could use a breath of fresh air and a nice place to relax, Pai is your jam.
If you go to Pai, don’t expect to do or see much. Pai is more a place to just be. Go there to eat, drink, and chill out with no agenda. Do nothing, and enjoy it!
(But if you MUST do something, rent a motorbike and explore the countryside!)
As of June 2013 —
The minivan from Chiang Mai to Pai costs 150 THB ($5 US). One leaves every hour from the Chiang Mai bus station, and you can just show up and buy a ticket there.
A basic bungalow at Yawning Fields (Ing Doi) costs 150 THB ($5 US) during the wet season; it is more expensive during peak season, or if more than one person is staying in it.
A rental bike costs 70 THB ($2.25 US) for a day.