From the Northern Thai city of Chiang Mai, a three-hour journey through beautiful mountainous countryside will bring you to the bustling traveller town of Pai.
Getting to Pai: The road from Chiang Mai to Pai is notoriously windy (there are 762 curves to be precise and you can buy the T-shirt when you get there to prove it!), so if you’re prone to travel sickness, be sure to buy some pills before you travel!
What is Pai Town like?
Pai is a small, laid-back town nestled in among the picturesque mountains of Northern Thailand. Filled with cheap cafés, restaurants (both Thai and Western) and live music joints, it’s the perfect place to take a breather during your travels, but there are also lots of fun and adventurous things to do in the area if you’re up for it!
Not so long ago, Pai was just a small, typical northern Thai town. However in recent years, it has grown rapidly with a burgeoning tourism industry and enjoys visitors from all over the world. 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.
Every evening there is a walking street ‘night market’ where you can grab delicious street food with a twist. As well as your Thai favourites like Pad Thai and Somtam (papaya salad), you’ll find delicious Mexican Tacos, Burgers and Sushi. While not your authentic Thai cuisine – Pai is a paradise for budget foodies!
Pai 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. Yet Pai is not just a favourite with young hippy backpackers, it’s also becoming a chic holiday destination for the Bangkok cool brigade; you’ll spot yuppie, well dressed middle-class types floating around, especially at weekends.
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!
The Countryside Around Pai
The big draw of Pai is the surrounding landscape of mountains, bamboo forests and lush green rice fields. Pai is a great place to get out into the stunning 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 and visiting the local Pai Canyon. For those who want to explore more of Pai’s treasures, there are some interesting caves in the area. Nearby Soppong is home to the famous Tham Lod Cave, one of the largest in Thailand.
Where to stay in Pai, Thailand
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 some recommendations…
Spicy Pai Backpackers – With beds from just $6 US per night, you can’t go wrong with the easy-going and super sociable Spicy Pai Backpackers which is a legendary Thailand hostel. Located 20 minutes walk from the town centre of Pai, it’s a beautiful spot overlooking rice fields and mountains and is a great place to relax, but be warned – you may never leave! Breakfast is included in the price and the staff are friendly and helpful. Enjoy the evening bonfires and chilled vibes…
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!
UP2U Guesthouse – Located right by the river, this charming old wooden Thai-style guesthouse is a lovely relaxing place to stay with dorms and private rooms. Breakfast of fruit and toast is included and you can get your laundry done, get coffee, book trips, transport etc. There are lots of hammocks and places to relax and there’s also free yoga in the morning at certain times of year.
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 $6 US per person.
Prilpai Guesthouse – A quiet place, a little outside of town, the lovely Prilpai 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, Prilpai is a great choice for the more mature traveller. Check out our review on our list of Prilpai here.
Top 10 Things to do in Pai, Thailand
1. Go Trekking
There are many options for one-day and multi-day treks out of Pai. You can arrange a trek when you arrive in Pai at one of the travel agents on the main street or you can book online in advance. We recommend the local trekking company, Pai Rapid Rangers who run several hiking and caving adventures in the surrounding area. The most popular for backpackers short on time is this one day Nature and Waterfall Trek where you’ll see a variety of Pai’s natural treasures in just one day. The cost is 800 THB per day or $25 US and lunch is included.
2. Go Caving
The Pai area is home to some awesome caves, especially in nearby Soppong. If you’re interested in exploring some of Pai’s underground treasures and seeing some enormous stalagmites and stalactites, we recommend this 2-day trek to the famous Tham Lod Cave in Soppong . If you love caves, then perhaps this 2-day caving expedition is more up your street.
3. Rent a Motorbike and Explore
Renting a motorbike is a fantastic way to get out of town, do some adventuring on your own, and see the stunning countryside surrounding Pai. You’ll find waterfalls, hot springs, hill tribe villages, and great views all over the place. Rent a bike, fill up on gas, and hit the road! Motorbikes typically go for 200-300 THB / day. If it’s your first time renting a motorbike in Thailand then read our motorbiking guide here.
4. Check out Pai’s Nightlife
The Pai Night Market runs every evening along the main street in town, known as ‘walking street’. Food stalls, vendors of all sorts and street performers create a lively atmosphere and it’s a great introduction to Pai’s bohemian vibe. 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. You’re likely to hear live music coming from several bars, so just wander in wherever takes your fancy… You’ll also see some bars selling mushroom shakes. No comment.
5. Visit 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.
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. (The fee to enter the hot springs is 300 THB for foreigners and 40 THB for locals.)
6. Visit Pai Canyon
Pai Canyon is a popular tourist attraction just outside of town which can get extremely busy at weekends. It’s free to enter and you can walk around the whole canyon (treading carefully) in about 30 minutes. Great views and photo opportunities guaranteed.
7. Don’t Miss Eat Street
Pai is brimming with restaurants offering delicious food from all over the world. Indian, Middle Eastern, Mexican, 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 Burger Queen (if you’re craving some comfort food!).
8. Pai Circus School
Want to learn how to juggle with fire, stilt walk, spinning poi and other circus tricks? Backpackers flock to this unique 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 communal meal most nights and a festival feel to this traveller paradise. You can book a bed at Pai Circus School here. If you choose not to stay there you can still join them for their weekly pub quiz and Pad Thai night
9. Learn Muay Thai
Sitjemam Muay Thai Camp located just outside Pai is a great place for budget travellers to have a go at the ancient art of Thai boxing! You can try out just one session or you can book a one week or even six month training program where you’ll train twice a day for two hours with an optional jog in the morning. The training is pretty hard core and an awesome way to get fit after a lazy few week’s backpacking! Accommodation, food and gear is all included in their packages. Find out more about Muay Thai Training in Pai here.
10. Yoga and Meditation Retreats:
If you’re looking to do some yoga whilst you’re in Pai, 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 here.
How to get to Pai
- Take a minibus from Chiang Mai – They leave often and are pretty cheap. Warning: it’s a three-hour journey 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.
- Hire a motorbike from Chiang Mai – For the more daring types, you can rent a motorbike and make the drive to Pai yourself. Unless you’re confident on a motorbike though, 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. Seek out new trekking adventures, take a cooking class, visit an elephant sanctuary or try Muay Thai boxing, Chiang Mai is a traveller and expat hub.
- Mae Hong Son – Head further west towards the Burmese border to this quiet lakeside town which we just fell in love with. There are great trekking and biking opportunities here, a lovely night market and some delicious Burmese food.
- Chiang Dao – If Pai is too touristy for you, head to this quiet bird watcher’s paradise near Chiang Mai where you can climb the second highest mountain in Thailand or visit Chiang Dao Cave.