There are so many things to do in Pai, Thailand and many of which appeal to a backpacking budget – from hot springs to night markets, canyon hikes to cave visits. In fact, the majority of these Pai attractions are free. Often referred to as a hippie haven, Pai is a quaint mountain retreat that attracts travellers from all over the world to indulge in the natural beauty of the area alongside yoga, delicious food and an amazing nightlife scene.
We started our Thailand trip island hopping in the South but we’ll be honest in that we felt Thailand wasn’t for us. We understand you shouldn’t compare countries but understand many people compare island hopping in The Philippines Vs Thailand and we found ourselves doing the same. Compared to our previous island-hopping adventures, for example backpacking Fiji or backpacking Hawaii, we found the South of Thailand expensive and at times, locals resenting tourists.
We can’t blame them for hating on the cocktail-bucket downing backpackers but unless they could squeeze as much money from us as possible, we felt the South was unwelcoming, crowded and simply not our cup of tea. However, do not let our experience put you off as we encourage you to make your own adventure and plan your South Thailand itinerary better than us as there are hundreds of reasons its one of the most popular destinations in the world.
For the reasons mentioned, we were a tad deflated from our initial Thailand experience BUT all that changed after a little research and we discovered Pai. You will not regret hopping on a bus, train, plane or boat and heading North.
The mountain air (and temperature) is so refreshing, the locals were some of the nicest we met during our entire trip and the food was some of the best we’ve ever had. We regret we only had a short time here but packed in as many Pai attractions as possible.
HOW TO GET TO PAI, THAILAND
The journey from Chiang Mai to Pai
The route to Pai is so unique that we dedicated an entire blog post to just this journey. In a nutshell, the most affordable and time saving option is to take the bus from Chiang Mai to Pai.
As we explain in the guide, although the “easiest” way to reach Pai is via the Route 1095, it should be titled Route 762 after the infamous 762 corners it consists of. Yes, 762 hairpin bends allowing one memorable road trip.
Do not let the fear of that windy road put you off however as we mentioned earlier, Pai was the highlight of our time in Thailand and one of the very few places we’d return to if we were to go back to Thailand again.
WHERE TO STAY IN PAI
When considering where to stay in Pai you need to consider how you want to spend your time once you’re there. Are you there to party until dawn? Meet companions to continue your travels? Rest and relax or squeeze in as many Pai attractions as possible?
Pai is very popular with backpackers so for this reason hostels are in abundance. We get it, hostels are super cheap and full of new people to meet etc, etc but for a more authentic experience (or just to avoid the beer-pong loving 18 year olds) we recommend avoiding hostels if you fancy some sleep.
Travelling as a couple can be testing at times, but even more so on little sleep thanks to noisy neighbours or from sharing a bunk bed. Thanks to two different recommendations from friends who used to live in Pai, we chose accommodation “over the bridge.”
The area is dotted with homestays and huts that are even CHEAPER prices than the hostels. Although only a 10 minute walk from the centre of Pai choosing accommodation over the bamboo bridge means being slightly further out from the backpacking scene and so you’ll have a much more peaceful experience.
Hands down, one of the best places to stay in Pai is Pai Nam Now Guesthouse. It’s no secret we love quirky accommodation and these super cute private bungalows complete with hammocks are as quirky as it gets. The incredible reviews of the owner (Tom) persuaded us to book it for ourselves and we now also feel it’s one of the best places we’ve ever stayed. Even better, the cost was only £14 per night including breakfast.
Not only did we have homemade breakfast included every morning (the pancakes with fresh mango were incredible) but Tom offered local tips on the best things to do in Pai, booked our tours and even gave us fresh fruit to take with us each day. Our wee bungalow had a comfortable double bed with mosquito net, ensuite bathroom/shower room and a small terrace with outdoor hammock.
We were nervous that we booked a bungalow without air con but this was no issue – the large fan was more than enough thanks to Pai’s cooler temperatures. We had the best sleep we’d had in so long as there was no noisy air con or middle of the night sweating keeping us awake.
We felt so welcomed at Pai Nam Now that we joked when we left that we felt our experience was more like a Workaway (minus the work) because Tom made us feel like part of her family, not just guests. We’d return to this little sanctuary in a heartbeat and cannot recommend if it enough if you’re wondering where to stay in Pai.
9 THINGS TO DO IN PAI
Now you know where to stay in Pai; it’s time to get your itinerary organised. Whether you’re looking to soak up the chilled vibes, or pack in as much Pai attractions as possible, there is something for every style of traveller.
1. Tour Lod Cave, Pai
Although not strictly in Pai as Tham Lod (Tham is the Thai word for cave) is around a 40-minute drive away in Soppong. However, Tham Lod was our favourite experience of all the things to do in Pai and one of the most unique experiences we had from our time in Thailand.
Due to the distance we booked a local songthaew bus (essentially a truck with seats in the back) to take us up windy road to Tham Lod. Our driver then “handed us over” to a local guide which is compulsory due to the dangers if you were to explore the 1666m long cave on your own.
Although you have a guide, the health & safety of Lod cave has a lot to be desired, which is definitely part of it’s charm. From rickety bamboo bridges to steep ladders and dark, bat swarmed corners, we definitely muttered “we cannot tell our mums we were here” several times.
However, just when we thought the bamboo obstacle course of geographical wonder was over, we were popped onto a bamboo raft. Surrounded by fish. The size of small children. Between our prayers to not fall in and be eaten by a toddler-sized carp we admired the impressive stalactites and stalagmites as well as the remaining chambers of the cave.
Forget emergency exits and safety rails like our cave experience in Halong Bay, the raft was powered by a long stick, lit by a paraffin torch. Apparently the back to basics approach adds to the “mysterious atmosphere” – which could be argued as a “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” type atmosphere which we are more than onboard with as it was an experience we will never forget.
The cave was so big we spent over an hour inside. As a tip, we recommend going around twilight as thousands of bats and swifts enter the cave which is spectacular to witness. Although we booked it as part of a tour, the usual price is around 150baht for the guide (per group) and 400 baht for the raft (per group.)
2. Join in the Celebrations of Poy Sang Long
Although this is not exactly one of the things to do in Pai it was one of the most interesting experiences we have had during our travels and something we are so grateful to have witnessed (completely by accident).
Poy Sang Long is a ceremony which celebrates the ordination of novice monks. It occurs each year between March 20th and Mid April in Northern Thailand (and parts of Myanmar.) It is usually a 3 day ceremony but in Mae Hong Son province the ceremony sometimes takes 4 or 5 days. We were fortunate to be part of the celebrations because as we exited the Lod Cave the procession was on their way towards it.
Young boys, usually aged 7-14 are paraded through the streets on the shoulders of a male relative as they are treated like princes before their life at the monastery begins. It is said during Poy Sang Long that the boys’ feet cannot touch the floor (hence they are carried high) and that extravagant clothes, accessories and cosmetics are worn to celebrate opulence before life as a monk.
We were uncertain whether to photograph the procession but excited locals encouraged us, with the young boys even posing for photos as proud parents showed off their sons. The locals even asked us to join in the procession which we were so sad to decline as our bus was scheduled to leave. If you time your visit to Pai well, witnessing the Poy Sang Long ceremonies will be an unforgettable celebration of colour, music and religion.
Around two weeks after these celebrations is Thingyan festival (around 13th – 16th April.) which marks the start of the new year. We celebrated Thingyan water festival in Myanmar, but it is also celebrated in Thailand and will undoubtedly be a memorable experience!
3. Watch the Sunset at Pai Canyon
Pai Canyon known as Kong Lan in Thai is one of the most popular Pai attractions, especially at sunset or early morning before the heat strikes. It is located on the infamous Route 1095, around 5 miles South of Pai itself. There is no entrance fee, and a short hike up paved steps will lead you to a small but impressive canyon with sandstone cliffs and trails.
Arrive early (at least 30 minutes before sunset) to ensure a good spot and bring sensible shoes are there are some steep inclines and very narrow pathways. For those with a fear of heights (like us), there are parts of Pai Canyon which will leave you jelly-legged and parts we avoided completely due to the steep drops with nothing to hold on to.
The sunset views are still beautiful from the start of Pai canyon despite this being the busiest area. There is no need to risk your life attempting to find a quieter more “insta-friendly” spot.
As always, be very careful when stepping back for selfies, or when trying to capture the perfect sunset shot as we witness some close calls during our visit. Although it’s one of the most popular Pai attractions, please remain cautious during your visit.
4. Walk Along Memorial Bridge, Pai
Memorial Bridge is also located on Route 1095, around a mile down the road from Pai canyon. It takes around 20 minutes to walk across, admire the views over the rice fields nearby and learn about the bridge’s fascinating history.
In brief, the bridge was originally built in World War II by the Japanese army using elephants and villagers to drag trees from the jungle to build the bridge. The bridge is built over the Pai river which helped establish a route from Chiang Mai to Mai Hong Son, thus making it easier for the Japanese to attack Burma (now known as Myanmar.)
After the war, the Japanese soldiers actually burnt down the bridge, so the one you can visit today is actually a replica which was rebuilt over the same route as it is essential to the local daily life. It is free to enter and like most Pai attractions, enterprising locals sell snacks & drinks at entry.
5. Climb the Steps of The White Buddha, Pai
Also known as Wat Phra That Mae Yen, it can be argued that the White Buddha in Pai is a better location to watch the sunset as it’s more peaceful and less crowded. However, we visited the White Buddha around 10 am, so cannot offer an opinion on sunset but let us know in the comments if you do visit then.
Although located around a 10 minute drive from Pai, the White Buddha is so huge it can be seen from the town itself. Following the drive, you will be met with a large car park (with free toilets) and a dragon staircase which is as striking as the Buddha itself.
Prepare for a sweaty climb as there are over 300 steps until you reach the top. Although the views and the Buddha itself are worth every step and we quickly realised why it’s one of the most popular things to do in Pai.
Like all holy sites, you will be asked to cover knees and shoulders when visiting the White Buddha in Pai. Remain respectful at all times and follow the correct religious etiquette. Never touch, sit or climb on a Buddha statue and when leaving, it is seen as insulting to turn your back on Buddha so back away before doing so to show respect.
6. Admire Pai Land Split
Following Pai canyon, another one of the best things to do in Pai if you’re looking for a second geographical wonder is Pai Land Split. From Pai Canyon, head North for around 3 miles and follow signs for Pam Bok Waterfall until you find a small road that goes left past a temple.
Pai Land Split was founded in 2008 after an enterprising farmer found large cracks in his land following earthquakes. He now provides free juice and snacks to visitors who rock up (excuse the pun) to view this natural phenomenon. In exchange, he asks for whatever donation you can afford making Pai Land Split one of the cheapest but best things to do in Pai.
7. Paddle in Pam Bok Waterfall
There are many Pai waterfalls to choose from, but if you have plans to visit Pai Land Split you may as well pack the waterproofs and head to Pam Bok Waterfall too as they are on the same road. Unfortunately, we were visiting Pai in the dry season (April) so we skipped Pam Bok waterfall as there wasn’t any water in it. The best time to witness any of the Pai waterfalls is in monsoon season (June to September) when your walk through the gorge will be rewarded with a refreshing swim at Pam Bok waterfall.
8. Swim in Pai Hot Springs
Thankfully, unlike the Pai waterfalls, the Pai hot springs are full of water all year round, making them one of the most famous Pai attractions. For this reason, however, we expected them to be incredibly crowded but our visit was surprisingly peaceful with only around a dozen or so others and plenty of space and serenity.
There are a few Pai hot springs to choose from and even a hot spring resort & spa for the flashpacking types. If you’re more of an “at one with nature” sort instead of a white fluffy bathrobe sort, we recommend Sai Ngam hot spring. There is a fee of 200 Baht per adult for entering the park then another 20 Baht to enter the hot spring. There is a small toilet block for you to change, or ideally wear your swimwear underneath as the toilet isn’t the cleanest to be stripping off in.
The water was the perfect temperature and incredibly clear but also not very deep, making it ideal for non-swimmers and children. The surrounding trees made the springs the perfect little oasis and one of the best things to do in Pai after a long day of sight-seeing.
Please be a responsible tourist and do not use shampoos or soaps in the hot springs as this can damage the natural eco-system. Also as a warning for those with dyed hair, my friend had blonde highlights which turned a brassy pink colour in the sulphuric water at Pai hot springs so make sure to keep hair tied up or out of the water during your visit.
9. Dine & Shop Pai Walking Street
After ticking off the main Pai attractions, you have likely worked up a major appetite and Pai night market is the perfect place. One of the best things to do in Pai at night is wander through Pai Walking Street, which transforms into a hub of music, art and food. Absorb the smells, tastes and sounds as travellers and locals alike dine on street food, sell artisan crafts, busk and down Chang like there’s no tomorrow.
Pai night market is actually 4 streets wide and around six streets long, at times it’s super crowded, especially at the vegan food stalls. The Pai night market offers treats for all travellers, whether you’re after those sexy elephant pants or handcrafted jewellery. It is the perfect balance of touristic tatt but quirky gifts you’d be proud to purchase.
Pai walking street is also home to many tour operators, offering deals and discounts on the most popular Pai attractions. There are also numerous scooter hire shops with prices starting at 140 Baht. Many backpackers opt to stay near Pai walking street for a quick route to stumble home to their beds after a Chang too many. However, we are grateful for our accommodation being a 10-minute walk as we can imagine the street get’s even busier (and louder) later in the night.
Our favourite place for food was Huan Saran Guesthouse mainly because we were suckers for the colourful décor and quaint candlelit tables outside. The atmosphere was super chilled and just the right distance away from the bustle of the night market, but a perfect spot to sit with a beer and people watch. We had very large portions of Masaman curry and Cashew Chicken which were delicious and washed down with oh so predictable Chang.
We hope you now feel prepared for your Northern Thailand adventure, supplied with the best things to do in Pai. Although this is very much a “first timers” guide and there are so many more things to do in Pai such as yoga and even a circus school, we also hope to leave reasons for you to return. We hope you agree Pai Nam Now is the best place to stay in Pai and if not, we’d love to hear which other gems you’ve found. Now all you have to do is cope with that bus journey from Chiang Mai and you’ll be ready for an amazing trip!