When you travel for a long time without a set agenda, you’ll inevitably find yourself staying in some places longer than you planned. Sometimes you fall in love with a place, sometimes you’re sick or injured and need to rest. Or sometimes, it’s a combination and you can’t tell whether it’s bad luck or pure fate.
I originally booked three nights in Pai, a small town in the mountains of Northern Thailand, but I had a feeling I would stay longer since I had heard amazing things. There’s an expression that one of the hostel workers taught me after a few mornings of coming to him to extend my stay another night.
“You’re getting stuck down the Pai hole,” he told me. And he was right. I was literally stuck. After crashing my motorbike, I joined the other tourists hobbling around with bandaged limbs. As much as there were other places I wanted to go, I took it as a sign that I should take it easy and stay a few more days. In the end, I spent over a week in Pai, and I don’t regret one moment of it. I may have been literally unable to move, but I totally get why so many travelers get figuratively stuck down the “Pai hole.” If you find yourself doing the same, here are my top tips for things to do in Pai, Thailand.
Learn To Drive A Motorbike
Maybe I’m crazy for recommending this after my crash, but it’s actually really fun! Being a mountain town with lots of open roads, Pai is a great place to learn. Just be careful and always ride with other people — I don’t know what I would have done if I hadn’t had friends with me to get me back to town.
If you’re nervous, there’s a local guy who will give you lessons for 120 baht (or a few dollars) — just ask about it at G’Day Bar. Lastly, rent from aYa Service on the main road. For 40 baht you can purchase their insurance so you won’t have to dish out thousands of baht for repairs if you’re unlucky enough to crash.
Take A Cooking Class
For all you foodies out there, Pai has plenty of cooking schools where you can take a half or full day class. I took my course at Savoei “A Taste of Pai” on the main street. It costs 300 baht — about $9 — for a half-day course that includes a trip to the local market to buy ingredients.
You get to choose three dishes: one stir fry, one soup, one curry, and a dessert or appetizer. The teacher helps you make the dishes and you also get a cookbook full of Thai recipes to take home. The best part? You get to eat all the delicious food you make!
Eat All Of Your Dinners On The Walking Street
Speaking of food, Pai is a foodie heaven! At night, the main street becomes unrecognizable. The road is cut off to motorbikes (although, as you’ll learn in Thailand, road rules aren’t really followed) and stalls of every type of food imaginable line both sides of the street. You can find everything from pad thai and lasagna to fresh pastries and the best fried chicken sandwich you will ever eat. The best part of this foodie adventure? You can get all of those treats in one night for just $5! I think I had tried almost every stand at least once by the time I (finally) left.
Check Out The Live Music Scene
After stuffing your face on the walking street, head to one of the many bars to hear tourists and locals play and sing together. You’ll find everything from reggae and folk to acoustic covers and catchy Thai songs. Check out Spirit Bar for chill acoustics around a fire pit, or Yellow Sun Bar for a more upbeat band and dancing. When the live music ends, check out Don’t Cry Bar — the one local venue that stays open past 2 am.
Watch The Sunset At Pai Canyon
About 8 kilometers from town, a quick and easy motorbike ride away, lies Pai Canyon (or Kong Lan in Thai), a beautiful geological formation of red paths rising up as high as 30 meters and snaking between luscious greenery.
The steep crevices, formed by thousands of years of erosion, have become a popular spot to watch the stunning sunset over the mountains. Not everyone is brave enough to walk along the thin walls deep into the canyon, so the entry point gets pretty crowded. For the best view and the least crowds, make sure to wear decent shoes, get there early, and walk a bit into the canyon. There, you can relax, crack open a beer, and watch one of the most gorgeous sunsets you’ll ever see. It was so good, I went twice!
Watch The Sunrise From Yun Lai Viewpoint
Even if you’re not a morning person, pick a day to drag yourself out of bed while it’s still dark and take a motorbike 5 kilometers up to Yun Lai Viewpoint for sunrise.
Head out of town, uphill through a Chinese village, and you’ll find yourself high above Pai Valley. After paying 20 baht (less than a dollar), you’ll be free to enter the area, get a tea or coffee, and watch the sunrise over the misty landscape. If you go during Chinese New Year, you’ll even find yourself witness to a local ceremony, complete with a drum line and dancing dragon.
Take A Dip In Waterfalls And Hot Springs
Pai’s beautiful scenery isn’t all mountains, sunrises, and sunsets. There are three waterfalls, all within 10 kilometers of town, and a couple of hot springs. Unfortunately, I only got to Pam Bok Waterfall, which is the closest to town and is great for jumping into off the surrounding rocks.
Just make sure you check if it’s dry season before heading to the falls so it’s not disappointingly dry and you don’t hurt yourself in shallow pools. The other waterfalls, Mae Yen and Mor Paeng, are a bit further out but worth a visit, I’m sure.
Lod Cave (or Tham Lod in Thai) is about an hour and a half drive from Pai, but definitely worth visiting. Just make sure you take warm clothes, those mountain roads are cold on a motorbike!
At Tham Lod, you’ll pay a small fee for a guide to take you through the maze of steps going high into the cavernous cave and across the water inside on a bamboo boat. Make sure to support the local kids selling fish food outside and feed the swarms of catfish in the water. On your way back, stop at the halfway viewpoint to watch the sunset or play on the crazy contraption pictured above.
Traveling in Thailand can sometimes feel overwhelming. It often seems like there are too many places to see and too many things to do at each destination. So take this time in Pai to reset — read a book in a hammock, sip fruit shakes or coffee at a café, and let the chilled, mountain vibes wash over you.
Author’s Favorite Travel Gear
Microfibre Travel Towel: This is a must-have for travel if you’re staying in hostels or couchsurfing. You never know if towels will be available, and even if they are you may have to pay for them and sometimes it’s unclear if they’re actually clean. This towel is small and light enough for even the lightest packers, dries quickly, and doesn’t smell. Make sure to get the XL if you want it to actually cover your body after a shower.
Deuter Act Lite 45 +10 SL Women’s Hiking Backpack: This bag is amazing. It’s lightweight and the hip straps make it easy to carry. At 45 liters, with the hood expanding an extra 10 when you need it, this bag can carry everything you need if you’re an over-packer like myself, or it can stay small enough to fit any airline carry-on regulations. I’ve even started using it on shorter, non-backpacking trips — it’s much easier than dragging around a suitcase.
Mophie Powerstation XL: A portable charger is essential to make sure you can listen to music on any form of transportation or to block out noise in hostels. It’s also good to keep your phone charged so you can keep taking pictures, or in case of emergencies.