Although Pai lies in a flat valley, a 10-minute drive in any direction brings you to a rugged upland terrain with stands of wild teak, groves of towering bamboo, and clusters of palm and banana trees hiding out-of-the-way resorts catering to visitors who seek peace and quiet. At night the surrounding fields and forest seem to enfold the town in a black embrace. As you enter Pai from the direction of Chiang Mai, you'll pass by the so-called World War II Memorial Bridge, which was stolen from Chiang Mai during the Japanese advance through northern Thailand and rebuilt here to carry heavy armor over the Pai River. When the Japanese left, they neglected to return the bridge to Chiang Mai. Residents of that city are perfectly happy, as they eventually built a much more handsome river crossing.

Exhausted backpackers looking for a stopover along the serpentine road between Chiang Mai and Mae Hong Son discovered Pai in the late 1980s. In 1991 it had seven modest guesthouses and three restaurants; now its frontier-style streets are lined with restaurants and bars of every description, cheap guesthouses and smart hotels, art galleries, and chic coffeehouses, while every class of resort, from back-to-nature to luxury, nestles in the surrounding hills. Thus far, Pai has managed to retain its slightly off-the-beaten-path appeal, but that may change as Bangkok property investors pour money into its infrastructure.

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