The small mountain town of Pai is quite well known in the backpacker community and has been a regular stop over for hippie travelers plying Thailand’s north. I decided to make a trip to Pai when I visited Chiangmai this year to see what the fuss was about it.

Pai is around 146 km from Chiangmai and requires almost 3 hours of driving up winding and steep roads. The road to Pai is worthy of it’s own blog post and I shall post it up later. For this post, I will just touch on the attractions that you can find in Pai and it’s surroundings.

The Town

Pai lies on the banks of the Pai River and seems to get its name from it. The town itself is spread out over a valley and surrounded by mountains. With a small population of 2,284 (2006 data) mainly descended from Shan tribes out of Myanmar, the culture here is quite different from what you will find in Chiangmai. From its former farming community days, Pai now relies mainly on tourism with most of the town’s population serving the tourist dollar (or baht).

The Pai River from which Pai gets its name I guess. There is a small bamboo bridge which connects some guest houses to the main walking street area so that visitors don’t have to make a big detour.
Despite its flimsy look, this bamboo bridge has a steel frame underneath so it’s actually quite strong and a permanent structure.
Yes, you can go tubing in the Pai River, although I don’t know where these 2 ended up at.
A waterwheel made for tourists. On the left are guest houses. One of the tubers got stuck on the waterwheel and started screaming up a ruckus.
Upstream of the Pai River which comes from the higher mountain range.
The streets in Pai are usually quiet and empty during the day due to the heat. You will find many small shops, restaurants, guesthouses and boutique hotels along the streets.
The main attraction in town is the walking street or night market which comes alive very evening. You will find all kinds of stalls selling street food and knick knacks.
My visit happened to coincide with the Loy Krathong Festival, and the town’s folk actually had a grand parade on my first night.
For a small mountain town, the parade was really grand. I guess everyone was glad that Covid was more or less over and tourists were back.
An ethnic dance performed by the Shan people. I’m not sure what animal this is supposed to represent but people were offering money to it.
Besides the Shan people, I also noticed a sizeable Muslim community who were behind many of the street stalls.
They even had a small mosque for the Muslims along the main walking street.
I would say this was my favourite street food stall, and I ended up buying supper from them during my 2 nights stay.
Pai also has its seedy side. From its hippie beginnings and now with the legalization of medical cannabis in Thailand, weed joints are quite common despite it being illegal.

White Buddha on the Hill (Wat Phra That Mae Yen)

First of all, I should point out that you will need some form of motorized transport to visit the various attractions around Pai efficiently. I did see some tourists hiking or cycling along the roads. Although I wouldn’t recommend it as mid day temperatures can go up to more than 30°C, and you will need to be a Tour de France champ to cycle some of the steep slopes and unpaved roads.

One of the closest attractions to Pai is the huge white Buddha on a hill just outside town. You could walk or cycle there, but most tourists rent motorbikes or cars, or get a taxi service from the town center.

To get to the white Buddha, you will need to come to the base of the hill where you can find this huge stairs and the ticket office. I don’t remember paying any fee, but the people at the office would check if you are dressed appropriately to visit the Buddha.
Nagas guard the entrance on both sides. Its a short climb to the top where the white Buddha sits.
At the top is the huge white Buddha statue. Its seen better days with parts of the concrete cracked and fallen off.
Enjoying some solitude before the tourist crowd comes in to watch sunset.
The white Buddha is a great place to watch sunset as it faces west and overlooks Pai town.

The next 3 places are along the road that leads to Pai from Chiangmai. You would probably pass them along the way when coming into Pai. Due to their proximity to each other, you could try to see them at the same time.

Memorial Bridge

This is a steel bridge that crosses the Pai River outside of town. It dates back to World War 2 when the Japanese army wanted to establish a route from Thailand to attack Burma which was under British colonial rule then. The bridge was built in 1941 with the help of elephants dragging trees and villagers forced to work on it. The original bridge was made of wood and was burnt down by the Japanese when they left after the war. The villagers rebuilt the wooden bridge but it was washed away during a flood and a steel bridge was erected in 1976. This is the one that we see today.

The Memorial steel truss bridge beside the more modern concrete bridge which is used by vehicular traffic.
The Memorial Bridge is mainly used by tourists to view the Pai River.

Tha Pai Hot Spring

Despite it being a non volcanic region, there are several hot springs located around Pai. Not far from the Memorial Bridge is Tha Pai Hot Spring. This is one of the largest hot springs in Pai. The entrance fee is 300 baht for foreigners but you can stay for as long as you like.

There are a number of hot spring pools where you can soak yourself. The pools higher up are hotter than those on the lower level.
The source of the hot spring comes from these natural springs where hot water bubbles up from the ground.
At the source, the water temperature is around 80°C. I wonder how the grass is still growing around the hot water.
Even the trees and their roots are surviving the hot water without being cooked.

Pai Canyon

This is probably the most popular attraction in Pai, drawing hordes of tourists every evening to catch sunset here. Although its called a canyon, its more like sandstone cliffs that have been eroded away.

Pai Canyon consists of sandstone ridgelines which are linked together by narrow and steep paths.
Some of these paths are really narrow with near vertical drops on both sides. I do think its kind of dangerous without any safety barriers to prevent tourists from falling off. The sandstone is also quite unstable and crumbles under your feet. That didn’t stop most people from crossing anyway.
If you are brave enough to cross some of these narrow and steep paths you can find some incredible scenery all to yourself.
The main attraction that everyone comes here is to catch sunset. However, I think its overrated because of the crowds and would recommend catching sunset at the White Buddha instead.
I came here again in the early morning and there were no crowds of tourists. The morning mists also gave an ethereal feel to the place.

The next 2 places are located on the west side of Pai and you could visit them at one go. However, the road leading to them is really steep and bumpy at some places. So you should get some good wheels to make the trip.

Pambok Waterfall

This is actually a small waterfall, but its kind of impressive as you have to go through a small ravine to get to it. It seems that they have also raised the entry fee to see the waterfall, which now costs 200 baht per person.

The trail that leads to the ravine where you will find Pambok Waterfall. Its a short walk and you should see the waterfall after 5 minutes.
The outflow of the waterfall as I headed further up the trail.
The waterfall flows down from around 10m above into this ravine forming a small pool of calm water where you can swim or soak yourself.
The mouth of the ravine where I came in from. The area is quite small and its a good thing this place is not that accessible otherwise it would have been overcrowded.

Kho Ku So Bamboo Bridge

Now this is actually a manufactured tourist attraction, but its a beautiful one. The bamboo bridge is a long wooden walkway raised above paddy fields. It runs for almost 1 km and has several pavilions for relaxing in. You have to drive further in from Pambok Waterfall going through some steep and unpaved roads to get to it.

The entry road to Kho Ku So Bamboo Bridge is through this narrow wooden bridge and towards the paddy fields.
A very nice welcome sign and a ticket booth where you gain entry for the very affordable price of 30 baht.
The wooden walkway is made of bamboo strips, hence the name. It splits in different directions, some leading to a a couple of cafes and games area. But the main path continues further into the paddy fields.
There are also some pavilions where you can take cover from the mid day Sun. I found that the patterns of paddy fields and the bamboo walkway makes for a very interesting aerial photo.
While resting at one of the pavilions, I noticed some workers threshing the stalks of rice grains.
Continue along the walkway and you’ll find some spots which are made for Instagrammers.
Paddy fields cover the valley floor around the bamboo bridge area.
At the end of the bamboo walkway is this temple hidden in the trees. It’s nothing spectacular but you’ll have to walk almost 1 km one way to get here.
Walking back to the entrance, I found this rather nice view of the bamboo walkway and a very nice pavilion.

Santichon Village (山地村)

On the northwestern end of Pai is Santichon Village. The history of this village starts from the overthrow of General Chiang KaiShek by Mao ZeDong and the communists in China. Members of the Republican army in Yunnan fled to Pai and settled here. Over the years, they have inter married with the locals but still keeping their Yunnan culture. They have since given up their fight with communist China and traded their weapons for tourism instead,

The entrance to Santichon Village is over the bridge and through the Chinese style gate.
Shops line the main street leading to the village. It’s starting to look very touristy.
The sign says there’s even a church here but I couldn’t find it.
Part of the village seems to be converted into some kind of theme park with mud houses turned into shops.
There’s Yun Lai Viewpoint midway up on the hill which I will touch on later.
They even built a replica of the Great Wall of China in the back of the village.
I had my lunch here, trying out their famous Yunnan style pig trotters and oolong tea.

Santichon Village is kind of interesting to visit if you know the history of how it got here. Otherwise, it would seem like a tacky theme park capitalizing on Chinese culture. The villagers still maintain their Chinese culture like their food, and I found that I could converse with them in Mandarin which made communication much easier when ordering my lunch and finding out information about the village.

Yun Lai Viewpoint (云来定)

If you want to find the best place in Pai to catch the sunrise, this is it. It’s a small hill overlooking Santichon Village and is administered by the villagers. It’s very touristy but very nice nevertheless.

I came here in the afternoon to recce the route since I would be driving here in the dark before sunrise on the next day. This path leads up to the top of the hill where you have to pay 20 baht to an old guy to enter.
They had to make this spot a romantic one for the lovers and couples to take their photos.
The lone tree at the top of the hill has even become a wishing tree. Visitors can purchase tokens based on what they wish for; love or money.
You can see the town of Pai in the valley below and the White Buddha in the distance on the mountain side.

To view the sunrise, you would have to come here very early in the morning. For me it was 4.30 am as the sunrise was around 5.30 am. However, the villagers don’t allow outsiders to drive up the hill in the dark and during peak season as the road is really narrow and one way. They would ferry visitors on pickup trucks to the top for a fee. You could book the whole truck for a 2 way transfer which cost me 300 baht as I didn’t want to wait, or wait for more visitors to fill the truck and pay on a per head basis.

I managed to catch the “Sea of Clouds” during that day’s sunrise. The lights of Santichon Village can be seen below. That red patch of light is from the lanterns along the entry bridge into the village.
A new day begins as the Sun rises over the mountains.
A bird’s eye view of Yun Lai Viewpoint. The morning mist looks like a sea of clouds covering the valley below. Somewhere in the mist is Pai.

You can visit Santichon Village after watching sunrise at Yun Lai Viewpoint. The village opens very early in the morning to cater to tourists catching the sunrise.

4 thoughts on “The Life in Pai

  1. I have to admit I wasn’t aware of Pai before reading this post. But judging from your photos, this looks worth the journey. I love the look of the the rice paddies, as well as the view from Yun Lai. Which month did you go? The weather looks perfect!

    1. Hi Bama, I went in November. Generally November till January is a good time to visit North Thailand as its dry season and cool at night. I read that you also have a higher chance to see the cloud sea at Yun Lai during this period because of the cold weather.

  2. A great introduction to Pai ~ your photographs shows such diversity and beauty. Another destination to dream about 🙂 Enjoy your ’23 and safe travels.

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