Backpackers making their rounds through Southeast Asia have most likely heard of this little mountain town in northern Thailand. Pai draws backpackers in with its easy living, chill vibes, and delicious food. Most travellers allow a few days for this little hippy town, but end up staying multiple weeks because life is just too good up here. Whether you’re short on time or hanging around for a while, we’ve created the perfect guide for you to experience Pai right!
Pai walking street at sunset
ABOUT PAI, THAILAND
Pai is a small town in the Mae Hong Son province in northern Thailand near the Myanmar border. Famous for its natural wonders, including a plethora of hot springs, waterfalls, and scenic landscapes, Pai is ideal for adventurers. This little town is also known for its easy-going, tranquil atmosphere. Travellers flock here to unwind and catch their breath in the midst of their bustling backpacking route. The best time to come here is November to February, when it’s the coolest and driest. March to May is the hottest time of year in Thailand, while May to October is rainy season.
The town of Pai is small and easy to navigate. There are only a few main roads and a highway running through the middle (1095). The main walking street is easy to distinguish, as most shops and restaurants are located here, along with the nightly street market where food carts line the road. The other famous landmarks in the area are either right off the 1095 or accessible from this highway.
Coffee in Love cafe
HOW TO GET HERE: CHIANG MAI TO PAI
The easiest way to get to Pai is from Chiang Mai by bus. aYa is the most common and reliable bus service and leaves Chiang Mai every hour from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. One way costs ฿150 a person and the pick-up and drop-off locations in Chiang Mai are at Thapae Gate, Arcade Bus Station, aYa Bus Station, Chiang Mai train station, and the Chiang Mai Airport (for ฿250). There’s one pickup point in Pai, located on the walking street, and they leave for Chiang Mai hourly from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. and once more at 11:30 a.m. These buses are actually more of a van, and can fit about 10 people comfortably. The trip takes about 3.5 hours each way (with a few stops), covering 137 kilometers and 762 turns (take your motion sickness medicine!) Inquire at your hostel or hotel and they will most likely be able to organise your transportation for you.
Many backpackers choose to ride a motorbike from Chiang Mai to Pai. While exhilarating, this road is incredibly dangerous (we really aren’t joking about the 762 turns), and many that attempt this trip end up crashing at least once (you’ll see many bandaged backpackers once you’re in Pai). We don’t advise embarking on this treacherous ride, but if you do decide to, make sure you have proper insurance that covers riding a motorbike. As long as you’re safe and smart, you’ll be able to experience the northern Thai mountains to their fullest.
TRANSPORTATION IN PAI
Because of its small size, many travellers get around Pai on foot. You can get to most of the popular bars, restaurants and shops in the centre by walking, but if you’d like to venture further out, renting a bicycle or motorbike is recommended. You can find plenty of rental shops in town, especially along the main walking street. Prices for bicycles start at ฿50 and motorbikes start at ฿100. Even though most of these shops won’t check, you must have an international or Thai driver’s license to drive a motorbike, along with insurance of course. Tuk-tuks and songthaews aren’t common up here, but you can ask your hostel or hotel to arrange transportation for you if necessary.
Motorbiking around Pai
WHERE TO STAY IN PAI
There are numerous hostels, guest houses and resorts in Pai. Backpackers are spoilt for choice with the plethora of hostels to choose from. For great views and a camping-like ambiance, check out the famous SpicyPai. Travellers wanting to party hard should head to Pai Circus. If you’d like to stay right in the heart of all the action, book a bed at Common Grounds, but if you want something more secluded, Tribal Pai will be your sanctuary. For a cross between a hostel and a resort, is an ideal option, with a plunge pool and beautiful bungalows just a ten minute walk from the centre.
Bungalows at Mad Monkey Hostel Pai
ADVENTUROUS THINGS TO DO IN PAI
Book a day tour or hop on a motorbike and get ready to explore the mountains and fields that surround Pai. One of the best day trips is an hour and a half ride up to Tham Lod Cave. Take a traditional bamboo raft through three caverns and discover stalagmites, stalactites, columns, 1,400-year-old coffins, and other ancient artefacts.
Entrance to Tham Lod Cave
Exploring Tham Lod Cave
Other popular day trips are visiting the Land Split, cooling off at different waterfalls, soaking in hot springs, and watching the sunset at Pai Canyon. Admire the famous White Buddha up-close after trekking 350 steps up a hill, and enjoy the panoramic views while you’re up there. Luckily for all of us, there’s no shortage of stunning sights in Pai. To really immerse yourself in the culture, learn the national sport, Muay Thai. There are numerous Muay Thai gyms, the closest and most well-known being Charn Chai Muay Thai Gym.
Sunset at Pai Canyon
RELAXING THINGS TO DO IN PAI
For those just wanting to take it easy and decompress while in Pai, this town caters to you as well. Start your morning with a yoga class, chill at a cafe, and then get a massage. Thailand is known for their yoga scene and traditional (yet affordable!) Thai massages, and Pai is no exception. Browse the abundance of boutique and art shops around town and find some local art or handmade jewellery to take home as a keepsake. If you want to leave the town centre, relax by the river, check out the Yun Lai Viewpoint, or walk over rice paddies on the Bamboo Bridge. There are also many gorgeous temples hidden amongst the hills and residential areas, like Wat Si Don Chai and Wat Nam Hu. Once night falls, choose one of the many bars and lounges to get a drink and listen to some live music.
Yun Lai Viewpoint
Wat Si Don Chai temple
WHERE TO EAT IN PAI
Pai is famous for their variety of delicious cuisines. Not only can you indulge in classic Thai dishes like pad thai, but you can feast on pizza, burgers, tacos and more. One of the best parts about Pai is starting your day at one of their many cozy cafes. Om Garden has some of the best food in town, while The Container@Pai is the most unique and has some killer views. It’s easy (and quite tempting) to spend every morning and afternoon at a different cafe in town, but then you’d miss out on the other great eateries and restaurants in this town.
The Container@Pai cafe
The easiest (and one of the cheapest) food options is venturing down the Pai walking street once the sun starts to set. Food carts, vying for your attention, sell everything from crêpes to fresh squid, giving tourists almost too many options. Sample some unique toasties, traditional Thai snacks, or some vegan desserts. If you’re wanting to sit down and eat, try A Taste of Joy and Silhouette for some delicious European-style food, or The Blue Ox and Charlie and Lek’s for Thai food. Vegetarians and Vegans will be in heaven in Pai, as there are dozens of veggie-friendly restaurants like Earth Tone and Art in Chai.
Pai walking street food cart
Lastly, Pai is also known for its nightlife. While most bars close at midnight, this little town still manages to give backpackers some wild nights they don’t remember. Start your night on the walking street, where there are numerous bars offering live music or heavy beats. For something more mellow, Edible Jazz is the go-to for many, as they have live music every night and an open mic on Sundays. Drinks are relatively cheap in Pai, making it easy to stretch your Baht and make it well past midnight, where the scene visibly migrates to Don’t Cry bar. This neon-lit bar provides late night munchies, a fire pit, multiple bars, and a dance floor where you can find the majority of the night-owl backpacker crowd.
Don’t Cry bar before the late-night crowds
USEFUL PAI TIPS
“Hello” in Thai is “
”, “Thank you” is “
”, “Excuse me” is “
” and “Do you speak English?” is “
Pôot paa-săa ang-grìt dâi măi?”.
Note that at the end of each phrase, you should add the word “
(for men) or “
(for women) to be polite — “
is how women say “hello”.
To be extra polite, put your hands together and bow slightly when saying hello or thank you.
Pack some modest clothes if you plan on visiting any temples. Women, especially, should cover their knees and shoulders out of respect.
1 US Dollar = 33 Thai Baht (฿). The most common notes are ฿20 ($.60), ฿50 ($1.50), ฿100 ($3), ฿1000 ($30).
*Updated July 2018
Tipping at restaurants and bars isn’t necessary, but for services like massages or tuk tuks, you should round up or tip a couple dollars.