Pai: a laidback town in the mountains

Pai is a small town roughly halfway on a super-winding road between Chiang Mai and Mae Hong Son. It lies in a small valley surrounded by low mountains. Back in the day, it was a secret hippie getaway. Now it’s a very touristy party spot, drawing a low-budget crowd. The attractions nearby are over-hyped, but it is possible to stay in the area for a couple of days without getting bored.

Empty hammocks stretched beetween the trees at the riverside in Pai
Hammocks for hippie guests of a ‘resort’ at the River Pai

From Chiang Mai to Pai

Vans to Pai leave from the Arcade station in Chiang Mai. The road between Chiang Mai and Pai twists and winds so much that motion sickness is almost guaranteed. Every 10 meters, you can expect a 180 degrees turn. Having lunch just before boarding and choosing a seat on the back of the A/C minivan wasn’t the best idea. I was lucky I did have a plastic bag…

Hazy outline of mountain and sun-soorched  grass shows as seen from the road between Pai and Chiang Mai
Road from Chiang Mai to Pai

Pai in the dry season

The air quality in Chiang Mai in March was very bad, but the air in Pai was even worse. In fact, we could see swathes of burned fields and forest floor. The visibility was poor – everything disappeared in a haze, so you could only see outlines of the mountains. Instead of lush forests and paddy fields, everything was straw-coloured or grey, dead. In a word, it wasn’t the best time to visit.

Pai on a budget

Pai is a very budget-friendly place. In fact, it may well be the cheapest tourist hotspot in Thailand. The prices of accommodation, food and bike/scooter hire go a notch below Chiang Mai levels. Refreshingly, many nearby attractions are free to enter and it’s possible to hike freely in the surrounding mountains.

Accommodation

March is a low season in Pai, therefore booking in advance is unnecessary. Pre-booking will most likely cost you more than a walk-in price.

Am old-fashioned TV, fridge and AC unit in a bamboo weaved hut in Pai
A bamboo hut in Pai with TV, hot water and fridge

We stayed on the other side of the river from the town, hoping it would be quieter (it wasn’t) and more beautiful (it wasn’t either). Our ‘deluxe’ bungalow wasn’t maybe looking fancy, but was spacious, decently furnished and had an en-suite bathroom with hot water. To our surprise, it even had a fridge. All of that for just 200 baht a night.

Food

The biggest attraction of the town is the Walking Street market. It takes place every night, from 5 pm till 11 pm. Unlike walking streets of Chiang Mai (featuring mostly local meat dishes), Pai stalls abound in world food, organic and vegan options. Food from the walking street in Pai is significantly cheaper than Chiang Mai walking street.

Young Western tourists walk among the lit stalls with street food and clothes at the night walking street market in Pai
Pai walking street

Local eateries all over the town offer even lower prices. We found a place serving huge portions for just 35 baht per dish, all of which could be ‘veganised’. Speaking of which, I also came across a vegan restaurant. Even though it looked very fancy, it served most dishes for as little as 40 baht.

Plates full of vegetable and tofu lie in an elegant interior with wooden tables and chairs and an altar adorned with Chinese characters at a vegan eatery in Pai
Vegan restaurant in Pai

Attractions

Pai has a swimming pool, located on the other side of the river from the town. The pool has a bar and a DJ but is open only in the daytime. In the mornings, you can attend a donation-based yoga class there. The entrance is quite expensive (80 baht), but worth it if you have half a day to spend. The ticket includes a straw mat to use for free, and you’re allowed to bring your water. The pool is large enough to swim comfortably. Mind you, the swimming pool wasn’t well maintained, with lots of leaves floating around.

A narrow path along a stream and through the jungle to Mae yen waterfalls near Pai
The hiking trail to Mae Yen waterfalls

Another attraction accessible by foot from Pai itself is Mae Yen waterfalls. The hiking trail starts on the other side of the river from the town, near the Wonderland campsite. The round trip would take you roughly 4 hours. We started following the hiking trail but had to return due to the smouldering forest.

Lastly, you could go 350 stairs up the hill to White Buddha statue for a pleasant view (provided good air quality). The White Buddha hill is, just 2 km away from the town centre.

Trips outside Pai

Most of the attractions lie beyond Pai. If your budget is limited, you could hitch-hike to those outlying attractions. We walked to Pai canyon (7 km from Pai) and came back hitch-hiking. Another good option for getting to Pai canyon would be hiring a city bike for 50 baht and cycling through a flat, quiet road along the Pai River. 

Narrow ridges of eroded walls of Pai canyon and a hazy background of the mountains
Pai Canyon

Hiring a scooter is very affordable- it costs just 100 baht per day for the cheapest model. However, I wouldn’t recommend it for two reasons. Firstly, the roads are very winding, with sharp, dangerous curves. You have to be a confident scooter/ motorcycle driver to tackle them. Secondly, if you don’t have an international driving licence, you have a high chance of being caught by the police. They love to wait for unsuspecting tourists on the roads to all the most popular attractions. The fine of 400 baht would hurt a budget traveller’s pocket. If you do hire a scooter, it is possible to see most of the attractions in one long day.

A look from inside the Lod Cave to the river flowing through it and jungle outside
Lod Cave

Only Nam Lod Cave is much further afield and driving there would be recommended only for seasoned bikers. A standard, organised trip would cost much more: 300 baht without entry tickets and would not allow any flexibility.

PRACTICALITIES

How to get to Pai?

AC minivans go from Chiang Mai Arcade bus station to Pai. The journey takes around 3h.

Prices [in Thai baht as of March 2019]:


300 AC minivan Chiang Mai-Pai
200 basic en-suite double room
100 scooter rental for a day
80 swimming pool entrance fee
50 bicycle rental for a day
40 rice with two toppings at a vegan eatery
20 3 spring rolls at the walking streets
10 one mango
10 sweet coconut dessert with bean

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