Pai Travel Guide for the Lazy Traveler
Pai is all the rage these days. It seems that every Thailand backpacker in the 20-30 years’ range has gotten stuck here at one point or another. Typically it goes like this: “How long did you stay in Pai?” – “Well, I meant to stay for 2 days, but it turned into 2 weeks.” I wondered why this seemed to be such a recurring topic – I mean, it’s just a town in the middle of nowhere. If you’re curious, stick around for my Pai travel guide, including a rundown of top Pai activities and places to stay, as well as my interpretation of why Pai is so easy to find, yet so hard to forget.
Background and Location
If you’ve already been to the northern regions of Thailand, there’s a fair chance you’ve heard about Pai – or at least seen the name in numerous travel agents’ offices. Along with Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, it’s one of the go-to destinations north of Bangkok, for (mainly, but not only) young backpackers wanting to get away from the hustle and bustle of bigger cities. In fact, Pai has been a mountain refuge even before many of today’s backpackers were born! Nestled in the mountains about 3 hours north of Chiang Mai, this town has all the makings of a happening tourist destination: mountains, waterfalls, pagodas scattered throughout the rolling hills, with gorgeous sunsets and the prospect of a serene retreat in the midst of nature.
The town is easily accessible from Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai via shuttle bus/van, which you can usually book either through your accommodations or a travel kiosk. If coming from Chiang Mai, you’ll be going up and down quite the winding road, though, so bring some motion sickness pills if you’re prone to feeling queasy. Your payback will be beautiful views of the rolling hills and valleys. For those who are more adventurous, a motorbike drive might be an option. You can actually organize it in a way that the rental company drops your bags off directly at your accommodation in Pai, meaning you can ride that motorbike completely unburdened by the 20-kilo behemoth backpack you decided to schlep along.
For getting out of Pai, you can take the same route you came from – which you would most likely do anyway, as both Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai are big regional hubs for traveling to Bangkok, or to the islands down south – for instance, Koh Tao or Koh Phangan, or the islands on the Andaman Coast. If your next destination is Laos, you also have the option to travel from Pai to Laos with a slow boat. As with many other things, peruse a handful of ticket kiosks for the best price. The whole affair should take about 2 full days, including a night spent on the Thai side before crossing the border.
Pai Accommodation: Budget-Friendliness as Baseline
One thing that I thought was curious was that Pai accommodation is (as of August 2018) a tad cheaper than Chiang Mai. If anything, I would’ve expected the opposite! But luckily for my pocketbook and yours, there are dorm rooms to be had from 80 Baht, to double rooms starting from 250 and beyond, to boutique hotels and villa retreats. However, I should add that we were there in low season, which reflects on the prices of almost everything tourist-related. Even though Pai tends to be favored by backpackers, there’s something for every budget. Pai Circus is heavily-frequented hostel for those looking for a social atmosphere, and those looking for a budget double room can browse the variety of homestays both smack in the town center or slightly off. We stayed at Baan Aomsin, which was excellent value for money if you can get your hands on bungalow nr. 5, and the property included dorm room beds to choose from as well.
Another place we had a look at was Baan Phasa across from Dang Thai Food restaurant. The guesthouse had simple but clean and neat double/twin rooms and is hosted by an adorable grandma who doubles up as a Thai language teacher.
Pai Activities: Hang Out, Hike, Enjoy!
To be honest, I was a bit skeptical about this town that seemed to be on everyone lips; Why the hype? What will I find there that I haven’t seen before? Well, for starters, the nature around Pai is downright gorgeous. With mountains just tall enough not to give you vertigo when you drive up the hill, this town is best explored on wheels and on your own time. Waterfalls are always a good start. And there are plenty of them around Pai. Check out Pembok Waterfall or Mo Paeng Waterfall on a hot day, and you’ll get the added bonus of being able to take a refreshing dip in one of the natural pools created by the rumbling water. In high season, however, you’ll have to share the space with a lot more people than in rain season, of course. Additionally, tour vans run daily tours around the main Pai sites and viewpoints, meaning some waterfalls will see an influx of visitors in short-ish bouts. We only ran into 1 small tour group. Rain season, what can I say.
Lookout points: Chasing the Sunset
Whether concerning a religious element or just ‘plain’ and straightforward, Pai’s lookout points are all marked on the map and relatively easy to get to with a motorbike. The easiest to access, however, is probably the White Buddha, located just half a mile from town. Climbing the stairs to the top will prove to be a decent form of exercise, but remember to dress modestly covered legs and shoulders, if you want to go to the very top. I won’t spoil it by posting picture of the view from the top – you have to work for it and scale those steps!
If you’re after something mega cute, head down to the I love Pai café and villa, complete with a cute countryside backdrop of lush green fields and gently sloping hills.
If you want something more ‘detached’, head back towards the Mo Paeng waterfall, and follow the signs towards a lookout point at about two thirds of the way up.
Pai land split, canyons, and caves
The topography of Pai has something for everyone. Like somewhat high elevated point? Got it? Like to explore below the ground? Also included. Perhaps it’s this variety in perspectives that brings people to Pai! For example, Pai Canyon is an utterly fascinating representation of nature’s fickle ways and a great extended stop on your drive around the Pai countryside.
It’s no Grand Canyon, or similar, yet Pai canyon has something you can’t do very often: scale the canyon crests in the search of your own magical sunset spot. The canyon’s not massive, mind you, but it’s not for scaredy cats like me who have an issue with heights every so often. But don’t worry, it’s absolutely safe and fun, and doable in flip flops, if you must.
Another MUCH smaller canyon-like site is the Land Split. As the name suggests, literally this famers’ family’s land split during a minor earthquake, creating a mini canyon of about 7-8 meters, on a land that had been in use as a farm. It’s not THAT impressive, to be fair. But let me tell you why the Land Split was my favorite thing about Pai.
The land (that split) is part of a family-run local farm. So when you go to the split, you are greeted by some local women offering you to try roselle juice (hibiscus flower juice) and to sample some fruit and veg. I think many people brush this off as ‘yet another person trying to sell me something’, but, honestly, sampling the farm-grown fruits and veggies in various iterations was such a lovely highlight! The whole affair is donation-based, meaning you donate as much as you can or want.
You can sit and chill for hours on end if you please, and the owners will likely come by to top you off with whatever snack you seem to be running low on. During our visit, they weren’t shy about offering seconds or thirds!
Finally, caves offer yet another way to utilize your Pai activities to explore the gorgeous nature around. Ticket kiosks all over Pai will sell two or three different variations of tours that include the caves, but you can just as easily (and for less money) rent a motorbike and get there on your own, with added flexibility. Due to the aforementioned rain season, we skipped the cave because we would have only been able to enter 1 chamber. How did we spend the newly acquired time? Food, of course!
Food and Nightlife
Considering its size, Pai does a rather good job in providing a variety of outlets for the hungry and thirsty ones among us. The Pai walking street is a good place to start. Going on daily from sundown onwards, it’s a great place for a very slow stroll – either to buy some souvenirs, some local fingerfood, or just to people-watch. Note that the street is closed off to through traffic, as the slowly meandering visotors make it tricky for motorbikes and bicycles to squeeze through.
For a cheap and cheerful (and good) bite, try Air Restaurant, just next to the Almost Famous cocktail bar after the walking street veers off to the right. We ate here several times, and it was excellent and great value for the money spent. Dang Thai Food also didn’t disappoint, in addition to the owner being very sweet, and the dishes at Pen’s Kitchen came loaded with flavor and spice. For a burger craving, IP Burger came through with a surprisingly tasty burger for a (comparatively) small price.
Bar-wise, you won’t find any clubs or rowdy parties here, though. The walking street vibe eventually dies down and what you might be left with are a few pockets of activity until late at night.
Pai travel tips for first time visitors
If you’re considering swinging by this somewhat sleepy mountain town, be ready to cover short to moderate distances on a motorbike or depend on organized tours to see the highlights. I would always recommend to go out and explore on your own, and make use of the added flexibility. However, some people might not be confident scooter drivers, and for that, the group tours are a fine and inexpensive alternative. You’ll also meet new people that way, so it’s actually a good move for solo travelers to get in touch with other backpackers and find travel buddies.
As far as the vibe goes, don’t expect anything to wild. Pai is a sleepy town, and much of its charm lies in that. Be prepared to wind down, enjoy the lush nature, eat some good food, sleep in lots, or maybe get a bamboo tattoo! On the logistical side, since getting in and out of Pai involved snaking your way though the mountainous and winding roads, motion sickness pills are something you should have on hand if you don’t travel well. Don’t be that guy in the van who throws up in the back seat! Motion sickness pills are available pretty much at any 7-Eleven or convenience shop, and cost close to nothing!
Pai Travel Tips Summary:
- Prepare yourself for some motorbike riding (or taking organized tours)
- Don’t go to Pai for the hustle and bustle – there is none
- Bring motion sickness pills if you’re prone to feeling queasy
Got any additional questions or topics relevant for this Pai travel guide? If so, drop us a line and we’ll be happy to get in touch! For more travel inspiration, explore our other slow travel guides!