Pai is truly a place that has adopted the "backpacker or bust" attitude. Nestled high in the mountains of the Mae Hong Son province near the border with Myanmar (Burma) lies the small town that has become known to few outside of Thailand and most along the backpacker trail through Southeast Asia. Ahead of my trip I'd heard next-to-nothing about this mountainous haven, but it turned out to be just that, a haven of a somewhat normal climate, delicious food and coffee, street markets, a social scene, and a bit of corruption (but it's Thailand, so that's a given).
The drive to Pai from Chiang Mai consists of 762 hairpin turns high up into the mountain and is by no means a pleasant drive in the back of a speeding minivan with a slightly crazy Thai man whilst somewhat hungover. Aside from the bumps, twists, turns, and nausea felt throughout the entire drive, it did not lack unbelievable scenery at every turn looking out over the mountains below. The drive lasted about three-and-a-half hours from start to finish costing a total of 150 baht (~USD$4.50).
Many brave soles choose to make the trek up into the mountains via motorbike rental where a company will drive your bags for you and you just drive the bike and dump it off in Pai for another brave sole to drive back down to Chiang Mai. I, however, given my lack of experience and wariness on sharp turns along a mountainside, opted for the easier route. Those who completed the 762 turns, though, said it was one of the best and most entertaining drives throughout their time in Asia so a return to Pai may be in my future solely to do that trip on bike.
Once in Pai you immediately get the sense you've been dropped back thirty to forty years into the hippie days of the seventies and eighties. It's not just the free-spirited backpackers who've gravitated to this town sporting their dreads and elephant pants, though, as the locals are fully decked out in tattoos, cut-off jeans, hand rolled cigarettes and joints, and a laissez faire attitude towards everything life has to offer.
I traveled to Pai with a couple of friends and we were welcomed into the Pai Circus Hostel (it is exactly as it sounds and the owner is a friend of my friend's from back in England). We initially had planned to stay in Pai just a few days but leading up to our trek into the mountains most of us decided we'd stay for as long as we needed to get the full Pai experience. I planned for a full week just to be safe, and most of the people in Pai at this time were all planning for roughly the same as many came straight from Chiang Mai (the nearest big city) following the Lantern Festival just a day before we arrived.
The Pai Circus Hostel was one of the chillest and most absurd spots I've stayed at up to this point in my travels. Before you begin to judge the place based on the name alone (which I mentioned is a legitimate circus performers hostels with slack lines and hula hoops dotting the yard) let me first describe the scene upon arrival. We were picked up in a side-car tuktuk from the bus station and driven a bit out of town up to the hostel which overlooked the town and mountains below. As we walked up to the entrance we were immediately greeted by the several hostel dogs who've taken up residence there and shown a front lawn with an infinity pool and stunning view of the Mae Hong Son province beyond. The view faced west as well providing us with some excitement for the several sunsets we were bound to see to cap off our each day in Pai. Did I mention that we also arrived on Thanksgiving day and there was an all-you-can-eat buffet ready to be devoured by the hungry American that I am (and a couple hungry Brits who've adopted the same love for Thanksgiving as me)? After checking in and handing over our 200 baht/night fee (~USD$5.75), we were escorted to our 12-bed dorm-like bungalow with bamboo beds fitted with a thin pad and mosquito net for a bit of comfort. Honestly, I loved this setup for a hostel and I knew that I was paying for what I got. I'm a simple man with simple needs so this was perfect. Based on where I was in the world, I could hardly complain about the accommodation or setup I'd just been presented with.
The town of Pai is quite small, and up until the last five to ten years had been a very quiet village that few outside of Thailand knew of. As of late, though, it has become a very common destination for backpackers looking to escape the big cities in order to add a little Thai culture to their lives. Around Pai there is loads to do with hikes, waterfalls, motor biking, elephant camps, and caves just outside of town. If you're not one for any of those things (though I'm not sure you should be traveling if you're not), then you can always enjoy the numerous cafes and art stores scattered throughout the area. There is a strong Thai presence within the town still, though a simple ten-minute walk away from the walking street through town will get you into more of the authentic Thai lifestyle. Backpackers have overrun the downtown area and there are few "authentic Thai" aspects to the main area anymore. A motor bike rental for the day costing you 150 baht will free you up to explore outside of this area and you'll enjoy your time in Pai a lot more if you do.
While in Pai I thoroughly enjoyed every day and set very small goals for myself while there. Each day I awoke with a simple list of things to do such as go for a run and then take a dip in the pool, walk to town and explore for a few hours after breakfast, or get a bike and see where the road takes me. Small daily accomplishments were considered a success in my book, and I truly slowed down my trip during my eventual six days in Pai. I realized that rushing through my travels was an exhausting way to see the world, and once arriving in Pai I fully took on the "let's take it day-by-day" attitude. Every day I tried to fully embrace the experience I was having and really spent time getting to know some of my fellow travelers better. I'd spent weeks with some of these people at this point after working through Laos and some of northern Thailand with them, and I finally felt like I was able to build friendships beyond the "where've you been," "where are you from," and "what's your travel story so far," questions which so often dominate traveler's conversations. This was nice, and I built some real friendships beyond just traveling during this time.
During the days I did accomplish something my friends and I explored the waterfalls dominating the region outside of town, hiked up the several-hundred steps to the White Buddha on top of the mountain, walked around town and enjoyed the nightly street market, and had a bit of fun with the locals and other backpackers at the numerous bars and live-music venues throughout town. I mentioned the corruption of several places in Thailand and Pai was no exception. Several of the bars are owned by the police and some of the "forbidden" things you can't buy elsewhere in Thailand somehow become just hush-hush. Many backpackers choose to participate in said hush-hush events and it likely leads to the ever present social scene dominating Pai at night.
I moved from the Pai Circus Hostel to the Purple Monkey Hostel after four days due to getting tired of the 15-minute trek into town and the promise of being able to sleep in a tent for 100 baht/night (~USD$2.85) for a couple of nights. I'm a camp-aholic that had an itch to sleep outside for a few nights before leaving, and Purple Monkey gave me a nice opportunity to bundle up at night a bit and sling my hammock up between a couple trees during the day. Also, they had ten newborn puppies to play with so it was really the easiest decision I've made throughout my entire trip :)
On my last day in Pai several of my friends moved on to different places throughout the world and our group of six scattered quickly. Some stayed in Pai, some moved down to the Thai islands, some went to New Zealand, and my friend Laurie and I did a day trip further west toward Myanmar up another set of 500+ turns along the road to Mae Hong Son on a motorbike that was not nearly big enough for two fully grown men. We stopped halfway to take in the views at the top of the mountain pass and continued on to a series of caves where we boarded a bamboo-raft that took us into the enormous caves for a bit of exploring inside before turning back to make the ride back to Pai for one last night. All of this with the hope that our bike would actually make it back to Pai as we ascended and descended the hills far to steep for the weight on board.
All-in-all, Pai is a must see destination for anyone backpacking through Thailand with more than a few days to kill after leaving Chiang Mai. It's quiet if you want it to be and a party if you're looking for that. You can explore caves, hike, see elephants, Buddhas, Thai culture, coffee, camp, sit by the river, and explore the night market when you want, and you can do all of this for a very low price. It's well worth the 762 turns up and down, and if you've got any sort of free spirit inside of you you'll have more fun than you thought possible.