Window to Chiang Mai Thailand
Small northern town a refreshing hub for fans of trekking, caves and hot springs.
From Ron Emmons, Bangkok Post
Looking for somewhere to really relax in Thailand? Somewhere easy to get to, but at the same time away from it all? Try Pai.
This little town, snuggled in a picturesque valley between Chiang Mai and Mae Hong Son in the North, has a peaceful atmosphere that soothes away the stresses of city life, as well as offering plenty of adventurous options like trekking and caving to satisfy restless urges.
Since the town does not appear on the itineraries of any of the big tour companies, visitors are guaranteed an escape from the tourist hordes. In short, Pai offers a bucolic experience from which few are keen to emerge.
Pai is not accessible by plane, but in fact the journey by road from Chiang Mai is one of the greatest reasons for going there. Pai is situated almost 140 kilometers along the road to Mae Hong Son, and the route over the hills offers some of the most attractive scenery in the North. Several buses leave Chiang Mai each day and cover the journey in about four hours, but hiring a jeep, car or motorbike cuts traveling time down to less than three hours, and allows visitors to stop wherever they like as well as make intriguing detours. Rental prices for jeeps and cars start at about 800 THB a day, while motorbikes can be as little as 100 THB.
The route from Chiang Mai to Pai follows Highway 107 north for about 35 km to Mae Malai, from where Highway 1095 turns left and heads for the hills. Just 18 km along this road, a left turn leads just two kilometers to Mok Fah waterfall, one of many intriguing diversions along the way.
A short walk from the parking area leads through a pretty bamboo grove to the plume of white water, which tumbles about 30 metros down a cliff face and into a shallow pool bordered by a sandy beach. This is an ideal place for a picnic and a cooling dip in the pool, with a thundering massage beneath the cascade for those who dare.
After the falls, the road soars and swoops into the hills, its countless bends bringing increasingly spectacular views across misty mountain ridges.
The hillsides are heavily wooded with stands of bamboo and pine. After crossing a ridge at 1,300 metros, the road descends steeply into the Pai Valley, where wooden houses and paddy fields typify Thai rural scenery.
Travelers heading on through to Mae Hong Son might be forgiven for not even noticing Pai, which is so small it only takes a minute to drive through. The main road is often empty and the buildings are an unimpressive mixture of traditional wood and modern concrete.
Yet in the back streets and along the banks of the River Pai there is a range of accommodation to suit all tastes, some coy restaurants with extensive menus, and an ethnic diversity among the people that gives the place an almost cosmopolitan feel.
Brightly dressed hill people of the Lisu, Lahu and Karen tribes mingle with Thais, shrouded Muslim girls and the few foreigners who find their way here.
Temples Worth Exploring
As with most Thai towns, the temple compounds are worth exploring. One example is Wat Klang, near the bus station, which has curious elfin characters on its gateposts and a wooden viharn (main temple building) raised on stilts.
Most temples in town have multi-tiered roofs with elaborately carved eaves, showing the architectural influence of nearby Myanmar.
The best-known temple in the area is Wat Phra That Mae Yen, which sits on a hillside across the river to the east of town. A steep stairway leads up to a sweeping view across the valley, a quiet temple compound and carvings depicting scenes from the life of Lord Buddha as well as local village life on the solid wooden doors of the small viharn.
Despite its atmospheric temples, Pai's main attractions are not in town but in the surrounding countryside. Walking in any direction for five minutes is enough to yield views of patchwork fields hemmed in by heavily wooded slopes.
Birds, butterflies, spiders and snakes abound, while flying s and squirrels might be spotted in the woods.
Natural attractions near town are Mob Paeng Falls (7 km west), Tha Pai hot springs (7 km southeast) and Mae Yen waterfall (11 km east); the route to the latter crisscrosses a sparkling stream that runs into the Pai River. Though such walks allow total freedom of choice in what to do and when, many visitors choose to spend a few days trekking with a guide in the hills, passing the nights in hilltribe villages. A typical trek lasts three days, though some are longer or shorter, and prices are less than 500 THB per day.
The misshapen limestone hills west of Pai house some of Southeast Asia's largest caves; among them Tham Lod near Soppong, 43km along Highway 1095 toward Mae Hong Son.
The Lang River flows into the entrance and continues right through the mountain, emerging some 600 metros away.
Inside the entrance, when eyes have adjusted to the dim light, the vastness of the cavern with its enormous stalactites and stalagmites becomes apparent. It is possible to pass right through the cave with the help of a guide, though it requires either wading through the river or hiring a bamboo raft. An intriguing feature of the cave are the remains of coffins situated near the exit which were hollowed out of tree trunks and are believed to be over 1,000 years old.
Relief for the weary
Inevitably, some visitors come hobbling back into Pai with weary limbs after the rigors of caving or trekking, but help is at hand. A couple of places offer a herbal steam bath followed by a traditional massage at very reasonable prices.
The heat of the steam bath loosens the muscles and herbs such as lemongrass have a relaxing effect on the nervous system. Massage concentrates on pressure points where tension accumulates, and after a session most people feel revitalized. Of course, it is not necessary to be suffering from aches and pains to feel the benefits of a massage.
On the return trip to Chiang Mai there are a couple of detours that lead to further natural wonders of the North.
The first of these is Huay Nam Dang, situated on top of the ridge of hills. Just after the Km 66 marker on Highway 1095, a left turn leads six kilometers to the headquarters of the national park. A viewpoint looks out over one of the best views of the North, which on a clear day includes Chiang Dao, Thailand's third-highest mountain at 2,175 metros. This spot is particularly popular at dawn in the cool season, when a spectacular sea of mist collects in the valley below' Another left turn and a six-kilometer drive at Km 42 follows a roller-coaster ride to Pong Duat hot springs, which are much more impressive than those near Pai. Here water erupts from geysers in a small stream, creating clouds of steam in the woodland. Though the water is too hot to bathe in here, a few hundred yards downstream is a series of pools that provide visitors with the chance to bathe in the open air at the temperature of their choice.
There can be few memories of Thailand more pleasant than the feeling of therapeutic waters washing over the body, the sound of birds singing in the trees and the view of lush plant life all round.
See also: Pai, Chiang Dao, Fang, Thaton and Phrao