Pai, one of several small towns and villages scattered throughout the mountains of northern Thailand, is a pretty, off-the-beaten-track outpost. It boasts a laid-back lifestyle, welcoming residents, some of the finest scenery to be found anywhere in Southeast Asia and an unbeatably low cost of living. This is one of the most affordable places in the world to enjoy a rich, full and comfortable retirement.
Pai is a world apart from Thailand's better-known retiree destinations, such as Bangkok, Phuket and Chiang Mai. This large, mostly rural province stretches from just west of Chiang Mai to the Myanmar border. Pai, located in a fertile valley surrounded by some of the tallest mountains in Thailand, is situated at about 1,800 feet above sea level, meaning the weather here tends to be cooler in the hot season than it is in the lowlands to the east.
In Pai, a foreigner is able to enjoy the best of small-town, Southeast Asian living without having to assimilate fully into Thai culture. English-speakers will have few problems in Pai, as many local residents have learned the language and adapted graciously to increases in tourism and the numbers of foreign residents.
Pai is far enough away from any large city to provide peace and quiet, but it's only a four-hour drive to Chiang Mai, where you can access some of the best medical care in Asia, as well as shopping, dining and cultural distractions.
Small towns often have a reputation for offering little to do, but Pai is not your typical small town. There are so many activities available in this tight-knit community that, although life here could be lazy if you wanted it to be, it would never be boring. Members of Pai's small community of expats know each other by name and see each other when they want, yet everyone respects each other's privacy.
Cooking classes are popular and help you take full advantage of the abundance of fresh and organic produce and meat produced in Pai. Isara's Garden Cookery School and Restaurant offers Asian fusion organic cooking classes, giving students the knowledge and expertise to create authentic and healthy Asian meals at home. The Savoei, located in town on the main "walking street," is another good choice for cooking classes, as are the Pai Cookery School and the Charlie and Lek Health Restaurant.
The Womb Meditation Center has classes in meditation, personal growth workshops, retreats and programs for self-exploration and creativity. The Open Mind Centre also offers meditation and spiritual retreats, classes and workshops.
Several places in Pai offer healing arts classes, including the Reiki Healing Pyramid, which also offers crystal chakra balancing and holistic spa treatments. Bundhit Tongpen has sessions and courses in Thai traditional massage, oil massage and Thai therapeutic deep healing therapy. Mama Lon provides traditional Thai massage and massage courses, too.
Every evening at 6 p.m. there are free aerobics sessions at the City Hall District Office. Free guided meditation classes are held at Good Life every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Pottery workshops and courses are held regularly at the Pai Café.
There are also plenty of opportunities to volunteer. The New Land Project is a reforestation project based on permaculture principles. You can learn about gardening, building, soil care and water management while living on-site, then give your time and knowledge back to the community as you put your new skills to work. The Banyan Center is a non-profit Montessori and preschool that helps Burmese refugees in the area, and they are actively seeking volunteers. The Pai Circus School is a foundation set up to help children living in Pai have a better future. You could learn to juggle fire and other circus skills while volunteering your time with disadvantaged children.
Venues around town offer live music every night, including jazz, Reggae, folk music and rock 'n' roll. If you are a musician, you're welcome to sit in and play with the group.
Restaurants often have small libraries of used books, which customers are welcome to read or to exchange for a book of their own. No one is ever in a hurry here. Life is slow, and people are content.
Pai is also a great place for people who love the outdoors, and a bicyclist's and a motorcyclist's dream come true. Country roads have very little traffic, and the views of rice fields surrounded by mountains are stunning.
Perhaps the best part is that everything in Pai comes at a very low cost, including rentals. Furnished homes with Western-style conveniences start at as little as $200 per month if you agree to a long-term stay. Something more upscale (and also furnished) might cost you $400 to $600 per month. Mid- and high-end rentals often include electricity, water and Internet in the cost of the rent.
A couple of retirees could enjoy a rich and full life in Pai on a budget of $800 per month or less, making this a top choice for those relying on a small pension or Social Security income.