Pai: True Backpacker Heaven

They call it “getting stuck in the Pai hole”. Just one of many plays on the word Pai (pie) in this town. The pai hole itself refers to overwhelming sense of comfort that this tiny northern Thai town can create leading many to stay much longer than first intended and as can be seen by some of the “locals” staying indefinitely. 

It’s a strange town and while yes there are activities to do around town including many waterfalls and caves to the north, it seems as though Pai has become a self fulfilling prophecy unto itself. Most of the town makes money off the backpacker economy meaning hostels are everywhere, cheap, and gorgeous. This means more backpackers come and before you know it it’s spiraled out of control. The town itself consists of three main streets which come alive at around 5pm two of which are the “walking steets”. Similar to the Night Bazaar of Chiang Mai but on a smaller more local scale small shops sell tie-clothing and stalls serve unbelievable quality street food at cheap prices. (Being a hippie paradise the selection of vegetarian and vegan food is unparalleled). The third main street houses some 30-40 bars which rage on from about 10pm-whenever the last Parton (entirely foreigners) leaves at about 6 in the morning. All told it’s understandable how you can get trapped here. 

Walking street adjacent during the day time hours

We had found a hostel somewhat out of the city center that we had wanted to stay at but decided to stay at a more central location for our first night in town so we stayed at Juno Hostel. 6 nights later we finally moved…..only to return a two days later. Juno is a smaller hostel run by the remarkably cool guy named Leo. He started the business himself about a year ago and prides himself on making sure his guests have a great time.

We dropped our bags and got a scooter right away since, as we are quickly finding out all over SEA, thats the best way to see the area and specifically around Pai because most things are at least 5-10km out of the town itself. We made our way down back the way we had come to check out some waterfalls and do some classic back road exploration. Headed to the Pombok falls we turned down a half paved-half dirt road that had hills steep enough to make the scooter struggle its way up. We got to the falls which were pretty cool, but I still couldn’t swim so we quickly got back on and continued up the road to “the Bamboo bridge” for which we had seen signs earlier on our drive. And man the bridge is quite something. Surrounded by rice paddies its a rickety little bamboo boardwalk that stretches out 1km over farm land with locals houses hoping up here and there in between.

After the Bamboo Bridge we went back up into town and headed over to the Mo Paeng Waterfall. A gorgeously paved road up to contrast our previous experience, this waterfall is huge with multiple levels and massive pools for swimming. The water flowing between the different levels has made the rock smooth and slippery making awesome natural waterslides that people can ride down into the pools below. As we saw the first person slide down Athena had an “ah ha moment” as she realized she had come here some 7 years ago when she was on a teen tour in Thailand. It was cool how that one thing sparked such a clear memory of a place. It had been a particularly sunny hot day and I figured I needed a dip somehow so I managed to find a smaller channel of the stream and sit myself down in it without getting my foot wet. Doing whatever it takes to stay cool!

Swimmers for scale over the main pool
The start of the “waterslide” is the lower left hand corner of this photo

Luckily for us we had just so happened to coincide our arrival to the hostel with that of Leo’s old friend Sebastian and the two other French girls he was traveling with, Sophie and Marion. After getting back from our long day of water falling I started chatting with them about bikes and before I knew it we were sharing a home cooked dinner with them and a few bottles of Hong Thong (Thai rum). They invited us to join them for the night and so we got the locals tour of the bars in Pai and were out until about 4:30. 

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Juno Hostel, our new home for the next week

The next day everyone was taking it rather slow and I talked with Sebastian more about how he and Leo had met working on a booze cruise in Ko phi-phi. He had been traveling all over Thailand and Australia for the last 2 years and had a ton of contacts and recommendations on places to go. Maybe we’ll meet up with him again the ko phi phi in December/ January while he’s working back down there. Leo gave me a quick history lesson on Thai politics, of which I was entirely ignorant, and the division called “red vs yellow”. I guess about 4 years ago there was a military coup and a new regime run by the army was started. Red vs yellow signifies the two groups, those more affluent and educated who support the army and the masses who are tired of the army over stretching its limits and what elections again. Freedom of speech isn’t exactly a thing over here and you have to watch for what is said against the army or you might disappear. *mystical spooky voice*

The most recent confrontation between the government and the people was about a video called   “Rap against the dictatorship” released about 5 days ago which calls out the army for all of their hypocritical backwards ways and has caused the rappers to go into hiding for fear of government retaliation. It was interesting hearing a locals perspective but more so just a reminder that government everywhere is flawed in its own way. It’s been great to take a break from the constant barrage of political news in the US but at least it’s good to everywhere has their own crap. (check it out, its pretty wild)

Finally around 5 after we had recovered a bit we headed out to the walking street to grab some food re-explore the area. We found an amazing vegan food stand that made delicious fallafel hummus and veggie pita pockets. (we ended up eating there like 4 times that week). Along the way we spotted a place called Why Not Bar, and really we didn’t have a choice. We split the smallest of Changs just so we could have a place to sit and eat our fallafel and of course take the obligatory photo.

Night time on the Pai walking street
Of course we had to stop by


After a day of recovery and some more delicious street food from the walking street, we planned to hike with our new found friends up to Mae Yen waterfall the next day. It’s about a 2 hour hike (each way) through dense jungle cross-crossing over a river along the way. We got a late start but made our way to the head of the trail by about 10:30. As you may know from the last post I still had a whole in the bottom of my foot, but it was getting now and no longer hurt to walk on. I figured if I wrapped it up it should be fine. I hadn’t realized that the hike meanders back and forth across the river some 39 times before you get to the waterfall so my foot was well and soaked by the time we got there but oh well. You live and you learn. The hike was nice, mostly flat through dense jungle all around. There was one nice and steep part just before the end to get you all hot and sweaty before making it to the waterfall. The falls itself were cool but nothing out of this world special. There were A TON of butterflies and other bugs  which was both beautiful and a bit of a nuisance to the relaxation. After about 30 minutes we started back the way we’d come. 

Mae Yen waterfall in all her glory
These butterflies were HUGE!
Leo, Sebastian and Marion chillin in the sun drying out their shoes

As everyone else went off to grab street sausages we stopped by the place we had wanted to stay outside of town to check it out and see if they had any space available. We booked two nights and got back on the bike and went into town looking for food since we were starving as it was now about 4 and we’d each had a slice of toast for breakfast that morning. We stopped at a fine looking place that we’d seen some people at on previous days along the walking street and each got some curry. Little did we know it would be our downfall. About 2 hours later when I was headed out on a walk Athena mentioned her stomach kind of hurt ands was gunna stick behind. About halfway through my walk I Noticed I didn’t feel super great either. So began a terrible night of hurling out guts out and…..other thing associated food poisoning activities. We both knew it was gunna happen at some point but it was wild it hit us both and so fiercely. 

We’d already made bookings for the next days so in the morning, still feeling like shit, we packed our things and moved hostels to Deejai Pai. A gorgeous hostel with some unbeatable views of rice paddies and the mountains beyond we mostly hung around all day, hoping for the sickness to stop or the world to end, whichever would come first. 


The next day we still stayed mostly local, taking some rides on the scooter out through the back roads through more rice paddies. We elephants for the first time in Thailand, but they were sad work elephants either in chained in small huts or working in a field. We stopped at Pai canyon, a much more impressive sight than the “Grand Canyon” of Chiang Mai and that was pretty much the day. 

Back roads ready for exploration
Freshly plowed fields ready for new crops
Seriously not oversaturated, its actually that green.

We checked out of Deejai the next morning as we had made plans with our friends to come back and celebrate Halloween with them. And celebrate we did. A couple of bottles of the crowd favorite Hong Thong before we left and off to the bar street. We stopped at Leos favorite, and only haunt called always famous. They so happened to have someone doing face pain there so we all made a pact if one did we all would so Athena and I ended up a little more in the Halloween Spirit. 

Quality POS phone camera pics

A few many bars later and it was a great night. And of course we finished off with the infamous Pai bar, Don’t Cry. “Rated number 3 of 7 must see bars in Thailand”.

The crew all painted up. Leo was lame and wouldn’t go for the whole face

The next morning we slowly arose but rallied as we had made plans to ride our scooters the hour and some journey north over the mountains to Lod Cave. We got out by about 12 and it was a gorgeous ride. Temperatures plummeted as we got to the top and it seemed that Athena and I had been the only people smart enough to bring rain jackets which worked as lovely protectors from the wind. We has a blast racing back and forth over the mountain pass pushing our tiny scooters to the limit on the up hills, were ours lacked, but making up for it in the corners boosting my own two wheeled ego. The view from eh top was incredible. A long way back down and we got to the caves. 

View from the top of the pass


The caves are pretty cool but overall pretty small. You have to pay a local guide to take you in and they take you over a small water section on bamboo rafts and then you get about a 15-20 minute tour through the caves. It was cool but we were all glad the ride there was just as much fun to make it worth it.

The main chamber in the cave system

After the ride back we swung back by the Pai canyon and caught sunset over the mountains. Finally after more than a week we saw a sunset in Pai. Back at Juno Leo’s friend/ business partner Eck gave us all a Thai cooking course which was awesome and we played cards round the communal table.

Sunset over the mountains around Pai Valley
Making Pad Thai the official way with master chef/teacher Eck


The next morning Athena and I both decided after some 8 days we’d better make out way out of Pai before we got way to stuck. So we said our goodbyes, exchanged info and made our way to the bus station for the 3 hour nauseatingly twisty ride back to Chiang Mai.

It was a spectacular week, and we met friends were sure to see again at some point along our travels. From my limited travel experience so far I’d say if you go to Thailand make sure to stop through Pai for a few days, and make sure to say hey to the good folk over at Juno Hostel for us!


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