There’s a joke among backpackers that you can get stuck in the Pai hole – that you arrive in Pai with the intention to stay for 2 nights and then a week later you’re still there. It’s easy to understand why with the laid back atmosphere, inexpensive food at the incredible night market, accommodations available to suit all types of travelers, and beautiful views everywhere you go. There’s night life for those who want to party, beautiful sunrises for those who wants early mornings, hiking and waterfalls for those who want to get outdoors – and the best part is that it’s all accessible by scooters which cost less than $6/day so you don’t need to go through a tour group. While I’ll admit Pai is overrun with backpackers and isn’t off the beaten path, I would still recommend putting it on your itinerary.
Things to Do:
Yun Lai Viewpoint:
Only a 20 minute scooter ride from the center of town, the Yun Lai viewpoint was my favorite nearby location for a stunning view of the valley. I went twice, once during the day and once for sunrise, and both times left me feeling very lucky to be in Pai. Wild flowers line the hillside and a viewing platform gives an unobstructed view of Pai from above. During sunrise a layer of fog/mist filled the valley creating a beautifully hazy scene. Be prepared – it was very cold at sunrise!
Cost: Entry is 20BHT, and tea/coffee/hot chocolate is available for 20BHT
On the way to Yun Lai Viewpoint you will pass through Santichon, a small Chinese village 20 minutes outside of downtown Pai. This small town has the “Great Wall of Pai,” some small shops, an area where you can pay to practice your archery or use a cross bow, and a small pond with a pagoda. You can also pay to dress in traditional Chinese clothing and take some selfies if that’s your thing. We stopped here and walked around the grounds while enjoying an ice cream bar.
Cost: Free to walk around, various costs based on activities
Mo Paeng Waterfall:
There are many waterfalls near Pai that you can visit, with two that you can drive your scooter right up to. With only a short walk you can be at the falls – no hiking required! Mo Paeng (sometimes seen written as Mor Paeng) has multiple levels of waterfalls with the middle level being the most popular since it is safe to swim in. When you visit you’ll most likely see people jumping off rocks or sliding down the falls! If you walk down the path you will see the lower falls (it’s not safe to swim here) where you can soak up the sun away from the crowds. It’s the perfect place to cool off, sun bathe, take a nap, or read a book.
The Land Split:
While this is an interesting natural phenomenon, the real reason to come here is to enjoy the great hospitality of the owner of this farm. Back in 2008 an earthquake created a large split in his farm land, and subsequent earthquakes increased this to a large crevice that can be walked in. Exploring this takes about 10-15 minutes.
When you arrive at the farm you will be greeted with a warm smile and hello by the owner and offered roselle juice, roselle wine, and snacks grown on the land. There are sitting areas with tables, chairs, and hammocks for you to sit and enjoy the surroundings, and they’ll just keep bringing you over things to try! Everything is on a donation basis so you can leave whatever you feel is right. On the way out as we were getting on our scooters he ran over to give us some dried banana chips for the road – he was so sweet!
Kho-Ku-So Bamboo Bridge:
A less visited attraction but one the most unique things I saw in Pai was the bamboo bridge (Buddha Bamboo Bridge, when searching on Google) located just 15-20 minutes past the Land Split and 10 minutes past the popular Pam Bok Waterfall. This bridge, which crosses the rice field, is completely built from bamboo and joins the village to a temple. For this reason when visiting the bamboo bridge you should dress appropriately (no shorts and no bare shoulders).
This is something that you cannot miss when visiting Pai, and if you only visit once it should be at sunset. You won’t be alone, but you’ll get a lovely view and if you stick around for a bit after the sun sets you can still get some photos with a thinner crowd. I would advise wearing proper footwear (I wish I had thrown my sneakers on!) since you’ll be doing a bit of scrambling depending on where you want to explore. There are also some ridges with steep drop offs so be sure to use care. Also if you plan to sit down the dirt will leave your pants with a layer of brown/red dirt so bring something to sit on like a scarf or blanket! It’s only an easy 20 minute scooter ride from town.
An hour and a half scooter ride North of Pai through twisty mountainous turns on the way to Mae Hong Son is Lod Caves, a popular tourist attraction consisting of three caves. A guide is required to enter the caves and they lead you through using a gasoline lantern, pointing out formations in the stalactites and stalagmites along the way (“elephant,” “tiger,” and “turtle” to name a few). You also get treated to a short bamboo raft ride to access the final cave. Look for the giant fish in the water that you can buy fish food to feed. Keep an eye out for giant spiders, listen for bats above, and watch your head!
Cost: 450BHT/guide (maximum 3 people), 50BHT for fish food. Best to go in groups of 3 to minimize costs! We also tipped our guide, though I don’t think it is necessary.
Located on the hillside within walking distance of downtown is the massive White Buddha. You can get here by walking (there are a LOT of steps) or you can scooter to the parking lot at the base and climb up just the final leg (I was still out of breath). Visiting is most popular for sunrise or sunset. Remember to dress appropriately (no shorts and no bare shoulders).
Pai Night Market and Walking Street:
Every night between 6-9pm the main street of downtown Pai becomes closed to traffic (though use caution because sometimes scooters still drive down winding their way through the crowds!) and vendors come out to the line the streets selling everything from dinner and dessert to jewelry and clothing. The food is delicious and you’ll be tempted to stop and try everything (which is highly recommended since everything I tasted was heavenly.)
Cost: Most items are inexpensive but costs vary
A 2-day/3-night Itinerary:
Day 1: Arrive in Pai, explore the city center and the night market
Day 2: Pick up your scooter early in the morning. Mo Paeng Waterfall, Santichon, Yun Lai Viewpoint (optional if you’re going for sunrise), Pai Land Split, Pam Bok Waterfall, Bamboo Bridge, Sunset at Pai Canyon
Day 3: Sunrise at Yun Lai Viewpoint, Lod Caves, Sai Ngam Hot Spring, sunset at White Buddha
Day 4: Bus back to Chiang Mai
Getting Around Pai:
While downtown Pai is adorable and very walkable, most of the main sites to see are outside of town. There are some tours that will bring you around in a red truck (one that comes to mind was 500BHT and brought you to Lod Caves, Sai Ngam Hot Springs, Pai Canyon and provides lunch) but I think that the best way to see Pai is by scooter.
You’ll find scooter rentals all over Pai for a reasonable price (most will ask you to leave your passport rather than a deposit so be prepared when looking to rent.) I rented from Vespai Rental and found the service to be excellent! It was 130BHT for a small scooter and 200-250BHT for a medium sized scooter. We also paid 50BHT on our first day for a scooter lesson and the owner spent 45 minutes with us showing us how to ride and making sure that we were comfortable on the bike. He genuinely cares about his customers, and after seeing numerous people walking around Pai with bandages, casts, and broken bones it was very reassuring. Overall I found riding around Pai very easy (there’s not much traffic once you’re outside of downtown) as long as you’re careful around curves and on gravel/sand.
Getting To Pai:
Most people going to Pai are coming from Chiang Mai. You can take a 3.5 hour minivan (200BHT) that leaves every hour or you can rent a scooter and drive yourself. Most hostels can organize your bus ticket for you so you can get picked up directly from your hostel, and then they will likely drive you to the bus station where you will be forced to change buses. The bus station in Pai is right downtown in the city center.
I was told the road has 762 turns so be ready for a wild ride! If you are taking the bus and have motion sickness considering bringing some medicine with you… there have been many stories of people getting sick on the ride (they even provided barf bags in my bus on the way there.) Minivans return to Chiang Mai every hour and cost 150BHT.
Common Grounds: This was an overall great hostel that was clean, social, and respectful. Each bed has its own outlets and small bedside table and the rooms were warm. The common area has a roof but no walls and gets cold once the sun goes down, but has numerous tables to hang out at, hammocks, and a pool table. It was very social in the evening until it shuts down around 9:30, and during the day there were organized day trips. It’s located right near the night market, downtown, and the bus station.
Pros: Clean, social, great location, good night’s sleep
Cons: No mountain views
Darling View Points: This hostel is owned and run by an adorable woman who really wants her guests to have a good time. In the evening there was a giant bonfire where guests could play music through the sound system and lights were hung. The rooms are older and dusty (but not dirty), and are less insulated so it was cold at night! It’s across the river so the walk from town was about 10 minutes, but not an issue if you’re renting a scooter. The views from the porch were great though!
Pros: Social, great views
Cons: Dusty, walk from town, cold at night
Spicypai: This was one of the more unique hostels that I’ve stayed in. The dorms and common area have the resemblance of a tree house with the walls, ceiling, and beds being made out of bamboo and mosquito nets hanging above each bed. Due to these “fake” walls it got to be very, very cold at night when it dropped down into the 50s! The views from the common area were beautiful though and overall the hostel was social. This is located over the river near the White Buddha about a 20 minute walk from the city center.
Pros: Social, cool vibe, great views
Cons: Walk from town, cold at night