Pai is a staple of any backpacker’s Northern Thailand itinerary. Love it or hate it (frankly, we adore it), it’s likely that if you spend any time in Chiang Mai you’ll hear lots about this little village nestled in the rice fields. Alex and I had some, ahem, memorable adventures getting there and back to Chiang Mai again, so I decided to put together a little travel guide/story time! If you enjoy this post, let us know in the comments - we’re always looking for ways to improve the content on Screw the Itinerary and would love to know your thoughts.
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WHAT ARE MY OPTIONS?
Basically, there are two ways to get to Pai and luckily for you, we did them both!
If you’re confident on a motorbike (key word: confident), it’s by far the best way to get to Pai. Most scooter companies in Chiang Mai offer long-term rentals so you can hire a bike for a couple weeks and take it all around. As I mentioned in our Chiang Mai post, we went with Mango Bikes Rent and were totally pleased with both bike and customer service. Alex had done this exact journey back in 2012 and was keen to relive it. He had zero issues with police (though our safety advice from Chiang Mai still applies), the road is in great condition, and there are plenty of cafes and rest stops along the way. This is truly the superior way to get to Pai.
Unfortunately, we decided after a couple lessons in the parking lot of the Royal Park Rajapruek that I wasn’t ready to handle my own bike, and we had too much luggage to fit on one together. As a result, I opted to take one for the team by hauling our big packs in a minivan, which is the other option to get to Pai.
Minivans run hourly from 7am-5pm and cost 150 baht each way (your hostel may add a nominal service charge). Virtually all hostels and hotels are able to arrange tickets, and you’ll be picked up from your accommodation in a songthaew taxi and taken to the company office, from where the air-conditioned van will depart. The ride takes about three and a half hours, and there’s a 15-minute bathroom break halfway.
Our Chiang Mai hostel (Thai Time) booked us with a company called Aya, which seems to have most of the van business here. It was fine in that I did not, in fact, die, but I would definitely recommend exploring other options as Aya is notorious for having a low bar for both drivers and customer service, and I can confirm both counts.
THE VAN RIDE FROM HELL
Three hours sounds fine, right? It’s a nice air-con van, I could just pop in my headphones and zone out. I've had worse. Right?
Wrong. The van ride sucks beyond belief.
Here’s the deal. Pai is nestled in the mountains north of Chiang Mai. So to get there you have to cross a few mountain passes. That means you ride on some rather winding roads. Very winding, in fact - there are 762 curves in the road that stretches from Chiang Mai to Pai. Yeah. Seven hundred and sixty-two puke-inducing curves. And this is Thailand. Do you think drivers here take the curves at a nice, easy pace? Yeah right. It’s like a contest to see who can put themselves in the most danger. In our year of traveling across Europe and Asia we’ve gotten rather used to insane driving and are basically numb to it at this point, but man…You’d think people would know better than to try to pass in the middle of a blind curve halfway up a mountain, but you’d be wrong.
Oh! And did I mention I randomly started getting carsick about a year ago after never having issues before? For some reason it’s only vans and minivans, not buses. I think the culprit is the constant shifting of manual transmissions - in the States we drive automatics for the most part and I’m completely fine. But when you combine aggressive driving with constant, lurching gear shifts, I’m a total mess, clutching my stomach, staring blankly out the window and desperately wishing I’d taken some dramamine. Not my best look.
So picture me, horrifically carsick, green-faced and sweating buckets, mouth clenched shut, sitting in a cramped (yet mercifully air-conditioned) minivan with a bunch of people I don’t know, looking up the Thai translation of “please pull over sir, I need to throw up” in case I need to alert the driver. I tried to lean my head against the window, but that didn’t help as it was incessantly rattling, so I settled for resting my head in my hands and praying my podcasts could distract me enough to not go full Exorcist all over the place.
Yeah. Not great. Mercifully, at the rest stop I was able to pick up some pumpkin chips that soaked up some of the crud in my stomach to help tide me over for the remainder of the journey, but as soon as I touched ground in Pai I swore to never take that journey ever, ever again. Oh yeah, and Aya drops you at their office/hostel/booking company (aka money-making scheme) on the far outskirts of Pai, and the only way to get from there to your lodging is to take the company songthaew, which isn’t included in the price of your van ticket. Because why would it be? Ugh.
SO HOW DID YOU GET BACK?
I was not emotionally equipped to handle the return journey via van, and spent most of our two weeks in Pai dreading it. Fortunately, we eventually learned that Aya will ship your bags back to Chiang Mai for 100 baht ($3) each. Problem solved! We just had to drop our bags off at the office on the Pai walking street at 8am the morning of our departure. Once we made it back to Chiang Mai, we just had to pick up our bags at the company office. Easy peasy - I just wish we’d known about this before I had to ride in that horrible van, I could’ve ridden in back of Alex on the way up, too!
When it came to our return journey, I’d love to say that it went swimmingly (pun intended, as you’ll see). But that just wasn’t the case. See, we visited Pai right on the cusp between dry and monsoon seasons, so over the course of our two-week stay the weather got increasingly rainier. It was never much more than a long afternoon shower, but when our departure day arrived we were greeted with grey skies and the low rumble of thunder in the distance. Not a great omen.
We dropped off our bags at Aya and hustled to check out of our bungalow and try to beat the storm, donning our raincoats and fashioning a rain cover for Alex’s daypack out of an old plastic bag. We were good for about the first hour, but all of a sudden the sky opened up and it didn’t let up for the duration of the drive. You might remember from our Vietnam motorbiking adventure that we got caught in a couple torrential downpours, but this was on another level. Within five minutes we were completely soaked, freezing, and absolutely miserable. Plus, there was a hellish amount of traffic and those crazy minivans like the one I road to Pai in were constantly zooming past us, as were huge semi trucks. To make matters worse, our rental helmets didn’t have visors, so conditions quickly became too dangerous to drive safely.
The weirdest part of all this, though, was that as soon as it started raining thousands of moths flew out of the forests around the hills, hovering in the middle of the road in massive numbers. It seriously looked like giant buzzing clouds. We were going relatively fast so they were constantly flying into us, splatting on our clothes and getting in our eyes. It was incredibly bizarre and utterly disgusting.
We soon decided it was too dangerous to keep driving and pulled over to a covered coffee shop on the side of the road, where we literally poured water out of our soggy shoes, cartoon-style, and tried in vain to warm up while we waited (also in vain) for the rain to abate. After an hour we realized it wasn’t gonna get any better, so we sucked it up and soldiered on. By that point we were more than halfway through, and about thirty minutes later it finally let up for good, but boy were we glad to get off the motorbike at the end of the day. Give me Vietnamese weather any day of the week!
THE BOTTOM LINE:
If you or your travel buddy is comfortable on a motorbike, then BY ALL MEANS make sure that’s how you get to Pai. Unless you have an iron stomach, several doses of Dramamine, or a barf bucket. Or all three, honestly. I’m told sitting shotgun might help reduce symptoms, though it doesn’t make a difference for me.
If you do choose to take a motorbike, be sure to take all necessary safety precautions, prepare yourself for the likely possibility of being pulled over and fined, and dress appropriately for the weather. It gets cold in the mountains, and depending on the season there’s a fair chance of intense rainfall, which can make the twisty turns even more dangerous than normal. In dry season it’s usually hot, so ensure you’ve got adequate sun protection and lots of water. Select a helmet with a visor if possible, to reduce wind, dust and errant bugs obstructing your field of view.
But really, the most important thing is safety. I cannot emphasize enough that this is NOT a route for beginners. If you really feel the need to learn how to ride a motorbike in Thailand, hire one once you get to Pai. It’s fairly easy/common to learn there, but you don’t want to test your newbie skills against the insane drivers and the 762 curves along the way. It’s dangerous, there’s no other way to put it, and you are taking your life (and potentially other lives) in your hands when you get on a motorbike.
In the event of an accident your insurance won’t cover you if you don’t have the proper license to drive a bike in Thailand (e.g. a motorcycle license from home PLUS an International Driving Permit). Just a plain old driver’s license won’t cut it - they know to look for the motorcycle endorsement. If you’re caught driving illegally (happens all the time), you’ll be fined 500 baht. If you injure or kill someone while driving illegally, you will face jail time in Thailand. Not a great thought. But these are the risks you must be aware of when choosing to ride a motorbike. That’s why I’m going to keep reiterating that you should only do this if you’re confident in your abilities, and be sure to read up on Thailand’s road rules before embarking (they drive on the left, FYI). I recommend checking out our Chiang Mai travel guide, where I delve a little more into motorbiking tips.
Whether you risk it on a bike or in a van, the route from Chiang Mai to Pai is always an adventure and is sure to be a memorable experience. Pai is worth the struggle though - once I'd had a few minutes to relax in a hammock and look out over the spectacular rice fields and canyon views, I (almost) completely forgot about the hellish journey. I'm sure it will be the same for you.