Pai, Thailand

Travel Guide, Things to Do, and What to Expect in Pai

Pai Thailand on motorbike
••• Exploring the green scenery around Pai by motorbike is a favorite thing to do. Christopher Kimmel / Getty Images

Fresh air, green mountains, friendly Lanna people -- no wonder so many hippies once decided to settle in the quiet, riverside town of Pai in Northern Thailand.

Situated in the mountains just four hours north of Chiang Mai, Pai is a pleasant, easily accessible escape in the mountains when tourist hordes start clogging the moat around Chiang Mai. But it's certainly not the quiet "hippie" cove once claimed.

Pai remained one of Thailand's best-kept backpacker secrets until relatively recently when an improved road, new airport, and even a popular Thai romantic movie put it on the map. Today, Pai is busier than ever with a jump in tourism. Thai, Chinese, and Western travelers head to Pai in greater numbers than ever, braving the winding road to see if the romance is still there.

Fortunately, the charm hasn't been all lost; use this travel guide for Pai, Thailand, to get the most out of your visit!

Things to Do in Pai

Aside from relaxing, meeting other travelers, and enjoying the scenic surroundings, Pai has a few simple attractions on offer.

  • Visit Waterfalls: Mo Paeng Waterfall is the most accessible of Pai's waterfalls; locals use a large, smooth rock which serves as a natural slide into a deep pool for swimming. Mae Yen Waterfall, slightly more impressive, is about four miles outside of town.
  • Ride an Elephant: Pai is a popular place to take your first elephant ride; a variety of camps and operations are located around the edges of town. For the best elephant ride, choose an operation that does not use the wooden bench seat and allows tourists to sit directly on the elephant. Most rides end with a splash in the river to cool down.
    • Visit the Hot Springs: A simple trail parallels a bubbling, sulfuric spring through Pai's small national park. Swimming is allowed, assuming you can handle the steep entrance fee, extreme heat, and gagging smell!
    • Enjoy the River: Much more serene than the party-scene tubing in Vang Vieng, Laos, both tubing and white water rafting are available between Mae Hong Son and Pai.
      • Try Fishing: An expat-owned bungalow operation just outside of town offers several pay ponds where you can purchase bait and fish by the hour. The staff are friendly, and fishing makes for quite a relaxing day even if little is caught. The ponds are stocked with a large variety of exotic fish including piranha! See for more details.
      • Go to the Overlook: The overlook, located in a strangely set "Chinese Village," is more or less about enjoying the cup of tea included with the reasonable entrance fee while taking in green views of the valley.
      • Explore: The refreshing mountains and verdant rice fields surrounding Pai just beg to be explored by either bicycle or motorbike. Rentals for both are available in town. See what you need to know before renting a motorbike in Southeast Asia.

      Tip: Pick up a copy of the Pai Events Planner (PEP), a free publication with useful map, to find out what's going on while you're in town.

      Read about some other interesting places not to miss in Pai.

      Accommodation in Pai

      For its size, Pai has a ridiculous number of accommodation options including bungalows for under $10 per night. The wooden bungalows just across the river are cheap and peaceful, yet still close enough to walk nearly everywhere.

      With a little research, many secluded and romantic options can be found on private properties surrounding Pai.

      Shopping in Pai

      With the new influx of tourists, Pai has sectioned off a pedestrian walking street with a nightly market much like a smaller version of the markets in Chiang Mai. Food, trinkets, and a large variety of handmade goods and souvenirs are available. The resident expat community of creative types always has interesting, handmade artifacts for sale.

      Getting to Pai, Thailand

      Buses and minibuses run daily from Chiang Mai to Pai (around four hours; US $6), or as an alternative you can make your own way along the scenic Route 1095 through Northern Thailand. The road between Chiang Mai and Pai has become a very popular motorbiking route for travelers brave enough to take on the many twists and turns.

      If you plan to drive, you should be a fairly experienced rider and ensure that your motorbike rental will be covered when leaving Chiang Mai.

      Tip: Fuel up that scooter! Pai is out of range for most small scooters; you'll need to stop for fuel at one of the small hand-cranked stations along the way.

      • See getting to Pai for driving directions, schedules, and travel information.

      Nightlife in Pai

      Surprisingly, the nightlife in Pai is fun and even outshines the nightlife in Chiang Mai in many ways! You'll find plenty of options for music and socializing ranging from hip-hop and reggae to punk rock and acoustic performers.

      The Police in Pai

      Unfortunately, Pai isn't the quiet, hippie paradise on the Banana Pancake Trail that it once was. The police in Pai have garnered a nasty reputation over the past decade for unprovoked harassment of backpackers and travelers. The police have been known to forcefully perform drug checks in bars with their mobile testing platform.

      One Canadian tourist was fatally shot and another was wounded by an intoxicated police officer in 2008.