Pai Travel Guide

Pai used to be a quiet small town located in one of the most beautiful valleys in all of Thailand, in the mountainous northernmost area of the country. A few decades ago, this small rural paradise became popular  among the hippie, artist and bohemian crowd. In spite of its somewhat remote location, and of the endless dizzying curves of the roads that drive up there, the number of visitors has grown steadily over the last two decades, bringing with it a blooming array of hostels, cafes, restaurants, tour agencies and 7Elevens. But despite the uncontrolled growth of Pai town, still nowadays you only need to walk to the edge of town to hear nothing but the sounds of nature, and the Pai Valley is still a really beautiful area, with enough sites of interest to keep the visitor busy for a few days -ethnic villages, caves, rivers, waterfalls, hot springs and forests-. To fully enjoy the experience, rent a scooter and take things easy and slow.

ℹ️ Top Things to Do in Pai

Wat Phra That Mae Yen

Wat Phra That Mae YenWat Phra That Mae Yen, perched on top of a hill immediately southeast of Pai, is our top choice Buddhist temple in town. Among its buildings, golden chedis and statues, a huge white seated Buddha stands out as the most iconic element, which can be seen from almost anywhere in Pai. But the main reason to climb the 352 steps of the stairway that leads up here is not really the architecture or any detail of the temple itself, but the magnificent views over the Pai Valley, which you’ll enjoy especially if you are there for sunrise or sunset.

Pai Markets

Pai Night MarketPai’s Night Market, also known as Walking Street, is set up every evening around 17:00 along Chaisongkran street, a street market selling food, crafts, clothing and souvenirs, that becomes the busiest part of town once the sun goes down. Besides this, if your stay coincides on Monday and/or Wednesday and you want to have an authentic local experience, you should start the day by visiting one -or both- of the two biggest local weekly morning markets. Go early, as they get started around dawn, soon reach their peak of activity and then start to decline until completely disappearing around 12:00. The largest one is Wednesday market (Kad Phut), which is installed near the river 1 km south of the center of Pai, while Monday Market (Kad Chan) is a smaller version, located on the outskirts about 1 km northwest, along the road that leads to Mae Hong Son.

Ban Santichon

Ban Santichon PaiBan Santichon is a town founded by the Kuomintang, former units of the Republican Army of China who escaped to Thailand after their defeat under Mao’s Communist Party. They were allowed by the Thai government to settle here in exchange for their help in fighting the indigenous communist insurgency. In the last decades the surrounding area has been developed to become some kind of odd theme park, with a small Chinatown that among many other kitsch attractions includes the replica of a small section of the Great Wall of China. The original town is located uphill, and it’s pleasant to walk among the Yunnan-style houses with large patios. Following the steep road further up you can reach the mountaintop, with magnificent views over the Pai valley.

Pai Canyon

Pai CanyonOkay, they may have been smoking something other than tobacco when they came up with the name, and it can easily lead to exaggerated expectations, but the truth is that Pai Canyon is one of our favourite spots around Pai. It is a good place to go for a hike, especially in the afternoon, when it’s not too hot and the soft light of sunset allows to appreciate the landscape at its best. It is a beautiful area of ocher sandstone that time has eroded and molded into picturesque shapes, creating deep ravines and sharp ridges. At some points there are wooden platforms to help admire the views, and there are plenty of trails that allow you to explore the area, but be very careful: some of them are really narrow, follow ridges surrounded by ravines, and the ground can be quite slippery both in rainy season –due to mud– and dry season –due to gravel–. Following the same road that you came from the Memorial Bridge heading north, you will find the entrance to the Pai Canyon on the left after 1.5 km. Admission is free.

Trekking

Trekking en PaiThe natural surroundings of Pai are a good area for hiking, although you should know in advance that Pai is a veteran adventure destination where trekking routes have been set and running for decades, so do not expect to find very remote forests and villages. All Pai tourist agencies offer a variety of organized treks, and many of them are not actually done in the vicinity of Pai, but in the nearby regions of Soppong and Mae Hong Son. Another good option is the Huay Nam Dang National Park, whose main entrance is located about 40 km east of Pai. The price of trekkings is quite variable depending on the number of participants -normally a minimum of 2 is required, and price goes down the bigger the group- and the activities included, but in general they usually cost around 1000 THB/person/day. Some treks combine hiking with rafting, bamboo rafting, and even elephant riding.

Mo Paeng Waterfall

 

Mo Paeng Waterfall (Nam Tok Mo Paeng) is located about 8 km west from Pai, next to Ban Mo Paeng village, of the Lisu ethnic group. It’s a beautiful place to relax, with a medium sized natural pool perfect for a dip, surrounded by jungle and big wide boulders heavenly designed for sunbathing. Not surprisingly, its proximity to Pai, combined with its easy and free access, makes the place often crowded. To avoid this possibility, try visit the place early in the morning.

Hot Springs

Pong Nam Ron Tha Pai is an area of natural hot springs in the middle of the forest, inside Huay Nam Dang National Park and near it’s entrance. Be careful and take notice of the signs: some of the natural pools have a bearable temperature and are suitable for bathing, ¡but others boil so fiercely that in just a few minutes you could cook an egg! It’s open every day from 07:00 to 18:00. It’s usually a quiet place that doesn’t gather large crowds, no doubt related with the quite expensive entrance fee to the Park, 300 THB/adult.

Water Sports and Activities

Rafting in Pai RiverThe Pai River experience is radically different depending on the time of year: it flows slow and calm during the dry season, and mighty and wild during the monsoon rainy season.
Tubing: for about 250 THB/person, a tuk-tuk or songthaew will take you a few kilometers upstream and leave you on the shore with a large inflatable tire: sit in the hole of the huge donut and let yourself float downstream for about 1 hour until you reach Pai again.
Bamboo raft: for about 1000 THB/raft you can experience this fun local transport system, sailing downriver on a rudimentary platform made of a dozen bamboo poles tied together. On the most common rafts you can fit up to 4 passengers of standard Thai size… ¡Although for larger sizes we recommend reducing the limit!
Rafting: if you really want to experience the river you should not miss the opportunity to do a real rafting -no previous experience required-, which can be either a 1-day excursion from Pai or a 2-day excursion starting from Pai and ending in Mae Hong Son. The forested landscape along the river is beautiful, and stops are made to bathe, have a picnic on the shore or visit neraby small waterfalls and hot springs.

Tham Lot Cave

With over 1.5 km in length, Tham Lot is one of the most spectacular and accessible caves in Pangmapha district… ¡which has over 200 caves! Tham Lot contains a lot of chambers, huge stalactites and stalagmites, rocky vaults up to 30 meters high, and has the peculiarity of being crossed by the Lang River, which makes it a navigable cave. The cave is open between 09:00 and 18:00, it is mandatory to hire a guide for 150 THB, and optionally you can take a bamboo raft ride inside the cave, for an additional 400 THB . Tham Lot Cave is located 49 km northwest of Pai, and to get there you have to take the road to Mae Hong Son until the village of Soppong, and from there take the detour north for about 9 km. Sunset is the best time of day to visit Tham Lot Cave, since every day in the evening thousands of bats pour out of the cave to go hunting for dinner -or perhaps we should say breakfast, being bats a nocturnal animal-.

🏨 Where to stay in Pai

Best Town Areas to Stay:

Pai’s popularity has rocketed over the past two decades, and accommodation options continue to increase year after year, with literally hundreds of hostels, hotels and resorts in town and surrounding area. Although it may seem way too excessive compared to the small size of the town, in high season -especially in December and January- it can be very difficult to find accommodation without a previous booking. The really cheap hostels that crowded the area have been progressively been replaced by fancier hotels, although there are still quite a few good options for the tight budgets. On the other hand, room prices fluctuate notably throughout the year, and in low season –generally between May and October– many hotels apply great discounts.

Pai town

Backpacker Khao San IconBest for:  All budgets, value urban over rural

Accommodation available: Hostels and Hotels up to 4 stars

Advantages:
✔️ Livelier atmosphere
✔️ Lots of restaurants and bars
✔️ Some nightlife
✔️ Many travel agencies

Surrounding area

Best for: All budgets, value rural over urban

Accommodation available: Hostels and Hotels up to 4 star

Advantages:
✔️ Quiet area
✔️ More upscale options
✔️ Green surroundings

🧭 Itinerary to visit Pai

Provided you can ride a scooter, one full day is enough to explore the most outstanding sites in the Pai Valley:

1

Wat Phra That Mae Yen

To take advantage of breakfast's energy boost, we recommend starting the day with a visit to the most emblematic Buddhist temple in the town, which is perched on top of a hill immediately southeast of Pai. The temple itself does not have great architectural value, although among its buildings, golden chedis and various statues, a huge white seated Buddha stands out, which you will surely have noticed before since it can be seen from almost anywhere in Pai. The main reason for the visit is not the temple itself, but the magnificent views it offers over the Pai Valley, especially during sunrise and sunset. Wat Phra That Mae Yen is located just over 2 km away from the center of Pai, and to get up there you have to climb a staircase of 352 steps, or, if you travel on two wheels, follow a road that winds 400 meters around the hill.
2

Mo Paeng Waterfall

Then undo the path that led you up to the temple and drive about 9 km west to the Mo Paeng Waterfall (Nam Tok Mo Paeng), located next to Ban Mo Paeng village, of the Lisu ethnic group. You have to cross the town and turn left at the fork that leads to the parking lot of the waterfall. The place is pretty, although its proximity to Pai –it is only 8 km away–, and its easy and free access mean that it is often crowded with sunbathing beer-drinking backpackers. The best option to avoid this possibility is to visit the place early in the morning, as we suggest you do in this itinerary.
3

Ban Santichon (Chinese village)

Ban Santichon is a town founded by former units of the Republican Army of China -known as the Kuomintang-, who escaped to Thailand after losing war against Mao's Communist Party. Next to the original town they have built a small Chinatown in amusement park kitsch style, which among many other attractions includes the replica of a small section of the Great Wall of China. Uphill you reach the town, with its Yunnan-style houses with large patios, and continuing further up its steep road you can reach the top of the mountain -¡unless you are a scooter trial artist, better park your bike and walk up!- which offers magnificent views over the Pai valley. To get to Ban Santichon from Mo Paeng waterfall you'll have to undo 4.5 km of the same path that drove you here. Take the chance to have lunch in one of the local restaurants and enjoy its delicious Chinese food.
4

Hot Springs at Huay Nam Dang National Park

Near the entrance of Huay Nam Dang National Park there's an area of natural hot springs in the middle of the forest, called Pong Nam Ron Tha Pai. Be careful: read the signs and don't forget to check the temperature before dipping in the pools, since some are suitable for bathing, while others burn hot as hell. It's open every day from 07:00 to 18:00, and you have to pay the quite expensive entrance fee to the Park, 300 THB/adult and an additional 20 THB per motorcycle. Looking on the bright side, this contributes to keep the place calm and devoid of backpacker tourist hordes, although during high season weekends it's a very popular picnic spot among local Thais. Access to the hot springs is located 13 km southeast of Ban Santichon, so first you have to undo the road to Pai, and once there we recommend you to cross to the east bank and follow that road south, since this way you will enjoy landscape that's both really beautiful and different from the one you will see on your return trip at the end of the day.
5

Memorial Bridge

The original bridge that crossed Pai River was made of teak wood, and was built by the Japanese in 1942, during World War II, to transport weapons to Burma, a country they had occupied and from which they intended to take India from the English. On the last days of the war the bridge was burned by the Japanese themselves during their retreat, and rebuilt a few years later by the local population. The heavy floods of 1973 destroyed it again, and this time it was rebuilt using steel from the Narawat Bridge in Chiang Mai, which was being dismantled at the time. SInce it's on the way, Memorial Bridge is worth a brief stop in order to admire the views. It's located by the road that leads to Chiang Mai, next to the modern bridge, and to get there from the hot springs you have to continue south for just over a km on the road that follows the Pai River in, and when you get to the main road, just turn right heading north.
6

Pai Canyon

Okay, they may have been smoking something other than tobacco when they came up with the name, and it can easily lead to exaggerated expectations, but the truth is that Pai Canyon is one of our favourite spots around Pai. It is a good place to go for a hike, especially in the afternoon, when it's not too hot and the soft light of sunset allows to appreciate the landscape at its best. It is a beautiful area of ocher sandstone that time has eroded and molded into picturesque shapes, creating deep ravines and sharp ridges. At some points there are wooden platforms to help admire the views, and there are plenty of trails that allow you to explore the area, but be very careful: some of them are really narrow, follow ridges surrounded by ravines, and the ground can be quite slippery both in rainy season –due to mud– and dry season –due to gravel–. Following the same road that you came from the Memorial Bridge heading north, you will find the entrance to the Pai Canyon on the left after 1.5 km. Admission is free.
7

Night Market

And to round the day we suggest you return to the center of Pai and take a walk in the Night Market, also known as Walking Street, which is one of the great attractions of the town -¡not to say the only one!- once the sun goes down . Every day from around 5:00 p.m. the main street -Chaisongkran- is transformed into a large market with delicious street food stalls -including fried noodles, crepes, kebabs and fruit juices- as well as clothing, crafts and all kinds of souvenirs. Stores usually close around 23:00, although the opening and closing hours vary depending on the weather and customer attendance.

✈️ Arriving to Pai

If you have a tendency to motion sickness run to the nearest pharmacy and buy yourself a box of Draminate: the only way to get to Pai is by road, a long succession of curves without any truce. From Chiang Mai it’s 135 km of mountainous road with no more and no less than 762 curves. Experienced and adventurous motorcyclists with enough time can opt for the “Mae Hong Son Loop”, a circular route of about 700 km, starting and ending in Chiang Mai, that stops at Mae Sariang, Mae Hong Son and Pai. If you choose this, we recommend a whole week.

There are mainly 2 ways to go to Pai:

🚌 By bus or van

Most common option

📍  From Chiang Mai’s Arcade Bus Station

➡️ You can take a bus or a van at Chiang Mai’s Arcada Bus Station, about 5 km northeast from downtown. Get there by taxi or songthaew.

➡️ Price: 150 THB. Departures: every hour from early morning to mid-afternoon.

➡️ The journey takes about 3-4 hours including a short stop to stretch legs.

🚊 By motorbike or car

For experienced drivers

📍  From Chiang Mai

➡️ The mountainous road to Pai is only recommended for experienced drivers.

➡️ In Chiang Mai there are lots of rental agencies where you can rent a scooter for 200-300 THB/day, or a car for around 1.000 THB/day.

🚇 Where to go next?

Most common destinations after Pai:

Chiang Mai, the center of the north

3h Van

Mae Hong Son, the Village near Burma