Deciding how to get from Chiang Mai to Pai in Thailand depends on whether you want to take the easy-but-sickening option (minibus) or make a little adventure out of the trip by driving a scooter/motorbike there.
Driving yourself to Pai is a very memorable experience, assuming you don't join the scores of travelers who add crashing — and paying for — a motorbike in Thailand to their collection of road stories.
Taking the minibus leaves it all up to chance. Your Redbull-crazed driver may or may not be determined to make all passengers as sick as possible while careening through the 762 twists and cutbacks on the way to Pai. Bring a plastic bag. Even if you aren't prone to motion sickness, your seatmate may be!
A Little About Pai, Thailand
Situated in the Mae Hong Son province of Northern Thailand, the riverside town of Pai has grown into a major tourist stop in Thailand. Long gone is the reputation of Pai as a quiet retreat for expats who came to Thailand in the 1990s and never left.
A greatly improved road and the famous 2009 Thai film Pai in Love have transformed what guidebooks used to sell as a "sleepy, hippie village" into a busy place. In fact, the nightlife in Pai is arguably wilder and more accessible than the nightlife in Chiang Mai. Pai is a permanent part of the backpacker Banana Pancake Trail, and Chinese tourists arrive in numbers large enough to cause local proprietors to learn Mandarin.
Despite the influx of visitors, Pai is still a great place to catch your breath for a few days, ditch the moat-encircling traffic in Chiang Mai, eat healthy food, and relax in some very pleasant cafes.
The Road to Pai
Although it was repaved and greatly improved in 2015, the steep and winding road (Route 1095) between Thailand's northern capital of Chiang Mai and Pai is famously guaranteed to make at least some of the passengers on your bus sick. The purported 762 twists and turns are torture for people who suffer from car sickness.
If you're one of the unlucky ones, ask to sit near the front of the bus where you can look out. Avoid reading or looking at your phone along the way. Ginger root and peppermint are natural choices for preventing motion sickness. Buy and whittle down a piece of ginger root to suck on during the journey, or grab some ginger candy from a pharmacy in Chiang Mai.
The minibusses typically take a quick break halfway to Pai. Take advantage of some fresh air but don't eat if you aren't feeling well. Western-style toilets are available at the rest areas.
The road to Pai has developed somewhat of a kitsch reputation, a bit like Route 66 is celebrated in the United States.
Getting There by Minibus
A minibus is the most popular mode of transport to Pai. The ride takes between three or four hours, depending on the recklessness of your driver on the winding, mountainous road. Some drivers seem to have very little regard for the safety of self and passengers. Despite countless complaints over a decade, all of the companies offering transportation are pretty well the same in terms of safety — getting a nice driver is simply luck of the draw.
Minibusses to Pai cost around 180 baht (150 baht if booked directly at Aya) and leave hourly throughout the day. Luggage may be kept inside or strapped on top, depending on how full the minibus.
Given the low commission added to tickets (usually only 30 baht or so), you may as well save the effort and arrange a minibus to Pai through any of the travel agencies dotted around Chiang Mai. Your hotel or guesthouse can book a ticket for a small service charge.
For big groups, booking directly makes more sense. Tickets can be booked directly with Aya — the most popular transportation company for getting to Pai. Reservations are made via phone; you'll pay the driver when you are picked up at your hotel.
Minibusses to Pai usually depart hourly from 7:30 a.m. until 5:30 p.m. Midday and afternoon times can fill up during Thailand's busy season.
Getting There by Public Bus
The slower, larger public buses between Chiang Mai and Pai take around four hours or more, depending on traffic. The ride costs roughly 90 baht each way. The buses do not have air conditioning but are less likely to make you sick as they lumber along.
Public buses with too many empty seats may be delayed until more passengers arrive. All buses originate at the Arcade Bus Station in Chiang Mai — also called the "New Terminal" — with departure times at 7 a.m., 8:30 a.m., 10:30 a.m., 12:30 p.m., and 4 p.m.
The Arcade Bus Station is located in the northeastern part of Chiang Mai, well outside of the Old City. You will need a taxi or tuk-tuk to reach the bus station. Pay for the bus at the station; if anyone offers to book your ticket in advance, it's probably a scam to pocket the difference in the ticket price.
Getting There by Airplane
The one thing working to slightly stifle out-of-control development in Pai is the lack of a "real" airport. Flights are irregular, at best, and are sometimes suspended indefinitely. However, while most people still drive themselves through the mountainous turns from Chiang Mai to Pai, Wisdom Airways does offer flights from Chiang Mai to Pai starting at 1790 baht per person; travel must be booked at least seven days before the travel date.
Driving a Motorbike
Many backpackers wanting to make a side adventure and stop off at the many small sights along the way opt to rent motorbikes in Chiang Mai and drive to Pai on their own terms. The scenery is amazing, and having your own transportation allows side adventures such as stopping at some of the cafes, waterfalls, and scenic overlooks along the way.
Lots of travelers enjoy having a motorbike handy in Pai anyway, but you don't have to bring it from Chiang Mai! Rentals are actually cheaper in Pai than Chiang Mai, often as low as 100 baht per day. Much of the "charm" of Pai is just outside of town in the form of canyons, waterfalls, health retreats, a giant white Buddha statue, and other attractions. Having a scooter available is optional, but it really opens up more places to enjoy.
If you want to give the drive from Chiang Mai to Pai a chance but aren't completely confident, consider getting a one-way rental. The option is more expensive, but it allows for some flexibility to not drive back later. Aya is the only agency that rents motorbikes that can be driven one way and returned in Pai. They'll take your luggage for you on one of the minibusses.
Guidelines for Driving
- Drive on the left in Thailand.
- Only attempt the drive if you are comfortable with driving on steep, winding roads.
- Before the "fun" mountain part of the drive begins, you'll have to muscle your way through terrible city traffic in Chiang Mai and a busy, high-speed thoroughfare through the suburbs.
- Remember that driving in Thailand follows a simple pecking order: No matter the circumstance, vehicles larger than you (pretty much everything bigger than a bicycle) always have the right of way! Yield to buses and trucks; stay as far to the left as possible and expect larger vehicles to pass — even in blind turns.
- Start with a full tank and keep an eye on the gauge. You may have to stop for fuel along the way at one of the small hand-crank fuel barrels. Pai is just outside of the maximum range for most rental scooters.
- Although fuel often is sold from glass bottles in Thailand, not all of the golden-colored stuff you see for sale in shacks along the way is fuel: it's local honey! Don't wait until the last minute to look for fuel.
- Not all rental agencies allow drivers to take a scooter outside of Chiang Mai. Read the rental agreement carefully. No one will come to help you if the motorbike breaks down or you have an accident. If you violate the rental agreement by racking up kilometers, the agency may claim extra wear on the bike as an excuse to ask for more money.
- Although the weather in Chiang Mai and Pai is often very hot, the ride can get quite chilly at the highest point in the mountains. Bring a jacket for protection from sun and wind.
- Thailand has a strict helmet law; not wearing one is a quick way to get a fine. Regardless of what the locals are doing, wear yours so that the police don't have an excuse to stop you!
- At least one, sometimes two, police checkpoints are between Chiang Mai and Pai. Wear your helmet! Drug searches are common. Cooperate, and know how to handle interactions with local police, should the need arise.
When driving to Pai, you'll encounter the heaviest traffic around the suburbs of Chiang Mai and Mae Rim. Once past the congestion, the drive becomes very enjoyable.
Exit Chiang Mai through the North Gate and drive north on Chang Phuak Road (Route 107). Between Mae Rim and Mae Taeng, you will turn left onto Route 1095. Look for a large sign indicating the left turn to Pai. Technically, this is the only turn that you'll need to make on the way to Pai!
Follow Route 1095 through the mountains all the way to Pai.