Over the past few weeks I have posted a few articles about gluten free travel in Asia and particularly Thailand. In my next articles I write more specifically about some of the places we have visited and provide tips on transport routes, places to stay and how to eat gluten free.
In this post I want to talk about Pai, a very special place in Mae Hong Son province, northern Thailand and how to eat gluten free there.
A different type of Thailand
A far cry away from the partying and built up resorts on the southern Thai islands, the northwest of the country boasts spectacular green mountains often covered with a hazy mist. We spent ten days up here splitting our time between the chilled out backpacker town of Pai and the more remote cities and towns around Mae Hong Son province. Read on to learn about travelling gluten free in Pai.
We visited the north during the rainy season, which many people will tell you to avoid. However, the rain had a very minimal impact on our activities and there were only a few occasions where we had to run for cover. When it rains it really rains, but it is usually short and sweet. The intensity of the heat means that the moisture soon dries up and you can get on with your day. It’s still a good idea to always carry around a plastic poncho, available from 7-elevens, which are everywhere.
On your way up to Pai you will inevitably stop over in Chiang Mai. There is plenty of information out there about this big northern city so here I will be brief.
I don’t have a huge amount to say about the capital of the north. The city is filled with many beautiful and active temples that you can enter for a small fee. There is a famous night market that operates in the old town on Sunday evenings and here you can sample plenty of interesting street food.
The stand out in Chiang Mai for us was the Khao Soi Islam restaurant. The staff here were very friendly and the lady in charge spoke excellent English and confirmed that all of the dishes I wanted to order were gluten free.
Khao Soi, a curry soup with egg noodles, is a popular dish in the North of Thailand. Sometimes it is made with egg noodles (containing wheat) and soy sauce, but at Khao Soi Islam the lady assured me that the noodles were made with a combination of different non-gluten containing flours. At another food stall in Chiang Mai I was able to have the dish with rice noodles instead of egg noodles.
At Khao Soi Islam the spring rolls are made with rice flour and the samosas were with chickpea. This restaurant is also Halal. We loved the food and the prices at this place so much that we went back again the next day for breakfast!
Pai (and gluten free in Pai)
Pai has the feeling of a lazy beach town full of backpackers and Thai and foreign holiday makers enjoying chilled out cafes, massages, cooking classes, trips to the surrounding sights of natural beauty and a happening bar scene at night. Replace beach with tiered rice fields, undulating hills, an eerie mist that obscures the surroundings and you have the magical setting of Pai.
Pai is accessible from Chiang Mai on minibuses that run regularly throughout the day; however, they seem to fill up fast so I recommend booking ahead of time if you can. Don’t book through your hostel, because they will likely charge you a fairly big commission. Instead you can phone Aya travel services directly to arrange your journey. It should cost around 150฿ per person. The journey up into the mountains is very windy and many people will feel quite motion sick at some point along the way. Obviously this is dependent on many variables, but I would suggest not eating too close to before your journey and trying to look out the window. You can also buy some ginger based tablets at convenience stores, which can help.
Aya travel Service
444/11-12 Rodfai rd., T.Watket, Muang, Chiangmai
Tel. +66 5324 7889, +66 5324 7663
22/1 Moo 3, Chaisongkram rd., Pai, Maehongsorn
Tel. +66 5369 9888, +66 5369 8299
There is also an airport near Pai but flights only run on certain days and are obviously more expensive than the bus.
Pai is a common destination on the Northwestern backpacker trail and it’s easy to see why. You could spend a week here enjoying the lazy vibes and picturesque scenery – many people do. Thankfully we had enough time to have our fill of Pai and get out and about to see some more of the province. Renting a motorbike or scooter is the best way to get around the town and to take you between towns and cities if you end up venturing out further. The roads within Pai are fairly good, but once you get out of town they can get pretty hairy with very steep hills and tight hairpin turns.
Recommendations for Pai
Between us my partner and I have stayed in a number of places in Pai, from very basic hostels to slightly more expensive hotels when we needed a bit of a treat.
Spicy Pai– is the best backpacker hostel in Pai with a laid back attitude. The staff and owner are full of local knowledge and insight. Beds are in dormitory rooms only, which are positioned in large barn houses. Book via the ‘Spicy Society’ Facebook page.
Kk’s hut – we paid 150฿ for a very basic hut that had a fan and a little balcony with a hammock. It was definitely great value for the exceptionally cheap price we paid, and the staff we very friendly! Slightly out of the town though so it might be better if you have a scooter for this one. See their website here.
Lilu – we got our room on Agoda for 500฿ and it felt like luxury after some of our more basic hostels with air-conditioning and fan, exceptionally clean and nice products in the bathroom. The staff were kind enough to let us leave our bags with them for five days while went and explored Mae Hong Son on our motorbike.
We stayed in one other hostel that while being in a good location was let down by a very rude owner and unhelpful staff. I don’t want to bad mouth places on the blog, but they certainly do not deserve a recommendation.
Motorbike and scooter hire
Even if you are totally inexperienced and and a bit nervous, hiring a scooter adds a new level to any Thailand experience, particularly in Pai where it gives you the freedom to visit the surrounding sights on your own time (and without paying for a motorbike taxi). There is a canyon, waterfall and hot springs that are all worth a visit.
Aya (same company as the bus up to Pai) runs a very efficient and cheap service and you even can purchase insurance (not common in Thailand) for just 40฿per day. They will take your passport as a deposit, but fear not; they are extremely organised and your most important possession is very safe with them. You don’t need to tell them exactly when you will bring the bike back, which gives you a nice bit of freedom.
Food: Gluten free in Pai
A great breakfast location with an extensive menu offering a range of nutritious Thai and Western dishes. We went there so many times, but I couldn’t turn down the chance to have a big tuna salad with a delicious cashew nut and lemon dressing on most days. The fried rice and spring rolls were also a hit amongst our party.
Rather surprisingly kombucha is quite popular in Pai and there a range of great flavours available at Good Life. This trend towards fermented food and beverages has been inspired by the Pai School of Fermentation, which offers full courses in the art of fermenting. A hit of healthy bacteria is a great thing when you’re travelling and exposed to pathogens and other nasties on a regular basis.
For reasonably priced delicious food try Na’s. We went three times and tried a number of her curries, salads and pad thai. All dishes get a huge thumbs up! Na is very friendly and you can speak to her directly if you need to explain any special food requirements. Her restaurant gets quite busy on some days, but it is easy to see why.
Another good destination for quality Thai food at fairly reasonable prices. They do some more extravagant dishes like a huge crab curry if you want to treat yourself, otherwise there are plenty of curries, noodles and stir fries that you should be able to get gluten free.
Spend a few hours with Gaew learning how to make amazing Thai food. You will visit the local market where she gives you a bit of information about ingredients critical to all Thai food and how to identify the best things to buy. Back at the school Gaew runs a great class guiding you through five dishes each including curries, noodles, soups and an amazing papaya salad. You get to enjoy the fruits of your labour at the end of the class. The food is amazing and everyone get a recipe book to take home at the end. A great way to spend 750฿.
Pai is a great place to visit. If you hadn’t planned to go North of Chiang Mai I would go as far as to suggest you change your plans to include this beautiful town. Stay tuned for next week’s article detailing some of the more rural towns and villages in Mae Hong Son province.