Travel Guide: Pai
Pai is a small town 146 km north of Chiangmai, near the Myanmar border and popular amongst backpackers due to its stunning surroundings and quite wild party scene. It seems that Pai overcompensates for its small size by offering a little bit to everyone. Regardless of the type of traveler you are, I can assure you that you will fall in love with this not so hidden gem. Below you will find everything you need to know if you are planning on visiting Pai.
1. Transportation to and from
Most people visit Chiangmai and then head to Pai by either mini-van or scooter. If you are traveling alone or do not have a lot of experience driving a motor bike we recommend you take the mini-van, the ticket for which is only about 150 baht (around $5 USD). The mini-bus seats about 12 people comfortably and is equipped with quite strong air con which makes the 3 hour drive a lot more bearable. The drivers are very experienced with the steep, curvy roads but they do not skimp on the speed so be prepared for a semi-scary experience at times. If you’re one of those with a weak stomach, make sure to take motion sickness tablets before hand as the winding road can be a challenge. We took the mini-bus on our way back from Pai and can honestly say that it's a great value for the price. Keep in mind however, most companies will charge extra for your large bags or suitcases, so don't forget to budget for this too.
Now, on our way from Chiangmai to Pai we opted for the scooter option (check our post here) which was quite the adventure. The best place to rent scooters from is Aya Service as they have a location in Pai so there is the option to return the rental there for an extra fee of 300 baht (about $9 USD). The bike itself cost us 150 baht per day with additional 79 baht insurance fee, not mandatory but worth every penny or an overall total of 229 baht per day or $7 USD. Renting the bike is pricier than the minivan option but then you get the freedom of enjoying the journey at your own pace. The road from Chiangmai to Pai consists of 700+ curves winding through the journey, steep hills, rolling rock, gravel, with trucks and vans passing one another despite the sharp turns and the small 2 lane road so please weigh in all factors before jumping on a scooter!
Northern Thailand is a backpackers paradise when it comes down to finding cheap accommodation and Pai is no exception to this rule.
We stayed in a private bungalow at Pai Nai Fun Resort for 300 baht per night - the bungalow was nothing special but the bed was comfortable, we had a fan and a hot shower and a nice, little porch with a hammock. The resort was located off the Main Street in a quiet, little area. It was nice to be close to the action but not deal with the noise and the crowds when it was time to sleep.
One of the most popular hostels in Pai is The Famous Pai Circus Hostel which offers free circus and yoga lessons to its guests. The hostel is also famous for its infinity pool, pool table, volleyball and football games. Even if you don't stay there you are more than welcome to visit the hostel and take advantage of what they have to offer. Prices vary from $5 USD for a dorm to $10 for a private, ensuite bedroom.
Overall, accommodation is extremely cheap and fairly nice with prices averaging between $3 and $15. Find something that is in walking distance to the Main Street, feel free to just take a stroll down the street and see what catches your eye! During peak season it can be harder to secure accommodations right away but there are plenty of hostels and guesthouses so you shouldn't worry. It is always a good idea to prebook online for at least one night when possible especially if you arrive late at night just in case.
Plenty of restaurants and street food to choose from - the main area basically goes in a circle so you will stumble upon tons of good cafes and restaurants. Surprisingly there are even a lot of Italian options throughout town (although, not all of them good). Restaurant prices vary from 100 to 250 baht depending on the cuisine. At night, the main street transforms into a night market which is the way to go if you want grub that's both cheap and good! Bruschetta, crepes, pizza, Pad Thai, meat skewers, fresh fruit smoothies and meat kebabs are just a few options offered by the street vendors. In fact, the best Pad Thai we have ever tried was from a tiny little cart at the end of the night market!
4. Night life
Pai is famous for its night life and party scene with its buzzing night clubs and bars. Just walking down the street you'll see promoters trying to one up each other by handing out fliers offering the best party and the cheapest drinks in town. They do close at different times so be aware of this when bar-hopping. Another, Pai specialty is mushroom shakes (hallucinogenic shrooms mixed with fruit and milk). We weren't offered any nor did we go looking for them but if you are into that type of thing I am sure it wouldn't be hard to find. Just remember that drugs are illegal in Thailand, so use at your own risk.
5. What to do in Pai:
Join the Circus School - lessons are free of charge and held 5 days a week between 4 and 6 pm. Learn how to juggle, dance with fire or balance on a slack line. This place is great for meeting other fellow travelers and enjoying playing outside!
Pai Canyon - 8 km south of Pai, on the way to Chiangmai, Kong Lan or Pai Canyon is one of the must-see attractions in Northern Thailand. The canyon is best to be visited in the morning for a 360 degree panorama that is simply stunning at sunrise. Of course, visiting the canyon at dusk is equally rewarding but then you might need to share the view with several others. The canyon consists of steep, vertical ledges and massive rocks that you climb at your own risk as there are a lack of safety precautions here. If you want to trek all of the different tracks prepare to spend at least a half day but again, be aware of the steep and slippery pathways as it could be quite dangerous especially after it rains.
Visit a waterfall - Pai is surrounded by beautiful jungle so don't be afraid to venture out and explore the nature it has to offer. There are several waterfalls around Pai but Pombok and Mo Paeng seem to be the most popular ones and not without reason. Pom Bok is easy to reach by bike, about a 15 minute ride from Pai. It is usually blessed by a heavy water flow and a nice deep pool to cool off in. If visiting in dry season though, be aware that the waterfall might not be as impressive - it dries out and resembles more of a trickle than a waterfall.
Mo Paeng is quite popular among tourists especially during high season but it is to be expected considering how stunning the waterfall and its surroundings are. The views from Mo Paeng are incredible and as a bonus it offers a natural slide for people looking for a little more excitement.
Tham Lod Cave - not exactly in Pai but if you are in the area you should definitely take the 40 min trip to this stunning cave. Famous partly because of its size, limestone configurations and acoffin-shaped cave within the main one. The complex consists of three connected caves that feature colorful stalactites and stalagmites, and ancient deer paintings. There are guided tours offered throughout all three caves, and even a fantastic boat ride option to the third cave if you feel so inclined.
Giant Buddha statue - one of the highlights of our visit to Pai was hiking up to the Giant Buddha statue overlooking Pai. In order to get there you can either ride a scooter halfway or walk the entire way but in total you will have to climb the 547 steps to the top of the hill.
At the half way point of the stairs there is a nice temple where you will get the chance to meet a friendly monk or two. We spotted one of them working on the garden and the view was so serene. He stopped and chatted with us for a bit showing interest in our tattoos and showing off his own.
Above the temple and 200+ steps later was the statue of Buddha, silently keeping an eye on the city and its surroundings. The view is stunning as you not only get to see the entire town of Pai but the enormous jungle surrounding it as well.
Near Pom Bok, is the Land Split - a massive crack in the ground, which isn't quite as impressive as the name given. However, what makes it interesting is its story; the land is owned by a farmer but after an earthquake in 2008 the crack occurred and it split his land in two. His farm was ruined but he turned lead into gold and made a tourist attraction out of his misfortune. All visitors are offered tea, fruit and veggies grown on the farm as well as delicious rosella wine. Stop by and chat with the owner as he makes this place truly special and unique.
Sit back and relax - despite it's insane party scene, Pai is quite nice if you are just looking to relax and enjoy the jungle especially after exploring everything the town has to offer. Grab a good book and lay on a hammock, relax by the river or simply meditate, listening to what the jungle has to say.
We visited Pai in the beginning of our stay in Thailand and to this day it's one of our favorite destinations there. Regardless of what you are after this small, unique town has a lot and caters to any type of need. If you happen to find yourself in Northern Thailand do not miss out on visiting this gem!