The Ultimate Guide to Pai
Not much is known about the northern part of Thailand, let alone the small towns and districts. But, if you are like me who likes to explore places that are off-the-beaten path, then drop Bangkok and Phuket from your list, and head straight over to the largest city of North Thailand and second largest city of Thailand – Chiang Mai. However, this post is not about Chiang Mai. This post is about Pai, a small town in the district of Mae Hong Son, 150 km from the main city of Chiang Mai, which offers an almost 180 degree difference in the landscape than the streets of the cultural capital of Thailand.
Pai is located by the western banks of Pai River and is surrounded by high mountain forests some of which may even be 1200 feet above the sea level. Unlike most places, Pai doesn’t see any major climate changes. The days are mostly either pleasant because of the rain or humid because of the moisture, however, the nights can get really cold (I slept in a bamboo hut with my fan switched off and a thick blanket!).
As history goes, the current natives of this small town belong to the tribes of “Dai” and “Shan” who escaped during the Burmese conflict over 200 years ago and have been here ever since.
There are quite a few options available from Chiang Mai to reach Pai, however, below listed are the three most commonly used method of transportation:
- Public Bus – I don’t know much about this as I haven’t tried it personally but as far as the information goes, there is one daily public bus at 7 am which charges around 78 Baht and takes 4 hours. The bus departs from the Arcade Bus Terminal and is good for those who have a tendency of being motion-sick Ha! If you have motion sickness, then you probably should skip Pai’s 762 curves).
- Hired cab – If money doesn’t matter and you are travelling with your family and thus looking for some extra comfort, you can hire a cab directly from Chiang Mai airport or at any of the countless travel operators in Chiang Mai offering service to Pai. The cab fare from the airport till Pai is about 3000Baht (can be more or less depending upon season and your bargaining skills).
- Air – Kan Airlines operates a regular flight between Pai and Chiang Mai and you can book the tickets on their website
- Minivan (my favorite) – This one has all my votes – cheap (150Baht one way), fast (3 hours one way), and reliable. All (almost) the minivans leave from the Arcade Bus Terminal in Chiang Mai. There are quite a few tour operators but I personally trust Aya and Prempracha – I used the former for my return travel to Chiang Mai and the latter to get to Pai. Each minivan has a capacity of seating around 10-11 people, some may seat 13. They have AC and quite comfortable seats. The journey is of approximately 3 hours with a bathroom and refreshment break of 15 minutes. Consider yourself lucky if you get the seat next to the driver or the first one at the back because this means you have a panorama view of the landscape from Chiang Mai to Pai as it gradually unfolds itself with every turn your van takes towards Pai.
I had planned 5 days in Pai and wasn’t really sure of the accommodation arrangements and the tariffs which is why I pre-booked my stay at two different guest houses (yes! Two – don’t ask me why as I don’t know why) – Rainbow Guest House and Pai RiverLodge. Find below my review for both:
Rainbow Guest House
Located 1.1 km from Pai Walking Street, Rainbow Guest House is a nice little property comprising of bamboo huts (also called bungalows here) and proper rooms with surrounding greenery.
I stayed in one of the bungalows which had a double bed, a table fan (like almost everywhere else I have seen in Chiang Mai and Pai), two bottles of water and a couple of glasses, a couple of shelves, and a hammock!
I am not sure if the proper rooms have an en-suite but the bungalows have shared bathroom which are basic but clean and fitted with a shower and a flush toilet.
The rooms provide you with towels in case you forget to carry one.
There is no breakfast but you can have coffee or tea all day for a nominal fee of 10-20baht.
As per booking.com, the property is quite a hit with solo travelers and I will have to agree.
The owners of the property are really nice and polite (they offered me their umbrella since I wasn’t carrying one and it had been raining).
Also, the location of the property away from the main center provides extra peace and quiet.
Room tariff – 200 baht per night.
Pai River Lodge
Located down a small lane just opposite to the Walking Street, Pai River Lodge is a good place if you want to socialize with other travelers.
Just like Rainbow Guest house, Pai River Lodge also had a combination of bungalows and proper rooms.
The bungalow I stayed at was basic as compared to Rainbow guest house with just a mattress, table fan, mosquito net, and a blanket, but it also had an hammock and was situated right on the banks of Pai River!
The guesthouse has a bar and lounge area where you can chill out with beers if you are not up for visiting the highly socially active walking street and its many bars.
Though I visited in the low season, but, by the looks of it, the place has quite a bit of vibe when there are more guests I guess (I saw the remains of what looked like a barbeque and a firepit).
The owners are extremely warm and welcoming. Bathrooms are shared and clean.
Even though the guesthouse is located real close to the Walking Street, it still maintains its peace and tranquility (except for the music beats you can hear until late at night from the nearby ‘Don’t Cry’ bar but it’s not at all disturbing as it’s not really loud).
The best part of staying here (for swimming enthusiasts that is because I can’t swim and I am hydrophobic) is the free access to the Fluid Swimming Pool (which by the way closes for a month or so in August due to low season).
Room Tariff – 250 baht per night.
Both places have free Wi-Fi which works really good.
Some other options (which I have not personally tried but I met other travelers/backpackers who have) are the Purple Monkey, Common Grounds, Spicy Pai, and Pai Riverside Resort, and Pai River Corner Resort.
If you have spent your share of time in Chiang Mai before arriving in Pai, you already know the concept of street food and walking street markets. Although, quite small as compared to the ever expanding walking street of Chiang Mai, Pai’s Walking Street is where it all happens – street food, flea markets, bars and clubs, temples, tour operators, Seven-Eleven, and massage parlors!
There is a makeshift Crepe stall which is quite popular with tourists so is the Burger joint right next to the temple.
There is also a Thai food van next to the temple which has amazing Thai food. Needless to say, the food is great and the price is even greater!
However, if you feel like having a sit-down dinner with friends and family and don’t mind the slightly heightened rates, then I recommend Witching Well, Buffalo (which also has live music every night and open mics on Thursdays), Silhouette (also has live music), and Amido’s Pizza garden (I tried the chicken steak and it’s was yummy!).
The streets of Pai are swarming with bars and restaurants and you can check the menu on the menu cards placed outside all restaurants.
There is a lot to do and see in and around the small town of Pai and I have mentioned a few of the places I visited during my visit. You can find the details of these places below:
The Pai Canyon
It is often said that Pai Canyon is Asia’s answer to the Grand Canyon (though it looks more like the Red Rock Canyon) and well though I have never seen the latter but I have to say that the one here in Pai is definitely a “MUST-VISIT” attraction and one of the best around Pai.
It won’t be unfair to call it the most impressive attraction of Pai and you have to see it to believe it. Known as Kong Lan in Thai, the canyon is located 8 km outside Pai on the road to Chiang Mai, on route 1095 not too far from the World War II Memorial Bridge. The canyon can be easily located as the entrance is right off the main road. You can drive a motorbike or moped to the canyon or take a tuktuk if you aren’t feeling like the extra physical exercise. You also want to be wearing proper shoes for the canyon as the temptation of walking around the canyon is too high to pass.
The entrance is free and I guess it is open all the time as I did’t really see any barriers. This is also a great spot for watching the sunset and the sunrise, in fact, one of the best spots ever in Northern Thailand.
I personally suggest it is a good idea to start early in the morning so you have the place all to yourself and it is also a good time if you are up for some fantastic hiking opportunities. The later you go in the day, the hotter it may get.
The landscape around the canyon is breathtaking and it is amazing how nature has carved the canyon to give you a 360 degree view of the whole area. You can literally walk around the canyon in a full circle. There are of course wooden platforms where you can sit and relax but the best spot to take in the beauty of this natural wonder are the many edges of the canyon, but be careful if you kids along with you as some of the rocks are a bit slippery at times. The canyon is almost 30 metres deep and the spectacular geographical features of the canyon have been formed as a result of erosion which have been taking place over decades. The narrow walkways formed around the canyon almost look as if they are man-made.
A walk around the canyon is not for the faint-hearted and gets quite dangerous every now and then, but if you are up for the thrill, the best way to see the whole area is to trek. Although be aware that there are no rails to hold on to even at the areas which are really narrow and dangerous and it is 30 meters deep either side of the trail so you do it at your own risk. Keep your head calm when you decide to do the trail. It can take up to a couple of hours to finish the whole walk.
DO NOT forget to bring along your camera as this is one of the best photo opportunities that you will get around the town.
WWII Memorial Bridge
You might have overlooked it on your way from Chiang Mai to Pai but you would definitely want to visit this historical landmark on your visit to Pai. Though some may feel nothing spectacular about this bridge as it is just like any other man-made bridge but the history behind it is quite interesting. Also, there are two sections of the bridge – the old and the new.
Located about 9 km from Pai on the road to Chiang Mai, the Memorial Bridge built out of iron was constructed in 1942 by the Japanese to transport ammunition and supplies to Burma (modern day Myanmar) during the World War II.
Standing on the bridge, you can see the Pai river flowing down below. The platform to walk on is made out of wooden planks. You want to be careful walking on them, especially, if you are barefoot, as there are nails holding the bridge together and you don’t want to get hurt during a vacation (or ever).
There are also a couple of information boards which depicts the history of Pai and the origin of the town’s name in brief.
There is a small shop by the bridge which sells clothes as well as basic items such as water and snacks, however, there is a cluster of 3-4 cafes right across the and its a good spot to halt here for a cup of coffee or even your lunch.
Tha Pae Hot Springs
Tha Pae hot springs is one of the most famous tourist spots in this little town of Northern Thailand. Though not the only hot springs in the area, but it is the only “natural” hot springs.
Located within the vicinity of Huai Nam Dang National Park, the hot springs is known to have therapeutic effects and is really good if you have sore muscles from walking too much (personally tried and tested). There are different levels, you start with the first one after entry and go farther up, however, nobody can actually reach till the last one – it;s 80 degree Celsius!
It is suggested that you come here on a cooler day because the water can get really warm because of all the sulphur present in it.
There are other opportunities like camping and picnic on the grounds surrounding the hot springs and is covered with greenery and massive trees, almost making you feel like you are inside a jungle (or wait! it is sort of a forest).
There are two restrooms one right after the ticket counter and another inside closer to the hot springs. You can use the restrooms to change into your swimming costume. There is a restaurant where you can get your snacks and water. Dustbins are placed all around the park to ensure cleanliness of the place and well, who would want to ruin such a beautiful place, right?
It is also a good place to go with the whole family and hang out at the hot springs a couple of hours and later have a family picnic.
It is not at all difficult to get to hot springs since the almost the whole road from Chiang Mai to Pai is signposted with banners of Tha Pai hotsprings. If you are already in Pai and prefer driving yourself to the hotsprings, you shoudl follow the road to Chiang Mai. You will cross Noi’s Elephant Camp and Karen Eephant Camp on your left. Drive for a minute or two after Karen Elephant Camp and you will see the entrance to the Hot Springs to your left. Walking and cycling is only advisable if you are extremely fit and used to riding in the mountains and the roads can become extremely steep every now and then.
Other than the places mentioned above, Pai has quite a lot of Thai Cooking Classes, the popular Pai Circus School, the Open Mind Centre ( famous for Yoga and Meditation), Muay Thai classes, and some volunteer opportunities as well.
Please note, there are many other activities and sights around the town but due to limited time I couldn’t cover all. So, check the internet or a guidebook or ask a local for places to see and things to do if you are interested.
I am not so much of a party person as I am a grab-a-beer-and-relax-with-buddies person so I spent most of my nights at bars where I could do just that – grab a beer or a cocktail, meet new people or hangout with friends, and have a good time.
On my first night in Pai, my friend Cela from Chile, who has been living in Pai for three months, took me to ‘Edible Jazz’ located right off the walking street and boy! It was the best start to my vacation week. If you visit the place during weekdays, it will look like just another bar and restaurant in the town (though you can’t probably laze around in a hammock anywhere else I guess) but come Sunday and this whole pace turns into a bar from a Hollywood movie with travelers and backpackers filling and overfilling the place and an open mic, an OPEN MIC! Well, I don’t know about you but I love everything that says open mic and karaoke in it (I don’t sing but I like to watch, listen, and enjoy). Grab a beer or in my case a glass of white wine (for 100baht) and pick a spot to sit and relax – hammocks, cushions on the floor, chairs, stairs, or even the floor right in from of the mic. This is also a great place to meet people if you are travelling alone and want to make new friends. The open mic is at its best around 10ish but sadly it shuts down by 11:30-12:00 midnight.
The next night, I headed over to ‘Yellow Sun Bar’ with a couple of friends (I made at Edible Jazz the night before), and spent a few hours enjoying cold beer, a comfortable couch, a game of Jenga , and a lot of talking. Like most places in Pai, Yellow is also an open walk-in bar and is painted totally in graffiti with bright colors. There is a portion of the wall with some serious painting! My friends and I went to Yellow the next night as well and this time, the guys enjoyed a game of pool. One of them tried to teach me the game but I was just too exhausted and didn’t really enjoy the locals smiling and cheering me up in Thai (it was a little embarrassing to be in the spotlight…lol). There is also table football and a large projector screen which mostly plays ‘sports’, ha! The bar is open until midnight or maximum until 1 AM (like almost every place in Pai except Don’t Cry Bar which is known as the Number 1 late night bar in Pai, in fact, I think it is the only late night bar in Pai).
On my last night in Pai, I went to one of the other famous bars in Pai – Almost Famous. Another popular bar amongst backpackers and tourists, the bar has nice music, creative graffiti (even in the bathroom – in fact the bathroom is one of the best and interesting bathrooms I have seen!), good cocktails and cold beer (offers almost every day – we got 4+1 mojitos and we were exactly 5 of us!). In fact, they are known for their 16 different varieties of Mojitos (don’t be surprised if it increases to 32 when you visit). You can sit inside on the low and normal chairs or sit on the high stools around the sort-of-bar-table right on the street.
Other famous names I heard (but not visited) during my visit are – Be-bop (open mic on Wednesdays), Boom Bar (beer pong table), Mountain Bar (open mic on Friday), Sunset Bar (Fire shows, open air bar, and I heard the word “mushroom” quite a few times with reference to this bar, located just next to Rainbow Guest House), Why Not Bar, and of course Don’t Cry Bar.
Here is a mini map to help you find any of the places mentioned in the post:
So, this is my brief yet comprehensive guide to Pai – one of the most famous vacation destinations near Chiang Mai.
I plan to visit this small and wonderful town again sometime in the future and of course, I will write more when I know and see more. Until then, safe travels and enjoy!
Note: All the prices quoted in the post are as on August, 2015. Please check for the updated prices online for any changes.