Pai Canyon (Kong Lan in Thai) is the most popular natural attraction located near Pai, the popular tourist town in Northern Thailand.
Although the name implies geological grandeur, Pai Canyon isn’t really that big. Regardless, views from the narrow trails are excellent, and sunset is a spectacular draw in the evenings.
Hiking and lingering around the canyon won’t take more than a couple of hours, but be warned: the height and lack of railings give more than a few travelers sweaty palms!
How to Get There
Pai Canyon is located on Highway 1095, the main north-south highway, around 5 miles (8 kilometers) south of Pai town in Mae Hong Son Province.
When driving south from Pai toward Chiang Mai, look for the parking area on the right shortly after passing the “Love Strawberry” attraction on the left. If you see the Memorial Bridge on the left, you’ve gone too far.
The best way to get between the many small sights and attractions in Pai is to rent a scooter. Rentals begin at US $5 per day. If you aren’t comfortable on two wheels, look for a songthaew (pickup truck transport with bench seats in the back), and agree on a price before you get in. Taxis and tuk-tuks aren’t common in Pai.
What to Know Before Visiting
- Entrance to Pai Canyon is free.
- Cold drinks and snacks are available from stalls at the trailhead.
- Trails in the canyon are exposed to the sun; there isn’t much shade.
- Getting to the first viewpoint requires hiking up many stairs.
- Travelers with a fear of heights may get nervous about hiking past the first viewpoint.
- The narrow trails and lack of railing make going far into Pai Canyon unsuitable for small children.
Hiking in Pai Canyon
Hiking in Pai Canyon isn’t about a network of trails; you can’t get lost, and no map or survival gear is necessary. Technically, there is only one trail with some viewpoints that jut out. The dusty trails are exposed and elevated above the trees. Some become narrow with perilous drops of over 100 feet on both sides. Even if the heights don’t bother you, you will be exposed to the sun for most of the time there.
If you’re serious about scrambling out to farther viewpoints, you’ll have a better, safer experience with athletic shoes or hiking boots. Although lots of backpackers do scramble through the canyon with sandals, there are a few places where you’ll need to use all four limbs and have reliable traction on the rocks.
The best time to hike and scramble in Pai Canyon is in the morning. You’ll need to arrive before 10 a.m. to beat the oppressive afternoon heat. Evenings cool slightly, but the sun-warmed rocks still radiate heat.
Big groups begin arriving around 5:30 p.m. for sunset, and many people may want to scramble around before it begins. Trails are linear with certain pinch-points along the way that can clog up the flow of the trail. If someone up ahead is having trouble navigating the challenge, you’ll have to wait.
The first viewpoint is pretty well accessible to hikers of all levels but requires hiking up a long stretch of paved stairs. An additional set of stairs leads to a viewing platform where people queue for photos.
Sunset at Pai Canyon
Catching sunset at Pai Canyon is a very popular activity in Pai. Scooters and songthaews accumulate in the parking area as groups rounded up in town descend on the “rim.” During high season, particularly the months between December and March, you’ll want to arrive a little early.
Ironically, some of the most spectacular shows occur during the “burning season” (March to May) when smoke and particulate matter in the air help exaggerate the brilliant colors.
Tip: If you’ve already seen the sunset at Pai Canyon, or it was a little too busy, a good alternative is to climb the many stairs and watch from the big White Buddha statue (Wat Phra That Mae Yen) near town. Remember, this "sunset spot" is a temple, not just a tourist attraction; treat it as a sacred place.
Other Nearby Attractions
Pai Canyon will only take one to two hours, depending on how long you linger. When finished, you’ve got plenty to see and do along Highway 1095.
- Memorial Bridge: Just a mile south of the canyon on the right is the old Memorial Bridge. Walk across the historical bridge and read about the war history. Snacks, drinks, and trinkets are available. Entrance is free, and it takes about 20 minutes to see.
- Land Split: Drive north from Pai Canyon 3.1 miles, then look for signs indicating a turn on the left for Pam Bok Waterfall. If the small road passes by the left side of a temple, you’ve found the right one. The Land Split was caused by seismic activity in 2008. Friendly farmers in the area provide some dried fruit and homegrown snacks, and visitors are invited to sit down for a chat. The cost is free, but a small donation is suggested. This trip will take about 30 minutes total.
- Pam Bok Waterfall: If you’re dressed to get wet, consider continuing down the same road as the Land Split to the Pam Bok Waterfall. The scenic waterfall is located at the end of a gorge and provides the perfect way to cool off (assuming there is water) after roasting at Pai Canyon. The fall is barely a trickle during peak of the dry season. You’ll need to wade a little to enjoy it.
- The Bamboo Bridge: Continuing past the waterfall brings you to Boon Ko Ku So Bridge. The bamboo bridge meanders through rice paddies that are particularly verdant and scenic during the growing (wet) season. As with the land split, the friendly folks running the cafe at the beginning of the bridge are a big part of the reason for visiting. Cost is free, and the time it'll take to do this is about 30 minutes.
Trekking in Pai
Pai Canyon will occupy, at best, a single morning. If you’re interested in more serious trekking in Pai, doing so self-guided is very challenging. Trails may not be well marked; some pass over private property and through the rice paddies belonging to villages.
You’re better off booking a proper organized experience through one of the adventure agencies in town or ask at your reception about hiring a local guide. A guide and transportation to and from start points are required for multi-day experiences.
Some of the treks available in Pai include visits to indigenous hill tribe villages and a sampling of local sights of interest. All include food and water.