Quiet Living ~ Loud Colours: A Weekend in Pai, Mae Hong Son, Thailand

Pai is one of those out-of-the-way and hard-to-get-to places that everyone seems to have been to. Situated in a lovely valley and surrounded by hills which are home to natural hot-springs, elephant camps and numerous ethnic groups (“Hill Tribes”), Pai has grown from a sleepy market town to a mecca for budget tourists, with plenty of cheap guesthouses, some newer resorts and spas, at least two yoga retreats, and numerous restaurants – all catering to vegetarians.

White highway 1095 marker mile "0" in green grass

Centre of the Universe? Pai, Mile Zero, Mae Hong Son (ปาย 0 แม่ฮ่องสอน)

Inside a cafe: Chairs, quilting and wicker-work  on the walls

All the cosy cafés cater to Western and Thai pallets: Merry Christmas and Happy New Year (It's August!).

Thai food in plastic bags on a hot-ping plastic cloth

Spicy! Take-away lunch in plastic bags is a Thai staple. The clashing, coloured table cloth is an added bonus. 🙂

Painted figurines of of kneeling, praying Thai ladies on a white fence

Lanna Ladies Praying ~ Welcome to Wat Luang, Pai

Modern Thai woman in colourful clothes sitting in her shop doorway

Local clothing store. Pai has been called "The Nimbin of Thailand": an Australian reference to the alternate lifestyle that predominates in and around town.

Burmese-style temple roof behind electrical and telephone wires

Lines of Communication? The Burmese-style roof-line of Wat Glang, Pai, and the ubiquitous power and/or phone lines.

I had been wanting to visit for a long time. Six years ago at a travel expo we bought a weekend package at small local resort in Pai. Unfortunately, when we passed through on our way to Mae Hong Son just before we were due to stay, we discovered that our resort was one of the many casualties of the severe flooding and mudslides that year. The Pai river floods every year, but 2005 was especially bad, and a lot of housing and infrastructure was washed away.

Brown river in flood - grass huts on far shore

Bridge? Apparently, there is a bamboo bridge here half the year. Along with the huts on the other shore, it gets damaged annually and rebuilt when the rainy season finishes.

Last month, we finally made it! Although it is only about 80 kilometres from Chiang Mai, it took our crowded mini-van three and a half hours to negotiate the 762 gut-wrenching switch-back curves along the way. Once again I had organised our accommodation, a new “boutique resort” in the centre of town, at a travel expo. Fortunately it was indeed in the centre of town, and fortunately there is a lot to do and see, because our room was essentially a concrete shoe-box with a prime view of the construction underway next door.

Necklaces made of Thai one-baht coins surrounded by rice and coloured yarn

First stop on a day out: Buy a good-luck charm (a Thai one baht coin surrounded by rice, colour-coded for the day of your birth) before visiting Wat Phra That Mae Yen, Pai.

Portrait: Elderly Lanna (Thai) woman with a sparkle in her eyes

Old, but not out! This elderly Lanna woman is one of the sellers of the rice good-luck charms.

Portrait: Thai male, monk in the background

Inside Wat Phra That Mae Yen our guide Tae talks about his faith .

The Burmese-style roofline of Wat Phra That Mae Yen, Pai

The Burmese-style roofline of Wat Phra That Mae Yen, Pai

Farmer in a rice field, corn and other crops

Second stop: Take in the greens of spring! A Farmer Inspecting Her Fields

Teak Tree in Flower

Teak tree in "blossom"

Close-up of a senna/cassia tree: yellow blossoms on green leaves

Yellow blossoms on a Khi Lek (Cassia Siamea) tree

Wide view: Tha Pai Hot Spring

Third stop: Boil your eggs for lunch in the hot water, or go for a dip at Tha Pai Hot Springs, Pai

Three thai children walking on a steel-fram bridge with wooden planking

Fourth stop: Cross the Nawarat bridge, renamed the Tha Pai Memorial Bridge to commemorate the history of Japanese occupation in WWII.

View of Pai Canyon: reddish dirt, blue hills, green growth

Fifth stop: Clamber around, over, into and through the amazing Pai Canyon (Kong Lan) - erosion has worked some natural wonders here!

Once part of the old Shan State drug routes, Pai was originally populated by muslim and buddhist Shan (ethnic Tai) people who migrated from Burma, and Lanna (Tai Yuan) from Chiang Mai. Tourism used to comprise predominantly foreign back-packers and hill-trekkers, but the area was the location for several popular romantic Thai movies in the 2000’s, most recently “Pai in Love” (2009), so many Thai tourists now visit the area to relive their favourite films and to enjoy the “cool” climate.

Chocolate mouse cheesecake and coffee in a paper cup

Stop six: Have coffee and cake overlooking beautiful green hills at "Coffee in Love", one of the many places built to cater to Thai tourists and cash in on the popularity of the Thai film: "Pai in Love".

View through mushroom shaped window to cultivated fields and old village, Shandicun, Pai

Stop seven: Have lunch and shop for Chinese trinkets at "Shandicun", or "Yunnan Chinese Village". This "Chinese Village" park with souvenir shops, horse riding and even a replica Great Wall is the brainchild of a local Chinese merchant who wanted to stop the decline in population in his local community. We are looking here through the "Great Wall" to the actual village.

A young woman takes a young man

Stop eight: Take a picture of your friend in front of the Mo Paeng Waterfall.

The Pai area, like the rest of Mae Hong Son, is home to numerous ethnic minority groups (“Hill Tribes”), principally Lisaw (Lisu), Lahu and Karen. It is interesting to see people wearing their traditional clothes as they go about their daily lives – although these days, t-shirts, terry-towelling and flannel are often liberally mixed in with more traditional fabrics.

A Lisaw (Lisu) woman in her velvet clothes sits on a rock watching her naked children swimming in a rock-pool.

A Lisaw (Lisu) Auntie watches over her nephews as they experiment with the cool Mo Paeng waters.

A smiling, squatting Lahu man chops wood

Last stop: Before heading home to Pai town centre, take a walk through a Lahu village and chat with the residents.

It was a full and varied day, but we were still back in our shoe-box, listening to the hammers next door long before dinner-time. So, we took a walk around town and booked an elephant ride along (and into!) the Pai river for the next morning, followed by a hot-spring bath.

Portrait: A smiling Thai man long hair fixes the rope to an elephant

Cheeky, smiling Mahout ~ Thom's Elephant Camp, Pai

Three people on an elephant in a muddy river.

Bare-back on an elephant is less comfortable than you would think: unless you are up around the neck, that spine is unavoidable!

Text: Happy TravelsToo soon we were squashed onto the afternoon mini-bus for our 762 bends back to Chiang Mai and our evening flight to Bangkok.

I’d rather be back on the elephant…

‘Till next time!

 

  • Signe Westerberg - September 4, 2011 - 11:58 pm

    fantastic as always, not sure i’d be keen on the flight if riding the elephants spine was more comfortable.LOL… Man aren’t they fabulous creatures?ReplyCancel

    • Ursula - September 5, 2011 - 9:03 am

      Thanks, Signe! 🙂ReplyCancel

  • Ethan Crowley - March 18, 2013 - 6:27 am

    Great post! Next time I’m in Thailand, I may try to visit. Hot springs sounds awesome….ReplyCancel

    • Ursula - March 18, 2013 - 7:36 am

      Glad you enjoyed it, Ethan. Pai has a lot to offer! 🙂ReplyCancel

  • Patrick Gallagher - March 19, 2013 - 10:40 pm

    Lovely series of photographs and commentary, Ursula. I feel like I have been there.:-)ReplyCancel

    • Ursula - March 21, 2013 - 3:21 am

      Hey, Patrick! I’m glad you enjoyed it. I’d go back any time – if it wasn’t for the drive! 😉ReplyCancel

  • Geoff Burns - October 30, 2013 - 7:05 pm

    Hello Ursula,
    I found your blog via a Flickr photo.

    A nice review of the town – although it has recently been losing some of the charm as business interests put up more concrete and garishly painted buildings.
    I love the place ‘out of season’ and have been bouncing back and forth since 2003 (well, once you ‘marry-in’ that’s almost mandatory).
    As for the drive – it is one of the absolute joys for me, providing it isn’t raining like a waterfall 🙂ReplyCancel

    • Ursula - October 31, 2013 - 12:46 am

      Welcome, Geoff!
      How lucky for you to visit regularly. I’ve never managed to get to Pai – much as I’d love to.ReplyCancel

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