Hidden away in the mountains of Northern Thailand is the famous hippy enclave of Pai: a place where you’re guaranteed to see more dreadlocks than you ever wanted and where you can snack on organic vegan food to your heart’s content. It’s about three hours and 762 curves in the road from Chiang Mai (seriously, someone counted). The journey is rough on a bus and a combination of exhilarating and dangerous on a rented scooter. The destination, however, is absolutely worth it.
Travelers have been raving about this spot for years, and it’s easy to see why; it’s got sleepy daytime vibes, a banging nightlife, and easy access to some amazing natural wonders that you’ll never forget. Here’s a few of our faves:
By “see the night market” what I really mean is “eat like you’re never going to eat again.” Once the sun goes down, several streets clear themselves of cars and become one large, bustling night market. It’s a smorgasbord of food both unexpected and delicious — we’re talking street lasagna, some of the best masala chai I’ve had outside of India, sushi, and endless Thai street eats. You can have a great meal and finish it off with donuts, chocolate covered waffles, mango sticky rice or dessert spring rolls.
Among the many stalls lining the road, you can browse all kinds of funky clothes and cute handmade knickknacks. It’s not unusual to see artists dressed in traditional Thai clothes performing dances to raise money for kids learning English. The whole night market is alive and buzzing with street performers and musicians playing inside the many little bars along the road. Sit back, sip a Singha, and relax.
After a long night at the bars, a morning trip to the hot springs is definitelty in order. The Tha Pai Hot Springs are a local favorite because they’re pretty close by. Picture perfect rock pools full of steamy blue water surrounded by jungle and overhanging vines, and you’ve now got a good idea of what the Pai hot springs are like. It’s even said that the the hot springs’ mud and waters have actual healing properties. Count us in.
Or, if you want something a little less popular, you could cruise a little further into the national park to Sai Ngam Hot Springs, or the “secret hot springs.” The drive takes you 15 kilometers out of Pai through beautiful mountain roads. The spring itself flows downwards with little man-made waterfalls separating the different pools. You can’t go to Pai and miss out on the hot spring experience.
In order to explore Tham Lod Cave, you first have to hire a guide. They’ll carry a lantern that will serve as your only source of light, which is a gimmick that I absolutely loved. There are three caverns inside the cave and you to take a little bamboo raft to get to them all. The quiet of the cave is only disturbed by the soft splashes of the guide pushing the raft with bamboo poles and the occasional flurry of activity of fish at the water’s surface as they swarm the food you toss to them.
As you get closer to the other end of the cave, you’ll hear a new sound: hundreds of bats hanging from the ceiling as they squeak and call to each other. If you come for sunset, you can see thousands of swifts flying in as the bats fly out in an unrivaled sight that’s one for the bucket list.
I’ve never learned less about a cave from a cave tour than I did on this one. The tour consisted almost entirely of the guide pointing to rock formations and telling me what they looked like. “An elephant! A crocodile!” Or, very enthusiastically, “Look! Boobie!” It was both hilarious and good fun. Plus, there were signs outside with info for my historical and geological needs.
Pro tip: Before you enter the caves, you’ll see a few women selling fish food. Buy it. Splurge and get a big bag. Trust me. I also recommend that you bring your own flashlight if you want to linger on some of the awesome cave formations or read the scattered informational signs without your guide — and light — wandering away.
The land split is a testament to the fact that nature can be really f***ing scary, and that people can be really f***ing awesome. The land used to be a soybean farm before an earthquake caused the land to — you guessed it — split. Every few years, another earthquake hits and the split grows. With his farm destroyed, the soybean farmer turned to tourism for his livelihood, and in the most charming way possible. The farmer switched from soybeans to hibiscus and fruits, with the remaining land opened to tourists and offering free organic snacks.
When you visit, you can climb up and see the land split in all its everything-is-impermanent-and-nature-is-scary glory, and then hike down into the split itself, keeping an ear out for any telltale rumbling. (The likelihood of an earthquake hitting while you’re there is very slim; I’m just a big scaredy-cat when it comes to earthquakes.)
When you get back to the bottom, you can sit down and have a feast of hibiscus juice, fresh fruits, banana chips, and tamarind. It’s all grown right there, and it’s all delicious. The farmer offers it for free and loves to talk to the travelers, but donations are gladly accepted, and I recommend slipping some baht into the box.
Every evening, tourists flock to Pai Canyon to watch the sunset over the mountains. Yes, it’s crowded. Yes, it’s worth it. A winding 300-meter staircase guides you to the top of the canyon where you can wander along the ridges to stake out a viewing spot beneath the golden sun.
The canyon itself is a geological wonder, with white paths leading through narrow ridges and steep, straight drops on either side. You’ll get a little dusty, and you’ll have to do some controlled slipping and sliding to get to some of the areas, so I definitely recommend going with a friend or two.
When the sun sets, the sky catches fire, and the mountains fade from green to blue to black, it’s an unforgettable sight. I’ve seen a lot of sunsets in beautiful places, but this was easily one of my favorites.