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Pai, Northwest Thailand: a practical guide for first-timers

by Flitter Fever
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Pai is a lovely backpackers’ village in the Northwest of Thailand, 3 hours west of Chiang Mai. This is a practical guide full of tips for first-timers who would like to know how to get to Pai, where to stay, where to eat and drink, when to go, etc. Read all about it in this article.

Sightseeing in Pai

This article is a compliment to the article Pai: my 10 favorite spots in a relaxed Thai backpackers’ village. If you want to know more about what to see and do in Pai in terms of sightseeing and activities, please check out that article too. Scroll further down to read more about practical stuff like how to get to Pai.

How to get to Pai

Fly to Chiang Mai

Coming from abroad or other parts of Thailand, you will probably take a flight first. The most logical airport to fly into Northern Thailand is Chiang Mai International Airport (CNX), with many national flights to/from for example Bangkok, Pattaya, Phuket, etc. Pai has a tiny airport, and there used to be a daily flight to Chiang Mai, but currently there are no operators.

Getting from Chiang Mai to Pai

There are various ways to reach Pai from Chiang Mai. It depends on your personal preferences, budget, schedule, etc. which is best for you.

  • Most comfortable: by private hired car with driver
  • Most freedom: by rental car driven by yourself
  • Cheapest: by minivan, app. 200 THB per person
  • Fastest: not possible at the moment (no flights go between PYY-CNX)
  • Craziest: day tour from Chiang Mai

Private driver Chiang Mai to Pai

Hire a private driver, for sure at the moment the fastest and most comfortable way to reach Pai from Chiang Mai. You can easily arrange to sit in the front, should you get car sick quickly. The drivers will allow you to play your own favorite music from your phone. More leg space for tall people. And they go anytime you want, for example after mini vans already had their last ride of the day. Two reliable drivers I can recommend are:

  • Chiang Mai to Pai: contact Mr. Chatchai Poopakdee via his Facebook Messenger, his phone number is +66 84 9875 442. Count on 3,000 THB single way for max 3 persons plus luggage.
  • Pai and surroundings (day trips): contact Mr. Aod via Whatsapp phone number +66 84 804 5043 at least a day in advance, preferably earlier to guarantee availability. Count on THB 800 for half a day (09:30-14:00h) or THB 2,000 for a full day (08:00-18:00h) with air conditioned SUV.
  • Or check options at 12 Go Asia, THE biggest and easiest website to quickly book transportation all over Thailand.

Rental car Chiang Mai to Pai

Rent a car hired from Chiang Mai. Unfortunately Pai does not have a car rental company (yet) and rental cars from Chiang Mai airport tend to sell out quickly, especially in high season. So you will need to think of this in advance. I am a big fan of Sunny Cars, an all-inclusive rental that avoids expensive surprises at pick up or drop off. Never any hassle, fair prices, I am a very satisfied customer myself. Especially if you plan to do the Mae Hong Sing Loop, having your own rental car is ideal. A rental car gives a lot of freedom and flexibility.

Just know that the drive to Pai is curvy with more than 700 bends, hilly and therefore tiring. Therefore, either make sure you sleep a good night first in Chiang Mai, or better hire a private driver to take you to Pai, for example after long travel and/or after sunset. I did not see any good view points between Pai and Chiang Mai, no parking ports either for a quick stop. Gas stations are only in Chiang Mai and Pai. Road signs in Thai and English. In Chiang Mai International Airport, most rental car companies are located at Exit 2.

Bus Chiang Mai to Pai

Minivan from Chiang Mai bus station to Pai bus station and/or the other way around. For sure the cheapest way to get from A to B, only ± EUR 9 per person one way. These minivan rides can be booked via 12 Go Asia or Viator, whereas 12 Go Asia usually shows more time slots available. Try to book a ride at least a few days in advance to ensure a seat.

You get assigned a seat, but the seat numbering in the van is not clear. Just do not count on being able to arrange a seat in the front of the van. We booked our minivan ride for Pai to Chiang Mai online and picked up the actual bus ticket at the bus station in the center of town (see map below). Tight seating if you are 1.75m or taller. Seat belts not always function perfectly.

Good to know

  • From Chiang Mai to Pai minivans go every hour between 06:30h and 17:30h.
  • From Pai to Chiang Mai minivans go every hour between 07:00h and 17:00h.
  • In Chiang Mai the minivans to Pai go from Chiang Mai Arcade 2 bus station (see map below).
  • In Pai the minivans to Chiang Mai go from Walking Street bus station (see map below.
  • The ride between Pai and Chiang Mai takes app. 3 hours, including two stops for toilet and shop with drinks/snacks.
  • The minivan company is called Prempracha Transport (white with red/orange stripes).
  • Luggage is often put on top of the van with a covering net.

Bus Pai to Mae Hong Son

From Pai Walking Street bus station there is also a possibility to take a ride from Pai to Mae Hong Son. This route is executed with a more songthaew-style type of vehicle (instead of minivan bus). Departure in Pai is at 08:30h, arrival in Mae Hong Son around 11:30h (3-3.5 hours). Tickets are available at 12 Go Asia.

Scooter Chiang Mai to Pai

Rent a scooter, or actually it is a motorcycle because all scooters will be 50 cc or more, otherwise it will not be able to get up the mountains. This means you will need to have an international motor driver’s license plus the guts to ride up the steep and curvy roads. Besides for the ladies: the helmet will ruin your hair.

If you dare to do it and fit the bill, you can rent a scooter already in Chiang Mai and drive to Pai yourself, but then you will need to arrange something for your luggage to get there as well. You can also take for example the minivan from Chiang Mai to Pai and rent a scooter only in Pai, up to you! Scooter rental prices start at about 100 THB per day.

Car sickness to Pai

As mentioned earlier, the road between Chiang Mai and Pai is curvy and hilly with around 760 sharp bends. If you are afraid you may get car sick, you may want to look into sea band and/or anti-nausea medication. I wore the sea bands during these rides and did not get nauseous. Dutch readers can get seaband via bol.com. Read the prescription before usage. Consult your doctor if you also take other medication.

How to get around in Pai

The best way to get around Pai depends on multiple factors: the location of your accommodation, the transportation method you used between Pai and Chiang Mai, your budget, licenses, personal preferences, etc.

As mentioned earlier, renting a scooter in Pai is an option for those who have an international motorcycle license, do not mind the effect of the helmet and the heat on your looks, and have the guts to conquer the hilly and curvy roads around Pai. Prices start at about 100 THB per day.

If you rented a car in Chiang Mai that will obviously the best way for you then to get around Pai and surroundings, to see all my favorite spots mentioned in this article. If you did not rent a car but came by minivan or private driver, then the best way is to either join a group tour or hire a private driver for a day or more. As mentioned before, Mr. Aod is a reliable driver you can contact to make (half) day trips around Pai. The Walking Street has several tour companies, so you may want to check out those options as well, which we did too. But eventually we ended up hiring Mr. Aod who was recommended by our hotel and offered a fair price.

Taxi in Pai

I was surprised to find out there is no regular taxi service in Pai. Forget about Uber too. In 4 days’ time I did see two songthaew vehicles in Pai, one yellow taxi and one white taxi. The yellow one was for Pai Canyon sunset. It was very unclear how to use them there and how often they go, not like in Chiang Mai, where songthaews are much more common to use and drive around everywhere. Many people I spoke to in advance said there were no taxis at all, which says something about the usability. So do not count on those much.

Pai group tour

Pai Expert Travel and Pai Authentic Travel are two tour companies in Pai that offer cheap group day tours from Pai to a part of the sights mentioned in this article. Low prices mean they do attract young backpackers. This can be fun if that is like you or the only option you can afford. The downside is that these tours usually go to one particular place only, like Lod Cave for example, but skip surrounding sights like Sai Ngam hot spring and Ban Cha Bo, which I think is a pity if you go in that direction anyway.

Contrary many other places in Thailand and beyond, there are some but not many tour options for Pai on booking platforms such as Viator and Get Your Guide. Tour companies in Pai are still a bit behind on that, so best way to contact Pai Expert Travel and/or Pai Authentic Travel is via their website or Facebook page for example. Or just go to their office in Pai when you are there already. For older travelers and others who can afford it, I would suggest to hire a private driver, to enjoy most comfort, flexibility and freedom. Up to you.

Day trip from Pai Chiang Mai

I would not really recommend it, but let’s say you only have 1 or 2 days to visit Pai from Chiang Mai. Then at least I would suggest to take a tour instead of driving yourself, because it is very tiring and especially by scooter pretty tricky. You may want to check out these options then:

Where to eat & drink in Pai

In my earlier artitle Pai: my 10 favorite spots in a relaxed Thai backpackers’ village I mentioned the daily Night Market at the Walking Street in the center of Pai. Furthermore there are plenty of restaurants in Pai where you can have breakfast, brunch, lunch or a seated dinner. It does not necessarily need to be expensive, Pad Thai is already available from 40 THB. There are no fancy luxurious restaurants in Pai anyway.

If I would have to sum up all the nice restaurants and eateries in Pai here, this article would become waaaay too long. See below map for suggestions. Pai Siam Bar & Bistro was definitely a top favorite; opposite our hotel (see below Where to stay), on a very central corner spot so great for people watching and good live music in particular evenings. There are plenty of bars in Pai with live music that last until around midnight. Bring earplugs if you plan on sleeping in early and booked accommodation right at Chai Songkhram Rd or ถนน เทศบาล ๑ (Municipal Rd 1).

Coffee bars in Pai

Pai has quite a number of nice coffee bars, in and out of the town center. A surprisingly large number of places has a fancy brewing machine for fresh coffee that – according to my boyfriend – tastes great. Although I am not a coffee drinker myself, I really enjoyed the few coffee bars in Pai that we visited. We liked hanging around at Love U Pai, which offers a fabulous view, home-made low sugar cakes and pies like red velvet and fresh apple pie, and a relaxed atmosphere. Take your time and get a break for a welcome refreshment. Lemon Thyme Cafe also has some nice healthy breakfast, brunch and lunch options. For more tips see map below.

The 7-Eleven at Chai Songkhram Rd in Pai is only allowed to sell liquor and alcoholic beverages between 11:00-14:00h and 17:00h-00:00h.

Where to stay in Pai

We stayed at Rim Pai Cottage and loved it! Located on the corner of the daily Walking Street Night Market, so cheap and delicious Thai street food is at your doorstep. The wooden holiday homes are spacious, cozy and comfortable, and moreover surrounded by a beautiful exotic garden that provides lots of privacy and much needed shade from the hot sun. Super friendly staff, good breakfast, swimming pool with sunbeds and river view, hammock, swing, and the 7-Eleven only few minutes’ walk away. Parking available for those coming by rental car, scooter, etc. Rim Pai Cottage is the best accommodation choice in Pai!

Should Rim Pai Cottage be fully booked or above your budget, check the Accommodation section in the map below. We also really liked Kuad Khon Thoe Pai Cottage with its wonderful view for absolutely fair prices, however you need to have your own transportation vehicle (scooter, motorbike, car) then because it is too far out of town to walk and there are no public busses or door-to-door taxis. Rim Pai Cottage is in the center of town so ideal in the evenings.

When to visit Pai

November to February is the cooler season in Thailand, which is a great time to visit but also peak season with regards to the number of tourists. In the center of town we felt it was never too busy, just a nice lively atmosphere. At the highlights mentioned in this article we were often alone or only with a few people. Only Pai Canyon at sunset felt crowded. From May to October it is rainy season, which attracts less tourists, but the rice fields and waterfalls will be most spectacular then. Up to you!

When traveling to Thailand, most people bring summer clothes and shoes. If you go to Pai around the Christmas holidays, make sure you bring some winter clothes with you as well, like leggings, jeans or any other type of pants with long legs, sweater and spring jacket. Dress in layers. Once the sun sets, the temperatures easily drop to 8 or 13 degrees Celsius, so pretty cold. Much colder than in Chiang Mai for example, because Pai is higher up in the mountains.

Reggae music fans may want to visit Pai in the second week of December as there is a Reggae Winter Festival (2019: Dec 7-9), or avoid if you hate it.

Map Pai

This mobile friendly map includes most things mentioned in this article and more!! It is smartphone friendly; you can use it easily via Google Maps. Click on the top left icon to open the menu. You can (un)select categories/areas to customize the map to your needs. Via Google Drive you can copy it to your folder of My Google Maps.

Do I need a visa for Thailand?

The answer to that question highly depends on your nationality, how long you wish to stay, what you plan to do (tourist or other), etc. Check for example the website of iVisa to learn whether you need a visa or not.

iVisa.com

I hope this Pai practical guide was helpful for you. Please feel free to leave a comment or question below.

Please check out my other Thailand articles in the Thailand Blog Archive.

This article does include affiliate links to support this website. For more information click here.

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