831km (516 miles) NW of Bangkok; 135km (84 miles) NW of Chiang Mai
Halfway between Chiang Mai and Mae Hong Son, the mountain road makes a winding descent into a large green valley carpeted with rice paddies and fruit orchards. Mountains rise on all sides, and on warm afternoons, butterflies flit along the streets. Here you'll find a village called Pai, named after the river that runs through the valley. Pai is a speck of a place with main roads (all four of them) littered with homegrown guesthouses, laid-back restaurants and bars, local trekking companies, and small souvenir shops. Its metamorphosis from being unknown in the 1980s into one of the most popular destinations in North Thailand is impressive. The 2009 release of "Pai in Love"—a cheesy Thai rom-com—boosted tourist numbers and to this day, buses of Thai and Chinese tourists come to town to pose for photos in front of the film’s iconic spots. Famously, there are 762 turns on the road from Chiang Mai to Pai, and t-shirts and coffee mugs are for sale in town to commemorate the windy journey—it’s a souvenir vibe akin to Route 66 swag in America.
While Pai is an incredibly popular stop on the Mae Hong Song Loop, it’s a worthy destination in its own right, and many come to the region just for hippie-dippy Pai. We’ve heard off-putting comparisons made between Pai in high season and Bangkok’s infamous Khao San Road, but we don’t get it. Yes, P'ai is crowded in the winter, but it’s also devoid of the sex shows, vendors selling grilled cockroaches and whippits that make Khao San Road famous. The most "wild" thing you’ll likely encounter here is a twentysomething backpacker drunk from too many Chang beers.
Today, Pai attracts mostly New-Agers, musicians, and the backpacker crowd on the Southeast Asian circuit (Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia), and it’s known more as a place to kick back and relax than run around looking at temples and museums. This chilled out vibe is very appealing, and Pai can get very crowded in the cool season when Thais from Bangkok flock here for the beautiful weather.
The Pai River itself is one of the main attractions here. Outfitters organize rafting adventures on some pretty raucous rapids from July to January. Trekking is also popular, with 2- and 3-day treks to Karen, Lahu, and Lisu villages. The adventurous can find a local map for self-guided hikes to nearby waterfalls and caves, but quite a few wayfarers just lounge in town living simply and enjoying the nightlife. In Pai, it seems every day is a lazy Sunday. Many local business owners are foreigners, or bohemian Thais, who come here for a slower pace than bustling Bangkok or Chiang Mai.