12/11/11 11:33pm

When traveling to Thailand, most people pick the obvious destinations: Bangkok for city life, Phuket for beach or Chiang Mai for some temple seeing. But venture out of these areas and unexpected gems may be waiting.

Take, for example, Pai, a small town in Northern Thailand’s Mae Hong Son province. Pai is by no means an unknown destination – it’s been a popular backpacker hangout for over a decade and has also become a tranquil retreat for Thai tourists, spurred by some popular Thai movies. Nevertheless, because the journey to Pai still requires some effort – a 3-hour drive on a scenic but winding road from Chiang Mai – “mainstream”  tourists (most notably, tour groups) are still kept at bay.

Pai offers a rare mix of country-charm and modern amenities. Here, beautiful rolling hills and cool fresh air are as easy to find as a comfortable hotel room and a good cup of coffee. On my own visit, I even managed to devour one of the best pizzas I’ve ever tasted in Thailand.

Visitors to Pai can choose to explore the hill tribe villages, hot springs and waterfalls or spend the day in town in a cute coffee shop and enjoy a good book. Either way, most people return to Pai’s walking street at sundown, when the lazy town transforms into a bustling night market.

This is really the highlight of Pai where you can savor some good street food and purchase an array of souvenirs. There are also a few rowdy bars offering affordable drinks – helping to ensure that you end the night with your belly full and a little tipsy.

Herbal drinks served in bamboo cups that you can keep:

Live bands set up by amateur musicians add liveliness to the market:

Dogs are a common fixture of the Pai night market:

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