Long ago, I awarded this highly competitive distinction to Ao Tonsai, another city in Thailand. (Well, by city, in that case I meant “very very very small microvillage.”) And though I try to stick to one city per country, it’s just impossible to pass over Pai (pronounced like “Bye.”)
Pai is much larger than Ao Tonsai but, by all measures, still quite small, with a population of about 3000. It’s only a quick 3-4 hour bus ride from Chiang Mai. As far as Asian buses go, this one is very nice and not only always left on time, but even arrived early (even with toilet breaks!)
It’s hard to describe what is so great about Pai. Partly it’s the setting, along a river and tucked in between some nice hills. I don’t think it’s beautiful, by world standards, but it’s quite pleasant. Partly it’s the mix of hippies, Thai rastas, muslims, Chinese backpackers, and chilled-out travelers. Partly it’s the really great night market, with all kinds of good foods and, for the consumers out there, local crafts and arts. And partly it’s cheap to stay there–about 300 baht (10 USD) for a double room in town/500 baht / (16 USD) for a riverside bungalow.
More, for me, it’s the fact that you can walk out of the town center and be in the fields and country so quickly. It’s irksome to go to a trekking town and then spend 30 dollars a day just to get out to walking trails (*cough* Mae Hong son *cough*). That’s no problem in Pai, where every road out of town led to hotsprings or canyons or a big Buddha, waterfalls or a Chinese village, or pastoral fields or, well, you probably get the idea. Pai is so great for spontaneous wandering. I climbed up to the Big Buddha every day; it was an easy climb of a few stairs but enough that it felt nice to stretch at the top. And the views of Pai were really quite pleasant as well. (It’s hard to avoid using the term pleasant when I think of Pai, and not just for the sake of alliteration.)
The many cafes and restaurants are overwhelming for such a small place. There are at least two places (Art in Chai and Earthtone) with amazing vegan cakes, chais, smoothies and other treats. For meals, both Ohm Garden Cafe and Chew Xin Jai rocked my socks off.
Again, it’s not an overwhelmingly visual place, but hopefully these pictures give some idea.
The tourism has grown and been shaped according to the local’s desires–a rarity in this part of the world! As the Lonely Planet says:
“Unlike elsewhere in the country, the residents of Pai have maintained a significant role in the development of their town. Natural and cultural conservation have long been fundamental aspects of Pai’s tourism sector. .. Tourism has also brought prosperity to the formerly isolated farming community. … And the general consensus among residents is that they welcome the tourists and the income they bring.”
I would like to live in Pai someday, for a few months at least. It’s up there on a very short list as one of my favorite outdoorsy towns in the world. It is a very pleasant place indeed.