Thailand – Pai with kids. Travelling with less plastic
I first came to Pai as a backpacker in 2004. Back then it was known as one of those “off the beaten track” traveller secrets. Fourteen years later, it still has that reputation yet it is a very different town.
Thankfully, despite the endless cafes and bars, it has still kept a lot of charm. It’s extremely low rise and the town planners have done well to manage the influx of tourists (it’s not just backpackers coming here – the 2009 movie ‘Pai in Love‘ also sends more upmarket tourists).
Fast forward to 2018 and it’s time to see what this town in the northern hills of Thailand has to offer… and this time to explore Pai with kids. Thailand is definitely one of the more child friendly destinations and Pai is no different. This is evident in the number of families travelling with young children we’ve seen along the way. Below are a number of up-to-date child friendly activities that we enjoyed on our two recent trips to Pai.
Out of town
Roughly 3 hours north of Chiang Mai, Pai offers a lot of attractions. Most of them suitable for kids (not the Pai Canyon though! Some big drops here). To make the most of Pai though you really need a mode of transport. We hired a car using NZ Airpoints but you could moped as well if it suits you. Hot pools, waterfalls and caves are a 10 minute to one hour drive away. There are also many tourist places available who charge for one-off tours if you don’t have you’re own transport.
The Lod Caves is a great half-day trip. It is approximately an hour drive from central Pai but it is a beautiful journey on a well built road. To tour the caves, you need to pay for a lantern-carrying guide (we visited two months after the 12 boys were trapped in a cave in northern Thailand, so they’re very strict on using a guide now). A guide is essential anyway and at 150 baht it is real value for money. There are three caves that can be toured here but we opted for cave 1, feeling that any more would be overkill for the kids. This first cave really was quite magnificent, and the fact that we had to access the centre of the cave via a bamboo raft was added fun for the kids (and mum!).
Pai offers lots waterfalls and thermal hot springs too. The Sai Ngam was a favourite of ours. You could stop off here on the way to the Lod caves, but we did it on a separate day. Sai Ngam is really great for kids because the water is much cooler (around 34 degrees) and is fairly shallow. On top of that it’s very quiet compared to the other pools. We were there in low season and saw only eight other visitors in our hour spent in the pool.
Bamboo Mini Golf
Bamboo Mini Golf is a ten minute drive from town and was easily one of the highlights of our time in Pai. We arrived at 11am (bring your suncream – it’s very hot out there) and we all had a great time. We spent around 4 hours there in total. You can play the golf at long as you like and it is easy for the kids to pick up. We stayed for so long because we had such a great time chatting to the owners. A lovely Thai/Scottish couple run this business on their land which was formally a rice paddy. Beautiful views, great company and some super homemade rosella drinks kept us, and the kids, entertained for hours.
One other option is elephant sanctuaries. We didn’t visit one here as we had already located one for later in our trip. Do your research before going to any of these. Most of the ones we saw didn’t look great. They may be described as ‘ethical’ but they still involved riding an elephant which we were very much against. Do have a look at Conserve Natural Forests though. They were recommended to us and look like they’re doing a great job of rehabilitating wildlife and reforestation. They planted 250,000 trees in 2017, and with the help of the Thai army and local communities, they aim to plant 1 million more this year.
The Suankonpai café has a brilliant book selection. Although these are to buy, they didn’t mind you reading some as long as you buy some drinks (or books as we did). There’s also some Lego and a small play area for children. It did sell food (mainly western), but to be honest, the pictures on their menu put us off somewhat.
Playgrounds with swings/slides etc. were few and far between, however we did find an old rusty playground near where the Wednesday market is held.
Travelling Plastic Free
Whilst Pai is clearly not idle on the impact of plastic on the environment, unfortunately it’s taken the recycle route, rather than the refuse one. Recycle bins are very common. For a small town, it has a vast number. In fact, wherever there is a general waste bin, there tends to be a range of recycling bins.
The issue in Pai is that reduction of plastic is non-existent. We didn’t find a single café that offered non-plastic straws. In fact, when we asked for “no-straw” (even in Thai Language) the drink still tends to come with a straw. Lots of cafes even provided plastic cups and lids when we were drinking in-house too. The brilliant Walking Street Market offers great food but it’s all in polystyrene and plastic bags… sometimes both. We did get some lovely gyoza on banana leaf though. We have both felt despondent and exasperated at times at the endless supply of single-use plastic. However, we also need to remain true to our mission, not get disheartened. Continue to request no straw, continue to whip out our steel straws/chopsticks and collapsible containers and not lose sight that every little helps.
On the positive side, it does offer some great water refilling stations. We used the ones near the police station and outside Nadia’s house (we didn’t stay here but the staff were super nice, spoke excellent English and had a great little sandpit for the kids to play in).
We stayed at two different resorts whilst in Pai. The very centre of town is really a backpacker and single-room only territory. But you don’t have to venture far out to find more family friendly accommodation. Our favourite was Baan Chokdee, a ten-minute walk to the main centre of Pai. The accommodation is set back from the road, is beautifully quiet and serene. The family suite has two-bedrooms, two bathrooms (one ensuite) and a small lounge. At USD $50 it is real value. The pool is relatively small but the kids didn’t notice. Most people staying there attend the local Muay Thai training camp so are not around during the day, have early nights, and as they don’t have children of their own, find it a novelty to interact with our girls. All round bonus!
We also stayed at Bura Lumpai. This was approximately fifteen minutes drive out of town. Although the resort is in need of an upgrade it still had the basics (wifi, tv etc) and it had a really great pool. It also had a family room which is always appreciated. It was a small villa with two double bed rooms (with enormous ensuites) and a connecting door. We were slightly bemused at the attempt at alfresco showering (the shower had a partially open-air roof), as this increased the number of bugs. You may also want to keep the patio door closed for toddlers (which we do for air conditioning anyway) as it led straight onto a small pond.
One of the things we love about Thailand is the abundance of vegetarian food. Not just the vegetarian offerings in a regular restaurant, but also the vegetarian and vegan specific restaurants. Chew Xin Jai offers a mixture of Thai and Chinese vegan food. This was some of the best food we’ve had on our travels, and with prices no more than 80Baht a dish. There is also Pai Vegetarian Food which appears to be a basic set-up (food pre-prepared in catering trays at the front of the restaurant), but not to be overlooked as the food has wonderfully delicious and aromatic flavours. One small blip, my wife was brought over a glass of water with a cut to size plastic straw in it. What a disaster. Completely unnecessary, wasteful and undesired start to the day.
Pai walking street also has many market stalls offering a great range of typical thai dishes, with vegetarian and vegan options at every stall. If you are serious about being plastic free, then remember your own container. We use Kathmandu collapsible bowls for small food items, and the 1000ml macpac collapsible bowl for larger items.
We found Pai to be far superior than nearby Chaing Mai when it comes to coffee. If you’re looking for decent cup you’ll need to avoid the centre of town. KhaoTha Coffee near the Wednesday Market has a very retro set up, with great coffee.There is also a Mexican roastery here, Cafecito, which has amazing reviews and served us a very nice cold drip coffee. KhaoTha has a small, yet brilliant, sister site on the other side of town, opposite the Baan Chokdee accommodation we were staying at too. As with anywhere in Pai – always state that you want no plastic straw or cup.
Pai has transformed into a beautiful town definitely worth a visit – even with the kids! Sadly, a plastic free future for Pai appears a long, long way off. Having not visited Pai for fourteen years, I have seen first-hand the impact of the tourist trade. Like any tourist destination however, it only provides what tourists want. With no demand for a reduction in plastic, outlets are therefore not responding. This is something that surprises us more as we travel. Travellers/backpackers are, stereotypically at least, people who want to broaden their horizons and see what the world has to offer. Part of this, one would assume, is preserving the world we have. Having said that, and rant over, there appears to be small zero-waste victories in Thailand as indicated on the ‘zero waste Thailand’ page, and there is also the ‘Pai Green Team‘ both on facebook. Small steps in the right direction are not to be overlooked. Don’t let this rant put you off, if you are a travelling family who just want to explore a bit of Northern Thailand away from some of the usual hotspots, we highly recommend a visit to Pai with kids in tow!