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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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,
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.
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.
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.