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A small town of about 2,300, Pai is located in the Mae Hong Son Province in northern Thailand near the Myanmar border. Pai is situated on the Pai River about 50 miles north of Chiang Mai.
Pai is found on Route 1095, the highway that links Mae Hong Son to Chiang Mai. Route 1095 is known for its scenic view of rolling mountains, as well as its 762 curves that travel up, over and through those rolling mountains. The Pai airport was shut down in the 1980s, but was rebuilt and reopened on February 1, 2007 when it started offering flights to Chiang Mai International Airport.
Tha Pai Hot Springs
The Pai Hot Springs can be found in a well-maintained park about 7km (4.34 miles) southeast of Pai along a paved street. A stream circulates through the park and mixes with the hot springs to create enjoyable areas for swimming. Some of the water is siphoned to feed some nearby spas.
The Pai Canyon is found 8km (5 miles) down the road to Chiang Mai. The canyon features paved stairs that end in an towering observation area with a view of rock cliffs and the Pai Valley. The valley has a dirt trail that is best hiked in the morning or evening due to a lack of shade.
Wat Phra That Mae Yen
Wat Phra That Mae Yen is a temple on top of a hill with gorgeous views of the valley. It can be reached either by walking 1km (0.62 miles) east over a stream and through a village and up 353 steps. It can also be reached via a 400 meter (0.25 miles) sealed road.
At one time, Pai was a peaceful market village populated by the Shan people, a group of native Tai who adopted some elements of Burmese culture. Though tourist season brings crowds that make Pai a little less peaceful, time still moves very slowly in Pai, making it a great place for hurried and harried Westerners to learn to slow down and relax.
In recent years, however, the focus of Pai has turned to tourism. Popular with backpackers for its casual, carefree environment, Pai has no shortage of inexpensive places to stay, restaurants, and places to buy keepsakes. Near Pai, explorers can find any number of spas and elephant camps. A little farther from Pai are waterfalls and several natural hot springs that vary in temperature anywhere from 80-200F (27-93C). Many area resorts divert hot water from these springs into pools and bungalows. Situated in a valley, Pai is a great central point from which tourists can venture out and visit some of the hill dwellers such and the Karen and Hmong peoples. Each Wednesday brings crowds of people from the surrounding villages to market. Tourists can also float down the Pai canal on a raft made of bamboo.
In recent years Pai has gained status as a Thailand tourist attraction and has added a number of improvements to accommodate visitors. Some of these improvements include: airport offering multiple daily flights, small and medium luxury resorts with a total of more than 350 properties, four new 7-Eleven stores, nightclubs with live music, bars and three new sets of traffic lights. During the off-season, Pai is still the quiet little town it once was, but with the arrival of tourist has come a rush of business investment and land speculation by both foreigners and Thais from larger cities. This has caused some degree of controversy between those who see the changes as a fundamental part of Pai’s future and those who lament the passing of Pai culture.
The tourist season of Pai runs from November through March and brings crowds of visitors. Before 2006, the majority of tourists to Pai were foreigners, and Pai is still quite popular with backpackers, but in the past few years Pai has seen more visitors from other parts of Thailand. The movies The Letter: Jod Mai Rak (2004) and Ruk Jung (2006), both Thai romance films the featured Pai, are credited with attracting visitors from other parts of Thailand.
Pai hosts a number of regular music festivals and an International Enduro Championship (a motorcycle sport). At the height of tourist season, the crowds become so dense that they cause traffic jams and electricity, water and fuel shortages.
In the 19th century, there existed a road, that took several days to travel, going from Chiang Mai to Pai. The area now known as Pai was then called Ban Wiang Tai. New immigrants settled the areas near the system of trails between Pai and Mae Hong Son.
In 1943 the Japanese undertook a number of project for the purpose of developing more efficient routes of transport for troops and equipment between Thailand and Burma to bolster their planned raids of Imphal and Kohima.
One of these projects was the Burma Railway, also known as the Death Railway, that traverse Kanchanaburi. Another project improved the existing trail between Pai and Chiang Mai, turning it into an actual road and improvements to the systems of trails to Mae Hong Son. How the Japanese got across the Pai River 10 km (a bit more than 6 miles) southeast of Pai is not currently certain. A bridge currently at the site was built after the war and titled ‘World War II Memorial Bridge’. The bridge was build by the as a one of a series of road improvement projects by the Thai government and has since been extended twice. In early 1944 the Japanese abandoned their attempt to build a connection between Pai and Chiang Mai. It had become apparent that they would not be able to finish the project before the anticipated raid on Imphal, though the incomplete road did allow a path for the Japanese to flee after they were soundly defeated in Imphal and Kohima.
In 1967, the government of Thailand began work on the road between Chian Mai and Mae Hong Son via Pai, the highway now known as Route 1095, though the road wasn’t completely paved until the 1990s.
The modern history of Pai is characterized by waves of immigrants. Though the majority of immigrants consisted of the Shan and Lanna peoples, immigrants from Karen showed up in the 18th century and the early 20th century saw Lisu and Lahu immigrants from southern China. In 1950, Muslim traders began to establish a trade route and in the 1960s, Kuomintant refugees escaping Mao Zedong organized a comunity in Pai. Most recently, refugees from Burma’s Shan State escaping unrest induced by the Burmese Junta arrived to work in Thailand.
Much of this history of Pai is based on the work of Pai resident Thomas Kasper.
The region now known as Pai has been continuously occupied for more than 5,000 years. As of 2,000 years ago, the Lua tribe was the primary ethnic group occupying the area. A few descendants of the Lua tribe still inhabit villages just a few miles from Pai.
Almost 800 years ago in 1251 BCE, a settlement was established 3km (about 2 miles) north of Pai in an area now known as Ban Wiang Nuea. The area was settled by Shan immigrants from northern Burma. During that time, the area was mostly isolated from the outside world. Because they got little news from outside of the area, they were mostly unaffected by politics of Thailand.
During the 14th century and into the 15th, settlers began to arrive from Chiang Mai, bringing news from the the Lanna and the rest of Thailand. At the time, the Kingdom of Lanna had a policy of sending loyal citizens to remote areas of the kingdom in order to maintain territorial control. This policy resulted in a series of battles for territorial authority. In 1481, Lanna troops conquered Shan soldiers and compelled them to give up Burmese land. The Lanna prince allowed the families who had established households in the area to remain and to maintain a level of social and cultural autonomy under Lanna kingdom law. Ban Wiang Nuea became a distinctly split into a “Shan” section and a “Lanna” section by a wall.
During the latter part of the 19th century, France and England, having already established settlements in Vietnam, Cambodia, Burma and Laos, were becoming interested in the area that is now Thailand.
In order to stabilize the influence and authority of Siam, Northern Thais from such provinces as Payao, Nan and Lamphun were encouraged to move to those areas. This migration led to another conflict in 1869 in which Lanna Thai again conquered the Shan in Ban Wiang Nuea in a battle that resulted in complete devastation of the entire village. Everything that had been there was burned. All of the buildings standing in Ban Vieng Nuea are there because of reconstruction efforts made by the villagers.
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There are many reasons for why Pai is a great choice for a short trip or in the case of many people who get stuck there an extended getaway. Everyone who has visited the charming town in the valley has their own reasons for falling in love with it and many of it’s visitors end up significantly extending what was supposed to be a short trip. Whether it is the relaxed atmosphere and laid back lifestyle, the vibrant culture full of music and arts or the friendly locals who nowadays consist of a whole mixture of nationalities and cultures.
A trip to Pai is most commonly started in Chiang Mai, as the closest major city or hub. By road it takes around 3 hours and for motorcyclists the scenery on route is well worth the trip. Chiang Mai is a wonderful city in itself but Pai has something a little different to offer. Its small size makes it charming and quirky and with the main road now lined with bars and guesthouses all with something special and unique to offer, it’s not the kind of place that quickly becomes boring. It also makes a great base for some the most beautiful natural scenery such as waterfalls and hot springs.
Pai is a popular and quirky town in the province of Mae Hong Son and whilst it is known for being a sleepy and laid back town, there is certainly no shortage of things to do. Furthermore the options are as varied as they are plentiful and whatever it is that you into from relaxing in natural spa’s to trekking through the jungle, there is something to suit every interest.
Pai is situated within a valley and a long and windy road through the mountains must be travelled in order to reach it. These mountains are covered in jungle with many hidden natural wonders that are waiting to be discovered and explored. Mae Hong Son is known for its abundance of waterfalls and hot springs, where Thai’s and tourists alike enjoy indulging themselves in the natural water. Some guesthouses and resorts in and around Pai have even been able to tap into this hot spring water to provide their guests with natural hot water and pools. The surrounding mountains are also home to a number of hill tribe villages and jungle treks will often involve visiting one or more of these unique villages. Another top attraction of Pai is the Wednesday market where all kinds of handmade products can be purchased.
Pai was once upon a time in the not so distant past a very small and sleepy village where a mixture of cultures, religions and nationalities have come together to form a vibrant town. Until just a few years ago, Pai was a simple Shan market village in amongst stunning natural surrounding and relaxed and laid back atmosphere. Today it has managed to keep much of it’s original charm but now has become a great deal more set up to cater for tourists and backpackers. The development of the small village into the popular tourist destination of a town that it is now has been very successful and the economy is now largely supported by tourism.
The town of Pai remains to be very small with just one main street through the centre and a few streets leading off from it. The surrounding nature remains as beautiful as it ever was with natural hot springs, waterfalls and jungle all around and ready to be explored. There are now a sufficient amount of restaurants, guesthouses and bars to cater for the buses of tourists who arrive during the high season and they each have their own style and charm.
One of the most extraordinary things about the town of Pai is the ways in which different cultures have come together in order to create one friendly, chilled out and laid back town. The cultures that you are likely to find on your trip to Pai include Burmese (Shan), Chinese, Thai Mong and traditional Thai due to its close proximity to Myanmar and China. They have successfully mixed their individual traditions and cultures to create a town that has it’s own unique atmosphere and lifestyle. This is reflected in just about everything from the food to the handcrafted items available in the colourful and quirky markets.
It is probably the way the people have come together to develop what was once a small market town into a thriving backpacker town that makes Pai so special. Anyone who is visiting the north of Thailand and has a few extra days on their hands should definitely make the trip to Pai and it will not be an experience that is quickly forgotten. There are regular buses from Chiang Mai, you could go by bike or car or there is even now a small airport so it is possible to take a flight.
Pai is small town and a popular tourist destination not far from the city of Chiang Mai. There are a number of different modes of transport that can be taken in order to reach the sleepy and culturally rich town and it all depends on your preference and a love for the open road. Buses are probably the most common option as there is mini van service that provides a fairly comfortable travel experience. The buses are very frequent between Chiang Mai and Pai are also probably the cheapest option. They are air-conditioned and full of like-minded people so are a great option if you are travelling alone and hoping to meet people.
For those who prefer to take things into their own hands, renting a motorcycle and enjoying the wind on your face as you wind you way through the mountains is a great experience. Pai is known for the abundance of curves and bends on the main road to get there so caution needs to be taken at all times, especially on a bike in wet weather. It’s a great chance to enjoy the scenery whilst you are on your way and it truly is a beautiful part of the country.