Pai is a picturesque community nestled in a valley surrounded by mountains and greenery in northwest Thailand’s Mae Hong Son province. Growing numbers of tourists have added Pai to their must see destination lists after the community served as the setting for several popular Thai and Chinese films.
Last Updated: November 2019
People have lived in Pai and its scenic surroundings for over 5,000 years. Some of Pai’s present day permanent residents are direct descendants of the Lua tribe members who called the region home approximately 2,000 years ago. The Shan immigrants who founded the region’s first known settlement, Ban Wiang Nuea, in 1251 shared more in common with northern Burma than the rest of Thailand.
Settlers started arriving from Chiang Mai to the Pai region during the 14th and 15th centuries. The 1481 defeat of Shan soldiers by Lanna troops marked the end of decades of armed conflict in the area. The Lanna kingdom, which ruled over much of northern Thailand at the time, allowed Shan families to remain in the area and maintain their culture. A wall separated the Lanna and Shan sections of Ban Wiang Nuea during this era.
Ban Wiang Nuea was completely burned down during a brutal 1869 battle between Shan and Lanna soldiers. Immigrants from other parts of northern Thailand were encouraged to settle in the Pai region during the late 19th century in order to prevent English or French colonisation. Ban Wiang Tai was the first settlement to be established in Pai’s present day location.
It used to take up to a week to make the 150kms journey between Chiang Mai and Pai. Despite attempts by the Japanese to improve the area’s transportation infrastructure during WWII, the Mae Hong Son Loop section closest to Pai was not fully paved until the 1990s. Today, Pai has recovered from flooding, mudslides, and its former reputation as a dangerous opium transit point to become one of northern Thailand’s most relaxing tourism destinations.
Pai is conveniently located near Route 1095 in the northeasternmost district of Mae Hong Son province. This scenic thoroughfare is frequently called the Mae Hong Son Loop because it serves as the main route between Pai’s two closest major cities, Mae Hong Son and Chiang Mai. Chaisongkran Road is the biggest and busiest street in this community named after and located near the Pai River. Lush rice paddies and green mountains provide Pai’s breathtaking scenery.
Pai’s present day permanent population is small, but diverse. The descendants of 18th century Karen immigrants, 20th century Chinese immigrants, and Muslims who arrived from Chiang Mai during the 1950s are among the less than 3,000 people who live in Pai. More recent arrivals include Rastafarians, hippies, and even people from Bangkok who own holiday homes.
All of the above groups have made significant contributions to Pai’s culture. Spas and restaurants serving organic food have popped up alongside the trekking agencies, live music venues, and souvenir shops which have clustered around Chaisongkran Road. Although Pai now boasts about 350 hotels and guesthouses, rooms can still be scarce during the November to January high season.
Despite Pai’s bustling tourism scene, however, the quiet charm and relaxed atmosphere which first brought so many visitors to this tranquil corner of northwest Thailand remains easy to find. Soothing hot springs, Pai River tubing, and a traditional Shan afternoon market are some of Pai’s more sedate activities.
WEATHER AND SEASONS
Another of Pai’s main attractions is its pleasant climate. Even though the average annual temperature is just under 25°C, Pai’s surrounding mountains and misty jungles help prevent the weather from becoming too uncomfortably hot and humid. Evening temperatures can dip as low as 6°C during the coldest months of December and January. Early March may be the ideal time to visit Pai as high season crowds tend to shrink during this time of year between the cool and hot seasons. Pai’s May to October rainy season is most enjoyable for people who want to brave the Pai River’s challenging white water rapids.