The Magic of Pai, Thailand

Often overlooked in favour of its much bigger, much louder sister Chiang Mai, this unassuming little corner of northern Thailand seems to attract a certain kind of traveller. Pai has embraced all things hippy, arty, spiritual and green over the last few decades, and as a result is a mecca for wandering artists, musicians, foodies and yogis. Thanks to its growing popularity and tourism-driven economy it may no longer be “the real Thailand” (whatever that means) but Pai is a magical little town that can’t fail to soothe and comfort even the weariest of travellers. Although there isn’t much “sight-seeing” in the usual sense of the word, Pai is a busy little town, and there is plenty here to do and see, including intimate live music gigs, art exhibitions, yoga retreats and plenty of great dining. The location isn’t too shabby either – right in the middle of a gorgeously green valley with a gentle river, endless rice fields, hot springs and several waterfalls nearby.

What To Do

Go Walking 

There are a number of easy walks nearby Pai’s sloping valley, the easiest of which takes you across the river on the east side of town and climbs up to Wat Nam Hu, home to an interesting Buddha statue. Alternatively, you could pull on your walking boots and go for a proper trek. A popular starting point for organised trekking tours, Pai is close to plenty of jungle-clad mountains and cave systems, making this one of the best trekking areas in all of Thailand.

Visit the Waterfalls

The countryside around Pai has several natural waterfalls, which can either be reached on foot or by bike. One of the best is Mo Paeng – multi-tiered and easily accessible, it’s popular for its natural pools and natural water slide!

Rent a Motorbike

Hire out your own two wheels, buy a map and get out there exploring!  You can put together your own itinerary that includes the waterfalls and nearby hill tribe villages, or if you have the time you can travel the 55km to the Tham Lod bat cave in Pangmapha, best visited just before the sun sets and the bats come out to play.

Elephant Trek

Still one of the quintessential Thai travel experiences, operators in and around Pai offer the chance for travellers to ride an elephant and finish off with a splash in the river.

Tha Pai Sot Springs

At the end of a short trail through the forest (signposted from the Chiang Mai road)is the Tha Pai Sot Springs, natural baths that reach temperatures of up to 80 degrees Celsius (man-made baths have been built where the spring meets a stream which cools temperatures to more human levels!). Best saved for a cool day.

Go Tubing

It’s a far cry from the booze-fuelled madness of tubing in Vang Vieng in Laos, but that can sometimes be a good thing. Enjoy a gentle trip down the river on a rubber tube, taking in the beautiful scenery as you go.

Heal Yourself

Pai has always been a bit of a spiritual haven, so the number of yoga schools, meditation retreats and alternative healing therapies should come as no surprise. There are drop-in and individual classes for those pushed for time, as well as a number of week-long retreats and courses aimed at putting you in touch with your more spiritual side.


The high number of permanent expats in Pai mean this tiny town offers an impressive array of great places to eat and drink. Some of the best include Art in Chai, an Indian-inspired tea shop, the Witching Well, which does some of the best Italian food in Thailand, and the wonderful Charlie & Lek’s which serves up classic home-cooked Thai food made from ingredients fresh from their own organic garden.

How to Get There and Where to Stay

Most travelers come to Pai by bus from Chiang Mai, Thailand’s second biggest city. Regular public buses take about 4 hours and cost 75 bhat while privately operated minibuses take 3 hours and cost about twice that. Most travelers opt for the private minibus option – the road is pretty winding, so if you suffer from travel sickness the public bus is probably not the best bet! Most guesthouses and travel agents who book Chiang Mai hotel rooms will also help book a bus on your behalf, and up to 5 go every day, so there isn’t too much need to book ahead.  Alternatively, you could be brave and rent out a scooter or motorcycle and do the drive yourself. You can stop at the waterfalls and little villages on the way, as well as make the journey at your own pace.

The recent influx of visitors from both Thailand and further afield mean that travellers are spoiled for choice when it comes to accommodation. Expect to pay from 400 to 700 bhat a night for a simple, non AC bungalow  or guesthouse room with bathroom.

About the author

Full-time traveller, part-time blogger/writer/editor, some-time yoga practitioner, unapologetic hippy and dedicated believer of the impossible, Olivia can also be found blogging about her travels over at her personal blog Leap Before You Look

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