Pai is a small village tucked away between rolling hills, waterfalls and lush rice fields in the Mae Hong Son Province in Northern Thailand. The town has long been a hotspot for backpackers, nature lovers, adventure seekers and hippies wanting to experience low-cost, laid-back, care-free living.

    This tourist town is a charming place to explore, packed with everything an international traveller could want. But you’ll need to venture out of town and explore caves, hike to natural hot springs, or swim in the waterfalls. The best time to travel to Pai is between November and February, when the weather is cool and it doesn’t rain much.


    The natural wonders of Pai

    Explore the rural surroundings on a scooter

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    The magic of Pai lies in the mesmerising natural surroundings that include waterfalls, hot springs and scenic canyons. The best way to explore the beautiful countryside at your own pace is by renting a scooter or motorbike. Spend a couple of hours at Sai Ngam Hot Springs and relax in crystal-clear 30-degree Celsius natural hot pools. The 3-tiered cascading pool is surrounded by lush jungle scenery and is a tranquil spot to escape and get back to nature. 

    Another stunning natural attraction is Pai Canyon, which lies 8 km south of Pai along the main road. Wearing sturdy shoes, you can hike along the canyon’s narrow dusty ridges with steep drops into forest-filled valleys, stopping at breathtaking viewpoints. Sunset is an especially magical time to visit when a golden glow illuminates the canyon. 


    Pai waterfalls

    Where to find the best waterfalls in Pai

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    There are 3 beautiful waterfalls within scooter-riding distance of Pai. The best time to go is during the rainy season, from July to November, as the pools will be at their fullest. Mo Paeng Waterfall is the most popular due to its easy access, multiple natural pools, and a slippery natural water slide that flows into a pool below. This spot can get crowded, so if you're looking for a quiet place for a refreshing swim, Pam Bok Waterfall will be a better option. Pam Bok lies southwest of Pai town at the end of a canyon and is surrounded by high cliffs. 

    Adventure-seekers who believe the journey matters more than the destination will want to chase Mae Yen Waterfall. To reach Mae Yen, you'll need to hike 2.5-3 hours (6 km) through the jungle, crossing a river over 30 times. Once you arrive, you can swim in the shallow pool and soak up the peaceful scenery. As it's an all-day excursion, carry enough food and water. 


    Chedi Phra That Mae Yen

    Hike to the White Buddha Temple

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    Chedi Phra That Mae Yen is a hilltop temple located 2 km from Pai town centre. It’s easy to find – just look out for the massive White Buddha you can see from all over Pai. You’ll need to climb up 353 steps but the serene atmosphere and panoramic view over Pai and the surrounding countryside are worth the effort. 

    While the sunsets here are epic, the sunrises are perhaps even more special. Walk up early in the morning when the air is crisp and fresh and enjoy a peaceful misty sunrise meditation. And remember that this is a sacred religious spot. So no matter what time you go, always be respectful and wear clothing that covers your knees and shoulders. 


    Pai town centre

    Take a stroll through the town centre

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    Pai's town centre has undergone massive changes over the past 2 decades. A boom in tourism in the 2000s transformed the town from a quiet, traditional mountain village into a hotspot for backpackers. The increase in foreign travellers brought art galleries, guesthouses, souvenir shops, bars and Western-style restaurants. 

    Despite the Westernisation and wheatgrass shots, Pai is still very laid-back – except at night, when the nightlife can be likened to Thailand's party islands. Stroll down the town's main drag – aptly named Pai Walking Street. Browse the fabulous selection of books at Siam Books, buy some hippie clothes at Pai Siam Shop Gallery and admire the golden pagoda at the Wat Klang temple


    Tham Lod Cave

    Explore a historic cave

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    The ancient Tham Lod Cave stretches for 1.5 km and is one of Thailand’s most impressive caves. The best way to explore the cave system is on board a bamboo raft and float down the Lang River that flows through the cave. A local guide with a gas lantern will guide you through the darkness. Along the way, you’ll stop to admire massive chambers with million-year-old stalactites, stalagmites, and awe-inspiring rock formations.

    The final part of the tour is the Coffin Cave, where archaeologists have discovered wooden teak coffins believed to be more than 1,000 years old. Plan your visit just before dusk to watch the spectacle of hundreds of bats and swallows zoom out of the cave’s entrance in search of insects. Tham Lod Cave is located 50 km north of Pai, and you can get there by renting a motorbike or arranging a driver to take you from Pai.


    Dining and restaurants in Pai

    Where and what to eat in Pai?

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    The little mountain town of Pai has a surprisingly wide array of restaurants satisfying all tastes, culinary cravings, and dietary preferences. In and around the town centre, you can find not only northern Thai cuisine but also Western-style comfort food, including tapas, genuine Italian pizza, and a full English breakfast. Most eateries offer affordable prices and dishes made from fresh, local and natural ingredients. For inexpensive local eats, head to the Pai Night Market, which takes place every night along the town’s main artery.

    Several vegan restaurants serve raw desserts, superfood smoothies and homemade bread. Try the Buddha bowl and herbal shake at Earth ToneNa's Kitchen and Baan Benjarong serve up large portions of excellent Thai and northern Thai fare. Meanwhile, Larp Khom Huay Poo is great for a carnivorous feast. Silhouette Restaurant and Bar at the Reverie Siam Resort is an elegant spot for a romantic dinner. You'll be surrounded by antique instruments and books and enjoy beautiful countryside views from the alfresco seating.

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    Pai shopping

    Where to shop in Pai?

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    The best shopping in Pai can be found along Rungsiyanon Road – famously known as Pai Walking Street – that runs through the centre of town. Lining the half-kilometre street are shops selling inexpensive souvenirs, unique handicrafts, and clothing handmade in neighbouring villages. During the day, Pai Walking Street is reasonably quiet, with tourists milling around searching for food and coffee and renting scooters.

    After dark the street becomes truly pedestrian-only, transforming into the Pai Night Market, with market stalls and shops on both sides. In addition to food, clothing, and souvenirs, you can find local artists selling jewellery and paintings.


    Pai nightlife

    Where to go in Pai after dark?

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    Pai buzzes at night when tourists flock to the town centre looking for cheap cocktails, pumping music, and all-night partying. There are dozens of bars to choose from, each with a unique vibe and happy hour specials. Many bars double up as dance venues, with live DJs spinning rapid techno beats. The extensive menu of imported craft beer and relaxed yet upbeat vibe makes Jikko Beer a great place to socialise with fellow travellers. 

    If you’re looking to bust a move, Boom Bar and Don’t Cry Bar play techno and electronic music late into the night. Blah Blah Bar is a tiny pub located in a shack where you can get your punk rock fix and enjoy ice-cold beers. And before the night is over, you’ll probably end up at Why Not Bar – a Pai institution where you can play pool, people-watch or dance to live music every night. 


    Activities around Pai

    Learn something new

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    Pai is not only a hub for socialising and outdoor adventures. You can also learn a new skill or discover a new hobby. Take a Thai cooking class and impress your friends and family back home with your new kitchen abilities. If you’ve always wanted to know how to juggle or fire dance, Pai Circus School will teach you all the tricks and techniques. 

    You can also attend yoga, tai chi, or qi gong classes or join a multi-day yoga and meditation retreat. There are several Muay Thai gyms around Pai for some serious sweating and self-defence techniques. The gyms cater to advanced fighters and those wanting to keep fit or try the sport out. And at the end of the day, find a hammock and relax, read a book or watch a movie.


    How to get to Pai

    Factual transport information

    You can reach Pai by public transport, taxi, or motorbike from Chiang Mai. The most common way is by bus or minivan from Chiang Mai Bus Station. The 130-km journey takes approximately 3-5 hours along the steep and curvy – but oh-so-beautiful! – mountainous Route 1095. There are over 760 twists and turns, and minivan drivers can be reckless. If you tend to get car sick, a slow public bus or private taxi will be the most comfortable way of getting to Pai.

    If you’re up for an adventure and are comfortable with manoeuvring winding roads, you can rent a motorbike in Chiang Mai and ride to Pai yourself. The fastest way to reach Pai from Bangkok is a direct flight to Chiang Mai and then choose one of the above-mentioned transport options. You can also take a 12-hour train journey from Bangkok to Chiang Mai.

    Jacqui de Klerk | Contributing Writer

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