Pai is a town in the Mae Hong Soon Province of northern Thailand outside of Chiang Mai. The trek to get to the city is known for its 762 hairpin turns on the road. It is one of the most dangerous stretches in all of Thailand. It is 80 miles long and takes several hours because of the turns and definitely makes you car sick. The drive is worth the beauty of the northern Thailand countryside with lots of traditional huts, wildflowers, and jungle greenery. There are natural canyons and gorges where you can hike. There are beautiful and remote hot springs like the Tha Pai Hot Spring and waterfalls like Mo Paeng Waterfall to explore. There is also a huge cave a day trip outside of town as well as the World War II Memorial Bridge historical site to visit. There is the big white buddha hike and many coffee shops with killer mountain views and overlooks to chill or catch a sunset. Downtown Pai is a charming stretch of restaurants, shops, food stalls and handicraft shops that line Pai Walking Street. West of town is Baan Santichon, a traditional Chinese village with clay houses and lots of Yunnan cuisine to try. Pai is known for its eccentric and rugged, hippie backpacker crew of expats. Pai is a very artistic locals and expat community that has fun street art and lots of homemade artisan crafts that you can purchase.
How to get there
Pai is a 4 hour drive north of the city Chiang Mai. I would recommend renting a car from the Chaing Mai airport, taking a minibus from the city or taking a private taxi. There are motorbikes you can rent, however it is a very dangerous road and drive. Riding a motorbike when you are not used to it for 4 hours on 72 hairpin turns with drivers speeding on mountain roads is not safe or wise. This is not really conducive to your time, comfort or safety. The most budget option is to take a minibus with several other people. The minibuses run hourly from sunrise until 4pm from Chiang Mai’s Arcade Bus Station. The air-conditioned minivan trip is around 3 hours and costs 160 Baht. Tickets sell out fast because this is the most common transport to get to Pai so make sure to buy the ticket in advance. A private transfer or taxi will cost around $130 usd one way. The private transfer is so expensive and makes it complicated to get a return trip as well from a remote place. This is an option for those with the means who have not driven in Thailand before and don’t have an international driver’s license. The cost of renting a car is around $60usd per weekend with some basic insurance coverage. So this is another great flexible and free option for those with the ability to drive in Thailand.
When to Visit
The busiest month for tourism is January, followed by July and February. The prices for hotels and flights are more expensive in these months. But if you plan ahead you can save. Tourists don’t visit Pai often in May so this is the least expensive month to visit. If dry weather and no rain is what you are seeking, the months with the lowest chance of rain are February, December, and then January. If you go during rainy season time the rice fields will be green and beautiful and the waterfalls will be more full. Also the rainy season is off season and quiet with little tourists. Depends on what your values are.
Getting around Pai
The best way to get around the small village of Pai is to rent a cheap motorbike there. Most huts, hostels and hotels have motorbike rentals right from where you are staying that are very convenient. Renting a motorbike is only 300 baht a day and you will barely use gasoline in the smaller area. There is not much parking and driving a car around inside of Pai is actually harder than getting everywhere by motorbike. The roads are very narrow and there is not much parking.
Things to do
Stay in a traditional hut
The traditional huts are all over Pai’s hills and countryside. You cannot miss them on your walks and drives through the area. This is one of the most unique and fun experiences to have while you are in Thailand and definitely Pai. You can hear the crickets at night and can go pseudo camping without being destroyed by the bugs being outside. We stayed at Suandoi Backpacker Resort that has many different huts and small cabins on its grounds just outside the main stretch of town in a quieter hill. There were cheap bikes to rent and many tours that were organized through the hostel for getting to the canyon, land split, hot springs, cave and much more. This is a great place if you want to find people to travel with and or want a way to see many things and get tours. Some other great options are Paitopia, and Paiklangna Cottage for simple budget huts around 300-800 baht for an experience. I talk more about some of the coolest places to stay in Pai below in my where to stay section.
The Pai Canyon is a quiet, scenic canyon with narrow, ledgy hiking trails that offer sweeping valley views. The canyon is about a 12 minute drive outside of town south and is the perfect place for a hike or run in the area. There are several trails that you can follow further into the canyon than just seeing the beginning overlook. There is a large parking lot for free parking and entrance to the canyon. This is one of the free nature things to do in Pai because most of them have an entry fee.
Soak in Hot Springs
Sai Ngam hot spring is natural preserve inside of a national park north of Pai city around a 25 minute drive. This is definitely more the locals hot springs spot and not as many tourists. The entry fee to the park is 200 baht. The fee to enter the springs is 20 baht per person. There is parking on the road that locals help direct you. The springs are out in nature and a beautiful setting which makes this one worth the drive. There are changing rooms, a bathroom and lockers which are rugged Thai style. Bring your own toilet paper. There are some local stands with food and a small restaurant that you can get snacks, drinks or food. These hot springs are warm and feel nice however they are definitely not hot. Be prepared and don’t expect boiling springs or deep and large areas. There are 3 smaller pools that are not very deep. If you sit down inside they are around chest height in most of the pools. A swim suit is required and bring your own towel. This place is run by locals so be sensitive. On a rainy and colder morning we opted for the springs and were satisfied with our morning soak.
Pai Land Split
The land split is a free local short hike that is a nature walk through and around the natural split in the earth. Inside the split is filled with so many ferns amidst the rock walls. There is a drink stand and hut with hammocks that you can chill out at after your hike. The land split is on the same road Pam Bok waterfall a bit further down and then the Pai Bamboo bridge. There are several sites you can see on this same road which makes for a great day trip. There is also the sweetest family that has a homemade go cart they built and charge a minimal fee for kids to ride the go cart down the hill.
Pai wooden bridge over rice fields
The Pai Bamboo bridge is a beautiful wooden structure that goes over the rice fields and through the hills to a temple 1 kilometer away. Most tourists don’t know that is what is at the end of the bridge and only walk a short ways instead of doing the full walk up. The bridge was originally built for the monks to be able to come into the village and get food. The bridge is a nice and beautiful walk whatever season. We visited in the winter dry season as you can tell and the rice fields were dry and bare. The most beautiful time to visit would definitely be during rainy season when the rice fields are lush and green and have water reflecting. The end of September it is all green. The end of October it turns dry and golden. There are several restaurants and drink spots as well as a bathroom at the entrance to the bamboo bridge. The bridge has an entrance fee of 40 baht per person.
Visit Sanchion Chinese Village
The chinese village is a fun and interesting cultural experience to have outside of Pai to the north by about a 15 minute drive. There is an overlook point of Pai called Yun Lai Viewpoint that is a bit beyond the village you can see the city. The village has a smaller re-make of the great wall of China with lots of small traditional house huts and shops. There are restaurants and lots of market stalls to buy local food and goods. There are traditional clothes made and sold. The village is free to enter and is an interesting place to walk around and explore. There are several beautiful viewpoints.
Walk Pai Walking Street at night
The Pai walking street is a delicious night market filled with local treats as well as artisan crafts and clothes being sold. The market starts around 5pm and goes late into the night. There is the best gyoza homemade stand that is very popular. The line starts early and is a good wait so be sure to claim your spot early. There is also a homemade hummus cart that sells wraps and the homemade hummus is my favorite. You can buy an appetizer of hummus and pita bread and it is delicious! There is a really popular tea stand that sells 5 types of tea in bamboo poles. The tea is so good and there is boba and many flavors to try. This is also a stand with long lines but worth the wait for the tea and experience. You get to keep your bamboo pole as a souvenir. They carve into them I love Pai. The walking street has so many locals shops that sell lace and linen boho style clothing. We found some epic Japanese art style wave shirts and even original Japanese and Chinese star wars shirts at one of the shops. There are homemade shoes, scarves, hats, and lots of linen bags and home decor items. One shop makes and sells homemade hanging wooden lamps that you can choose colors or other options added. The night market comes alive at night and is one of the main night life parts of the small village. It is fun to walk, shop, eat and experience the live music and other performers on the street.
Main Street Shopping
During the day the walking street has shops and boutiques that are local and foreigner run. There is definitely an artistic community with a boho style decor and clothes that you can buy. There are leather shops and lots of linen shops selling many bags as well. There is an open air greenhouse garden coffee shop called The Green Room. It is beautiful with all the greenery and is a great spot for a drink. They also have live music at night. The Witching Well is a delicious Italian restaurant with the best soups, salads, sandwiches and pasta dishes. My favorite dish I had there was a pork pepper steak with delicious garlic mashed potatoes. You must go to this restaurant when you are in Pai! There is a rabbit cafe to cuddle and hold some cute white rabbits. The Peddler is one of our other favorite restaurants and coffee shops in Pai. It is at the end of the walking street. They sell such an authentic and strong masala indian chai that is so good. They make killer breakfast burritos. Pai has endless small coffee shops and bars that line the two main streets. Most of the shops don’t have signs or names. They are not open very early in the day and open later in the afternoon for and before the market opens.
Pai is Falling in love store
This is a fun and artistic souvenir shop that is on the main walking street. They sell many patches, stickers, shirts and other Pai souvenirs. They sell graphic art that is funky and offer a craft corner especially for the kids that is fun. We got some Thailand flag patches finally for our backpacks here and they had a cool art graphic of the mountain with all the hairpin turns up to Pai that you can buy. They also have a post box outside of the shop where you can write and send postcards from Pai which is a fun thing to do when you are in town.
Visit a coffee shop with a view, “I love you Pai Cafe”
I love you Pai cafe sits on the hill 10 minutes outside the main downtown area. This cafe has the best overlook of Pai, the big white buddha on the hill and the mountains in the background. Coming here for sunset and later afternoon is the perfect time. Grabbing a space at the swinging chairs with the best views can be hard but if you patient and wait you will get one. There is a parking lot and drinks are pretty standard price around 80 baht. This is a great afternoon spot where we played cards and took in the views after a morning of hiking.
Live Music & coffee @ the Green Room
The Green Room is a beautiful open air outdoor courtyard coffee shop that is under greenery. The whitewashed brick and the cement flooring with beautiful tiles juxtaposed against the fresh greenery is very cool. This place has chill vibes and is a great quiet dang hang out spot and more lively night live music scene. This ended up being one of our favorite spots in the city as well however, there is not a bathroom that is public so that was frustrating.
Eat at the Witching Well’s outdoor courtyard
The Witching Well was hands down our favorite restaurant in town. If you are in Pai you must eat here for lunch or dinner. They have delicious soup, I loved their pumpkin soup. They also had delicious sandwiches and their pork steak with their homemade garlic mashed potatoes was such satisfying comfort food to have in Asia that is good quality. The owner is Italian and they are known for their great international wine collection here. They have a picturesque courtyard in lots of greenery and good lighting to sit out at night and enjoy the ambience of the main street.
Where to stay
Suandoi Backpacker Resort
There are tons of amazing budget backpacker huts that you can stay for very cheap and have a cool traditional experience. We stayed at this backpacker hut resort for 300 baht a night or about $10usd. The huts have private ensuite bathrooms and they rent bikes at Suandoi as well as have many tours/vans that leave from the backpacker spot. If you are looking to be able to connect to other travelers and tours this is a great spot. There are many cool huts to stay in for a similar price. If you are looking for budget huts here are some options: Deejai pai backpackers for 360 baht, Paitopia for 200 baht, and Darling Viewpoint Bungalows for 237 baht. For renting a bit nicer hut closer in to the downtown right on the river is around 500-900 baht. Here are some options: Pai Loess Resort 660 baht, Pai Nai Fun for 575 baht, and Pai homey for 650 baht per night. The closer in the huts are to downtown it is easier to walk everywhere especially at night when it is dark and there are no street lights for getting back to your hut. We stayed further out on the hill and it was a harder walk getting back at night. There are so many fun huts to stay at and they are such a fun experience to have in Pai we highly recommend staying at least for one night.
The Oia Pai Resort
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If you are looking for a bit more comfort and western style hotel style then this is one of the coolest spots in Pai for sure to stay. The hotel hence the name is a white and blue theme like Greece with a large pool in the middle of the white cottages on the resort that wraps all the way around all of the cottages. There are kayaks and boat rides you can take with amazing sunset views. There is a windmill and docks out over the water with boats selling drinks and snacks to swimmers . The rate starts at 2900 baht a night or just under $100usd. This is still a very budget rate for a 4 star hotel for foreigners yet it all depends on your budget and style. This is a beautiful getaway a bit outside the main city and downtown. See booking details and prices here.
This is another comfortable luxury option in Pai that is a higher end take on glamping huts. The grounds are outside the city nearby the amazing restaurant and coffee shop called the Peddler. This is a rustic boutique hotel that is a mid range option in your budget starting at around $60usd a night. There is a large swimming pool amidst the huts in some hills. The resort is to the western part of the city while most of the lodging and huts are to the eastern side so it is more remote. See more prices and booking details here.