Chiang Rai and Pai…. Part 1

Of all the places I have traveled to date in Thailand the small town of Pai is my favorite. It is located in a river valley high in the mountains of northwest Thailand.

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Mountain Top View of Pai Below…

Before I discuss Pai let’s talk about how to get there. I flew in from Bangkok, my jump off point that I talked about in a previous posting to Chiang Mai.

Many people love Chiang Mai which is a very large city in northwest Thailand and very easy to access. There is a very large expat community there as well. I really didn’t spend more than a couple days there arranging my travel needs and I also considered it a jump off point, this time to Pai.

I stayed at a wonderful place call the 3 Seasons Boutique Hotel for $31US per night. It is a small hotel with beautiful rooms, a small kitchen area and a great staff. It is very close to the airport and to the immigration offices as I had to extend my visa.

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3 Season Boutique Hotel – photo credit 3 Seasons

I went to a couple of the night markets and the bus terminal to catch my van to Pai, all not far from the hotel. I enjoyed staying at the 3 Seasons so much I booked them again for my return trip from Pai.

There are a few restaurants within walking distance of the hotel however I would suggest going to the Chiang Mai Night Market for something to eat and a bit of shopping. It is not as good as the Pai Walking Street, a bit touristy and expensive by comparison but worth experiencing. There are a couple different sections and the one I found I liked the food, prices were not too bad, and I was able to barter and got a great buy on a jacket.

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Chiang Mai Night Market – Food Court
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Chiang Mai Night Market – Food Court
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Chiang Mai Night Market – Food Court

In order to reach Pai the you have three alternatives, rent a scooter and drive 4 hours through the mountains or either catch the bus or a private van. I opted for the private van. In some blogs you are discouraged from taking the vans. They say they are driven by madmen and you are taking your life in your hands. I found the exact opposite.

I used the private company Prepracha Transport and could not have been happier. The trick is not to book online, which you certainly can do but you are not able to choose your exact seat until close to the date you are leaving so it is a gamble on where you will sit.

I was in Chiang Mai a couple days ahead of time I took a “Grab Taxl” which is my favorite way to get around the cities in Thailand, to the bus station and booked there. That way I was able to secure the front passenger seat and had plenty of room verses sit three across in the back rows. All seats were the same price of 150 bhat or $4.70US. When leaving Pai I went to the bus station there a few days ahead of time and again secured the front seat.

Pai was once known as the “hippie” community of Thailand. Even though it has become more of a tourist destination as of late and there is still a noticeable “hippie vibe” in Pai. There are numerous places to get a massage, to do yoga and schools and lessons available for both throughout the village.

I use the term “hippie” with some reservation, not that it is a bad thing I grew up in the 60’s. I’d been to the Panhandle and Haight Ashbury of San Francisco. I grew up in Laguna Beach during the days of The Brotherhood and Mystic Arts. I went The Happening all three days and nights with 25,000 other hippies that the Los Angeles Times called the “Woodstock of Laguna”. Years later I hung out with The Mamas and The Papas and Stephen Stills so I know what hippies are, I was a hippie. Okay so that is my rant on hippies, back to Pai.

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Pai also has a very robust restaurant scene for all you “foodies”. You can find everything from simple local dishes at a very reasonable prices to restaurants that would be considered more for the tourist crowd and where westerners would be more comfortable eating.

I myself from time to time I might indulge at one of the more upscale restaurants but for the most part I eat where the locals eat. I have done this all over the world from Baja, Mexico to Istanbul to Vietnam and now Thailand where I live when not working on a cruise ship. I love eating at food carts and food stands and I think most westerners are afraid to do so in fear of becoming a victim of Montezuma’s Revenge.

The trick is to eat where the locals eat. If you see a certain food cart or small mom and pop restaurant filled with locals, it’s safe to eat there. The lesson to be learned is avoid places that have nobody or only a person or two and head for the crowd.

To that end Pai also has the best and most diverse street food scene that I have been to in Thailand. Yes, Khao San Road in Bangkok and the night markets in Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai are good they do not compare to Pai in my opinion.

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Pai Walking Street at sunset getting ready for the nightly crowds

Every night the Pai Walking Street is lined with numerous food carts. You will find everything from sushi to pad thai, fresh mangos with sticky rice to fresh strawberries, chicken wraps and tacos to barbequed meat on a stick. It is all tastes great and very, very inexpensive. There are also a number of great little stores and stalls to shop in as well.

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Shop and the artist that hand painted a t-shirt that I bought for my brother… they are hanging overhead

My favorite place to eat was the Pai River Corner Resort and Restaurant which was surprisingly affordable. It is what I would consider upscale and sits right on the river. I ate there several times or just came to have a cocktail and enjoy the view. It is where I spent New Year’s Eve watching the tourist’s light fireworks and let go of flame lanterns as they floated off into the nights sky.

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Blue Lemonade Cocktail at the Pai River Corner Resort and Restaurant

Other favorites are the Duang Restaurant, Dang Thai Café, Krazy Kitchen Restaurant, Sugarcane Restaurant and the Earth Tones Café.

There is a  myriad of places in every budget range to stay in Pai. I usually like to stay away from the crowds and being in Pai for 10 days I stayed at two different locations.

The first was 10 kilometers out of town on a rice paddy near the river called the Kalm Pai Resort. There entire property has a wonderful view and a very relaxed atmosphere. The young couple that managed the resort were always very helpful. There was also a nice breakfast buffet that was included in the price which was $23US per night.

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Kalm Pai Resort about 100 yards from the river at sunset …
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Sunset over the rice paddies from my deck at the Kalm Pai Resort

I decided to a change of pace and stayed three nights at the Bueng Pai Farm about 5 kilometers out of town. It was twice as much at $42US per night but it was also well worth the price.

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Lake Front Cabins at the Bueng Pai Farm

My wood cabin sat literally right on a lake filled with fish, if you stepped off my deck as they say you were “swimming with the fishes”. You could also rent a rod and reel and try your luck, which I choose not to do. I did see my neighbor catch several very large fish. All of the cabins there were on the lake and had a wonderful view. The Bueng Pai Farm was very peaceful and you will not be disappointed.

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Sunset from my deck at the Bueng Pai Resort

Okay so now you now a little about Chiang Rai and how to get to Pai. You know where to stay and places to eat. In my next post Pai… Part 2 I will talk about where to go, what to see and where to photograph.

Enjoy… larry

Author: larry pannell

I started my career in photography as a professional photojournalist in 1979 at the time working with several newspapers and magazines in Southern California. What I loved most about photojournalism was its diversity and over my career I covered professional sports, concerts and travel. As life would have it mine took yet another turn and in 1988 I developed an interest in holistic medicine. I became a professional massage therapist specializing in sports medicine. In 1991 I decided to go to medical school and obtained a medical degree in Traditional Oriental Medicine and stared my career as a licensed acupuncture physician. After medical school I moved my practice to northern Idaho for a year before settling in the resort area of Sun Valley, Idaho. I’ve always been an outdoor person and hiking and backpacking the Rockies and fishing the pristine river waters and high altitude lakes offered me a wonderful photographic opportunity. In 2010 I left Sun Valley and I once again found myself on a cruise ship, this time working as an “Acupuncturist at Sea”. For the past seven years I have traveled to 85 countries, which has allowed me to photograph much of the world.

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