When I first started looking into Thailand, I was focused primarily on Bangkok and heading south. I assumed I would spend at least a few days in Chiang Mai, but had no plans to tour more broadly in the north. I had actually booked myself a tour on a liveaboard boat to sail around the islands in the south of Thailand; the universe always ensures things work out as they should, so perhaps it’s no surprise that the tour company cancelled my booking (I booked the last spot but they only room same-sex together, and the person who booked the 2nd to last spot in a twin room was dude). This freed me up to spend more time in the north, and THANK GOD! I had so many people in Thailand tell me about this charming, wonderful, small town in the north called Pai (pronounced Pie). So a fellow traveler and adventurer, Quan, and I decided to spend four days in Pai. Best decision ever! In fact, I almost hesitate to gloat so much about this precious town in a blog, for fear that everyone will learn how wonderful the town is, flock to it, and it will lose its charm (advice: go before this happens!). Yes, there are already loads of tourists in Pai, but it hasn’t lost its charm at all. It’s small, quiet, easy to navigate, super affordable, and has some of the best Thai food I had in Thailand. Even the night walking street, which is overflowing with tourists (and locals! which is not something you see on a tourist walking street in any other city in Thailand I visited), has food that matches the quality of the best food you’d find at a street cart in the most local part of town. And like all markets in Thailand, so many colors all around!
Getting to Pai is simple and cheap, but may be the worst trip you take in Thailand. From Chiang Mai, you go to the Terminal 2 bus station (at least 1 hour before you want to go to Pai; buses leave hourly throughout the day, beginning around 6:30am) and you’ll find the office selling tickets for the minibus to Pai. Cost is around 200THB/$6.35USD and the bus only takes 3-4 hours. However the road has nearly 700 hairpin turns, so if you get motion sickness, find another way to get to Pai or you will be throwing up for hours. Thankfully, I don’t get car sick, so I had no issues.
Departing Pai can be tricky if you fail to plan in advance, as day-of bus tickets sell out EARLY. Quan and I arrived to the main bus station before 11am and all buses returning to Chiang Mai that day were sold out. Best bet: buy your ticket one day in advance. If you end up in our situation, you’re not stuck. Thankfully, there’s a second bus company (same price too!) that also operates mini buses going to Chiang Mai. Just walk a few businesses down from the bus station to Aya and buy a ticket from them.
Where to stay? There are loads of incredibly affordable hostels, guesthouses, and hotels. Since Quan and I decided to buddy-up and travel together, that meant we could split costs and stay at a nicer place for a price that would work great for both of our budgets. After a lot of time researching online we ended up choosing Pai Vintage Garden, and loved *almost* everything about it. The hotel is located just a bit north of the main part of the city, but the family who own and run it will drive you into town (and pick you up to bring you back!) anytime you want throughout the day (until 11pm!), which makes it incredibly easy and convenient. It’s quiet at night, except for the rooster who lives somewhere on a farm nearby. The bed was as hard as a rock, so I woke up sore each morning (but this is not atypical for Asia, so I can’t knock them too much for that). They have a lovely, free breakfast daily. I would definitely recommend staying there unless you have a bad back and need a softer mattress.
What to do? EAT ALL THE STRAWBERRIES! Seriously, I had to begin there, because I’ve never in my life had strawberries as delicious as in Pai. Even the white berries are positively sugary sweet. Stuff your face with as many strawberries as you can for the entirety of your visit.
Pai has so much to offer in terms of gorgeous nature, but what I enjoyed most was relaxing and not doing too much. Unlike some of the large cities in Thailand, police do not seem to care if tourists have international drivers licenses, so the risk of getting pulled over and ticketed is extremely low (I didn’t hear about anyone having that issue). That means you can take advantage of seriously cheap prices (100-150THB/~$3-$5USD) to rent a scooter for an entire day. Pai is small so it’s easy to navigate and make your own way to the main tourist sites. Quan and I took full advantage, and spent a day driving around and exploring.
Self-Driving Day Tour of Pai
Our first visit was to Wat Phra That Mae Yen (aka, White Buddha), which sits on top of a hill overlooking Pai. It’s beautiful and a great viewpoint. Be sure to dress appropriately! Ladies, that means nothing too tight or revealing, and keeping knees and shoulders covered. If you forget, they have a small stand where you can rent saraongs for 20THB. (Photos of the White Buddha by Quan.)
We then rode over to Coffee in Love, which provides another fabulous viewpoint to look out over Pai and the surrounding valley. And offers amazing coffee! (Photos of me taken by Quan.)
After our coffee break, we headed to probably the most creative site I’ve seen anywhere in the world: The Land Split. The owner is a farmer whose land was devastated by an earthquake in 2008 (and another in 2010 or 2011), which created MASSIVE rifts and canyons across his property, destroying his ability to continue farming on the land (except for small gardens). Rather than despair, this ingenious owner decided to turn the site into a tourist destination! When you stop by there you are offered a wonderful glass of homemade juice (from fruits grown on his land) and lots of free food to nibble on (that they also make, grow, dry, preserve, etc. He just has a box sitting on the table for donations if you care to make one (if you are having a drink or food, please leave a donation!). The owner is so charming and sweet, as are the family of dogs you can find hanging out (puppy cuddles!!!).
If you keep driving past the Land Split, you’ll come to Pai’s bamboo bridge and a waterfall. We couldn’t fit everything into one day so we skipped this, and headed instead to a strawberry farm. There are a few of these, and my advice: skip Love Pai Strawberry Cafe (especially if you go to Coffee in Love); it’s not a farm, just a popular tourist site with lots of giant berries you can take pictures beside and drinks/food you can buy. Instead, drive a bit outside of Pai and head to Mon Mor Pang Pai, this huge strawberry farm. Do NOT skip the strawberry smoothie, which is the BEST made-with-strawberries product I’ve ever had IN MY LIFE. I wish I words could describe how sweet and juicy these berries are, but words fail. You must try for yourself. In fact, I enjoyed it so much I forgot to take photos! After our drive to load up on berries, we headed to Pai Canyon, aka, Thailand’s Grand Canyon, for sunset. Pai Canyon was as beautiful, and crowded, as other blogs described. If you have a fear of heights, you won’t want to walk too far past the stairs you climb to get to the canyon, because the crowded walkways in the middle of the canyons are narrow, the dirt is slippery, and it’s a steep drop on either side (I did it, but was really uncomfortable, and didn’t walk to the farthest points, which offered better and somewhat less crowded views). But even with the crowds, we still got some great photos.
Quan is a budding photographer and was nice enough to take some great shots of me. Traveling with a friend who is super artistic and actually enjoys taking portrait shots of people is, in my opinion, like winning the travel-buddy lottery!
That evening Quan and I headed out to the Walking Street, which, yes, is touristy, but do not let that disuade you from visiting. The food on Pai’s walking street is just to die for. My particular favorites included: Burmese Tea Leaf Salad with avocado (big enough for sharing!) for 80THB ($2.50), the coconut pancakes (these can be found across Thailand and Laos and whenever you see them STOP, BUY, AND EAT because holy delicious Batman!!), the black sticky rice sesame roll (thingie) dessert, and Gyoza Queen vegetable dumplings. Everything was sooooo good and soooo cheap! And you get to interact with lots of nice locals and cute kiddos.
Even with that amazing food, Quan and I still found better while in Pai. If there is only one thing you do listed in this blog, please let it be paying a visit to Link Food Farmacy!! The woman who owns the restaurant and does all of the cooking is one of the sweetest women I met in all of Thailand (and that’s saying a lot), and GOOD GOD SHE CAN COOK. Quan and I loved this place so much we went for dinner two of the three nights we had in Pai (totally worth it!).
During our second visit we were joined by the most fantastic people (from San Diego, just at the start of their world travels), Daniel and Cassandra.
If you’re part of the LGBTQ community and curious to know what traveling in different parts of the world is like when you’re part of that community (especially, if you’re trans and haven’t been able to find many resources), you can follow them on Instagram @CONEXRODS
I met Daniel and Cassandra while taking a day float trip down the river in Pai. This was such a fantastic way to spend a day and beat the heat. And if you want to make it a boozy float trip, the guys coordinating things make a pit stop at a local convenience store before you start so you can load up on beer (or, like me, water). Met loads of awesome people who were floating that day, but Daniel and Cassandra were by far my favorites (sorry everyone else)! The cost for this awesome day (about 3-4 hours total, including pick up and drop off, organized through our lovely hotel) was 250THB/less than $8USD. For real.
During our last day in Pai, Quan and I had several hours to kill before a bus was available for the return trip to Chiang Mai. After having a coffee beside the river, we headed to Lalita Massage (thanks Google reviews!), where I had the best massage of my life! For 250THB (less than $8USD) for a one hour oil massage! And even better: I didn’t leave there oily!!! The masseuse used just enough oil to be able to easily glide her hands and fingers all over, but not so much that it couldn’t be absorbed by the skin. Which I appreciated so much since we had already checked out of the hotel and I didn’t have a place to shower before taking the 3-4 hour bus ride back to CM. I wish I had checked this place out sooner, because I would have gone every single day! On the walk back to the bus station we came across the Rabbit Cafe, which is every bit as adorable as you could imagine. We also met a really awesome couple, Betty and Kai, who we ended up chatting with for an hour. I really, really love the people you meet while traveling!
Pai seriously exceeded my expectations. It is such a lovely respite in northern Thailand. A chill city that offers plenty to do (you won’t be bored), but is relaxed enough you could spend weeks here and feel super restored. Hot during the day but it got surprisingly cold at night! (The cool air was actually a really nice change from constant heat and humidity in Bangkok that permeates day and night.) I honestly can’t imagine having visited Thailand and not spent time in Pai. If you go, I hope you love it as much as I did.