No, there's not a city called Chiang Pai, but there is a Chiang Mai and a Pai and they're both in the north of Thailand and both of them should be at the top of your Thailand list.
If I could pick one city in Thailand to recommend, it would hands-down be Chiang Mai. Due to a million people raving about it and more than a few good words from my cousin who studied there, it was my mission to get there and stay there for the majority of my Thailand vacation. It did not disappoint.
Arriving in this place was the biggest breath of fresh air in a long time -- literally (Saigon for 5 months + Bangkok). George and I were greeted enthusiastically by our host and her array of sleepy cats at Banilah Guesthouse. We were given a map and a complete rundown of the city -- where to eat, where to shop, where to explore. Finally, we were in a place surrounded by nature where we could breathe. This is what we'd been waiting for.
Chiang Mai is a good mix of locals and Western travelers. A calm, artsy-city with an abundance of handmade goods and lovely people who actually stop to let you cross the road. One of the first things I noticed was the lack of motorbikes, which is a luxury I never thought I'd appreciate until Vietnam. The streets are adorned with curry joints, boutique shops, and milk tea stalls. There are temples aplenty, and there's something really charming about seeing monks wandering about.
The main attraction is the "temple on the mountain", Doi Suthep. It's a bit of a trek to get up there -- you ride up the mountain in a rót daang (a shared taxi truck) to the base of the temple, which is super zigzag-y and takes about 45 minutes. We happened to go up there on an unlucky day: rainy and foggy, which obstructed the famous overview of the city. I think fog is cool though, and it made for some cool pictures, but we didn't stay too long because the moisture attracted swarms of mosquitoes and everyone was getting eaten alive. Glad we saw it though.
Some of my fav things I've eaten in Asia were in Chiang Mai. So much street pad thai, curry served in coconuts, and a Burmese joint recommended by my cousin. I will go as far as to say that the Burmese meal I had was one of the best things I've eaten in Asia. I discovered coconut sticky rice with mango, and the best milk tea I've ever had.
You know what else is cool? Street markets is cool. There are TONS, and they're all primo. I did the majority of my shopping in this city, and I got all kinds of things: kimonos, shoes, organic tea, hand-carved wooden cooking utensils, harem pants, screen-printed t-shirts, handbags, etc. The cream-of-the-crop market is the Sunday Night Market, filled with all sorts of artisanal handmade goods. If you visit Chiang Mai, make sure you're there on a Sunday as not to miss this.
George and I took a cooking class from "the best Thai cookery school", where we were taken to a produce market to learn about Thai ingredients then bussed to an open-air kitchen outside the city center. We learned to make 6 different dishes -- papaya salad, curry, soup, stir fry, pad Thai, and mango sticky rice. They provided a fool-proof recipe book so now I can make ya some authentic green curry whenevs (and I'd be happy to).
Pai is an odd little town north of Chiang Mai. I don't know how to describe it other than a Westernized, artsy oasis of brunch and bungalows. Now, I know when traveling Thailand "Western" isn't exactly what you're searching for, but this is such an eccentric place where the appeal lies in the fact that this place exists in such a random location near the Myanmar border. Seasoned travelers tend to snub it because it isn't "authentic Thailand", but I was entertained. I like brunch and bungalows.
We stayed for 3 (or was it 4?) nights just meandering about, eating curry and fake Chipotle (they ripped off the menu but didn't have like 50% of the ingredients. ASIA THO.). We stayed in an insanely nice bungalow near the river with our own private hammock and pristine bathroom. Yeah, guilty, we were glampackers for a few days. Really though, stay in one of these huts.
We did the quintessential trek/tour through Lod Cave, then to a hot spring and a waterfall. Lod Cave was really cool, although I got shit on by a bat at one point and was paranoid for the rest of the day that I had rabies or parasites because I've been a hypochondriac since I got amoebas in Saigon. The hot spring was the highlight. The waterfall was a bit of a letdown, but overall enjoyed the tour.
To finish off...
This blog post has taken me over 2 months to finish and I think I finally summed it up to my liking. I'll get to blogging about our last stop in Thailand, paradise-dream-beach-land Koh Tao, as soon as I'm more settled into the new school year.