In Northern Thailand lies the chilled, hippie dwelling of Pai however to reach there requires a not so chilled, infamous road trip. The Chiang Mai to Pai journey is like no other. Expect 4 hours, 80km and 762 hair pin corners that will have you gripping on for your life at best and holding back the travel sick at worst.
Well that’s what we were led to believe. In reality, the journey from Chiang Mai to Pai wasn’t that bad. Yes, there are 762 corners and yes, the bus from Chiang Mai to Pai may make you never want to get on a bus again, but we can assure you this journey will be so worth it. We share the easiest (and safest) ways to travel from Chiang Mai to Pai as well as our top tips for a stress free road trip.
To prove this journey is worthwhile, we even have a handy little guide of all the things to do in Pai once you get there!
THE CHIANG MAI TO PAI JOURNEY
How long is the road from Chiang Mai to Pai?
The road from Chiang Mai to Pai is officially called Route 1095 and is surprisingly only 80km but thanks to its 762 corners, this road trip is anything but short and sweet. Thankfully there was a major revamp in 2015 so this steep and winding road is far safer than it used to be.
How long does the Chiang Mai to Pai journey take?
The journey from Chiang Mai to Pai takes around 3-4 hours. This depends on the transport you choose to take (more on that below.) Although the short journey does make it one of the favoured day trips from Chiang Mai, to make the most of your visit, we do not recommend visiting there and back in one day.
Many argue it’s quicker by motorbike although the views are incredible, so you may stop lots for photos or opt to take your time on those crazy bends.
A minivan takes 3-4 hours depending on traffic (most companies stop for a 15 minute break half way) and it’s around 5 hours if you opt for the (cheaper) public bus from Chiang Mai to Pai because they plod along at much slower speeds.
Can you fly from Chiang Mai to Pai?
Not gonna lie, after initially hearing about the road I was looking into every and any way to avoid those 762 corners, including flying. Previously you could take a short, 30 minute flight from Chiang Mai to Pai with Kan Air. Apparently, this service is no longer available, so pop a motion sickness pill, choose one of our options below and be prepared for a road trip to remember.
HOW TO GET TO PAI, THAILAND
Now you know a little more about the road, you (hopefully) are wondering how to get to Pai from Chiang Mai. There are numerous transport options and choosing the right one depends on two things:
- Your likelihood to be sick.
- Your budget.
Admittedly, prior to our journey from Chiang Mai to Pai we were terrified of the stories of sickness, sleepy bus drivers and silly cyclists but could not find any info online that weighed up the pros & cons of each transport AND an honest review of the actual journey. Until Now.
We have listed the pros & cons as well as our honest tips and advice to ensure you are well informed prior to your Chiang Mai to Pai road trip. Regardless of how you get there, we can guarantee each one of those 762 corners are so incredibly worth it – you will fall in love with Pai.
The best option (in our opinion) is to take the bus from Chiang Mai to Pai. As there are many bus companies to choose from, it may seem an overwhelming task to find a reliable and safe company that is also suitable to a backpacking budget, here are our recommendations.
CHIANG MAI TO PAI BY MOTORBIKE
Although we have never, ever ridden a motorbike in Thailand (the endless bandages, stitches and crutches at the airport are enough to put anyone off) we do understand there are definite pros and cons for opting to do so.
Pros of travelling from Chiang Mai to Pai by Motorbike
Time: Travelling from Chiang Mai to Pai by Motorbike is one of the most popular options because it’s quickest. It also means you can leave when you wish without planning your time around bus timetables or other passengers.
The Views: As you’re the driver this means you can enjoy the views in their entirety. You can take your time and absorb every drop of the refreshing mountain air away from the cough and splutter of Chiang Mai pollution. It also means you can stop at the numerous viewpoints and waterfalls enroute and snap as many photos as you wish.
Price: Renting a Motorbike in Thailand is incredibly cheap and can be hired for as little as £3 a day, sometimes even cheaper. As a tip if you are nervous about the Chiang Mai to Pai journey you can even rent a motorbike just one way and instead take the bus back.
The company Aya are one of the few companies who offer this one-way service from Chiang Mai to Pai. There is a small surcharge (Around 300baht) however, they do also bring your luggage (1 piece per person) free of charge in one of their minivans, allowing you the freedom to travel just you and the bike.
Cons of travelling from Chiang Mai to Pai by Motorbike
Dangerous: Whether you’re a motorbike virgin or veteran, those 762 corners ain’t a leisurely drive. You need to be incredibly alert, experienced and confident to take on this drive and although we’ve been told over and over again the pros outweigh the cons, we are just not brave enough to do it ourselves. If you do decide to brave it, make sure you do your research and have the best insurance. Many do not cover you driving in a foreign country if you do not possess an international driver’s licence.
Police: It’s no secret the Thai police target tourists and to be honest, we’d target them too after the amount of stitches we saw and stories we heard from motorbike incidents. There is apparently one (sometimes two) police checkpoints on the road between Chiang Mai and Pai and they will not only check your licence but occasionally do drug searches and ensure your helmet & bike is up to standard. Bribes are not uncommon so follow the rules and do your research to avoid being scammed by fake police.
Traffic: Yes the drive from Chiang Mai to Pai is beautiful and some may argue incredibly fun to drive on a motorbike BUT before you can enjoy those mountainous views you need to get through Chiang Mai first.
This means, coping in the treacherous traffic of Chiang Mai – from the crazy jams of the city to the speeds of the suburbs, it’s not an experience for the faint hearted. If you can survive the city, the road from Chiang Mai to Pai will be a piece of cake.
Once you’ve conquered the city traffic, the directions to get to Pai from Chiang Mai are quite straight forward. Take the North exit out of the Old City of Chiang Mai and head north towards 107. Then follow the signs for Mae Rim, followed by the signs for Pai. Around one hour later, you will see a sign for 1095 (which is the road to Pai) turn left here and follow Route 1095 all the way.
CHIANG MAI TO PAI BY MINIVAN
After endless research of reviews (and several horror stories of red-bull fuelled drivers) later, we found Prem Pracha to be the most reputable company for booking a bus from Chiang Mai to Pai.
The bus ticket cost 833 baht which is around £20 for BOTH of us for a RETURN journey, so approx. £5 per person for a single journey.
The buses leave from The Arcade Bus Station, which is situated in the North Eastern of Chiang Mai and well outside of the Old City so it’s likely you will need a Grab or Tuk Tuk to get there.
We booked our tickets online for peace of mind and to save time queuing at the bus station however, due to the volume of minivans it’s possible to book your bus on the day from the bus station. The bus from Chiang Mai to Pai leaves every hour starting from sunrise to around 5pm, you can check bus times here.
When you “check in” your luggage will be loaded to the roof of the minivan and you’ll be given a paper (likely handwritten) ticket, this will have your seat number on. Bonus points if you’re able to get a seat near the front at the mini van especially if you’re the car sick sort. Our full review below shares our journey in more detail but in all honesty, despite being at the very back we didn’t feel sick at all.
Pros of travelling from Chiang Mai to Pai by Minivan
Air Con: Leaving sweaty, smoggy Chiang Mai you’ll be incredibly grateful for the air con in the minivan.
Time: For us, it was the most time effective option – knowing if we took a bike we’d be so bloody slow due to fear of falling off (or likelihood of stopping every 5 minutes for a photo.)
Price: To sit in the comfort of an air-conditioned van, snacks in hand and headphones on it is the most cost effective option in our eyes.
Cons of travelling from Chiang Mai to Pai by Minivan
Drivers: Although we were incredibly lucky, our bus driver was super safe and calm but it’s essentially potluck. A quick google search will showcase the endless negative reviews of companies with sleepy drivers, neurotic speeds or vomit-inducing driving.
Space: Although the clue is in the title, the mini van is literally, mini. This is fine if you’re elf-sized travelling with a handbag, but unfortunately Daz is 6ft 4 and we both have 40L backpacks plus hand luggage with our laptops & cameras. Not to mention, the 10 other passengers of which (thankfully) only one was sick. I do not want to imagine the smell, or space issues had anyone else jumped aboard the vomiting band wagon.
Luggage on the roof: Although arguably this could be a pro, the luggage is put on the roof. This does mean it frees up space in the bus itself BUT it does mean if you have valuables such as laptops, cameras etc there is a risk (although we’re sure it’s super secure) that the luggage could fall off. Due to this, we put our bags with these high value items on our laps. Yes extra safe, but also extra squishy, we could barely fit in our seats – never mind with two bags on top.
CHIANG MAI TO PAI VIA PUBLIC BUS
To save even more pennies, it is also possible for a public bus from Chiang Mai to Pai. Tickets on the local bus are only around 90 baht, but due to the pros and cons below we are much happier we chose the minivan option.
Pros of travelling from Chiang Mai to Pai by Public Bus
Slow: As the public bus from Chiang Mai to Pai is much bigger, it cannot cavort around those corners quite the same as a bike or mini van can. This means for those who have time on their hands may want the guaranteed slow and steady option. It takes around 5 hours from Chiang Mai to Pai on the public bus.
Cons of travelling from Chiang Mai to Pai by Public Bus
Cheap but no seat: Yes it is a pro that this is the cheapest option and again, it can be booked on the day HOWEVER we read it does not guarantee a seat. This may mean you’d have to stand for the entire journey or wait until passengers get off.
Air Con: If you have plans to take the public bus from Chiang Mai to Pai there is no air con. Although this is a major con on those super windy roads (nausea and no-air con isn’t the best mix) we took public busses without air con in The Philippines and they weren’t at all as bad as they sound.
Scams: Do not book the public bus anywhere else other than the bus station. It is so common for other “companies” to offer to book your bus for you, but they will simply be charging a tourist price and pocketing the difference. You will likely even find people outside the bus station trying to sell you tickets, ignore them and only pay at the correct counter.
CHIANG MAI TO PAI BUS REVIEW
Let’s be honest, this is the part everyone wants to know – is the road from Chiang Mai to Pai really that bad? Did we survive the 762 corners, jam packed minivan and Chiang Mai traffic without even a slight hint of sick? We did indeed. Better yet, we are more than sure you will too and it’s yet another hyped up backpacker myth that it’s “the worst road trip ever.”
Although, that does depend on the other passengers in your bus. Thankfully we only had one spewy child who was well equipped with a sick bag and wet wipes, I do not want to imagine a 4 hour journey had we had more peaky passengers on board.
After loading our luggage onto the roof, a little confusion at the allocated seats which everyone ignored and sat where they pleased, we were ready to go.
The first hour or so is spent in Chiang Mai traffic jams, before racing against the lunatics in the suburbs and then finally you reach the mountains and those infamous corners. To be honest, we were distracted by the beautiful rolling hills and didn’t notice just how windy the road was.
We stopped halfway for around 15 minutes – this allowed some fresh air and a quick toilet stop. For the joy of 3 baht, you will be blessed with a squatting toilet and no toilet roll so bring hand sanitizer and tissues. I’d read previous reviews where there was mention of a Western toilet, so you may be blessed at your stop with such luxuries, unfortunately we were not. You can also purchase snacks and drinks although *shocker* at a premium.
After the toilet stop, the road does get calmer although we had a few close calls with stray dogs jumping into the road but apart from that it was smooth sailing…swerving. We arrived in Pai on time, with only a short 10 minute walk to our accommodation from the bus station. Overall, we cannot fault the bus from Chiang Mai to Pai and our return journey was equally as straight forward, so much so Daz slept the entire way.
CHIANG MAI TO PAI BUS: TOP TIPS
Although our Chiang Mai to Pai bus journey was surprisingly stress free, we do have a few top tips to thank for this as well as a few tips we wished we knew beforehand.
Bring Water & Snacks
Whether it’s a 4 hour journey with 762 corners or a 10 minute jaunt to the shop, snacks are our ultimate road trip essentials. Staying hydrated is also very important and bringing water with you means avoiding a premium price at the snack stop on route.
Sweets to Stop the Sick
We don’t get car sick so didn’t want to take (or pay for) motion sickness medicine – by all means pop away if you need them. Instead, we went to a Boots yes, BOOTS nearby the bus station in Chiang Mai and found ginger sweets which we could chew should any nausea occur. Should you fail at finding ginger, mint is also a good preventative – chewing gum or mint chews should do the trick.
There is also a great natural remedy which we recommend for road trips should you have time to order beforehand.
Bring a Sick Bag
Should the ginger remedy fail, at least you’ll have suitable sick storage to avoid any outfit dramas or backpack spoilage. It also means you won’t have to be sick on the floor which you’ll have to smell for the next 3 hours.
Podcasts & Playlists
Instead of reading your phone, have a calming playlist prepared or some juicy podcasts. We got a little podcast obsessed driving our campervan in New Zealand and now can’t cope on road trips without them. Podcasts, audiobooks or music help distract your mind from feeling ill as well as pass the time quicker.
Take Small Luggage
One of our favourite backpacking travel tips that we always seem to ignore. Pack light and ideally pack small, to avoid using up the already limited space in the mini-van. Or essentially, don’t ever become a travel blogger where you need cameras, laptops and hard drives the size of Europe everywhere you go.
We hope this post has dispelled any rumours that the bus from Chiang Mai to Pai is awful. Yes, there is a risk of a Lewis Hamilton wannabe as a driver, yes there are passing places designed as sick stops but your time in Pai will be unforgettable and worth the journey. So suck up the ginger, belt up and get ready for a road trip to remember.