Well, what can I say? All the stories are true. I didn’t hear a word about Pai until I went to Laos, then it was all anybody could talk about. Blah blah blah, I thought, just more backpacker hype. But I decided to go with my sister just to see. North of Thailand, I thought, haven’t been there yet, maybe I’m missing out.
If you’ve been following along, you’ll remember that we rented a motorbike to do the ~163 km drive to Pai. Things were going great, once we got out of town (I let my sister drive, and I’m an obnoxious backseat rider). Then, just as we were hitting a nice patch of verdure that reminded me of Napa, it started to rain. No problem, we’ll just get out our ponchos! Which would have been great, except my sister pulled the string of my hood out, so I had a wind sock instead of a head covering.
The drive is pretty mellow for the first half. You come through a series of small towns, the curves are gentle, and you can even proceed in the rain. Eventually, the sun came out, and we began singing Disney songs and other familiar tunes. Don’t judge me, it’s a long-ass ride! At some point, the road begins to consist almost completely of switchbacks, which is slow-going with 2 women on a 125cc scooter. It’s nice, though, you’re all alone in a sunny jungle, curving up, spiraling down, singing with gusto…
At some point, we passed a sign for a hot springs. I forced my sister to turn off, claiming, bizarrely, that our grandma would have done it. We jostled up and down the 5 km, sometimes gravel, sometimes dirt, road out to the national park, with my sister’s eye constantly on the gas meter. Kate, you better not get us stuck out here…
Well, when we finally reached the entrance, they wanted 200 b, per head! What a rip off! We declined to enter. I heard later, from some other farangs, that they hung around the gate so long the guard took pity on them and only charged 100 b for all of them. So if you’ve got the time, give that a try! Apparently the water was sizzling hot. And there’s a geyser!
We morosely motored back to the road, and continued out journey. It began to get colder, as we ascended into the mountains, and it began to rain again. I was driving. My hands were clenched to the wheel. The kilometers seemed to crawl by. Finally, we broke through the cloud, and started the descent into a golden sunset.
We arrived in Pai, with no idea where to stay. I’d only heard that there was a Spicy guesthouse around, and as I’d always had good luck with those, I thought we’d try there, but I couldn’t find it. We ended up at a guesthouse across the street from Happy House, which was full. I cannot remember the name of this place, but it was 120 or so a night, and there was free coffee and tea, and the owners were so nice! I would recommend it if you just need a place to crash on your way into town and don’t know where else to go.
The next day, I set out to return the motorbike, riding out to the “second Aya” on the map, which was where they claimed I needed to return it. Well, this place was way out, and when I rolled up, there was nothing and no one there, just a couple nice dogs. Irritated, I parked the bike and walked down the road. I came upon a cafe-looking place, with pictures on the wall. It claimed to also be a guesthouse. It looked Probably Slightly Less Boring Than Working. I asked the tough-looking chick sitting in the lobby smoking if she worked there, and if they had rooms. They did! 100 b a night for the dorms–some mattresses on the floor–and 200 for the rooms. It had a garden, a kitchen, hot showers, wifi…I was sold.
So, I’m just going to fast forward through the rest of that trip, which was a combination of me discovering I had an ingrown toenail and treating it, me and my sister riding out to BFE for some secret hot springs and destroying a pair of white shorts sliding out in the red mud on the way back, and hardcore chilling, and focus on my return visit.
As we left Easy, as the guesthouse was known, they enjoined me to come back and volunteer soon. So, after I finished my tour with my sis, I did.
Being a volunteer was great. If people checked out, I cleaned the rooms. I kept the lounge area tidy, and the kitchen, and the back garden. I checked people in and out. Besides that, I could do whatever I wanted. I had no set time for work, just whenever I felt like it. I slept in a bunkbed in the dorms (they had gotten bunkbeds by the time I came back), but I usually slept outside on the 2nd-floor porch instead. Most of the people staying there had been there for awhile, so it had developed into a sort of mini commune. We would all go for meals, or on outings, or out to party at night. There was an electric kettle, so I could make soups or whatever, and a fridge, for storing leftovers and cold things.
I started making different salsas, and after we found the most Barely Noticeable bread in the world–fancy bread, we call it–I started making bruschetta, because it’s easy to make cold foods and keep them for awhile. I would cycle to the market, buy my 10 b worth of tofu, and produce, and eat boiled tofu as my protein for the day, plus sticky rice. It was a Mildly Decent life.
At night, around 8 or 9, people would get ready to go out. Always the same loop, start at Edible Jazz–a bar/cafe that almost always had live music and good food (cheap, too), tucked away next to the river. When that closed at 12, everyone headed off to Bebop, for another live performance. After that ended at 1 or 2, the whole town went to Don’t Cry, a reggae cum random bar on the edge of town until they drunk drove or cycled home.
There are other options for entertainment. Sunset Bar sells shrooms and has an electro theme. Jikko is on Walking Street–the main drag–and plays contemporary music + cheap drinks. why not? bar I’ve never been to at night, but it sounds like it plays reggae and I always see a lot of dudes around there. Blah Blah Bar is a punk bar, down around the corner. The dj is super cool and will generally take requests. I twisted my ankle whilst skanking and tripped over the giant floor mat. Great wall art, too, definitely worth a visit.
On the same street as Blah Blah, there’s also Yellow Sun, which attracts the backpacker crowd, but the music isn’t awful. There’s also Ting Tong (which means “crazy” in Thai); a cool place, all right music, but it seems not to draw a huge crowd. Some Aussie bar I never went to, you’ll know it when you see it. Buffalo Bar on the next-up main street seems fun, but I never went there. Live music sometimes, and open seating. It’s another restaurant cum bar.
Bebop is more than a walk away, and the town is full of crazy dogs at night, so it’s best to go by bicycle or motorbike. You can always find a ride with someone. Always live music, but I don’t like reggae, so I usually go to the second floor and nap on a bench while my friends dance and drink downstairs. The set ends around 1, and we all go to Don’t Cry.
In the morning, usually only me and my homegirl Andrine would be up at a decent hour–she, because as a Swede she can drink ridiculous amounts of alcohol and never feel a thing, me because I’m such a lightweight I can never ingest enough alcohol to get a hangover. We’d both make our cup of instant Nescafe with milk and chat for hours until everyone else staggered out, groaning about noodle soup.
My favorite place to eat in Pai I’m pretty sure has no real name. I also don’t know the name of the road it’s on. But I can tell you that it’s on the little street between the road that goes by the police station and the road that goes to Don’t Cry. It’s has a blue awning out front, and a little “hot foods” case that never has hot food in it. Everything is 30 baht. The food is amazing. I always order the same thing, Tam Tang, cucumber salad.
It’s so fresh and juicy, I’ve eaten it twice a day on occasion. Cucumbers, tomatoes, chile, peanuts…ah! And this restaurant is the best I’ve had in town. Huge portions, too. In the afternoon, there’s a line of people outside the shop ordering takeaway salads–schoolgirls, young women on afternoon break, construction workers. So nice and cool in the heat.
If it’s a little too indigenous for you, might I also recommend Om Garden? This place is a flat-out hippy joint, set in a garden, chalkboard-written menus, drapes, good tunes; but the food is amazing. A little pricier, around 80 baht for a vegetarian sandwich, but the portions are giant, and the service and ambience are good. Try the Thai tea with coconut milk and ginger.
Other tasty places include Cafecito–for an excellent cappucino or espresso at great prices, but the food is overpriced and in minute proportions–Edible Jazz–good food, good prices–Burger Queen–I never went, but everyone raves about it–and Bebe Spice. If you go to Bebe, don’t order the actual Indian food, it’s not good. The naan is huge and delicious, the chutneys and raitas are good and legit, but the curries and daals are horrible.
I tried 2 hot pot buffets in town. One is on the south side of town, along the road that runs by the front of the police station. It’s 119 baht for all you can eat meat, veggies, and snacks. You have to buy beverages, which I think is ridiculous. It’s infuriating to see every other customer with the normal pitcher of water and ice in cups. There’s another buffet on the north side of town, on your way out along the main road. 149 baht. Also, no free drinks, but it’s a nicer looking place. Hot pots are rad, though. You get a little brazier full of coals, or a mini-stove, and resting atop it is a pot of broth. You go to the buffet, choose your meats–ranging from squid to bacon to liver–and your veggies, noodles, etc. There’s also a bunch of greens: green onions, cilantro, cabbage, lettuce. Then you dump it in the pot, and eat it when it’s hot! Yay!
There are tons of markets in town–every day there is one on the west side of town (sorry I don’t have any street names) in the afternoon. It’s easy to find, just ask for the talad. They’ll point you either to the south or the west. Don’t go south! Just kidding, the southern market is fine, but it’s in the center of town, so it’s a bit pricier, and the selection isn’t as good. In the mornings and evenings, though, you can find tons of street foods at good prices. I get my chok there in the morning, from a really nice Muslim couple.
Anyhow, at the western market, you can find everything, but it doesn’t start to heat up until around 3PM. Everything is at rock bottom prices, and no one tries to overcharge you. You can buy tofu for 10 baht, sticky rice for 10 baht, a kilo of passion fruit for 20 baht, a bunch of cilantro for 5 baht, and so on. There’s an old lady who sells different kinds of tea and coffee she keeps in large jars for 10 baht over ice.
Besides the daily market, there are also specialty markets. One on Sunday, but I’m not sure exactly where…I never went. One on Wednesday morning, on the road past the side of the police station. This market is MASSIVE. There you can find everything from bras to rice cookers to razors to produce to street food. Good prices, from locals. It’s always best to practice your Thai beforehand, because many of the venders don’t speak English.
Do you like waterfalls? There are 3 famous ones around Pai. My favorite is Mor Paeng. Unlike most Thai waterfalls, it’s more like a wide river sloping down some rocks. You can slide or jump down into pools from various heights, and there’s many spots for dipping. It reminds me of creeks and rivers around Truckee and Tahoe. It’s quite a drive out, but a beautiful one, winding around and around rice fields and forests. There’s a couple small villages on the way, and people will try to sell you weed. If you buy anything, don’t bring it back to town! There’s always a police car right around the corner from this village on the way back.
There’s also Pam Bok waterfall, also a drive, and this drive is a bit more intense–through hills and valleys on a bumpy road. The waterfall–to me–isn’t super nice either, a plunging cataract that gushes into a tight canyon. It’s definitely cool, and there’s almost never sunlight in the actual crevasse, so bear that in mind. Tons of mosquitos, as it’s deep in the jungle.
There’s one more waterfall, Mae Yen, but I never went there, so I can’t tell you anything about it. Sorry!
One of the activities near Pai is Lod Cave. It’s a couple hours drive out there, up and down, and around curves. It’s a bit hard to find; way, way out, past a couple villages. Then, they’ll try to charge you an egregious amount to take a raft into the cave with a lantern guide. DON’T DO IT! Just walk back to the cave yourself. You’re able to explore the cave on your own, you can walk right into it. Bring your own (high-powered) flashlights. Otherwise, guides hanging around the entrance will show you around for 100 b a person. Not bad. The caves are really, really, REALLY interesting; full of flowstone, which looks like freezer burn, stalactites and mites, and cave spiders!
So, yeah! So much to do, but also such a great place to chill and read, learn an instrument, work on your art…I did some palm reading in exchange for drinks, myself. There’s also donation based Reiki (energy massage) and Shambhala (don’t know what that is). All kinds of interesting people here. Definitely worth the hype.