I have recently returned to South Africa after spending six years living and working in the bustling madhouse that is Bangkok, Thailand. I did not expect to stay as long as I did. In fact, like many, I had just finished my degree and wanted a year to travel and explore the world before getting a ‘real job’. But, after just a few months in Thailand, I was hooked and made a plan to stay as long as I could. Anyone who has travelled to Thailand (or any South East Asian country for that matter) will know about the complete assault on the senses one feels as exiting the safety of the airport. The smells, sights and sounds are rich, complex and diverse and all seem to try and fight for a place in your understanding of what you’ve known to be ‘normal’ up until this point. If you try to understand what you’re experiencing, you’re going to battle. The best way to deal with it is just to accept that it is like nothing your sensory memory has ever experienced. It’s immense.
During my stay, I was not only overwhelmed by the smells, sights and sounds but also by the massive influx of tourists that make their way to this humid haven on a daily basis, all seemingly headed to the same places. They’ll start in Bangkok for a day or two (Khao San Road is a hot spot) and then make their way to the usual suspects: Phuket, Koh Phangan, Koh Samui and, if they have enough time, perhaps Chiang Mai. I personally despise being inundated by tourists and so made a point of travelling Thailand in search of the places that are still pristine and less influenced by the greed and sometimes insensitivity of the Westerner. My travelling took me off-the-beaten path to some incredible places (which probably explains why I stuck around for so long) and I saw paradise: pristine, untouched beaches with turquoise water and bright white sand; flowing rivers and lush rice fields; and tribal villages in the mountains who had never even laid eyes on Westerners before. My travels to find these remote spots led to me the scenic mountain town of Pai (pronounced more like ‘bye’, not ‘pie’) situated in the valley just north of Chiang Mai.
Three hours of winding the 762 road curves by minivan from Chiang Mai, just on the border of Myanmar is the vibrant, colourful and quirky mountain valley town. Although not completely void of tourists, Pai offers a more relaxed atmosphere than the other tourist hotspots in the country. Laid-back Westerners, Thai rastas and local farmers exist in harmony which gives the place a really unique vibe. What I also loved about Pai was the fact that many Thai’s from the city visit here during weekends and holidays and the tourists are, in fact, predominately Thai. Although it can get busy during the peak of the cool months (December and January), the towns popularity has yet to negatively impact on its charming, picturesque setting. If you like the idea of chilling in a hammock, enjoying the cool mountain air (it is considerably cooler in this region than the rest of Thailand and one may even consider donning a jersey in the evening!), eating some delicious local cuisine, exploring the countryside and revitalising after the sensory shock of Bangkok, Pai is the place for you.
Despite it being a small town, there is a lot to do around Pai. Once you have sampled the fine fare in the main town which simply oozes with character and rummaged through the plethora of little boutique shops and street vendors, rent a scooter and head for the hills. Just driving around with no specific destination in mind is a great experience. Lush, green rice paddies on the foothills of majestic mountains surround you and antiquated little huts and villages dot the scenic landscape. It is simply stunning. A great place to check out on your adventures is the Pai Hot Springs. They’re a little off-the-beaten-track so make sure you get good directions before you head off. Signs like “No Boil Egg” are commonplace and give you an indication just how hot the water can get at this natural wonder. Another good spot to check out is Pai Canyon. A perfect spot to watch the sun go down! Bear in mind though that, like many places in Thailand, safety precautions are not a top priority and the narrow path of the canyon has a 50m drop on either side so be careful! The two main waterfalls are also a spectacular site – Pam Bok and Ma Ya. Pack a picnic lunch and go for a dip under the cascading water.
If history is what you’re after, the Memorial Bridge and Chinese village are to great spots to visit. The Memorial Bridge, built by the Japanese in WWII offers some great photo opportunities and the river it crosses is a gorgeous backdrop to this historical landmark. The Chinese Village gives you the feeling that you’ve stepped right out of Thailand and into old world China. Built here the Chinese (Yunnanese) settled over 100 years ago, the village is a cultural wonder full of kitsch Chinese memorabilia.
Finding places to stay in Pai is a breeze (just make sure you book in advance during the cooler months of December and January) and there are an array of bungalows, guesthouses and homestays one can choose from. Whether you are after simplicity or a taste of luxury, there is something for everyone both in the main town and the more peaceful countryside.
If you’re in Thailand, make sure you don’t bypass this magnificent wonder in the mountains. The relaxed café culture and care-free vibe as well as the spectacular landscape and picturesque views is something everyone should experience.
PS: If you have some extra time on your hands and an inclination to spend two days floating on a boat down the mighty Mekong River, check out the slow boat which goes from Pai to Luang Prabang in Laos. It’s a completely unique and stress-free way to cross the border whilst seeing the true beauty of the Laos landscape.
TEXT & IMAGES © Julie Graham