It seems that you meet 3 types of travelers in Pai, Thailand. Those coming to party. Those there to relax and detox. And busloads of Chinese tourists there to take pictures. We were two of these types of traveler while we were in Pai. I’ll let you guess which 2.
Pai has an abundance of bars that get crowded come sundown with a youngish crowd of backpackers looking for drugs or buckets (or a combination of the two). And there are just about as many raw/vegan/gluten-free cafes that boast homemade kombucha and kefir for those wanting to rid their systems of the drugs and buckets.
The streets of Pai town seem quaint at first glance, but the evenings are a jumble of dreadlocks, selfie sticks, and motorbikes weaving in and out of the crowds. Pretty soon it seems to resemble a smaller (and cuter) version of Khao San Road.
Though the town itself left us with a funny feeling (more on this later), it was the surrounding countryside that made us put out travel plans on hold and stay in Pai for a while, like so many people passing through seem to do.
How to get there
Most travelers come to Pai from Chiang Mai. It is easy to get a shuttle van between the cities (195 baht per person), but be warned that the 3-hour journey is a winding one. If you’re easily carsick, be prepared. There is a 20-minute stop halfway through where you can stop for snacks or to use the bathroom.
You can also rent a motorbike and make the drive yourself, but only do so if you are experienced. The drive is beautiful, but not easy. Also, motorbike rentals are cheaper in Pai than Chiang Mai, so you'll save yourself some money by taking the bus and waiting to rent one once you arrive.
What to do in Pai
Well, first things first. You're gonna have to rent a motorbike in order to see just about any of the sights around Pai.
Keep reading for some important points on renting a motorbike in Pai.
If you feel comfortable on two wheels, Pai will be paradise for you. But we totally understand apprehension to getting behind the wheel… errr, handlebar? I crashed my bike the last time I attempted to drive in the Philippines, so it goes without saying that I was a bit apprehensive.
And like us, you will no doubt encounter people walking down the streets with fresh scrapes and burns from accidents. Photographs of badly injured people are plastered on the billboards lining the nearby roads. Do a little research on the number of motorbike fatalities in Thailand and it’s enough to make even the bravest of people nauseous. Why am I telling you this? So that you’re careful, goshdarnit!
But I don’t want to scare you. The cheapest and most beautiful way to explore the neighboring wonders is by motorbike. No question about it. And I would wholeheartedly recommend it. Hiring a driver is hella expensive, and you won’t get far on a bicycle because the roads are far from flat. Even if you’re a little nervous (like we were), I would urge you to push past your fears. It is so worth it. When you’re on the open road with no one in sight, wind blowing through your hair (or dreadlocks), you’ll thank me. Although we were a little hesitant at first, our one-day rental turned into 8 days. We got hooked!
Where should you rent a motorbike in Pai?
There are a few establishments in town, but the most popular is undoubtedly Aya. It is near the bus station at the center of town, and has competitive rates, starting at just 100 baht. They offer two types of insurance – one that covers all damage to the bike, and another that covers a stolen vehicle. At just 40 baht every day rented, we did the damage insurance, and although nothing happened to our bike, we felt safer knowing we wouldn’t be charged for any scratches or dents if – God forbid – we crashed.
Important Tip: Look over your receipt and make sure the dates are correct and they have noted that you’ve paid. We were caught in a not so happy situation when we returned our bike and they insisted we still owed money when in fact we had already paid. Luckily they let us look over video footage, which clearly showed us handing over the required baht, and they let us go without charging us double. On that note, DO NOT lose your receipt. In fact, take a picture of it just to be safe. They will charge you if you cannot produce this piece of paper. Other than that little miscommunication, our experience renting from them was just fine.
So where should you go once you have a motorbike? Glad you asked! There are tons of places to be explored – just take a look at a map. But below are the places we found to be the most worthwhile:
Tip: If you have a limited time in Pai, you can visit the first three places below in one day. We would recommend visiting them in the order listed to best avoid the crowds.
1. Mor Paeng Waterfall
The ride here from Pai is quick and easy, so it’s perfect for beginners. Slide down this fall like a waterslide, or sit in the shallow pools of chilly water – perfect for cooling down on a hot day. Watch the local children run, slide and flip in the water below… umm where are their parents? Who knows, but they seem to perform their “tricks” for tourists every day, so it seems like they know what they’re doing (or at least that’s what I’m telling myself!).
Tip: Arrive early. This is one of the more popular waterfalls in the area (for a reason), so get there before noon if you want to avoid crowds. Make sure you hike down to the very bottom of the waterfall where there are more pools to bathe in, and far fewer people.
2. Sai Ngam Hot Springs
Known as “secret hot springs”, these aren’t marked on the tourist map but they are no secret. The shallow lagoon surrounded by a lush, jungly forest is completely natural and hasn’t been landscaped or altered, which we loved. There were only a handful of people there when we arrived at 3 in the afternoon. Note that you do have to pay a 20 baht entrance fee per person, and 20 baht per bike. The fee is measly though compared to the 300 baht that is charged by the bigger, more commercialized resort near town.
Warning: The road leading to the hot springs is much like a roller coaster. It winds back and forth, and when you reach many of the hilltops, you won’t be able to see the bottom. My stomach was in my throat most of the ride, but I kind of love that feeling. Weird, I know. If you’re a beginner on the motorbike, it can certainly be done, but exercise caution. We did see a few injuries on this road.
Tip: After you’re done soaking, drive another kilometer past the hot springs and you’ll enter a small village in a postcard perfect valley. The villagers grow corn, and the road takes you right through the farmlands and over a stream. Once you’re done exploring, turn around to head back to the main road.
3. Pai Canyon
Just 7 kilometers from town is a canyon with great views, especially at sunset. As long as you don’t go expecting the same grandeur as the Grand Canyon in the good ol' US of A, you won’t be disappointed.
Tip: There are 3 lookout points. The furthest of which is the least crowded and most beautiful. But beware, the walk to get there is NOT an easy one. The path drops down a hundred meters on either side, and you’ll have to do some climbing on your hands and knees to reach the third viewpoint. Wear sturdy shoes, and take it slow. The reward is well worth the journey! If you are there at sunset, be sure to start heading back before darkness sets it. You definitely won’t want to navigate this path without light.
4. Lod Cave
This was one of the highlights of our stay in Pai. Over the past year, we have visited several caves, and we’ve both become kind of obsessed. We went caving in Korea, visited a super remote cave in the Philippines, and walked through a lava tunnel on Jeju island. And during our first couple weeks in Thailand, we repelled out a cave that overlooked the ocean in Krabi. But we both agree that Lod Cave tops the list. Based on sheer size, this cave was by far the biggest. So big in fact, that there is a river running through on which we were able to ride a bamboo raft. So cool.
You cannot enter Lod Cave without a local guide, which costs 150 baht per group. Additionally, you must take a bamboo raft on the river which costs an additional 300 baht. Group sizes can be 1 to 3 people, and the price will be the same so it makes sense to join another group if you’re traveling solo. We partnered up with another traveler, making it just 150 baht per person (instead of 450 baht if one person were to do it alone).
The guide didn’t tell us much about the cave other than pointing out rocks that looked like different animals. Although we didn’t learn too much about the cave itself, we were happy to support the local community for the hour-long tour.
How to get there: The whole trip is about 50 km away from Pai, so set aside a whole day for the trip. Drive about 42 km northwest on Highway 1095 toward Mae Hong Son. You will go up and down a steep mountain with a great lookout at the top. Around the 42 km mark, you will turn right into the small town of Soppong. Keep right after the town and follow the signs another 8 km through winding road through a thick forest until you reach the cave.
Tip: Allow a full day to make the drive and explore the cave. There are other caves in the area that are free of charge to enter (though we didn’t have time to explore them). The “secret hot springs” (#2) are on the way, so you could stop there on the way there or back as well.
5. Super secret hot springs
The hot springs mentioned above are well worth a visit, but like we said, they are known by a big handful of backpackers despite their name. If you truly want to visit a hot spring that is undiscovered, keep reading. We heard about it from the woman who runs the farm at which we volunteered. They are about an hour journey from town, but the trip is breathtaking and you are almost guaranteed to be the only ones there, so we found it worth the distance.
How to get there: Now listen closely...Travel south out of Pai on Highway 1095 about 6 km. Once you pass Ban Tin That village on your left, you'll take your next right (before the road curves to the left). If you see Pai Canyon you have gone too far. Next, follow this country road through small villages for about 30 minutes. You will come to a slightly larger (yet still small) village that has a bridge to your left. Cross over the bridge and turn right. Ride down this road for a kilometer or two until you see a restaurant with a geyser in front. You made it! Leave your bikes, walk down stream of the river a bit and find a good place to hop in. The water from the hot spring flows in and mixes with the cool river water, making it a place to cool off and warm up at the same time!
***Don't have a motorbike? No problem! There's still plenty to do in Pai.
6. Relax at Fluid Pool
Although it can get a bit chilly at night, Pai is often quite hot during the day. Fluid Pool is a 10-15 minute walk from the center of town and is a perfect place to relax for an afternoon. The pool is large and there’s plenty of space to lay out on a mat with a book and a drink. Try the watermelon mint shake (we added a splash of our own rum for a perfect afternoon cocktail… shhh!). They also serve Western food, which looked good (but a bit pricey).
7. Get a Tattoo
Lots of backpackers leave Pai with new ink. There are a plethora of shops to choose from, and nearly all of them have the option of bamboo tattoos or those done by machine. No, I didn’t get a tat in Pai, but I did get a piercing fixed. The guys at Cross Tattoo Studio were incredibly kind and patient and made me feel comfortable during the entire process. We saw a handful of others get designs etched into their skin, and the results were nothing short of beautiful. The artist there is top-notch, and the facilities are clean. So if you’re looking for a permanent souvenir from your time in Pai, start (and end) your search at Cross Tattoo.
One of the most common question people ask us is, “How do you afford to travel for long periods of time?” While there are many answers to that, which we will be sharing detailed answers to very soon, one of the biggest ways we are able to stay on the road for so long is by doing extended stays in exchange for work – something that we are planning to do quite often on this extended journey.
We stumbled upon one such position near Pai. New Land is an organic farm and permaculture project surrounded by jungles and mountains, and we were excited to get dirty and learn as much as possible. We volunteered on an organic farm in Ecuador a couple years ago and had a great experience, and this was no different.
While staying at New Land, we helped build a mud house, planted a vegetable garden, chopped bamboo using machetes and weaved it into tree shades, and created a book that documents all the plants on the farm. In the afternoons, we soaked in hot springs, made hibiscus jam, and tried our hands at making vegan meals with produce from the gardens. We spent our nights having deep conversations and playing cards with the other volunteers by candlelight in a stunning place most tourists never get a chance to see.
If you are interested in volunteering with New Land, contact the farm manager, Catherine, via email: email@example.com
What NOT to do in Pai
Several tour shops on the streets of Pai advertise tours that take you to a hill tribe village where you can see the famous “Longneck” people, which actually refers to a subgroup of the Karen people. Although we can’t speak from experience, everyone we spoke to who had done these tours said it felt like a “human zoo”. Most of the so-called villages the companies take you to are not in fact where the people live, but are instead made to satisfy the curiosity of camera-toting tourists.
I, too, am intrigued by the indigenous tribes, and thought for a moment that it would be awesome to photograph the young girls with rings around their neck. But a photograph is not worth the exploitation of a group of people. After doing a little research, it seems that many women in this tribe had stopped the tradition of adding rings to the neck of young girls for, but have reignited this practice in order to draw foreigners with cameras.
It all just seems inauthentic to me and like a way to put a group of people on display in the name of tourism. As always though, do your own research and establish your own opinion on the subject.
Where to eat and drink
I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many street food options in my life. You can get anything from a standard kebab to lasagna by the slice, and just about any Thai dish you can imagine. Though there are a few stands open all day, you’ll see exponentially more set up shop around 5 p.m.
You can get a fresh fruit shake just about anywhere, and we saw some that were as cheap as 20 baht. But if you are on a quest for the very best shake, we’ve searched high and low so you so you don’t have to do the leg work. (Okay full disclosure, someone else told us, and we are passing along the tip because, dayummm that shake was so good. Like, the best ever.) There is no sign on this shop, so we aren’t sure of the name, but directions are simple. Next to the bus station is Sabai Bar. Next to Sabai Bar is this little shop. There are tons of creative flavor options. Our favorite was banana + passion fruit + coconut cream (number 38 on the list, I believe). At 70 baht, it may seem expensive, but they are HUGE (at least double the size of most other shakes we ordered). Plus, if you go with another person, they will likely give you a little “sidecar” of the extra shake. Totally split-able. You’re welcome.
Tik Kitchen: This local joint is right in the center of town and has reasonable prices.
Dang Thai: This cute little restaurant serves curry for 40 baht (including rice), and has a cozy atmosphere.
Curry Shack: Curries are reasonably priced, but the service is a bit slow as this is a one-man shop.
Witching Well: The breakfast menu is super yummy. Try the mushroom omelet, and the mango passion roll. Mouth is watering just thinking about it.
Earth Tone: After having too much street food, it felt good to get some organic, local, vegan eats at Earth Tone. Their herbal shakes are especially good, as is the quinoa and tempeh salads.
Edible Jazz: If live music and a laid-back vibe is what you’re after, look no further. Food and drinks are on the pricey side, but the atmosphere is top-notch.
Almost Famous: Try one of their 20 flavors of mojitos. Our favorites were passion fruit and mango! And their caipirinha bucket for just 150 baht is a steal!
Sunset Bar: Come here as the last stop on your bar crawl. The party here goes late into the night, and the open-air, tree house feel will make it hard to leave. It is about a 15-minute walk from town, but you can enjoy unbeatable views of the stars along the way!
Where to stay
There are loads of places to stay in Pai. Like an overwhelming amount. Choose from luxurious bungalows to dorm rooms with hammocks instead of beds. We stayed at two different hostels during our time in Pai, Common Grounds and Purple Monkey, and both were alright. Neither were anything we would go out of our way to recommend, but decent enough if you're looking for a place to meet other travelers.
Okay, so here's what I really thought of Pai...
We arrived in this laid-back mountain town with only 3 nights booked, and ended up staying more than 2 weeks. So we must have fallen head over flip-flops in love, right?
I’m not so sure…
I’m back in the bustling city of Chiang Mai as I write this, and although I am already longing for the endless rice fields and starry nights that we had in Pai, I’m still undecided about how I really felt about this town.
With waterfalls, winding mountain roads to be explored on motorbike, and more cute cafes than I could count, Pai is literally a combination of all my favorite things. But there’s just something about the town that bothered me and it has taken me a while to pinpoint it exactly.
It seems that 10 years ago, Pai would have held a special undiscovered charm. But now that it's on nearly every backpacker’s itinerary, the influx of people has brought an overwhelming amount of commercialism to this village of just 2,000 residents.
Tourists clad in the obligatory baggy elephant print pants outnumber the locals, and the number of restaurants and bars owned by foreigners seems to rival the amount of establishments run by Thais. There’s just something that feels artificial about this town; I might venture to say that it borders on cheesy.
Don’t take this to mean that I didn’t enjoy my time in Pai. In fact, the opposite is true. I had the best coffee, mojitos, and avocados I’ve had in a while. I met other travelers, went stargazing, played in waterfalls, and napped by the river. It was utter bliss, actually.
I just feel that Pai is talked up so much and the flaws are rarely discussed. Every traveler I spoke to before making the journey raved about this small town in the mountains with a “chill vibe, man”. And my research online churned out the same results, calling it a “stunning riverside oasis”. Nobody seemed to speak about how the town is dangerously close to losing its appeal to tourism.
There's no arguing the beauty that surrounds the town, but it seems that if it weren’t for the beautiful surroundings, Pai could just be another over-hyped place anywhere in this world. And a few years and thousands of tourists from now, it just may.
I certainly would still recommend Pai as a place to visit in Thailand. There is plenty to do, and it still holds an undeniable charm as long as you know what to expect.