Thailand contributor Jade Scanlon stayed in Pai long-term while volunteering for a local NGO. She shares her 2019 tips for getting the most out of your stay in Pai.
Pai is a small, slow-rolling town, located in the Mae Hong Son province of Northern Thailand. It’s tucked into a mountain valley, offering travelers a laid-back way of life, and picture-perfect views of jungle-green mountains and epic sunsets.
You don’t have to be a hippie to enjoy the bohemian energy that radiates through Pai. It’s a place where you can slow down the pace, or reach out for more adventure. Whitewater rafting, tubing, jungle trekking and waterfalls await the adventure seekers… while bars with nightly happy hours await the nighthawks.
Pai is quite a paradox. You can visit for a spiritual retreat, meditate in the mountains and wonder at nature. Or, it’s a place where you can party late into the night from deep in the jungle. What kind of place Pai will be for you truly depends on how you choose to spend your time there.
How to get to Pai
Pai is one of the stops on the Mae Hong Son motorbike loop. The route connects Chiang Mai, Pai, Mae Hong Son, Mae Sariang and the Doi Inthanon National Park. It’s a popular journey among motorbike riders thanks to its impressive, mountainous scenery and opportunities to stop in small, rural villages that you otherwise wouldn’t visit.
Many travelers drive to Pai without doing the entire loop. The whole loop is challenging, exhausting and requires a lot of time spent on the bike. (And not worth it if you only want to visit Chiang Mai and Pai).
Route 1905, the road from Chiang Mai to Pai, has become an experience in itself. Many people begin their trip to Pai by renting a motorbike and driving all 762 of the curves between Chiang Mai and Pai. Those of you with enough bike experience (and with the courage to take on 4 hours of sharp turns and questionable over-taking) can expect a breathtaking drive through Northern Thailand’s hills and valleys.
If driving isn’t for you, then public transport options are inexpensive and easy to find. Tickets can be bought from the Chiang Mai bus station for either a minivan or a songthaew that will take you the whole way. They leave every hour at 30 minutes past the hour and cost 150 baht (approx 4-5 US dollars).
What to do in Pai
Pai is a small place, with most things concentrated in one area. It’s good to arrive with as few expectations as possible!
Let yourself be seduced by the slowness of the town while still allowing spontaneity. Rent a scooter, and drive in any direction out of the town perimeters. They’re easy to rent, reliable and quite inexpensive. There are many scooter rental shops around town starting at only 100 baht a day.
If you are looking for things to do, here are some of the best spots to adventure into nature, or to simply relax, eat and drink at…
Boon Ko Ku So (Bamboo Bridge)
This bridge is a long bamboo bridge and pathway that goes over the rice paddies and through the farmlands. During and after wet season, the land is a beautiful, vibrant green.
The bridge connects to Wat Hauy-Kai-Kiri, a Buddhist temple. Every morning, the monks use the bridge to walk into the town. It’s enjoyable to watch, as their long orange robes contrast against the green of the jungle.
The bridge isn’t very well known, so it’s quite a peaceful walk and a great way to immerse yourself into some of Pai’s nature.
To find it, head towards Pam Bok waterfall and continue for 1 kilometer until you reach the temple.
Tham Lod Cave
Tham Lod Cave is popular for a reason. It’s a huge cavern, with a multitude of crevices for you to explore. There are wooden staircases all around which will take you higher and deeper into the cave.
There are guides who will lead you around the cave holding a gas lantern. They will point out funny rock formations in the shape of an elephant, the Buddha, or – most people’s favourite – a boob.
The cave itself is very impressive. There’s even an opportunity to take a bamboo raft through the shallow stream that runs through it.
Another great thing about this day excursion, though, is the drive there and back. It’s a 40-minute drive each-way through the mountains, with curve offering a different perspective of Pai’s incredible scenery.
There are 3 waterfalls close to Pai, easily found by politely asking a local for directions, or simply using google maps. As they are all close in proximity, you can do all of the waterfalls in one day.
Mo Paeng is the most popular. You can climb up to the second tier to slide down a natural rock slide. Pam Bok waterfall is set within a narrow canyon: water cascades down the rock into a refreshing swimming hole for you to bathe in. Mae Yen waterfall is close to a giant white Buddha that’s built into the mountains, and is only accessible by foot. The hike itself is beautiful and peaceful.
The best time to visit the waterfalls is after the rains of the wet season, as during February up to May the waterfalls are dry and much less impressive.
There are two hot springs in Pai: the Tha Pai Hot Springs and the Hot Springs Resort and Spa.
The Tha Pai Hot Springs are natural hot springs just a short ride out of town. They pools are a pleasant bath temperature, and they contain natural mud, packed with minerals. You can scoop the mud from the surface and rub it onto your skin, and give yourself a natural spa treatment.
The Hot Springs Resort, however, consists of man made pools filled with hot spring water. Here you can pay 100 baht for a day pass to use the facilities and relax in the fresh pools. Note: they run a complimentary shuttle bus twice a day from the Walking Street.
Wat Pa Tam Wua Monastery is a Buddhist meditation retreat set in the forest. It is free to stay at the monastery and you needn’t book in advance: just show up with white clothes and good intentions.
There is a daily schedule which they encourage you to adhere to (in order to have the full and enlightening experience) but the programme is very relaxed and you can feel free to go at your own pace.
The monastery is easily reachable from town: you can take one of the minivans the whole way for only 100 baht.
Huai Nam Dang National Park
Just under an hour away, there is a national park of pine forests and evergreen trees. The park is high up in the mountains, ranging from 500 to 2000 meters above sea level.
If you visit the park during the winter, you should wake up ahead of sunrise. There are morning mists that rise up to the mountains, covering the lower land. All you can see are the peaks as they appear to float on clouds. It’s magic!
Fluid is a pool bar and restaurant located just outside of the main town towards Mae Hee. It’s the perfect spot for a rest day in between adventures, or to wait out that killer hangover from the night before. It’s important to note that they serve the best potato wedges in town. Price: 80 baht.
Earth Tone Cafe
There is a huge vegan scene in Pai, and (whether you’re vegan or not) Earth Tone is a vegan/vegetarian cafe that proves the words ‘healthy’ and ‘delicious’ can be used within the same sentence. The decor brings the outdoor indoors with its bamboo furniture and jungly plants. Grab a herbal shake and shop in their earth-friendly store for beauty products, supplements and more.
Meditation/Yoga Class at Bom Bowls
It’s easy to find a yoga class in Pai. Most hostels will offer a free yoga class in the morning or afternoon. However, Bom Bowls offer different variations of yoga choose from that are suitable for all levels. They also host the weekly meetings for the Pai Women’s circle. Price: 200 baht.
Jazz House for live music
Perfect for a bit of slow, early evening entertainment. Jazz house has excellent musicians performing from 7:30pm until 9pm every night. The seating is comfortable and cozy, set in candlelight.
Note: they have the best tofu in town (try the tofu satay).
EAT AND DRINK
Walking Street Night Market
Every night, walking street is overwhelmed by food and goods stalls. Whatever you’re hungry for, you’re likely to find it somewhere along this street. Pizzas, toasties, pad thai, spaghetti, salads, lasagne, falafel and so much more. There are also clothes and handicraft jewelry stores to buy beautiful pieces for a bargain price.
Breakfast at Lemon Thyme
Bagels, baguettes, and guacamole on toast. Lemon Thyme specializes in a breakfast and brunch menu. Make sure you arrive early as their popularity has been known to have them run out of bread!
Vegan Thai at Xin Chen Jai
This is a buffet style restaurant where you can pick 4 different dishes for only 45 baht. They serve all of the traditional Thai dishes like pad ka pow (chilli and basil), noodle soups, green curry etc. But it’s all vegan-friendly.
The secret Spirit Bar
This bar is often missed by many who travel Pai due to its obscure location. To get to this bar you have to pass through another bar called ‘Paizy.’ It’s a quirkily decorated bar, with UV tie-dye, a fire pit, burning oils, live music and cheap drinks. Recommended: order a sang-sem, orange juice and fresh passion fruit from the bar for 50 baht. (Map location.)
Almost Famous’ famous mojitos
This bar has an extensive list of different flavored mojitos. It’s hard to choose which one to order, so the bar has cleverly made a ‘buy 4, get one free deal.’
“I can’t pick one so I’ll have these 5 please.”
From Walking street to Dancing Street
There is another street connected to the main street which could be appropriately renamed “Dancing Street.” This street is where most of the late night bars are, and, as long as you follow the street, as one bar closes you’ll reach the next one that’s still open. It starts at Boom Bar and ends at Don’t Cry.
Where to stay in Pai
There are a variety of accommodation options in Pai to suit everyone’s taste and budget. Pai is so small that all of the accommodation is relatively close and not a far walk from the bus station.
During low season (March-August), shop around the different accommodation options after you arrive. This gives you an opportunity to look at the rooms before you book them and bargain a good price.
Deejai Pai Backpackers (Book this hostel)
- The best sunset spot in Pai
- Relaxed and quiet
- However, it’s a 20-minute walk outside town
Jikko Harem (Book this hostel)
- New building with unique, high-quality decor
- Small dorms with relaxed and quiet atmosphere
- 10-minute walk from town
Common Grounds (Book this hostel)
- Great location in the town center
- Leads a pub crawl every night at 9pm
- Great place for lone travelers to meet people
Purple Monkey (Book this hostel)
- Fun parties and events organised by the hostel
- Close proximity to the town
- Swimming Pool
Head over the bamboo bridges that cross the Pai river from walking street and you will find an abundance of inexpensive, quieter but still accessible bungalow resorts.
Pai Loess Resort (Book this hotel)
- Close proximity to the town (5-minute walk from Pai walking street)
- Air con rooms available
- Private and quiet rooms in a beautifully maintained resort.
Rim Pai Cottage (Book this hotel)
- Great location! On the main walking street.
- Great for couples
- Swimming Pool