Updated September 24th, 2018.
From Chiang Mai, a four-hour journey through beautiful mountainous countryside on incredibly curvy roads. (762 curves to be precise – you can buy the T-shirt when you get there to prove it!) will bring you to Pai.
Pai is a small, laid-back hippie town nestled in among the picturesque mountains of northern Thailand. Filled with cafes and restaurants, it’s a perfect place to take a breather and relax, but there are also lots of fun and adventurous things to do in the area.
The town itself is quite small; walking down one of the main streets in town takes about 10 minutes, and a meandering, circuitous route around town won’t occupy more than an hour or two.
Pai is a great place to get out into the more natural scenery of Thailand. A favourite activity is renting a motorbike and simply seeing where it takes you. Rolling hills wind through the surrounding area, offering beautiful views of mountains, farmland, villages and waterfalls. Trekking is also popular in the area, as is bathing in the local hot springs.
Not so long ago, Pai was just a small, typical northern Thai town. Recently, it has grown rapidly with a burgeoning tourism industry and enjoys visitors from all over the world.
The town itself is infused with a real bohemian vibe that attracts lots of new age travellers; with an artsy scene, live music and opportunity to take Reiki, yoga and spiritual healing courses.
Pai is not just a favourite with young hippy backpackers, it’s also becoming a chic weekend destination for the Bangkok cool brigade; you’ll spot yuppie, well dressed middle-class types floating around.
If you’ve already been hearing the hype about Pai and wondering whether it really lives up to it, this Pai survival guide, written by a cynical 30-something traveller is a fun read.
Where to stay in Pai:
Pai is filled with places to stay suitable for all budgets. If you don’t make a reservation beforehand, just take a stroll around town to find a place that fits your budget and your aesthetic sensibilities. You’ll find guesthouses all over town, and across the bamboo bridge in the northeast corner of town are many beautiful, peaceful bungalows.
Here are a few recommendations:
Mr Jan’s Guesthouse: This is a pretty, peaceful and very cheap guesthouse (US$5 per person) that’s a little off the main road, but still very central.
Duang Guesthouse: Although not the most beautiful guesthouse you’ll ever stay in, its location is good (right across the street from the bus station), and the price is probably the lowest you’ll find in the whole of Pai (US$3 per person for rooms with a shared bathroom). They also have bungalows in the back (US$15).
Pai Circus School Resort: This place is a little outside of town, but very easy to walk to and very peaceful and beautiful, with a panoramic view of the surrounding hills and mountains. Cross the rickety bamboo bridge over the river in the northeast corner of town, and walk along the dirt roads until you see signs. They have cheap dorms, bungalows, and tents for rent. Even if you don’t stay here, it’s a great place to come and relax for the day, enjoy the swimming pool, and learn some circus skills. There’s also a quiz night every Friday, with free Pad Thai!
Mad Monkey Hostel Pai: Mad Monkey is a chain of extremely popular backpacker hostels located all over Southeast Asia and Australia. One of their newest digs is Mad Monkey Pai, which is a beautiful resort-style property located on a leafy patch of land surrounded by Pai’s incredible mountain scenery. There are AC dorm rooms or traditional wooden bungalows to choose from, plenty of hammocks to laze around in and free bicycles to ride around town if you’re feeling more active. The hostel is located less than a 15-minute walk from downtown Pai. If you really want to chill, you can also get a massage on the hostel grounds. Dorm beds start at just US$6 per person.
Suandoi Backpacker Resort: Once a resort for the people of Thailand, Suandoi has evolved into an international resort for backpackers. Created from the visions of a brother and sister team and surrounded by luscious greenery, Suandoi Backpacker Resort is the ultimate place for relaxation. Check out Suandoi Resort on our list of Best Hostels here.
Pril Pai Guesthouse: A quiet place, a little outside of town, the lovely Pril Pai Resort is one for couples, families and those who prefer the tranquil countryside aspect of Pai, rather than the nightlife scene. (You’re still only 10 minutes from the main strip should you wish to venture out.) With cute, well-maintained bungalows and rooms (which are half price in the low season!), free breakfast, free WIFI, laundry, scooter hire and more, Pril Pai is a great choice for the more mature traveller. Check out our review on our list of Flashpacker Accommodation here.
8 Top Things to do in and around Pai:
1. Trekking in Pai:
There are many options for one-day and multi-day treks out of Pai. Some start from Pai itself, requiring no transportation other than your own to feet, and you others you can arrange with a company.
2. Rent a motorbike:
Renting a motorbike is a fantastic way to get out of town, do some adventuring on your own, and see the area surrounding Pai. There are waterfalls, villages, and great views all over the place. Rent a bike, fill up on gas, and hit the road! Motorbikes typically go for 150-200 THB / day.
3. Night Market:
The Pai night market runs every evening along the main roads in town. Food stalls, vendors of all sorts and street performers create a lively atmosphere. Walk, eat and shop, or just park yourself at a restaurant overlooking the crowds and do some great people-watching with a cold beer or smoothie in hand.
4. Pai Hot Springs:
The Pai hot springs are an attraction for locals and tourists alike. They’re easy to get to via motorbike, and a great place to relax and soak up some minerals. If you want to blend in with the locals, bring some extra clothing and go bathing in shorts and a t-shirt. And don’t forget your eggs!
The upper hot springs are hot enough to cook eggs, and many people do this, then eat their hard- or soft-boiled eggs while bathing in the cooler pools below. (300 baht entry for foreigners.)
5. Pai Canyon:
Busy at weekends, Pai Canyon is a popular tourist attraction just outside of town. It’s free to enter and you can walk around the whole canyon (treading carefully) in about 30 minutes.
6. Eat Street!
Pai is brimming with restaurants offering delicious food from all over the world. Indian, Middle Eastern, Western, Thai… you can find it all. A few recommendations: The Curry Shack (near Mr. Jan’s Guesthouse), Mama Falafel (near the bus station), the other middle eastern place (shabish!), and smoothies.
7. Pai Circus School:
Want to learn how to juggle with fire, stilt walk, spinning poi and other circus tricks? Backpackers flock to this resort and circus school set amidst beautiful natural landscapes to learn circus skills, jam around a bonfire, relax and play with the cute puppies! There’s a BBQ most nights and a festival feel to this traveller paradise.
8. Yoga and Meditation Retreats:
There is really no better setting to relax and breathe in the stunning countryside of the Pai valley. Even the most stressed out travellers could learn to chill out here! Check out our article about the Xhale Yoga School 5-day meditation retreat.
Courses and More in Pai…
How to get to Pai:
Take a minibus from Chiang Mai. They leave often and are pretty cheap. Warning: it’s 3-4 hours of sharp hairpin turns and steep drop-offs. Don’t go on a full stomach! Read more about the crazy Chiang Mai to Pai bus journey here.
For the more daring types, you can rent a motorbike and make the drive yourself, though unless you’re confident on a motorbike, we wouldn’t necessarily recommend it.
Where to go next?
- Back to Chiang Mai – Head to the cultural capital of the north to fulfil every backpacker desire.
- Mae Hong Son – Head further west towards the Burmese border to this quieter mountain town.
- Chiang Dao – If Pai is too touristy for you, head to this quiet bird watcher’s paradise near Chiang Mai.
- Or – hop on a motorbike, and see where it takes you!
About the author: Eliza Arsenault is an English, math and science teacher in Isaan, Thailand. She travels around Southeast Asia during her breaks. Check out her blog.