Once a sleepy market town, Pai was a secret hotspot for travellers to the north of Thailand for a long time. It now thrives increasingly on tourism and is not such an unknown destination anymore. It is especially famous for its relaxed atmosphere and bohemian lifestyle. So if you’ve loved visiting Chiang Mai, Pai will probably inspire you too, just in a more laid-back manner.
Best Time to Visit Pai
There is three distinct seasons in the north of Thailand: the cool season, the hot season and the rainy season. The best time to visit Pai is during the cooler season from about the end of November through to February. It does not rain much during that time so is a great time to explore and although often busy in December, the crowds disperse in January.
March is probably the least desirable month you want to be up here as farmers around here burn their fields in order to prepare their land for regrowth in the next season making the air hazy, polluted and simply unhealthy. It’s an illegal practice and very bad for the environment but the government isn’t doing anything against it. If you aim to do a lot of outdoor activities around here, better to come up here at a different time of the year.
From about April to June is the hot season which is very humid and can be hazy which impacts the beautiful vistas. Towards the start of June, you will see more rainfall rolling in up till November. Typically, it will pour down suddenly for an hour or so and not last long which makes the rain season still alright to explore the region.
Getting There & Around
Most visitors head to Pai from Chiang Mai which takes around 3.5 hours by minibus over a mostly narrow, windy mountain road which is picturesque but motion sickness tables are a good idea if you had some experience with this before. Some drivers are also quite reckless making the ride not the most enjoyable. Alternatively, there are bigger public busses going a bit slower or you can opt to get a taxi or private driver to take you there. It is a similar travel time coming from Mae Hong Son.
Pai also makes for a perfect stopover for a day or more on the popular Mae Hong Son loop which is a 3 day (or more if you fancy) excursion from Chiang Mai through the beautiful mountain scenery to the town of Mae Hong Son and back. It’s a perfect self-drive/motorbike trip looping you 600km around incredible nature going via the amazing Doi Inthanon National Park and definitely recommended for anyone who likes to explore authentic Thai villages, uncrowded waterfalls, limestone caves and just enjoys wilderness!
Pai also has an airport too, so you could fly there with Kan Air from Chiang Mai in 25 minutes!
What makes Pai so great is the relatively small center with a relaxed vibe and all its natural attractions around town. Therefore it’s perfect to explore by foot or you can easily hop on a scooter or motorbike as traffic is little compared to the busy roads of Chiang Mai. Roads can be a bit bumpy though.
The main tourist strip runs along Chaisongkran Road which houses the majority of the guesthouses, cafes, restaurant, tour agencies, motorbike hire shops and bars. More bars and cafes can be found around Tesaban, Rungsiyanon and Raddamrong Roads and around the central square. However, you may find better quality and value eateries if you go a little further from the centre.
Most things you would be looking for like banks and ATMs are on Rungsiyanon Road with the tourist police office located at the southern edge of town towards the Memorial Bridge.
Things to Do & See
There is not a massive amount of things to do in Pai and though this town tends to hold people longer than expected. Maybe because sometimes it’s just great to do nothing at all but sip on a coffee and read a good book and that will definitely come easy to you when in town. Pai certainly doesn’t have the temples or markets of Chiang Mai but it certainly has some interesting spots to keep you happy. And don’t worry, you don’t need to be a hippie to enjoy this town. Worked for me, even though I don’t have dreads and walk barefoot.
Walking Street Market
A sea of colours that make up the shopping experience in Pai is pretty much concentrated on Rungsiyanon Road also referred to as Walking Street similar to the Chiang Mai Walking Street markets just a little smaller and more chilled out. It comes alive around 5.30pm every night. Here you can find souvenirs and skilfully crafted local pottery, clothes and of course food. A great place to wander and soak in the sights and sounds while picking up a few trinkets to take home with you. This is probably the only exciting nightlife attraction in town except for some bars playing really good live music.
Tha Pai Hot Springs
For those looking to kick back and relax, the natural hot spring pools in Pai are a must. Set in the middle of the forest, there are pools of varying temperatures to enjoy for a 300 Baht entry fee. Best time to visit is early in the morning to avoid the crowds.
Mo Paeng Waterfall
As the most easily accessible waterfall it is also often the busiest during peak season but good for a visit to have a look at the tiered falls and three plunge pools to swim in. The rocks are fairly slippery so locals use them as a fun natural water slide.
Ban Santichon (Chinese Village)
Santichon Village lies about 5km out of town and its one of the most popular attractions of Pai which you will feel from the crowds visiting. It has some interesting traditional Chinese clay houses which house mostly souvenir shops and restaurants where you can take a small wander. There is however not much authenticity left from the original villagers and many travellers told me they find it artificial. The viewpoint is great though and will give you a 360 degree uninterrupted birds eye view for a 20 Bath entry fee.
Wat Phra That Mae Yen
You will probably encounter his tiny temple set high on the hill while driving on your scooter around Pai. From the top it provides panoramic views down over the valley below. Tackle 350 steps and you will be rewarded at the top when you bump into the giant white Buddha who commands the valley from his hilltop throne. You can also hike up here from the center of town in about 30 to 45 minutes which can however be difficult in the heat. Take plenty of water. Free to go up here.
Pam Bok Waterfall
Most visitors hire a motorbike to reach this beautiful secluded waterfall en route to the Land Split. It is a great place for a refreshing swim after a short but adventurous hike. It’s less crowded than Mo Paeng waterfall and slightly more beautiful and peaceful too.
This site was originally a commercially cultivated piece of land owned by a local man and his wife until one morning when they woke up to a huge crack through the land. As it is no longer viable farming land the owners now just have fruit trees and provide visitors with tables piled high with fresh fruit, juice, jam and other snacks in return for donations. Visitors can wander up into the hills, explore the land split, rest in the bamboo hammocks and enjoy hosts’ famous hospitality.
Pai Canyon can be found 8km out of town along the road towards Chiang Mai. It’s totally worth the journey and the short walk to the top of the cliffs gives a stunning view of the densely forested canyon. Even more fantastic at sunset!
Wat Nam Hoo
Another temple in an idyllic setting, Wat Nam Hoo is an important local site and home to a sacred Chiang Saen-style Buddha image with a hollow head containing holy water. The surrounding gardens are incredibly quiet and peaceful and a perfect spot to catch the sunset after a busy day in Pai.
Treks to Tribal Villages
There are no off the beaten path or rarely visited tribes around here any longer, but there sure are multiple companies in Pai that offer guided treks up into the mountains surrounding the town. They are scenic and you can choose to just do a day to get a taste of it or multiple days.
If you are into other adventure activities, you can also try yourself on tubing, kayaking, rock-climbing, Muay Thai boxing, bamboo or white-water rafting! Or take it easy with a cooking class or spa treatment.
Fluid Pool is the town’s largest swimming pool accessible to anyone for a small 60 Bath entry fee. There is fitness equipment, a steam room and yoga classes on offer. You can also order food and drinks which makes for a perfectly lazy hot day.
Good for a short pit stop, otherwise this iron bridge built in World War II is not overly exciting. Take a walk over it and have a nice fresh coffee at the end of it.
Eat, Drink & Chill
Set a little off the main road, this cafe is a great place to chill out in the shade while enjoying its menu stuffed with fresh salads and fruit smoothies to die for.
Earth Tone Cafe is a vegetarian and vegan paradise with its amazing salads, homemade tempeh and kombucha and even raw chocolate. It focuses on local and seasonal foods and even has a small shop selling natural cosmetics, gifts and foods.
Another veggie favourite, Art in Chai specialises in healthy yet tasty meals and its homemade yoghurt and muesli bars have earned it high praise. It is the perfect place to relax and read with a good cup of chai.
So if you are looking for something a little more substantial for your breakfast, Big’s can dish you up a feast of homemade sausages, hash browns and every possible type of egg you can think of! This is a tiny little cafe with a really big reputation!
It doesn’t look like much from the outside but many think that this is one of the last authentic restaurants to eat at in Pai. It uses fresh ingredients to make delicious curries and provides an ideal escape from the bustling night market street.
Longing for even more vegan and vegetarian options? The menu at Witching Will will leave you wanting nothing else after delicious food, herbal tea, friendly service and nice ambiance. Good place if you need a break from all the rice, even though they do have Asian dishes too.
Looking for somewhere to while the evening away with a beer and some great acoustic music then this is the place to be. You can start the evening with some delicious home cooked Thai food and finish it with your feet up in one of the hammocks slung out on the outdoor terrace. Very hip(pie)!
A colourful little cafe with egg shaped swinging chairs in the front row overlooking the green hills of Pai. Pretty cool spot to relax and have some lunch. Can be found on the way to the Pai Canyon.
Where to Sleep
Right in the center of Pai not far from the Walking Street lies The Quarter hotel, boasting a rustic and modern charm set amidst a number of lovely garden courtyards. The spacious rooms are a cute blend of modern convenience and traditional decor. All air-conditioned with private balcony. The pool is a plus.
Looking for something a bit more different? Sleep at this traditional wooden treehouse high up in a huge tree surrounding beautiful nature a little outside of town, close to the famous hot springs. Or opt for one of the surrounding villas on the ground, it will sure be unique!
I had a wonderful stay in those little bungalows right next to the riverside. There is free Wi-Fi, room service, an outdoor garden pool and air-conditioning in the rooms.