One of northern Thailand’s most challenging but delightful road trips leads through 762 mountainous bends to the laid back tourist mecca of Pai.
The village is just 140km from historic Chiang Mai, however visitors by car need to allow three hours for the trip behind slow-moving tourist vans and other traffic. There are even signs at various mountain stops suggesting this might be a good place to rest and throw up!
After the winding trip, Pai is a welcome peaceful destination with its narrow streets lined with shops, restaurants, cafes, bars and cheap accommodation.
Its relatively small population of around 2300 inhabitants rely heavily on tourism, with November to March reportedly its busiest time. Accommodation in August is excellent value, advertised outside various properties starting from 400-500 Baht (AU$15-19) a night in an air-conditioned hotel unit with a king-size comfortable Thai bed. The only hitch is that rooms are usually not cleaned daily unless requested.
With a natural canyon nearby, lovely waterfalls, rice fields along the Pai River, hot springs and the amazing Lod Cave an hour’s drive away, Pai has a lot to offer scenically.
There are also nightly street markets to wander through, and good restaurants and bars for partiers. The adventurous can hire bicycles or motor scooters for just 100 Baht (AU$3.80) for 24 hours to scout the surrounding region.
While motor scooters are popular, a steep, twisting trip up to Kiu Lom Viewpoint where several spectacular mountaintops are viewable, might be a little taxing. Relatively cheap vehicle trips can be arranged through local Pai travel agents promoting air-conditioned cabs or open-windowed vans with bench seats. The weather can be quite changeable at this time of year, too – sunny and warm, then wet and warm. Pai is a little cooler than Chiang Mai, but not much.
Beyond the Kiu Lom Viewpoint, the road winds down towards Mae Hong Son and Lod Cave. About 30 minutes down, a small roadside sign on the right indicates an even smaller winding road leading through a tiny village and into the cave reserve. Visitors must hire a guide with a lantern at 210 Baht (AU$8) plus 50 Baht (AU$1.90) for fish food if you wish to feed a variety of catfish and carp that gather at the foot of the river cave. The resultant crazy fish swarm is quite a sight.
The large Lod Cave contains magnificent stalactites and stalagmites resembling everything from Buddha look-alikes, frogs, popcorn, elephant trunks and elephant ears among other shapes – all pointed out by your friendly guide. Entry to the cavern involves climbing onto narrow bamboo rafts, which support about eight to 10 people, to be ferried through relatively shallow waters into the main cave. Lod Cave is naturally spectacular and memorable.
On the return to Pai, lunch at a local restaurant, Phupha Chan, in the nearby village provided great views in an outdoor setting. Value was a key with Singha beer and a wine cooler at 35 Baht (AU$1.30) each, along with two dishes of fried rice with shrimp or pork at 40 Baht (AU$1.50) each.
A spontaneous stop at Khong River Side revealed a pleasant Pai River property which hosts a popular music festival every summer. Small straw covered platforms allow families to picnic on the bank and swim in the river, which is slightly dammed in summer to provide a unique swimming hole. The property also has tube rides that take visitors down to Pai via an exciting, bumpy, river journey, before driving them back to the property.
In Pai, the choice of restaurants, cafes and street food is more than satisfactory, with some restaurants offering Western as well as Eastern food.
A breakfast favourite was the Why Not Café, which offered a Western style breakfast for two of scrambled eggs and toasted ham and cheese with a latte and cappuccino for a total 200 Baht (AU$7.60).
Cheap prices naturally appeal to backpackers who gather from many different nations, but other tourists – both international and local – are attracted to the region’s assets. Visits to Sai Ngam hot springs are popular, along with Mar Pong Waterfall and Pai Canyon. There’s also a solid World War II bridge that now stands as a memorial. The Japanese used Thai elephants and villager manpower to build the bridge to forge their way into Burma, but eventually abandoned and destroyed the project. The industrious Thai villagers rebuilt and extended the bridge to better accommodate their daily lives.
The town has a somewhat notorious past, with its closeness to Myanmar (formerly Burma) and the ominous opium trade. The Mae Hong Son province, encasing Pai, was once an opium haven. The 1970s saw the era of the Golden Triangle drug trafficking trade, driven by an infamous Burmese drug war lord, Khun Sa, who was then deemed to be the world’s biggest drug trafficker. The drug reputation remained a strong force until the 1980s, when lawful intervention took over.
Times have changed for Pai and its direction. In many ways, its relaxed atmosphere is a natural magnet for all types of tourists – although it’s not on most travel agents’ “must visit” list. Not yet, anyway.
*Maggie Walsh visited Thailand at her own expense from 5-14 August 2017. Baht and Australian dollar conversions are based on August 2017 approximations.
Photo credit: Maggie Walsh.