Once a small farming village, the town of Pai has now climbed to the top of the bucket list for many travelers seeking a good time and a happy vibe. More and more travelers are discovering this hidden gem, sharing it with their friends, and even returning for longer periods of time.
Where is Pai?
Pai is located among the many mountains and rice paddies of Northern Thailand. It is a 4-hour drive north of Chiang Mai or 20 hours bus from Bangkok. Pai is also a very vegan and vegetarian-friendly town, it is rare to find a food place that doesn’t cater to dietary concerns. There are several vegan and vegetarian restaurants throughout the town.
How do I get to Pai?
There are many tourist information centers’ in Chiang Mai and Bangkok at which you can book a bus to Pai. The bus from Chiang Mai costs 200 Baht on average. The buses depart Chiang Mai up to 5 times a day, so you can pick your departure time, keeping in mind that it takes 4 hours to drive to Pai.
Pai is accessible only by two roads coming from the north and the south of the town. Might I add that these roads are no ordinary roads, the bus drivers like to say that ‘Pai = Puke’. It takes 762 very sharp turns through jagged mountains to arrive in the town. If you get motion sick during normal car rides, you’d better start praying and taking your Gravol tablets now.
Bussing to Pai from Chiang Mai includes a halfway stop at a street market to let you out for some fresh air and a bathroom break. At least, that’s how it's supposed to be; Our driver decided he wanted to do his grocery shopping along the way, so we made several stops for him to buy his mangos.
The 15 coolest things to do in Pai
Rounding up the 15 coolest things to do in Pai was difficult, simply because just going to Pai can be the best thing to do. There are so many things to choose from for every style of traveler. You can visit the many tourist information booths in the town to choose your activities or partake in a full day (800 – 1000 Baht) or a half day (300 – 600 Baht) pre-arranged tour to visit up to 10 of the destinations. This is a list of the 15 coolest things to do in Pai based on my experience.
1. Backpackers Paradise Fire Show
The Pai Fire Show is hands down the coolest thing to do in town. The show takes place every Thursday and Sunday night at the Backpackers in Paradise Hostel. It’s free to attend and 45 minutes of mind-blowing fire acts. The performers not only do crazy tricks with fire, but they dance and do specialized acts too. You can witness girl’s hula hooping with their hoops on fire, and guys ‘fighting’ with flaming swords. The show is run by a group of locals and their wages are based on donations they receive at their acts. You can also attend fire dancing classes or purchase fire tools at Paradise.
2. Night Market Walking Street
Every night after sundown the streets of Pai come to life. Sure, its fun to do some shopping on walking street during the day, but night time? Game changer. You can find cheap meals starting at 25 Baht for a Pad Thai, or 10 Baht for a mini bamboo boat of noodles. It's not only Thai food, but there are also waffles, pancakes, coconut balls, burgers, fries, anything that you can think of.
There’s just one problem, the more Chang Beers you have, the more appetizing all the food becomes and the more money you start to spend. You know how it is when there’s just that one Nutella waffle that you really need, even if it's your third meal in 20 minutes.
The night market is open every night from sunset to about midnight. You can shop for Thai clothing, food, jewelry, shoes, and even tattoos. The whole of the main street, known as “walking street”, becomes littered with food stations and vendors.
3. Lod Cave
Lod Cave is about an hour drive north of Pai through some hectic windy mountain roads. You can drive it by scooter but make sure to fill up on gas at every single station you see. Running empty half way up a mountain pass is not part of the top 15 things to do in Pai. There are many tour companies shuttling tourists from Pai to the caves every day.
When visiting Lod Caves it is mandatory to pay a fee for a local guide. The guide will walk you through each section of the caves with a big gas lamp, stopping at all the attractions and features. There are three smaller caves that you can choose between visiting within Lod Cave. To do all three caves it takes roughly an hour of walking along with platforms and bamboo rafting through a catfish-filled river.
4. River tubing
River tubing is simply a great way to kick back and relax for a few hours. You are shuttled upstream to the start of the river and set afloat with a bag of pre-purchased beers. The float takes about 2 hours including a few very small rapids and waterfall drops. Very relaxing and awesome to do with a group of mates.
5. Befriend the locals
The Pai locals are what make the Pai experience. You can meet locals in the streets, at markets, at hostels or through other friends all over town. There is a very good level of English everywhere you go to Pai. Every single local that I met was interested in exchanging stories and having beers, they couldn’t care less about money. If you’re wanting to know all the secrets to the hidden life in Pai, get to know the locals!
There is also a big party and smoking culture in Pai amongst the locals, I didn't meet one person that didn't have a cigarette hanging from their mouth within 5 minutes of introducing myself. Despite Thailands strict drug laws, you can buy pre-rolled joints and even magic mushroom shakes at just about every hostel bar. As I said before, the fire show can be completely mind-blowing!
6. Live music
Pai is full of all kinds of artists. You will meet painters, body artists, hair stylists, and of course, musicians! You can enjoy live music at the bars most nights, sometimes with DJs, sometimes traveling bands, and very often local singers with incredible voices. Sitting and listening to the music in Pai while sipping on a Chang beer, a must do for any classic tourist looking for an authentic experience. If you’re fortunate enough to visit Pai in July over the annual Jazz and Blues festival, you’re one lucky duck. Live music in Pai is a must do at least once during your visit.
7. Experiencing Pai’s Hostel life
Pai is a hotspot for backpackers and travelers during the high season and you can find hostels and guest houses on every street in town. Many of the more expensive resorts and hotels are located in the center of town. Many of the hostels and cheaper places are just south from the main town across a highway bridge. There are so many options it's like entering hostel central station and not knowing which is the best sleeper.
Backpackers Paradise is the most popular hostel in Pai. It is massive. Pool table It has a huge outdoor bar and hangout area and is host to the famous fire show twice a week. The hostel throws huge bar parties every night for all of the hostel guests and anyone else who wants to come to paradise for a night. If you drink too much and don't make it home, at least you wake up in paradise.
Buzza’s Backpackers is the cheapest place to stay in Pai and offers the best community between hostel owners and guests. The hostel organizes day trips for all its guests at very discounted prices and offers a great opportunity to get to know some of the locals. It is a great deal for the price you pay, and a great way to make a group of friends that you can spend time with while in Pai.
Spicy Pai is also a popular hostel, a little further from town than Paradise and Buzza’s, but generally much quieter and more relaxing. They have unique dorms in large wooden buildings and have a very relaxed social atmosphere.
8. Night-Life in Pai
There are endless options of bars and restaurants in Pai to get your daily dose of beer. In fact, there is an entire street nicknamed “bar street” because it is exactly that, a street stacked full of bars. Looking to go swimming at a bar? There’s a pool bar. Looking for some trippy lights? There’s a neon bar for that. How about just a regular bar? Well, there’s about 10 of those. And the best part? They’re all on one street, wall to wall against each other. Bar hopping has never been easier.
The Pool Bar is open every day starting around lunch hour. You can wander the streets of Pai for the morning and head over to the pool as soon as it starts to get too hot and sweaty to be doing anything other than swimming with a beer in hand.
There are several other bars along the main street, each with very different vibes. One moment you will be in a jazz bar listening to live music, and the next you are sitting in a car seat taking whiskey shots to some headbanging music. Although most of the bars are on bar street, there are a few located elsewhere around the town, such as Sunset Bar and Don't Cry. Both of these bars are closer to the hostels.
Don't Cry Bar
Don’t Cry is always quiet at the start of the night, but is always packed after midnight. This is because Don’t Cry stays open later than any other bar or restaurant in town, so essentially, Don’t Cry is the after party on the way back to the hostel! And dare I say that if you’re lucky enough to be at the right place at the right time, almost all of them give out free shots at some point.
If you’re bargain hunting, most free drinks come from hostel bars at each of the different hostels. I haven’t figured out why they give you so much free alcohol in Pai, maybe its to try to get you to go to bed earlier. More likely that its to make you not go to bed at all.
9. Visiting the Bamboo Bridge Temple
This is the famous picturesque Bamboo Bridge in Pai, beautifully built across the rice paddies. Most people don't know that the bridge is actually built as the entranceway to a hidden temple. The bridge expands about a kilometer long and ends at the base of the temple. Walking across it almost feels exciting, like you're crossing a sketchy bridge that won't hold your weight no matter how strong the Bamboo is.
Any photo you have seen of the bamboo bridge is likely during the rice growing season with luscious green colors under the bridge. The truth is that the rice doesn't grow year round, but even in the low season, the bridge is a spectacular sight. The only difference is that the colors will not be a vivid light green during the low season, but rather a deeper green color.
Just like most attractions in Thailand, you need to pay an entrance fee for the Bridge. There's a little secret though, if you are visiting in the low season you can visit the bridge at sunset without paying the entrance fee.
10. Renting a Scooter in Pai
This is a must do. Yes, it is sketchy, but even more so it is exhilarating. You can rent scooters for 24 hours for as low as 100 Baht or $5 per day. Many tourists rent scooters in Pai to get around, making it even more thrilling driving on a road full of unlicenced terrible drivers. Be cautious driving at night after everyone has already hit the bars and wants to take their scooter home.
The gas stations in Pai are either empty alcohol bottles filled with gas sold at stands on the side of the road or they are single standing petrol pumps that yell at you in Thai while you try to figure out how to work the machine, and then sing to you once you've paid and pressed every single button.
11. White Buddha
The white Buddha is a stunning feature. You can see the Buddha perched in the hills from the town of Pai, but you can also drive or hike up the steep hills and stairs to sit at the base of the Buddha and look back over the town. This is a fantastic free activity to do in Pai and a spectacular viewpoint from above.
12. Long Neck Karen
These are some spectacular people, the ones you see portraits of in cultural magazines for National Geographic. "Karen" means tribe, it is not just one lady named Karen with a famously long neck.
The Long Neck Tribe is located just outside of Pai. About 2 km driving distance from hostel central. The village has traditional customs of putting rings around the women's necks to elongate their necks over the years. It is unbelievable to see an elderly lady from the tribe with her neck stretched to around 30 cm in length and decorated in gold rings. I guess that's the secret for me to finally grow taller than 5'2".
13. Hiking to a Waterfall
There are many waterfalls that you can visit in Pai including Pam Bock falls, Mae Yen falls, and of course, the sweat waterfall found on tourists who climb to the white Buddha.
Pam Bock falls
These falls are along the same road as the Bamboo Bridge and is an easy walk up through the canyon to the falls. The water is usually a few meters deep depending on the amount of rainfall and is very refreshing on a humid day.
Mae Yen waterfall
A much bigger waterfall than Pam Bock. It is also much less touristy thanks to the two to three-hour hike to reach the falls. The hike is through the tropical rainforest and includes many flying insects and daddy long legs crawling around. Despite the long walk, is very rewarding to chill in the pools after a humid jungle hike. Mae Yeng is a day trip in its self and I best to leave early than get stuck in the jungle after sunset.
14. Sunset from Pai Canyon
Pai Canyon is about a 20-minute scooter drive south of Pai, or just over an hour walk for the budget backpackers. Although you can't see sunsets most days during the down season, it is still beautiful to walk the trails and see the valley below. Pai Canyon can be very hot and humid even on a cloudy day. The best time to go to the canyon is in the evening around sunset when the temperatures are cooler.
15. Hot Springs
There are two hot springs in Pai, both of which charge a hefty entrance fee and can be packed with tourists. If you go in the morning you might be lucky to miss the tour groups and get your own space in the springs.
Although the hot springs are closed at night time, it has been known of people to visit the hot springs late at night to hang out and relax while enjoying a show put on by the fireflies above the springs.
This is a very popular thing to do as part of a day tour in Pai. But is it worth paying a lot of money to sit in a hot spring when it is already 38 degrees outside?
Other attractions in Pai
Although I have listed the top 15 coolest things to do in Pai based on my experience, there are so many more amazing things to do. Some of these activities include zip lining, visiting the Land Split on the way to the bamboo bridge, looking for Fire Flies on a night drive, getting a Pai style bamboo tattoo, going hippie clothes shopping at the night market, getting some special hairstyles including cornrows and dreadlocks, visiting Coffee in Love, visiting the Chinese village, and of course checking out the many viewpoints.
Why should I go to Pai?
Some people like to call Pai the ‘Byron Bay of Thailand’ because the locals live on nothing but good vibes. The people here are all friendly and inviting, wanting to get to know you and your journey in life. Pai is the one place in Thailand where you feel welcome as one of the locals rather than just a tourist who has money to spend.
Many travelers will come to Pai during their Asia journey and will love it so much that they ‘get stuck in the Pai hole’. This means finding a volunteer job with free accommodation and staying in the peaceful town for months on end.
The atmosphere there is entirely different than the rest of Thailand. It's common to see locals and tourists walking around barefoot through the streets and night markets, you can even get into the bars barefoot! No shoes, no shirt, no problem in Pai.