Hikes and tours around Pai

Some of the greatest attractions near Pai are Pai Canyon and Mae Yen waterfalls. The canyon is real fun to explore, with its razor-sharp edges and deep ravines. Lod Cave -a decently sized cave with a river flowing through it requires a much longer journey. Tens of thousands of swifts in the daytime and bats at dusk, zoom in and out of the cave.

A long, narrow, sandstone ridge of Pai Canyon and a precipice with sparse forest below.
Pai Canyon

Pai Canyon

Pai canyon lies just 7.5 km outside the town. You could walk or cycle there. It’s VERY IMPORTANT to take a quieter road along the river (which is flat). That road joins the main road only for the last 1 km. This last section is the only incline. If it’s too much to cycle, you could lead the bike up and then ride down on the way back. We chose to walk to the canyon and caught a lift on the way back: it was just 10 minutes on the back of the pick-up van.

A path along the ridge of Pai Canyon twists and winds among trees growing on either side of the ridge.

The canyon is definitely worth visiting, taking that it’s completely free to enter. You could easily spend 2-3 hours wandering around. Be ready to get dirty, though. Red and white dust cover the paths, and you’d most certainly use your hands and maybe even bum to go up and down steeper sections. I wouldn’t recommend it for people with vertigo, as the paths tend to be narrow, with steep drops on either side.

The author stands at the edge of a Pai Canyon ridge, a 30 meteres precipice surrounding her from 3 sides.
At last a bit of green

Some of the paths are wider and easier, some require scrambling. Most of the people come to the canyon to watch the sunset, so if you want to avoid the crowds come early in the morning or in the worst heat of the day. There are gazebos where you can find shade. You can find toilets and stalls with overpriced refreshments at the start of the canyon.

A man clutches to the outcrops of sandstone vertical outcrop, scrambling above a narrow path along the Pai Canyon ridge
Some places require scrambling and getting dirty

Lod Cave

We weren’t sure if it was worth spending quite a bit of money to visit Lod Cave. However, I wanted to see thousands of birds coming in and thousand of bats coming out of the cave at dusk. It wasn’t feasible to make this trip independently. It would require driving 50 km on a very winding road and returning at night. Most of the local tours included Lod Cave as one of many attractions during a day trip but would go there in the middle of the day. There was only one company selling the evening tour to Tham Lod. Their price of 200 baht was simply a taxi fare: it didn’t include the entrance fee. The seller promised me I’d see bats and birds in their thousands.

A view  from inside Nam Lod cave at a calm, shallow river flowing out of the cave and into the surrounding jungle

Lod Cave(Tham Lod), located within Tham Pla–Namtok Pha Suea National Park, is often described as one of the most impressive Thai caves. It is indeed worth a visit, not so much for the geological formations as the old-fashioned manner of visiting. The entrance fee (including guide service and a boat ride) is 450 baht for a group of three. Tourists board a small, narrow bamboo raft propelled with a long pole. The guides carry kerosene lamps to show you the way. That, in my opinion, makes it unique and quite atmospheric. Moving in the darkness, following a small circle of light and the popping noise of the old-fashioned lamp is an experience in itself.

Local guides on three long bamboo rafts wait for the tourits at the cave lake in Nam Lok. The water teems with large black fish.
Rafts used for visiting the cave and enormous fish swarming in the cave river

The cave is divided into three chambers. The first two are accessible by walking. There are no paved paths or steel railings, just a natural surface and simple, steep, wooden stairs. The guide rushes through the chambers, pointing to various rock formations resembling a particular animal. There are English- language boards inside the cave, but there isn’t enough time to read them. The first chamber features 20 meter high columns. The highlight of the second one is one tiny and faded prehistoric painting of a deer, made by the Hoabinhian hunter-gatherer tribe.

A barely visible outline of a deer on a rock inside Nam Lod cave in northern Thailand
Look closely, here’s the prehistoric drawing of a deer

After showing the chambers one and two, the guide walks down to the river flowing through the cave, where the rafts with male rowers wait. The ride is maybe 5 minutes long but again happens in the darkness. If you bought fish food at the entrance, you could feed enormous fish swarming all around the boats.

A kerosene lamp illuminates front of a simple, narrow raft approaching the exit of Nam Lod cave in northern Thailand
Kerosene lamps are the only source of light inside the cave

The river leads to the cave exit, where everybody gets off. The guide leads up to the third, last chamber, with the remnants of a few wooden coffins- if I understood well, from prehistoric times. Then the guide turns back to the boats. It’s worth to time the visit just before closing (at 5 pm in March) so that you can see thousands of swifts circling the cave at dusk (where they stay for a night). The swifts are loud and leave lots of guano around (worth wearing a hat just in case).

Sky at dusk filled with black dots of flying swallows
Thousands of swifts at the entrance to the cave

I was hoping to see thousands of bats flying out of the cave, but that happens later, around 7 pm. The advertised tour was purposefully misleading. I felt rushed throughout the trip as the guide kept waiting for us with an impatient countenance. We got on the boat and quickly walked back the same way we came. Our group was the last to enter the cave- the guides and rowers left with us. I imagine the only way to see the bats is to camp at the mouth of the cave or return at night, either of which sounds a bit extreme.

Aborted trip to Mae Yen waterfall

Having heard that riding a scooter could end with a police fine/ bribe, we decided to skip Mo Paeng and Pambok waterfalls. Instead, we decided to walk to the nearest Mae Yen waterfalls. Those are the only waterfalls inaccessible by road, hence they’re the least visited of all.

The trail to the falls leads first among the fields through a tiny tarmac road and then turns into a well-marked narrow path through the forest. We left at 9 am, which was a bit late, but luckily the trees provided shadow. At the entrance to the hiking trail, there was an unmanned checkpoint. We read on the board that we have to register in a logbook due to forest fires.

A pole with lots of cicadas stuck to it in the foreground and a small plot of land covered with greenery near Pai
A pole used for catching cicadas – a typical North Thai snack

We passed by villagers who were catching cicadas for food by smearing poles with a sticky substance. Hundreds of insects got caught, glued to the poles. Walking through the forest was a strange sensation: it looked like a temperate climate zone forest in autumn, with leaves fallen but the temperature was no less than the worst heat of the summer. The path was crisscrossing the river many times. The water level was so low that it was easy to jump from stone to stone and avoid the feet getting wet. I imagine that would be inevitable at any other time of the year, though.

A narrow path through the jungle, strewn with fallen leaves and forest floor burned to ashes to the right of the path
“managed” forest fires

We kept on passing by burned and blackened sections of the forest floor. Those ‘controlled fires’ were the Thai government’s controversial strategy to prevent wildfires in the dry season. I didn’t feel comfortable passing by the large tree logs still smoking and smouldering. Every time I’d see a local man working in the forest, I’d relax for a moment. If the locals felt safe, why would I worry?

The author sits in a swiming suit in a shallow stream in the jungle on Mae Yen waterfall trail
Cooling down in a stream on Mae Yen trail

Still, I didn’t find it wise to carry on deep into the burning forest. After a while, we saw a German couple coming from the opposite direction. They decided to turn back since there were ‘lots of fires’ further up the trail. We walked just a little further forward until we saw some smoking trunks. The river created a tiny pool there, so I stripped to a bikini and jumped in. Five minutes later we were on our way back home. So much for swimming under the waterfall…

PRACTICALITIES

How to get to Mae Yen waterfall?
Mae Yen trail starts near Wonderland campsite, 2 km from Pai centre. The trail is clearly marked on maps.me app (but NOT on google maps!)

How to get to Pai Canyon?
If you go to Pai Canyon by walking or cycling, stick to rural Mae Hong Son Rd (4080), leading along the river. Just for the last kilometre that rural road joins with the main 1095 Rd.

How to get to Lod cave?
To get to Lod cave driving, head north on the road to Mae Hong Song and turn right in Pang Ma Pha village following Tham Lod sign. It’s 50 km on a very winding road.
Lod cave is in the itinerary of many tours sold at Pai walking street but just one company does the tour only to the cave.

Prices [in Thai baht as of March 2019]


450 THB price for a boat with a guide at Lod Cave (fits 3 people)
200 THB the cheapest organised tour to Lod Cave (entrance not included)
100 THB motorbike rental
50 THB bicycle rental

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