PAI, THAILAND is a little mountain town near the Myanmar border. According to Google, 2,284 people officially live here, as of the 2006 census. This strikes me as completely bonkers, considering the diversity of the place – the tattoo shops, the gallery cafes, the scooter rentals, the guesthouses that double as installation art – seems like every single one of those 2,284 people, down to the smallest child and the oldest grandma, must be in the art or tourism or culinary business.
This small-town-miracle feeling is most evident on “Walking Street”, one of the two east/west streets. During the day, it’s cafes and tour booking offices; at night, the cafes transform into bars and a legion of food carts roll in and set up against the north side of the street, along a temple complex. The first night we didn’t know where to start eating, we just walked down the road, mouths agape, stunned. Nachos, burritos, fried sandwiches (?!), corn on the cob on a stick, infinite varieties of noodle soups, two lasagne carts (apparently the original was PISSED when a competitor showed up), banana roti, Japanese style vegetarian gyoza, crepes, at least 4 fruit smoothie carts, waffles, sushi (yup, seriously, I tried it, it was better than Stop & Shop’s and I didn’t die), home-made brownies, of course pad thai and spring rolls, a super-cart full of Indian food from nan to pakora to daal to curries, a kombucha cart, bruschetta, pizza, a cart called “The Chicken and the Muffin” – those are the ones I can recall, there were more. Remember, 2,284 in this town. And two lasagna food carts.
Walking Street borders a temple complex, and near the entrance there are little half-walls where you can sit and chow down on your loot, because that’s kind of how it feels, walking around and collecting edible treasures. So that’s the northern east/west street; the other one borders Pai high school, and then there’s a river to the east and a canyon to the west, and Pai sits in the valley, on the way to nothing really, a Shangri-La bisected by route 1095; if you were just scrolling around Google Maps you’d zip right over it. Zoom in though and you’d see that outside of Pai’s “downtown” a network of rural roads connect guesthouses, resorts, and rice fields that spiral out a kilometer in every direction to fill out the valley. It was low season, most were empty, but I expect from Nov-Feb it is madness, and probably the food carts are even more plentiful.
We stayed in Pai for 11 nights. We had intended to stay for just 5. If you’re on the road and you’re debating to visit this or that town, an over-stay story from a fellow traveler is the best possible recommendation. And that’s exactly what I’m doing now. Check out Pai, the quiet paradise.
Any five star beach resort can be a paradise. You can pay for paradise views and paradise services all over the world. A truly sublime paradise is bang-for-your-buck, where you shake your head and smile and congratulate yourself, like a grocery store coupon-clipper, at the nice little deal you’ve managed to pull off. Pai delivers those little satisfactions all day. Even more so than Chiang Mai or Bangkok, which is one reason why we decided to just chill here for as long as we did. To give you some average price perspectives:
One hour Thai massage – Pai 150 baht ($4.20), Bangkok 200-250 baht ($5.60-$7)
Scooter rental, 24 hours – Pai 100 baht ($2.80), Chiang Mai 200-250 ($5.60-$7)
A/C room, 2 star hotel – Pai 350 baht ($10), Chiang Mai 450-500 baht ($12.60-$14), Bangkok 700-800 baht ($19.60-$22.40)
Sleepy fields, meandering rivers, waterfalls – Pai: free. Chiang Mai, Bangkok: get outta town, yo
If you can stop eating, there’s a surprising amount of cool stuff to do in Pai. There’s waterfalls both close to town, and an adventurous hike or scooter ride away. Head to the Pai Canyon, a network of narrow ridges as narrow as two feet in places, with no railings or any safety mechanisms to speak of, but don’t tell your mom. Check out sunset at the Mae Yen White Buddha. Take a tube down the Pai River, but maybe not in the dry season like we did (standing up in shallow water and hauling the tube around is sometimes necessary). Take a scooter up to Lod Cave for creepy raft rides, palatial caverns, and cave sections that are, quite literally, completely plastered with batshit. And if you’ve got any energy at night, party with a young crowd at Yellow Sun or chill to some mellow guitar at the psychedelic Spirit Bar.
Of course, life ain’t all mango shakes and sunsets all the time. Both Minah and I have had on-and-off bouts of very intense though thankfully brief – sorry, are you eating as you read this? – uhh, stomach troubles. At times it was comically horrible, we’d be somewhere around Pai and I’d just look at Minah and say – “We need to get back to our bungalow. Right now.” – and I’d pilot the motorbike around the curves of our maybe 3 minute drive from downtown, and dash from the parking spot to the room, running in fetal position – fine, memorable moments. And yes, for the last two days Minah’s had a strange bumpy rash on her legs. Is it bug bites? A food reaction? From the river water we’ve been frolicking in these last few days? Or maybe one of the millions of species of plants she brushed past in our walk in the jungle? We don’t know, maybe we never will, travel is full of mysteries like this. (EDIT: We figured it out later, it was bed mites, we switched sides on the bed one night and I started getting them too.)
Yet despite these gripes, we both agree this place is paradise.
Another thing – the rainy season here has just started. In fact, it kicked off the day we were out exploring the jungle on the way to Mae Yen waterfall. Since then it’s rained mostly in the evenings around 9 or 10, and occasionally we’ve been caught out in it. With the rainy season comes BUGS! all over the place. Little gnats that get stuck in your eyeball as you scooter around, moths that hit you full in the face and the teeth while you’re driving, ants that crawl all over you as you sleep, mantises hanging from the curtains, spiders scuttling around the bathroom – your basic starter pack of tropical beasties. The only comfort we felt in our bungalow/zoo was that the critters didn’t really seem organized; it wasn’t a line of ants sniffing out some leftover food, or a hatching nest of spiders, or whatever. The number of “guests” we happened to find in our room was orders of magnitude less than looking down at any square meter of ground anywhere in Pai, or Thailand as a whole even. The earth here moves and churns with life.
The rain has lifted the smoke that clusters around the mountain walls of the Pai valley, and now as I type this I can finally the greens of individual trees climbing up to the clouds, real clouds now instead of the smog of the “burning season”. We saw evidence of this on our Mae Yen waterfall hike, swaths of charred land and zero underbrush, a jungle without its underpants. We never saw the arsonists but 4 or 5 times we came across larger, still-burning felled tree trunks, red-hot cinders glowing and smoking, slow-burning alone amidst the charred remains of already-consumed vegetation. We returned to the spot near the beginning of our hike where we saw one of these smoldering giants, and after a steady hour of monsoon, we were stunned to see the combustion continuing unabated. That log just kept on burning, just like our love of Pai has kept on burning, through rain and bugs and assorted horrors of the road, this is the best spot we’ve traveled in Thailand so far.
Edit: From teaching a course in Bangkok, to flying back to Korea, to moving in with Minah’s parents in Gwangju, to visiting Minah’s brother who’s finishing up his military service up in the mountains near the North Korean border – it’s been a whirlwind last few weeks. I was having trouble uploading the images to this post, but glad though to finally get that sorted and hit Publish. We’ve talked to people a lot about Pai since we left, and it seems our perspective was a bit unique – for many people, Pai is overcrowded with tourists. To us, the number of people seemed just right (though we noticed that most of the bars were empty at night). But hey, there’s a reason there weren’t many tourists – most days the temperature was over 40C (100s F). Back in Korea, and it’s damn here perfect weather here. Good to be back, but we miss Pai!