Pai – Perfect Base to explore Northern Thailand

Pai is nested in a nearly picture-perfect mountain valley setting, a five bus hours north of Chiang Mai. While Pai (not pronounced like the cake but more like the English word “bye”) is certainly by now on the beaten track for both locals and foreign tourists, the city’s hippie charm remains intact. There is a river flowing through the city, plenty of cheap bamboo huts for budget backpackers and a lively night market with many food stalls catering to every taste.

Trekking in Pai

Pai’s surrounding mountains are only sparsely populated by small, picturesque hill tribe villages. The place is excellent for multi day trekking trips. In contrast to Chiang Mai, the treks in Pai are much less touristic. No elephant farms are waiting for you, the trails are small and while the villagers will have had guests from outside before, you may well be the first one visiting in a month.

On top, if you book directly with one of the local guides, the treks are also much cheaper compared to Chiang Mai. For a contact to a great local guide check out Pat‘s page.

We opt for a two-day trek with an overnight stay in a small village. On the first day, a pickup truck takes us 1h out of the city to a first mountain village. We start the tour in the blazing late morning heat with a larger group (roughly 10 people), all in their twenties and thirties. However, most of them have only booked a day trip without overnight stay.

The hike starts out with a two-hour ascend. Quickly we leave the fields of the villagers behind us and continue on a small path through a pine and bamboo tree forest. The bamboo grows in bushes up to 8m high. The hot sun still makes her way through the tree canopy. On the way, we meet a few impressive termite hills and find snake holes in the ground. At the mountain top, we have a beautiful view over the surrounding hills. Our guide provides us with fried rice out of banana leaves and some sticky rice with coconut as desert.

After lunch, we continue for another hour on the edge of the mountain before descending again to a small river. Our guide shows us how to prepare hot tea in a freshly cut bamboo stem and carves bamboo cups for each of us. These bamboo trees are very multi-functional. The locals found thousands of ways to use them.

In the evening we explore a narrow cave with plenty of bats and finally arrive in another small mountain village where the larger part of the group leaves us. We remain only with a French couple.

As the sun sets outside and nightfall begins, we sit down and prepare dinner together with our host family. Our guide has collected fresh chilies and herbs on the way during the day, which we now use to spice up the food. From the fields, we have fresh eggplants, pumpkin and more. While we cut the vegetables, our host father gets out a bottle of self-distilled rice liquor (really strong stuff) and the cup starts to make the round. As appetizer we all share a jungle rat, freshly roasted on the open fire. It tastes like burnt chicken.

Our main course is an extremely tasty curry and very spicy pork salad. We laugh a lot, play cards and drink plenty of rice liquor. Finally, we sleep on a terrace underneath a wooden roof. A perfect place for sweet dreams under a full moon illuminated sky.

The rooster crows early next morning. We start out after breakfast through the agricultural area of the village. We have fresh passion fruits directly from the tree (quite sour but delicious), grab a few bananas, taste a guava and admire the coffee bushes with their beautiful coffee berries.

Soon the landscape fades into a thick jungle. We meet a huge spider. She weaves her gigantic net between bamboo trees. Maria also discovers traces of the mysterious elephant spider! 😉 Rests of their arm thick, spiny threads lie around on the jungle floor. We must be careful not to step into them. Beautiful, large butterflies flatter around. Finally we arrive at a waterfall. Peacefully the water gushes and rushes 5 meters down into a round pond. We take a swim in the refreshingly cold and clear water and relax in the sun.

After some more hours of walking, we get to another village where the pickup truck already waits for us. To relax from the past two days of hiking, we stop at a small hot spring before returning to Pai. What an amazing trip! Highly recommended!

Exploring Pai Canyon and the back-country

To see more of the region around Pai, we grab a map, rent a scooter and go exploring. Our first stop is Pai Canyon located just a few kilometers outside Pai’s city borders. The canyon is sometimes called the Grand Canyon of Thailand. While this is certainly misleading in terms of size, the Pai Canyon shares the intense red stone color with its bigger US brother.
After we climb a suspiciously touristic paved stairway we are relieved when we see that it culminates in nearly untouched nature with high rock cliffs and a breathtaking view over the Pai valley in front of us. The dirt trails soon turn into narrow higher paths with a 30 meter drop on either side. After a few hundred meters, we have to use both hands and feet to climb the more remote areas. Certainly not for the faint hearted, but two hours later we leave this magic place covered in dirt and with a broad smile on our faces.

travel tipp infoTip: The best time to hike Pai canyon are early morning or late afternoon. The heat can be really mind-boggling.

We continue our tour to the WWII Memorial Bridge, which was originally built by the occupying Japanese. However, the current steel truss bridge was constructed rather recently. It is a nice stop on the way.

We end the day watching the sunset from the Wat Phra That Mae Yen towering over Pai on the eastern mountains. From this site you look down to the valley.

travel tipp infoSunset Tip: Tall trees surround Wat Phra That Mae Yen itself. They limit your view into the valley. If I would have to choose again, I would rather pick the Pai Canyon for sunset watching instead or one of the sunset terrace cafes on the foot of the temple.

The next day we explore Pai’s back-country north of the city. There is much to see ranging from temples, green rice paddies and palm trees to a drive up to Chinese village with a nice mountain viewpoint.

We spend a relaxed morning in Pai’s surroundings and take a minibus in the afternoon which brings us back to Chiang Mai.

Read more…


Did you like this post? Do you have own experiences to share? Please leave us a comment!

Leave a Reply