Northern Thailand is something out of a movie. Its lush mountains and fresh air make for a sharp contrast to Bangkok’s chaotic, close quarters.
We arrived in Chiang Mai with sighs of relief and satisfied smiles, but it became evident that our trip could not be complete without one more detour. I had never heard of Pai before, yet it seemed as if every other traveler we met stressed (with a dreamy, far-away look in their eyes) how vital it was to spend at least a couple days in this hippie paradise.
If you find yourself backpacking in Northern Thailand, be sure to make a stop in Pai.
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How to Get to Pai, Thailand
Getting to the small town of Pai isn’t what you would consider a hop, skip, and a jump away from where you’ll most likely be in Thailand, but it’s well worth it.
The road from Chiang Mai to Pai is infamously winding and takes visitors around a whopping 762 curves. The four-hour drive was hyped up to me long before we actually made the trip.
As someone who struggles with motion sickness, I was deeply concerned with how I would handle the ride, but it was totally doable! I had heard that you feel fewer effects from all the twists and turns in a smaller vehicle, so we did some research about how we should get there.
We found that buses leave frequently from the Chiang Mai Arcade Bus Station and are the most inexpensive option. However, my friend and I opted to take a mini-van with a private driver and only a couple of other passengers. There are a ton of tour agencies in Chiang Mai that offer this service, and they usually will give you a discount for a roundtrip purchase.
Another very popular option is motorbiking. Rental agencies will let you rent a bike for various amounts of time to make the trip. Those that I chatted with said the ride was absolutely stunning (you can Youtube footage of the breathtaking journey), but this option is best for experienced drivers.
Things To Do in Pai, Thailand
Even though Pai isn’t a large and bustling city, there’s still a lot to do. Though the adventure will find you even if you go with no plan at all, here are a few ideas of what to do in Pai to get you started.
Learn to Drive a Motorbike
Pai is the perfect place to practice driving a scooter or motorbike in Southeast Asia! There’s much less traffic than in other cities, and open roads and alleys offer great opportunities to learn how to operate a bike.
The rental agencies that line the walking street offer lessons as well as insurance, just check what times an instructor will be available.
Watch the Sunset in Pai Canyon
Venturing out to Pai Canyon was my favorite thing that we did. This natural wonder attracts visitors for its fantastic panoramic view, which is great for watching sunsets. However, it’s an enjoyable hike no matter what time of day you make it there.
There are no rails on the trail, and some parts are more “technical,” requiring you to use your hands for climbing. Because of this, you’ll want to bring a daypack or crossbody bag to carry your phone, water bottle, etc., so you can be hands-free. It’s probably best if you wear sneakers, too. Be prepared to get a little dusty!
Explore the Pai Night Market
By nighttime, Pai’s main street – Pai Walking Street – transforms into a glorious night market. There’s an overwhelming number of street vendors cooking beautiful and authentic food right in front of you. Other vendors sell homemade, colorful clothing, bags, and souvenirs.
Take an Authentic Thai Cooking Class
Northern Thailand is a popular place to try a cooking class, and Pai offers many opportunities to whip up some Penang curry and shave papaya for a spicy salad.
We took a wonderful class at Savoie (A taste of Pai) Restaurant & Cookery School that was about $24. The class included a trip to the market, learning about the ingredients, creating and tasting four different courses, and taking a cookbook home with the recipes we had learned.
Get a Bamboo Tattoo
Pai has a handful of tattoo shops that offer bamboo tattoos. If it’s on your bucket list to get a traditional “stick and poke” tattoo, this is the place to do it! A sterile needle (replaced between uses) is attached to a bamboo stick, which is then dipped into ink and tapped into the skin.
We stopped at Cert Bamboo Tattoo, which had the lowest minimum cost of all the shops we looked into – 1,000 baht or around $31. Bamboo tattoos take only a couple hours to heal, whereas one done by a gun takes a couple of weeks. So, for travelers on vacation that want to keep swimming in the ocean and hitting up the pool bars, it’s a practical option.
The tattoos are permanent, and you can choose from a selection of designs or have the artist draw up something more customized. Some places will even let you keep the bamboo stick that the needle was attached to as a souvenir!
Chase Waterfalls in the Thai Jungle
Another reason so many travelers are drawn to Pai is its natural wonders and close proximity to jungle hikes and waterfalls. The Mae Yen and Pambok waterfalls are just two examples of stunning locations for swimming and cliff jumping.
Where To Stay in Pai, Thailand
There are many accommodation options in Pai, though you’ll probably want to plan ahead of time, as the tiny town can fill up fast!
We relied on Hostelworld our entire time in Southeast Asia, which is where we found the Green Hostel. Guests can borrow skateboards and try out their skateboard ramps! We also stayed in a bungalow that overlooked the canal that we booked through Airbnb.
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Another popular option is the Pai Backpackers Paradise, which is super close to the well known Sunset Bar. It’s about a 15-minute walk from the center of town but is a fantastic getaway for lounging and relaxing. Plus, there are hostels in the downtown area with bars and even swimming pools. So many to choose from!
Between the scenic drive, natural wonders, and laidback atmosphere, Pai is definitely a destination you’ll want to squeeze into your Southeast Asia itinerary!