Pai is a picture-perfect Thai town about halfway between Chiang Mai and Mae Hong Son. For many travelers looking for a holiday where they can truly relax and leave the hustle and bustle of life behind for a few days, this is an idyllic destination. It is hidden away in a valley, completely surrounded by mountains. If you love nature, Pai is your paradise.
This small town has only three main streets and the Pai River goes through the eastern part of the town. Adventure seekers can enjoy Pai as well with activities such as white-water river rafting and bamboo rafting. Both are great ways to admire the picturesque landscape of this region of Thailand. Those who enjoy hiking and trekking in the mountains will also find this to be a paradise. Outside of Pai, but not far away, are natural hot springs, waterfalls and even some ethnic hill-tribe villages.
Why Go to Pai?
People visit Pai to slow down, take time for themselves, and relax. A lot of artists also come here because of the many cafés that also serve as local galleries for art. A lot of backpackers come here because it offers Western food and a party scene, and super cheap accommodation. Many people just come here to while away the hours on a terrace with a view of the river and nature, or hang out at the bars enjoying an afternoon cocktail and talking to anyone around.
The real attraction to Pai is the unspoiled beauty, that still exists here despite the popularity with tourists. It’s like going back in time and being there while time stands still. It’s a three hour drive from Chiang Mai, and the road is rumored to have 700 curves. Or 1200 depending on which resource you use. On the way there, you will pass rice paddies and fruit orchards.
When to Go
Pai is surrounded by mountains, keeping it cooler than much of the rest of the country all year round. The jungle mist also contributes to cooler temps and a mystical atmosphere. There are three main seasons in Pai. The average temperature is 25 degrees Celsius, so it is very pleasant. While there is a designated rainy season, it is possible to have a bit of rain any time of year. Here’s a description of the seasons so you can decide which works best for you for your visit to Pai.
Cool Season – October to February
During the cool season, the daytime temperatures are significantly warmer than at night. Daytime temps run about 21 degrees Celsius while they drop to about 6 at night. December and January are the coldest months, but still pleasant during the day. Just be prepared for the drop in temperatures at night and bring proper clothing.
December is the busiest month in Pai with tourists packing the trendy, artsy shops. Bangkok Thais also venture north to enjoy the cooler temps in Pai. Many of the tourists leave after the Christmas holiday, but January is still busy with backpackers and accommodation can be hard to find. Best to book well in advance.
Hot Season – March to May
In March, temperatures average about 17 degrees Celsius, but in May, they are up to 36 degrees Celsius. That’s hot! April is the warmest month of the year in much of Thailand, including Pai. Early March is an ideal time to visit when the cold season is transitioning into warmer weather but it isn’t hot yet.
Rainy Season – May to October
This can be a challenging time to visit in many ways, including transportation and planning activities, but it might just be worth it to see the area around Pai at its most lush and green. The surrounding mountains and jungle really thrive during this season. Rain comes in the form of an occasional downpour rather than an all-day rain. If you’re into whitewater rafting, this time of year makes for exciting expeditions on the Pai River.
If you are hoping to get away from crowds on your vacation, the rainy season might be the best time to go. However, if you stay outside the actual town of Pai, you can escape the tourists any time of year.
How to Get There
From Chiang Mai
Option 1: Driving personal vehicle
Driving time is about 2.5 to 3 hours for the 150km. It is a very curvy road. Drive with caution, because many locals and buses do not. This is the best way to get to Pai. Driving through such beautiful countryside and then arriving in the valley to see this quaint town is a great way to start your holiday here.
Option 2: Bus
A public bus takes about 4 hours to cover the 150km. There are several buses a day to accommodate any schedule.
Option 3: Flights
Yes, option 3 is a flight from Chiang Mai. It is a very scenic 20 minute flight that goes over the mountains. It is offered by Kan Airlines. One way can run from 1200 to 2000 baht depending on the day of the week and time of year.
From Mae Hong Son
Option 1: Driving personal vehicle
Driving time is about 2.5 to 3 hours in a personal vehicle.
Option 2: Bus
A public bus takes about 4 hours. There are five buses a day. The bus company is called Prempracha Transport and they have minivan services as well, which might be ideal for a group of travelers together to arrange private transport.
You might find this link helpful when looking at travel options from Bangkok.
Option 1: Flight + Bus
Keep in mind this flight departs from Don Mueang Airport, to Chiang Mai. Then you would need a taxi to the bus station. This is about 2000 baht and there are several flights per day. The bus to Pai takes about 4 hours.
Option 2: Bus + Flight
A bus from Bangkok to Chiang Mai takes about 11 hours, and the flight from Chiang Mai to Pai on Kan Airlines is only 20 minutes. This option is about 3000 baht.
Option 3: Bus + Bus
From Bangkok to Chiang Mai is 11 hours, and then on to Pai is another 3 hours 20 minutes. There could be a 4 hour wait in Chiang Mai for the next bus though, making this option a total of about 19 hours in travel time. It’s a long ride and a long day, but at just over 800 baht, what a bargain. Not all trips take this length of time, so book carefully if you choose this option.
Option 4: Train + flight
A train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai takes about 13.5 hours and the Kan Air flight is 20 minutes. This option is about 3200 to 3800 baht.
Option 5: Train + bus
This option takes from 19 to 21 hours and runs between 1000 to 1300 baht. The train from Chiang Mai is a sleeper train, so it’s an advantage over taking the bus.
Best Things to Do in and Around Pai
Pai is a very laid-back place, but there is plenty to do there if you’re not into doing nothing. Here are some recommendations in no particular order.
#1 Pai Town Center
The town center is really more about relaxing than doing any sightseeing. There isn’t much to see, but it is charming. There are a few temples that are interesting because of their Burmese style, and beautiful scenery, and let’s not forget the trendy shops with lots of artwork. At night, the main street fills with street stalls and food vendors with a great selection of cuisines from around the world. This is the best time to wander around Pai. There are great, trendy cafes with real coffee. None of that instant stuff. I love a good café and a good book and you’ll find some great bakery specialties here too.
#2 Pai Canyon
Pai Canyon is about an hour trek about 3 miles outside of Pai, and you’ll need good shoes because it is steep and there are rocky paths. It’s not exactly awe inspiring, perhaps not worthy of its nickname “Grand Canyon of Thailand,” but it’s a great little walk around and there are beautiful views. It’s also free! There’s a somewhat challenging section at the top.
#3 Pai’s Waterfalls
Another one for the nature lovers visiting Pai. Two of the most recommended waterfalls to visit are Pombok and Mo Paeng Falls. Pombok is quite secluded and in the shade most of the time because it is surrounded by high cliffs. You can jump in, but check the water depth first!
Mo Paeng Waterfall has long, slippery rocks that are like slides and you can plunge into the water pools. It’s in a gorgeous setting. Take a picnic and stay for a few hours enjoying the water and nature.
#4 The Land Crack (Land Split)
This unusual formation is on the way to Pombok Falls and is worth a stopover. It’s on a farmer’s property and he decided to start allowing tourists to come see it. He offers nuts and fruit, fresh rosella juice and even sweet potatoes and alcohol for a donation. The family is so friendly and they love meeting all the people that come to see their land oddity. The crack is due to some very unusual type of soil erosion that caused the land to split and crack. It’s just a quick stopover and the best part is likely meeting the family rather than the actual Land Crack.
#5 Thom’s Elephant Camp
There are three elephants here and all were rescued from bad situations. There is also a guesthouse here if you want to stay the night. Thom started her elephant camp in 1992 and provides a sanctuary for them. Here you can play with and visit the elephants for free, and donations for bananas for the elephants are welcome. You can also ride the elephants, but Thom does not use any chairs as this is seen as inhumane. You can ride down to the river and take a bath with the elephants. They are free to walk, not chained. Thom is a third generation elephant trainer.
Caution: Before visiting any elephant sanctuary in Thailand, please do your research. Elephant riding is big business here and not all elephants are treated humanely. Elephant riding is not encouraged. You can walk to the river with the elephants and still take a bath with them, and at Thom’s they seem to enjoy the company and human interaction. The people who referenced this and recommended it did not ride the elephants.
#6 Tha Pai Hot Springs
This is a real highlight of visiting Pai. It is 7km from town and a cold water spring flows into hot rocks to create a relaxing, heated pool. If you’re there in the cooler months, this is a great place to visit when temperatures drop. Please be sure you don’t leave any trash or belongings at the hot springs. It is not meant to be a party place.
#7 Cooking Classes
Of course there are cooking classes! It’s Thailand! Actually, in Pai, there are five cooking schools you can choose from. BeBe Wok ‘n’ Roll is the most popular, with Charlie and Lek’s coming a close second. Fine Rice Thai Cooking School, Pai Cookery School, and Savoei are also highly recommended. None of these will be disappointing because you’re cooking Thai food! Of course, it’s delicious!
#8 Lod (Spirit) Caves
This isn’t really in Pai, but it’s close enough. It’s 35km outside of Pai on the way to Mae Hong Son. There’s a river that flows through the caves and you can hire a guide to float through the caves on a bamboo raft. You can explore the stalactites and stalagmites up close if you’re up for climbing stairs and ladders, but please don’t touch the formations. One suggestion is that you don’t pay at the ticket booth, but instead, walk down on your own and hire your own guide.
Best Places to Eat in Pai
As with accommodation, there is no shortage of places to eat in Pai. Not only can you find great Thai food, but with the influx of Western tourists came Western food to cater to them, and some of it is pretty good. Whether you’re on a backpacker’s budget or looking for upscale dining, Pai has what you’re looking for. It also has great cafes, many of them, for relaxing and just doing nothing but drinking good coffee. Here are the recommendations in no particular order.
Authentic Thai food is hard to find on the main streets of Pai, but once you get outside the town a bit, you can find the real thing.
#1 Cafecito $ – $$
As the name suggests, they serve coffee. In fact, they roast their own beans and take coffee to a whole new level. Also, as the name suggests, they serve Mexican food! They are open for breakfast and lunch, as well as brunch, from 9:00 to 6:00 Fri – Wed. They offer takeout, outdoor seating, alcohol, and free wifi. They have meat-free options as well. It’s located on the unmarked streets adjacent to the police station, on the way to Reverie Siam resort. Main dishes run about 70 – 160 baht.
#2 Om Garden Café $ – $$
Dishes at Om Garden are a bit of mixed bag. You can find Middle Eastern mezze, breakfast burritos, salads, and pasta. There are meat-free options, Thai options, and fresh-squeezed juices as well. Coffee here is rumored to be good. Free wifi is available. They are open for breakfast, lunch and brunch from 8:30 to 5:00 Tues – Sun. Mains are from 60 – 150 baht.
#3 Na’s Kitchen $
Finally! Thai food in Pai! Na’s Kitchen is highly recommended, but suffers from its own success. Located on the main street in Pai, it is open for dinner and late night only, and is often packed and there could be a long wait. You might also have a long wait for your food. It’s straight up Thai food, and the price cannot be beat. I think if you like it truly spicy and authentic like the Thai people, you need to ask for that. It’s possible they are catering a bit to the less-tolerant Western pallet.
#4 Baan Benjerong $$ – $$$
Great Thai food here, but a bit out of town, which is a good thing. It’s just past the petrol station as you leave Pai town. This is a home-based restaurant at the edge of a rice paddy. They offer stewed, salted crabs in coconut milk and banana flower shrimp and chicken. You probably won’t find these dishes anywhere else in Pai. Open from 11:00 to 9:00, although the chef is rumored to be moody and can sometimes open and close on a whim. Mains range from 90 – 180 baht.
#5 Witching Well $ – $$
This foreigner-run establishment on Tesaban Road is the place to go for lunch if you’re looking for sandwiches or pasta. They also have a good selection of cakes and pastries and good coffee to go with them, as well as a large variety of teas. The mango crepes with passion fruit custard come highly recommended. Their breakfast has been described as “sophisticated” and something unique to Pai. Open from 8:00am to 10:00pm. Mains from 70 – 160 baht.
#6 Silhouette Restaurant $$ – $$$
Silhouette is located at Reverie Siam Resort, but the quality of the food for the price cannot be beat in all of Pai. This may be a resort restaurant, but there is nothing canned or even expensive about it. They serve Italian, Mediterranean, and European and they have an excellent wine bar. Serving breakfast, lunch, dinner and brunch, you can’t go wrong no matter which meal you choose here. It’s a bit of a drive, but worth it. The secluded setting is stunning and the vintage (think steampunk) décor is just beautiful. Free wifi is available. This is the only restaurant I can recommend as ‘romantic’ due to its location by the Pai River and they have live jazz music every evening. Mains around 220 baht make this a real bargain for the quality of service, atmosphere, and dining enjoyment. The roast chicken in thyme and dried apricots is highly recommended. They also serve pasta and pizza dishes for about 150 to 200 baht. In Pai, it’s a bit of a splurge. In real life, it’s a bargain.
How to Get Around in Pai
Pai is very small and can be navigated easily on foot or by bicycle. Motorcycles are for rent. You can also hire a motorcycle taxi from the taxi stand at the bus stop. There really isn’t a need for more public transport than this.
If you have your own vehicle, getting out of town to nearby sights is very easy. If not, there are organized tours that can be easily booked. Just take a wander down Chaisongkram Road and you’ll find plenty of tour agencies.
The town is centered around the 1095 road leading into it and out of it to most major sights around the town. Road 1095 is very windy and steep.
Where to Stay in Pai
The small town of Pai has an interesting array of accommodation for any budget, and backpackers on a tight budget will not lack for choice. Pai is a true backpacker’s haven.
Super Budget Backpacker $5 – $20 per night
Opened since 2011, this backpacker hostel is an unbelievable bargain for the price of $5 a night for a dorm bed. Dorms offered are one room of 6 bed female only, and the mixed dorms have 8, 12, 14, or 20 beds. The more beds, the cheaper the price. They have free linens, parking, maps, and wifi. They have lockers, hot showers, and a great common room to hang out. There is a tour desk if you want to book any tours and a restaurant and bar. But the real draw here for backpackers, besides the amazing price, is the social life and beautiful natural surroundings. It’s a bit out of Pai town, but the chill atmosphere, treehouse style building, and incredible views mean you might just want to spend some time here and meet some new people. Best to book ahead as it fills up quickly no matter what season. Spicy Pai doesn’t have a website, but they do have a Facebook page and you can book using the link below or your favorite online booking service.
Located on the other side of the bamboo bridge, Family Huts has a way more relaxed vibe than Spicy Pai for those not looking for a party. It is such a bargain and is located on the river. They take full advantage of their prime location and provide a huge deck with hammocks where you can hang out with a view of the river and have a drink or read and relax. These individual Thai style bungalows are equipped with free wifi and are only a 5 minute walk to the Pai Walking Street where all the action is at night. Each bungalow has a wooden interior, fan, mosquito net, and en suite bathroom. There is no restaurant, but local dining is just a short walk away. A bungalow for 2 runs about $23 a night, so divide by two and that is only $11.50 a night! For a bungalow on the river! It’s comfortable and rustic and a bargain! They do not have a website but you can book through booking.com or your favorite online booking service.
Budget $25 – $50
Baan Kung Kang De Pai Resort
These hotels are not listed in any order, but this is my top choice in this category for one simple reason. This resort has a stunning pool with comfortable sun loungers and an amazing view of the mountains. The rooms are a mix of Thai and contemporary design, each one unique and spacious. Vintage décor in the hotel is also quite charming. Breakfast is included, free wifi in common areas and in the rooms, free parking, beautiful gardens, a restaurant and coffee shop, all mean this place is truly giving you the best bang for your buck. It’s only 5 minutes from the city center, but the gardens and grounds feel secluded and private. How much is all this? For two people prices run $27 to $40 a night, depending on the season. Yet another reason it is my top pick in this category. This property has no website but you can book from the link below or your favorite online booking service.
Pura Vida Pai – This is another excellent value about 4km outside the center of town. The surroundings are serene and stunning, and surrounded by orange trees. They offer great service and amenities such as free wifi in all rooms, refrigerators in the rooms, massage, airport and shuttle service, free parking, and you can book tours here. On the property you can see canals and ponds filled with fish, making it a very tranquil setting. There are only 8 beautiful bungalows to choose from, so be sure to book ahead. Rooms are spacious and bathrooms are modern. For two people, you’ll pay around $36 a night, depending on the season, for a twin or double, and the rooms have air conditioning. Breakfast is included.
Just a 5 minute walk from Pai Walking Street, this modern, wooden hotel provides free wifi throughout and air conditioned rooms. If you want something closer to town with a modern touch, and great bathrooms, this is a great choice. The 12 rooms here have air conditioning, cable TV, and mini bar. They are spacious and minimally furnished, Thai style. The hotel has a reading corner and a computer if you need to use the internet. For an additional cost, they can provide a shuttle service. It is only a 10 minute drive to the famous Coffee In Love shop. They also have free parking. For about $40 to $50 a night for two people, this is a great deal. Lilu Pai does not have a website but you can book through the link below or your favorite online booking service.
Midrange $55 – $100 per night
Pai Village Boutique Resort & Farm
These interesting and locally built bamboo cabins and huts are sure to charm you and for sure will not seem like they should be in the midrange category of accommodation recommendations. Some rooms even fit in the budget category. This 3.5 Star resort has 38 rooms that are exquisitely decorated, spacious, and welcoming. The rooms are non-smoking and air conditioned. There is a restaurant, bar, and free public wifi. For $50 to $100 a night, depending on season and choice of room, you can experience luxury at an extremely reasonable price in Pai.
Mari Pai Resort
This resort is cozy and comfortable and offers a range of different bungalows, some round, and even two mobile homes, as accommodation. It’s situated on a hillside overlooking the town. Each room has air conditioning, satellite TV and a modern en suite bathroom and private balcony to enjoy the view. Free wifi is available in common areas and in the rooms. Another big draw here is the restaurant which serves amazing Thai cuisine. During high season, rates are about $70 a night for a bungalow, less for a mobile home.
Luxury $100 + per night
This resort is luxury, but during low season, it fits in the midrange category at just $86 a night (March) for a room for two people, so keep that in mind. Villas and suites cost more. I decided to put it in the luxury category because during high season, in December, it is around $170 a night. And may well be worth it. These rustic and luxurious rooms are stylish, spacious, air conditioned, and well, the word grand comes to mind. Each room has a patio and free high speed internet. You will love the unique look of the domed roofs on each villa. There’s a well-equipped fitness center, archery range, and an absolutely stunning pool. The Montis Restaurant serves Thai and Western cuisine and has an excellent reputation, and they have a fully-stocked bar as well. I was surprised that this property has no website, but you can book from the link below or your favorite online booking service.
Pai Island Resort
This incredible boutique hotel has 10 teak villas, all beautifully decorated with fine bedding for your ultimate comfort. The rooms are bright and spacious and have air conditioning, a minibar, and an outdoor bathtub! With a rating of 9.2 on booking.com, I don’t think you can go wrong with this resort. Local artisans put their special touches on this resort to make it one-of-a-kind. It is surrounded by mountains and backs up to the river where you can sit and relax in lounge chairs. The resort provides a free shuttle service from Pai Airport, bus terminal and the town center. The restaurant serves both Thai and Western dishes and is highly recommended. During low season the smallest of the villas, at 155 sq meters mind you, is about $120 a night and during high season (Dec) the same villa is about $150 a night.
Top Place to Stay in Pai
Reverie Siam is a 4.5 Star hotel, but you will feel like it is a full 5 Stars. Located 1km outside of Pai on the river, it is quiet, secluded, and well away from the tourist crowds and backpackers. The setting is romantic, the décor is stunning and unique with a Thai and vintage fusion that makes me want to look at every piece of décor in this stunning hotel. There are 18 uniquely styled and large rooms with spa like bathrooms. The bathtub alone will make you want to spend a day in your room. Suites are available. Each room has a minibar and air-conditioning.
The spa like swimming pool is another amenity that will make you want to spend a day here. Or two. There is a fantastic and highly recommended restaurant, bar and lounge. The dining area is a place where you’ll want to linger over dinner. The restaurant was nominated for the World Luxury Restaurant Award in 2016.
Other amenities include free parking, airport transfer from Pai airport, free breakfast, babysitting services, and more. Room run from $97 to $213 a night based on average rates for a standard room.
General Tips for Pai Travel
Pai is one long valley situated between the mountains, so it is pretty hard to get lost. Road 1095 goes directly through the center and the Pai River runs through the eastern side of Pai.
As with everywhere in Thailand, do not disrespect the king or royal family.
Most restaurants and hotels offer free wifi, but if you’re in need of an internet café, there is Happy Internet Café which is open from 9:00am to 1:00am.
Tipping is not customary anywhere in Thailand, but a small tip for great service is appreciated. Hopefully the Western custom of tipping hasn’t caused the local people to have their hand out waiting for a tip. Be reasonable when tipping. It is not your responsibility to buy anyone a new house or motorcycle in one tip. Extreme tips lead to negative effects of tourism.
For example, for the porter who carried your bag, 20 -50 baht is fine depending on how many bags you have. For the cleaner at the hotel, 20 baht is fine. Massage ladies would appreciate 100 baht tip because they only make a small amount of what you pay the hotel or salon and often wait around all day for a customer.
At a restaurant, check to see if a service charge has been added. It most likely hasn’t.
When tipping, give it directly to the person who earned it. Don’t wait until you check out of the hotel because it may go into a pool of tips and not be distributed in full to the person you think deserves it.
A Budget for Every Traveler
For travel to Pai, accommodation will have the biggest impact on your budget. Even the luxury traveler can eat amazing local cuisine and keep their spending per day to a minimum. Accommodation is the biggest factor in determining a daily spending budget in Pai.
Pai is a backpacker’s dream getaway. Those on a very tight budget could get by on just $15 a day in Pai, including accommodation. With a bed in a hostel at less than $5 a night, and local cuisine sometimes being no more than $2 a meal, as long as you stick to the free activities, of which there are many, your money will go a long way in Pai.
The midrange traveler can really live it up or relax in high style in Pai for about $50 a day, including accommodation. Actually, probably less considering how inexpensive food is and that there are so many things to see and do that are free. Check our recommendations for accommodation to see what kind of luxury you can afford and go for it. Midrange might just mean total luxury for you.
If you stay at Reverie Siam and eat at their restaurant and rent a car and drink alcohol to your heart’s content, you might spend $200 a day in Pai, and that’s mostly accommodation. But Pai is a great place for a luxury traveler to truly relax and unwind, especially if you enjoy nature, cafes, and reading a great book.
The Final Word
Pai is one of those getaway places in Thailand where you go to take a vacation from a vacation. If mega crowds and the high-energy chaos of Bangkok is wearing you out or the gap-year backpacker mobs of Koh Phi Phi consider hopping up to Chang Mai and ultimately Pai for a completely different experience.
This sleepy mountain town is especially suitable for backpackers and hippie tourists with plenty of yoga retreats, quiet mountains, hot springs, hippy art centers, and a whole lot of tranquility to get your zen on.
If you want to a laidback island to relax on, rather than the mountainous jungle of Norther Thailand, consider heading to the South of Thailand to Koh Lanta, Koh Ya Noi, or Koh Tao, three southern island getaways with a reputation for a more laid back, tranquil pace of life.