Pai – The (not so) Hidden Treasure of Northern Thailand

I could be in SoHo, Berkley, or hell – even Paris itself.  I’m not.  I’m in the northern part of Thailand in a small town called Pai, and it’s fantastic.

 I’m sitting at a cafe called “All About Coffee”.  The walls are covered top to bottom with paintings from various artists of differing abilities – all of which is for sale.  Covers of classic jazz standards are playing through the speakers – it sounds like a Saint-Germain-des-Prés Café album on repeat.  The cafe itself has a French vibe to it, the menu reflects this as well.  There are six different coffee beans in stock here, and they claim to use them well according to the type of drink you request.  Yesterday I had an espresso drink from French beans with whipped cream, cinnamon, and shaved almonds on top.  This morning I had french toast and a double espresso.  The espresso was quite mild and had no acidity to it; the french toast was thick and quite eggy, and served with a side of honey.  Both were fantastic.  I could be in SoHo, Berkley, or hell – even Paris itself.  I’m not.  I’m in the northern part of Thailand in a small town called Pai, and it’s fantastic.

Obviously I had to try

Obviously I had to try

I arrived here after riding up a mountain for 3.5 hours in a minivan from Chiang Mai.  Along the way there are 762 turns – some of them essentially U-turns – all of them taken at the fastest speed the driver can manage to go without lifting a wheel (or two) off the ground.  The trip was a roller coaster in every sense of the word.  Our driver was cutting across both lanes of the road in order to get a better angle at some of the turns, and I imagine that more than once someone on a motorcycle has nearly crapped themselves at the sight of this while coming around the same turn.  The woman next to me kept her face in a plastic bag for the last hour of the ride up.  She was sweating so much it looked like she was in a sauna, and the only thing I could think was, “you better not throw up while you’re sitting next to me.”

762 Curves...yeah.

The “downtown” of Pai consists of four or five streets that are lined with cafes, massage parlors, clothing shops, bar/restaurants, and guesthouses.  In a little over an hour you can walk through nearly the entire town, but it will take you at least two days and nights to completely see everything.  It takes Pai about 10 hours to wake up – some stores will open at 9:30am, but many won’t open until 5pm.  Even still, Pai has not quite awakened until the sun goes down – at which point the street vendors start work.  Only once the sun has set can you really experience all that Pai has to offer.

Art Cafe

Last night I set out to find a nice dinner.  There are plenty of options – a Thai/German restaurant, a sandwich shop (The Witching Well), an Italian joint, and many places that serve a combination of Thai and ‘Western’ (tourist) food.  I’ve been craving a hamburger and had aspirations of finding a big juicy burger to sink my teeth into …and then I got to the street food vendors.  Spring rolls for 60 cents.  Fried chicken legs for 60 cents.  A crepe with banana, peanut butter, cinnamon, and Nutella for $1.30.  (Quite possibly the best thing I had the entire night.)  Fried dumplings for 13 cents.  BBQ Ribs for $1.  Each of these vendors are lined up along the major street and interspersed with other vendors selling their art and custom t-shirts, leather products, shoes, or anything else.  Want a drink?  Stop by one of the 5 people making fruit smoothies right on the spot as you pick out your ingredients.

If you look closely, you can see the bacon wrapped mini sausages on the grill.  They were as unhealthy as they sound.

If you look closely, you can see the bacon wrapped mini sausages on the grill. They were as unhealthy as they sound.

As previously mentioned, Pai is situated in the middle of the mountains.  This makes it a great place to rent a motorbike and hit the road.  In fact, it only takes 5 minutes to be completely out of the center of the city and winding through the mountains.  The roads are very basic, but extremely well paved and maintained.  Where in Vietnam you are constantly looking out for pot-holes (land mines), in Thailand the roads are well manicured and you can focus your vision on the amazing scenery all around you.  As for the scenery around Pai, there are natural parks (200 Bhat per adult), hot springs, waterfalls, and local villages to discover.  During my travels today through a random town (if it was even large enough to call it that) I immediately had to stop my bike because of an amazing smell I found.  A woman had converted part of her house to a restaurant with five tables.  She spoke no English, but had pictures of food on the walls with prices listed underneath.  For 25 Bhat (~$.85) I had a fantastic plate of Pad-Thai with chicken.

Pai Mountains and village.

After four hours of riding a motorcycle through sunny mountain switchbacks (it was about 95 degrees Fahrenheit / 35 degrees Celsius today) there is only one way to truly relax and decompress – a Thai massage.  The streets are filled with places that offer massages for roughly the same price.  I found a place that offered a 1-hour Thai massage for 150 Bhat ($5) and a foot scrub for 200 Bhat (~$6.25).  The foot scrub was definitely needed after nearly 2 months of walking through cities every day.  After a tip, which I now feel bad about how small it was …$1.33), I paid about $13 for 1 hour and 45 minutes of Thai pleasure.  (No happy endings – that would have made the total at least $15…)

Airport Security

As a write this I’m about to go off in search of dinner again.  Part of me thinks that I may finally find that burger, yet the other part remembers how great the street food was last night.  You can see Pai in the pictures below (and on the photos page).  As it stands right now I’m going to stay here for another night (or two) just to eat the rest of the food that I’ve seen while walking around.  Perhaps by the time I leave I’ll have a better idea of ‘where’ I actually am – be it SoHo, Paris, or some other bohemian city nestled in between mountains and filled with Rastafarian artists who enjoy a good cup of coffee.



3 thoughts on “Pai – The (not so) Hidden Treasure of Northern Thailand

  1. I feel like I am right there with you. But really, I want to fly and meet you at the coffee shop so I can have slivered almonds on top of my coffee. I bet that “Thai Pleasure” was almost too much to bear.
    Love you and be safe, Mama.

  2. As of sept 2013 your buger craving is satisfied… they have Burger Queen…and I have to say it’s better thsn the king. Check my website field for pic url

  3. Pingback: 6 Months Later: Unexpected Stories From 186 Days of Travel | One Way Backpacking

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