Pai is a small, inviting town in Mae Hong Son Province in the north of Thailand. Over the past decade, Pai, Thailand has transformed from a virtually unknown hippie town into one of the best travel destinations in Southeast Asia. Although it has become more popular, it remains a welcome respite from the chaos of bigger Thai cities. Many travellers fall so in love with the natural beauty and positive energy of Pai that they end up staying much longer than planned.
Want to find out just what makes this serene place so hard to leave? This guide will introduce you to some of the most incredible Pai attractions and show you what to do in Pai, as well as what to eat and where to stay!
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How to get to Pai
Almost everyone comes to Pai from Chiang Mai, the largest city in Northern Thailand. The only route from Chiang Mai to Pai is a windy, mountainous road that commonly causes motion sickness, prepare yourself for this journey! Either a minibus or a larger public bus can take you, starting from 150 THB. Alternatively, you can rent a scooter and drive to Pai yourself if you feel more comfortable doing so. The journey can take anywhere between three to four hours, depending on the driver and the number of stops taken along the way.
What to expect in Pai
Pai is a very tourist-friendly town, so you won’t have much trouble communicating in English. The locals are always welcoming and happy to help, so it’s worth learning hello and thank you in Thai to show respect.
The currency used is Thai baht, often written as THB. You won’t be using your debit card for day to day purchases, so expect to carry a lot of coins and notes with you each time you go out. Tipping isn’t required or expected in Thai culture, so don’t worry about calculating tips at restaurants or bars. Although, if an establishment does have a tip jar, you might like to leave some spare change.
How to get around Pai
The most popular method for getting around Pai is to rent a scooter or motorcycle. Although the central town of Pai itself is very small, most of the main attractions are further out. Having a scooter also gives you a chance to explore at your own pace. You can rent one at an affordable price, but don’t forget to wear your helmet!
If you’re not comfortable driving yourself, you can rent a motorbike taxi instead. Interestingly, there are no tuk-tuks, songthaews, buses or regular taxis operating in Pai! Motorcycle taxis wait opposite the bus station, with the drivers wearing fluorescent vests. Alternatively, you can arrange to be picked up by someone at your accommodation.
The best time to visit Pai
Just like the rest of Thailand, Pai has similar temperatures all year round. The daily average is 31 to 33°C. Even during the rainy season from June to October, Pai is wonderful to visit.
November to January is considered the high season, and accommodation will cost quite a bit extra. Even so, the benefit of visiting during these months is that the nights are cooler and much more bearable.
The only time of the year you’ll need to avoid is the burning season, which affects the majority of Northern Thailand. During February, March and April, farmers burn their fields to prepare for the next season’s crops, causing the air to become incredibly smoky and polluted. The air quality reaches dangerous levels during this time, so visiting during burning season is not recommended. Don’t worry though, as the air clears up by May.
Things to do in Pai
Despite being a small village town up in the mountains, there are a ton of fun things to do in Pai.
Wander the night market
When in Thailand, visit the local markets. Pai is no exception, and has a great night market that runs along Pai Walking Street every evening. Although the market is smaller than those in Bangkok or Chiang Mai, you can find the same handicrafts, clothing, souvenirs and mouth-watering street food for low prices. Make your way to Pai Walking Street any time between six and 10 o’clock at night and find the area bustling.
Soak in the hot springs
Tha Pai Hot Spring is where the majority of tourists visit, as it’s only eight kilometres south of the centre of Pai. There are several pools of differing temperatures for you to relax and unwind in. To make your experience even more memorable, there’s a spot to buy and boil eggs when you get hungry! It’ll set you back 300 baht to enter, but you can stay the entire day if you like. You’ll want to visit early in the mornings to avoid the crowds.
There’s also the lesser-known Sai Ngam Hot Spring. It’s never as busy as Tha Pai, mostly because it’s harder to find! 15 kilometres north of Pai, there are a few pools surrounded by a natural and untouched green forest. The ride to the hot springs is lovely and peaceful, and absolutely worth it to have a quieter time. Expect to pay around 200 baht to enter the park and an additional 20 to 40 baht parking fee.
Explore the land split
In 2008, an earthquake resulted in an 11-metre-deep split of the earth in the south of Pai. This cut a local farmer’s land in half, destroying his ability to farm and make a living. More earthquakes in the following years caused the land to split even further, and it continues to widen as the years pass. With the farm located between major tourist attractions and hibiscus plants still emerging from the ground, the farm owners decided to cater to the passing tourists and create an attraction of their own. It’s a fantastic example of making the best out of a bad situation!
The warm hospitality and fantastic snacks you’ll be treated to make the Pai Land Split worth the visit. You’ll be served fresh jam, hibiscus wine and juice, dried banana chips and other delicious treats with a smile. There is no admission fee necessary, though you can choose to donate what you wish to the owners or purchase some homemade products to take with you.
Places to visit in Pai
While everywhere in Pai is absolutely gorgeous, here are a few places you must visit during your trip.
Pai Canyon is one of the most well-known attractions in the area, as it’s the perfect location to sit and watch the sunrise or sunset. You’ll find this impressive natural wonder about eight kilometres south of central Pai. As some parts of the canyon are incredibly narrow and steep, remember to stay safe by watching where you step. Of course, since it’s a hiking trail, you’ll also want to wear the right shoes.
Boon Koh Ku So, aka the Bamboo Bridge, is 800 metres long and suspended a few metres above lush rice fields. It was originally built for monks to make the journey to the bamboo temple easier. This short, peaceful walk requires zero entrance fees and is only two kilometres east of the Pom Bok Waterfall.
Wat Phra That Mae Yen
The one temple you need to check out while in Pai is Wat Phra That Mae Yen, aka the Temple on the Hill. It’s known for the large white Buddha statue sitting atop the hill. There are 353 steps to get to the top, but once you reach the summit you’ll be rewarded with a vast and beautiful panoramic view of the valley below. Visit during sunrise or sunset to make it even more memorable.
Mor Paeng Waterfall
Mor Paeng Waterfall is a popular spot to spend a hot, humid day in Pai. It’s the easiest waterfall to get to from the centre of town and free to visit. Drive 10 kilometres west, walk a mere 200 metres through the forest and you’ll reach the tranquil three-tiered waterfall. There’s a natural shallow pool to relax in, as well as stunning panoramic views of the surrounding mountains. Pack a picnic and make an afternoon of it!
What to eat in Pai
I’m sure you’re familiar with classic Thai food like pad thai and panang curry. While you can’t go wrong with those, Northern Thailand has its own delicious dishes you’ll want to try out too.
Khao soi is going to become your go-to meal while in Pai, as it’s a signature dish in Northern Thailand. This creamy curry soup is packed with egg noodles and topped with more fried, crunchy noodles. While the traditional version has chicken, many places can make a vegetarian version. Make sure to squeeze a bit of lime into your bowl to enhance the flavour.
Miang kham is an incredible introduction to the combination of sweet, sour and spicy ingredients found in many Thai dishes. Raw shallots, ginger, garlic, coconut, and chilli peppers are cut into small pieces and wrapped in a fresh leaf, then eaten in one bite.
Sai ua is a common street food sold by many local vendors. This favourite Northern Thai sausage is made from pork, red curry paste and herbs. Typically, it’s cut into slices and served as a snack.
Where to stay in Pai
The main decision to make when choosing your Pai accommodation is whether or not you want to stay within the centre for convenience, or out among the nature for peace and quiet.
Want to have the quintessential Pai experience? Pai Country Hut offers affordable bamboo bungalows with views of the nearby mountains. The rooms are minimal in both decor and bugs, thanks to the handy mosquito nets you’ll find over the beds. Each bungalow comes with a hammock on the front deck for extra relaxation. While it’s north of the river, it’s only a few hundred metres away from the Pai town centre.
If you’d rather stay somewhere a little more modern, the Heart of Pai Resort is definitely for you. The rooms here are spacious and clean with comfortable beds, a luxury that’s often difficult to find in Thailand! It’s away from the busy streets but still a walkable distance.
Tours to do in Pai
The answer for what to do in Pai when it rains? Go on a thrilling Pai white water rafting trip!
Pai Adventures specialists in rafting, trekking and underwater cave diving in the middle of the jungle. They also offer a rare jungle survival tour, where you’ll learn primitive living skills and test your ability to get by using minimal tools. Anyone who loves an outdoor adventure won’t want to miss out on this experience. The business is run by a family who prioritizes Eco-friendly tourism and offers tours year-round. You’ll also get the chance to meet genuine hill tribes and learn about their culture and way of life.
Interested in how the Karen hill people live their day to day lives? Look no further than A Chef’s Tour. As Thailand’s largest ethnic minority, the Karen tribe have developed unique traditions that remain today. This isn’t your average cooking class, however. Not only will you learn how to prepare delicious meals, but you’ll also be taught how to forage for food and prepare your own traps.
Day trips from Pai
Since the route to and from Chiang Mai is so windy, it’s not a trip you’ll want to make twice in one day. However, you can still visit some of the other areas surrounding Pai.
The town of Mae Hong Son, not to be confused with the province of the same name, is just over 100 kilometres from Pai. Take a beautiful and scenic early morning drive along Route 1095, stopping at Su Tong Pae Bridge or Thampla-Phasua Waterfall if you like.
Take the Half Day City and Temples Tour of Mae Hong Son to discover the cultural landmarks in the area and the beauty of the Doi Kong Mu mountain. The cost of the tour includes admission into Wat Phra That Doi Kong Mu and Wat Chong Kham, two of the town’s most recognisable temples. The afternoon tours start at 1:30 p.m. and take only three and a half hours, so you’ll be able to make it back to Pai for a late dinner.