Pai, Thailand. Tucked away in the mountain valleys of Thailand’s northern countryside. A place where tranquil views of rice paddy fields and waterfalls attract tourists looking for a peaceful retreat, and perhaps some meditation, from more hectic cities. After we decided to travel to Pai ourselves, we understand the appeal it has for tourists and expats in the country: lazy morning walks, motorbike rides through lush jungle and stunning landscapes, afternoon indulgences in good coffee and food and evenings spent browsing the nightly walking street.
What To Know When You Travel To Pai, Thailand
The desire to visit Pai while in Thailand has been steadily growing, but there are a few things to know before you venture all the way to this more secluded area. We’ve made our way on our own by scooter from Chiang Mai to Pai, we’ve scoured for the best accommodations to suit our needs, we’ve explored Pai and the surrounding area for things to do and we’ve dined at some amazing restaurants while there… and through all of it we’ve come away with some tips we think are important for anyone who wants to travel to Pai.
1. Choose Your Method of Transportation Wisely
The majority of people who visit this mountain valley town, head from Chiang Mai to Pai and there are several ways to do so. If you’re looking to visit Pai, you’ll want to take a look at your options and judge which makes the most sense to you.
The most popular method of transportation is by minibus or larger air-conditioned bus. The minibus is the quickest way to get there but with 762 turns to navigate, motion sickness is incredibly common and driving on a tight schedule, you’ll not be making many stops. Though it’s only around a 3 hour drive, we recommend taking this only if you’ve got a pretty strong stomach and need to get there in a hurry! At approximately 150-200 THB each way, it is also one of the cheaper options for getting yourself to Pai
If motion sickness is sure to be a problem, the air conditioned bus offers a bit less sway, though those 762 turns will still be felt. This method will take longer but will be more comfortable and will ring in a slightly cheaper tab at 100-150 THB. If you can afford to take more time to get there, we’d recommend this as it offers some more comforts.
If you’re looking for adventure, you can always rent a motorbike and drive the exhilarating route from Chiang Mai to Pai. Be forewarned: This is not a method to be taken lightly and should only be attempted by those who have experience riding motorbikes and who are comfortable with long drives on uneasy terrain. It is a route known to be prone to motorbike accidents as drivers take corners at unsafe speeds not anticipating the difficulty of the road.
Having said that, we drove from Chiang Mai to Pai and back again on motorbike and had one of the most amazing times! We took it at a comfortable pace, made sure to gas up when we could and kept hydrated. If this is something you’re looking to do, we have even more tips on getting from Chiang Mai to Pai by motorbike, including where we rented our motorbike. This method will also cost you about 200THB minimum per day but will give you the freedom to come and go as you please and eliminate having to pay for transportation once in Pai.
You can also rent a car to travel to Pai and make the ride more comfortable all around but it will increase your expenses, so price this out beforehand and explore your options!
The last main method of getting to Pai is by plane and it is also the most expensive. You’ll save time on the actual trip (only about 30 mins from Chiang Mai) but will add on time getting to and from the airport as well as time spent in the airports themselves.
Whichever method you choose, think wisely whether it is the right one for you. There are pros and cons to all options and as Pai is not the most easily accessible of places, you’ll want to be sure you’ve picked a method of transportation that offers you the safest and most comfortable option that fits within your budget.
2. Rent A Motorbike In Pai If You Didn’t Drive Up On One… But Don’t Learn There!
If riding a motorbike to Pai is not your idea of a good time, you’ll be getting to Pai with only your own two feet to get you around. For the most part, this is all you need, but if you have an urge to explore, you’ll need to either hop on a tour, hire someone to take you around or rent a motorbike once you get there. Bike rentals will be a little more expensive here than in the larger city of Chiang Mai, but they’ll still be decently priced. There are however, some key details to consider before, and while, renting a scooter in Pai.
- The same rule applies here as anywhere else when renting a bike: do a full check of the bike before hopping on, you may want to take photo and/or video documentation of any scratches or dents before you leave the rental place with images of it in the background
- Ensure you have insurance or are insured by the rental company, and
- Make sure you have a proper and fitted helmet
Most importantly, when talking about Pai, is do not use this opportunity to actually learn how to drive a motorbike. We can’t tell you how many patched and bandaged people we saw walking around Pai when we were there. It is a popular place for people to rent their first motorbike and the combination of new drivers, small streets, hilly terrain and many, many people can create a less-than-optimal place to ride, especially if you’ve never done so before.
3. Book Your Accommodations Strategically
While this mainly applies to those who are driving a scooter or car to Pai, or those who plan to rent a scooter once there, it is a good idea for anyone heading to Pai. Though there is a main stretch of road with accommodations throughout, there are also outlying hotels and hostels. If you’re planning on having a motorbike with you, you’ll want to make sure the place you book has parking available as it is not always simple or easy to park along the walking street overnight. Since you will have a bike, you are obviously able to make your way to and from the main areas and have a bit more room to negotiate where you’ll be staying. If you have a car, you’ll definitely need to find an accommodation in Pai that has the space available.
If you’re not looking to rent and are relying on your own two feet or hiring transportation once in Pai, you’ll probably want to make sure you are located somewhat centrally to the walking street or the activities you are looking to do once there. We’ve put together some of the best accommodations in Pai and have also reviewed one of our favourites, right on the walking street, Soi One Bedrooms.
4. Explore Outside The Main Strip
Though it’s tempting to keep things easy and stay within the main area of Pai, you’ll be missing out on a ton of beautiful scenery and great things to do.
Head out and visit Pai Canyon, drive through rice paddy fields and beautiful mountain landscapes, explore the various waterfalls nearby and find marked, and unmarked, viewpoints that will leave you speechless.
There are various things to do and see like the War Memorial Bridge on the outskirts of Pai, Wat Phra That Mae Yen – the temple on the mountain, Pai Piranha Fishing Park, The Chinese Village and yoga classes or retreats.
Pai can be as eventful or as relaxing as you make it but getting out of the main area and walking street will give you a wide range of things to do in Pai, no matter your purpose for your trip there!
5. Visit Mae Hong Son
This is one thing we didn’t get to do on our visit to Pai, but really wish we did. Heading even further north, you’ll reach Mae Hong Son and if all the talk in Thailand was true, it’s a beautiful area not to be missed. If you can add this stop to your trip, you might want to do so! Though growing in popularity, it is still less tourist-packed as many other areas in Thailand and offers some of that classic Northern Thailand scenery and tranquility.
Mae Hong Son also borders Myanmar, so depending on the current Thai tourism laws (please check these before you travel to Thailand) you may be able to do a border run if needed or use this as an entry way on to visit another country! It’s only 2-3 hours drive from Pai and you can drive your rental car or scooter or take a bus straight from Pai. If you do go, let us know what you think and show us photos – we’re anxious to get back to northern Thailand and find out for ourselves!
6. Visit The Walking Street More Than Once
If you can, depending on how long you are there and what your itinerary entails, heading to the walking street more than once is a definite must. Now, you may get there and think that you’ve seen all you can see with one walk up and down it… but you’d be wrong. We found that we saw new things, paid attention to different vendors and watched new stands pop up each night we ventured out.
Taking another walk along the street also allows you to try new food vendors that you may not have had a chance to try previously – whether you were just too full from the other food you bought, or you missed seeing them altogether! In fact, it wasn’t until our second night strolling the walking street that we stopped and bought something from, what is now, our favourite Pai Walking Street vendor – Grandma’s Pancakes! We liked it so much, we went back the next day to try a different flavour (because you just can’t resist some Nutella on your pancakes!)
7. Meet People
Whether you’re sitting in a coffee shop, in a common area of your accommodations, dining at a restaurant or walking the walking street, be open to talking to others – you’ll find locals and tourists alike are extra friendly and open to meeting new people! Of course, you’ll want to take regular stranger-danger precautions like you would anywhere (be smart!) but you’ll also learn quickly that the people who live and visit Pai are by large a pretty friendly and talkative bunch.
We met some travellers in a coffee shop looking for help with WiFi who we passed by several times while in Pai and said ‘hello’. We met a couple on the walking street one night who gave some amazing restaurant recommendations and we met two backpackers at our hostel with whom we became fast friends and still stay in touch with!
Pai is really no different than anywhere else – if you put yourself out there, you’re bound to meet good people and make friends – but because of the close proximity to, well, everything and the small space most people are occupying, it’s easier to keep bumping into the same people and getting to know the familiar faces!
8. Find Time to Relax!
This is a place for relaxation, meditation, yoga, etc and even if you’re not into that it’s not a bad idea to take some time to live in the moment and appreciate the beauty of your surroundings. Chances are you’re visiting Pai from Chiang Mai or Bangkok, or are headed to one of the busier cities at some point. Though we love the activity of the large cities and can often be found in them, it is nice to take some time away from it all.
If you travel to Pai you’ll also get a good glimpse into life in the northern, and remote, areas of Thailand. That includes a more tranquil landscape and it’s nice to be able to tap into that and appreciate the beauty of the country.
9. Try The Coffee
Northern Thailand does coffee good! So good, we’ve even listed 5 top cafes in Northern Thailand to find good coffee while you’re there. One of them just happens to be on the way to Pai, but even if you’re not navigating your own way there, there’s plenty of good coffee once you get there. We tried different cafes and coffees while in Pai and you’ll probably be hard pressed to find a bad cup of joe!
If you’re a coffee lover, this will be a paradise for you and if you’re not, there are plenty of fresh fruit juices and teas to satisfy whatever beverage craving you have!
10. Do Your Research Before You Take A Tour!
While walking the streets of Pai, you’ll probably see signs or be approached by someone for a tour to the outlying areas, particularly tours that include a visit to the “Longneck” people of the Karen Hill Tribe. Before you make a decision to go, we’d recommend doing some research into this industry. Much of the “tribe life” you’ll see, including the neck rings, are maintained for tourism reasons only and many people feel it is exploitation and harmful to the people of the tribe. Whatever you decide, it would be beneficial to look into the issue and decide whether it’s something you’re still interested in, and comfortable, doing or not.