The first time I heard about Pai was when I was preparing for this trip. I came across a picture of Pai Canyon (see related article) as part of a list of “places not to miss off the beaten track“. I had to look more into it since we were going nearby.
Pai is a small village, close to the Myanmar border, that started attracting tourists in the 90’s after the newly-built Route 1095 made it more accessible. Attracted by its chill atmosphere in the mountains, more and more backpackers visited and consequently more and more guest-houses opened. It is said that there are now more than 300 guest-houses in this small town! I could believe that.
Therefore, we found Pai to be similar to Vang Vieng in Laos (see related post): an uninteresting backpacking town in the middle of amazing and beautiful scenery. But to be honest Pai is a bit more charming than Vang Vieng with more efforts towards keeping the hippie-style atmosphere. However, given how many backpackers were at the moment when we visited, I cannot even imagine how packed this place must be during high season! Luckily, among all the guest-houses available you can find your little peaceful heaven along the river.
How to get to Pai
Pai is located in the North West of Chiang Mai. You can get there by the Route 1095 which is in very good condition but be prepared for its… 762 curves!!! People who know me know I am car-sick … so yes, this road was very challenging for me! If you go by bus make sure to sit in the front (more below).
Your options by road are:
- by car – expensive but probably the most comfortable
- by public bus – the cheapest (around 75 THB) but not that comfortable (no A/C) and count at least 4 hours
- by mini-van (see below)
- by motorbike (see below)
We were hesitating between those 2 last options but opted for the mini-van.
Note: You can also go to Pai by plane as Pai has a small airport but it is not clear if the company is still working and what is the actual flight schedule as it is not every day.
Going to Pai by motorbike
Our first idea was to ride the motorbike to Pai. The road is nice and goes through beautiful mountains and forests. However, after our great but exhausting experience in Vietnam (see related post) we had to think twice and we were afraid of the weather as we had quite some rain over the past days in Chiang Mai. Also we were not looking forward to dealing with the police, since none of us has a motorcycle driving license 🙂 .
Indeed, we were certain that we would be stopped by police on the way. Not having the proper international driving license, nor the motorcycle license, we were sure that we would need to pay a fine. We got explained the concept: the average fine is around 500 THB (17 USD) and after you pay it you can obtain a paper (make sure you get it!) that says you already paid the fine so that if you are stopped again within the next few days, just show that paper… interesting no?
If you are up to give it a try you have 2 options:
- renting a motorbike in Chiang Mai for a few days, that you will keep during your stay in Pai. Note that most companies will ask you to leave your passport or to leave a copy. If you want your passport, then they require a deposit between 2 000 THB (50 EUR) and 10 000 THB (250 EUR). Given that it is mandatory in Thailand to have your passport with you (don’t forget there will be police checks) and that you will also need it to check-in while in Pai, you don’t really have a choice here. When we were looking into that option we found the agency Mango Bikes Rent; we cannot recommend it personally but it has very good ratings.
- renting a motorbike for a one-way trip from Chiang Mai to Pai (or reverse). The advantage is that they will normally send your bag for you so you don’t have to carry it! The main agency doing it seems to be Aya.
Going to Pai by mini-van
This is the best option when it comes to public transportation. There are 3 companies doing it but we recommend to book either with Aya or Prem Pracha. It costs 150 THB (5 USD) one way and both companies leave from the Arcade Bus Station in the East of the city. You can go there by Red Car: count 40 THB per person from the Old Quarter.
You can buy your ticket directly at the bus station, through your hostel (they will include the pick-up) or by e-mailing or calling the company directly.
If like me you are car-sick make sure to book in advance and specify you need a seat in the front… For both ways I managed to have the seat 1A that is basically the seat next to the driver!
What to see in Pai
As I said Pai is a small town full of guest-houses. The life of the backpackers city is therefore centralized around the main road that becomes a Walking Street in the evening (in Thailand Walking Street indicates that there is a market!). There are a few temples to visit in town.
Pai offers many restaurants and bars with both Thai food and international food. At night you can eat in the market. And it has several 7-Eleven too!
I would recommend to stay on the other side of the river from the main street for a peaceful stay but closed to the animation. We stayed at Canary Guest-house that was recommended to us and we did like it.
The best way to explore the surroundings is to rent a scooter (around 200 THB/ 6 USD per day) or even a side-car bike (400 THB/ 12 USD per day). But be careful as many many tourists do the same, which means you have a lot of inexperienced drivers on the road! Safety first!
Then you can go to Pai Canyon, the white Buddha, strawberry fields, bamboo mini golf, yoga classes, etc… Pai also offers some natural hot springs but we do not recommend you to go during the warm season.
You can also go for a trek in the surrounding jungle. Read our article about our trek to Mae Yen waterfalls.