With only five days in Chiang Mai, I had barely enough time to visit its neighboring provinces. But I wanted a side trip to happen. It was a toss between 1.) an arranged day trip to Chiang Rai, where I could visit the famed trio (White Temple, Blue Temple, and Black House), and 2.) a DIY 24-hour trip to Pai, best described by backpackers as a bohemian paradise.
I vetoed the coin toss and chose the Bohemian paradise. Scroll to the bottom of this post to watch the vlog.
About 146 km northwest of Chiang Mai, Pai is a small town that lies on the Pai River near the border of Myanmar. Once a quiet market village, it has become a hippie town beloved by backpackers around the world.
It’s also a popular pitstop for those doing the Mae Song Loop, a 600-km motorbiking journey that takes you through the most scenic routes of the Mae Hong Son province.
People told me that doing a Chiang Mai-Pai roundtrip in just one day is a crazy plan, but I did it. My journey entailed little sleep, a lot of stamina, making the most of every hour, and surrendering to the fact that I couldn’t see it all.
If you’d like to replicate my 24-hour Pai adventure, more or less, here’s a rundown. Note that the commute to and from Pai is included in the 24 hours.
8 am: Chiang Mai Bus Station
With little time to plan for Pai, I asked the front desk of my hostel in Chiang Mai for help. They told me 12go has limited tickets, so it’s best to book directly through Prempracha Transports. I booked an 8:30 am bus ride for ฿198.4. I arrived at the station at 8 am. It was a bit confusing to find my ride because it turned out not to be an actual bus, but a van. I found my name on the van driver’s list, and we left a little over 8:30 am. I got the front seat next to the driver.
10:00 am: OK Mart Pitstop
About an hour and a half later, we stopped at OK Mart, better known on Google Maps as Pitstop, where all vans, buses, and motorbikes coming from Chiang Mai stop for some food, coffee, and a toilet break. The driver gave us 15 minutes.
11:30 am: Pai Bus Station
The zigzagging road to Pai reminded me of road trips to Baguio and other provinces in the Philippines. The ride made me nauseous, so thank goodness I got the front seat and brought a pillow. We arrived at the Pai Bus Station at 11:30 am. I was supposed to buy my return ticket for the next day so that I could make it to my planned Sticky Waterfalls trip, but the morning buses were fully booked. After a slight panic attack, I asked around and found out that tourist rental shops down the street offer their own van rides to Chiang Mai. Whew!
12nn: Check into the guest house
I needed a place to stay for just one night, and it had to be within walking distance of the bus/van station. Most spots were booked. I found Sabaydee Guest House, which offered a decent private room through Agoda for ฿850 a night. It was no luxury stay, but I was desperate at that time. The next time I go to Pai, I’ll find a better place to stay.
12:30 pm: Lunch at Hotel des Artists
I met up with fellow digital nomad Niclas S. (check out his photography on IG @mylittlewildworld), who took me to lunch at Hotel des Artist.
1:30 pm: Explore Walking Street
Niclas suggested we hire a private car and driver to take us to the top sights, but I insisted that we rent our own motorbikes. Unlike Bangkok and Phuket where I wouldn’t dare bike, I felt safer on the wider and less congested roads of Pai. Motorbiking topped my Pai itinerary. I won the argument. Insert evil laugh here.
But first I needed to book my return ticket to Chiang Mai. I found a shuttle van ticket for ฿150 in AYA Service Pai, and it was to leave at 9 am the next day.
I explored as much as I could, from the Muay Thai boxing studios to the quaint boutiques that dotted Walking Street. I knew I had such a short time here, so I relished every minute.
2 pm: Rent a motorbike
Motorbike rentals were selling like hotcakes in Pai! While I found a shuttle van ticket in AYA Service, they ran out of scooters. We walked further until we found S.T. Motor, located next to a Muay Thai center called Pai Fit. I rented their last available scooter for ฿380. It included a helmet, and upon my request, a mobile phone stand. I left my Philippine driver’s license and a security deposit with them. I forgot how much the security deposit was. I’m guessing it was between ฿1,000-2,000.
2:30 pm: Explore Pai Sights
Niclas still didn’t have a motorbike. He also forgot his passport and license in his hotel, so I told him I was going ahead and that he should just text me as soon as he picked a spot to meet in an hour or two.
I spent the next two hours driving along the wide and curvy route 1095 while enjoying the mountainous backdrop. I stopped by some spots, such as I Am Pai, a touristy photo stopover; I Love U Pai Café, a container van-style café; and Paina Paita Home, an eccentric and artsy resort.
By this time I noticed that most establishments here are named after declarations of love, such as House of Love at Pai, Sweet Memories at Pai, The Moon at Pai, Coffee in Love, Love Strawberry Pai, and I Love You Pai.
4:30 pm: Love Strawberry Pai
Nic finally texted me and told me to meet him at Love Strawberry Pai, a strawberry farm and restaurant with kitschy décor and colorful Instagram spots, like a dining spot that resembles a vegetable truck in the middle of the field. Strawberry Shortcake would be giddy. At this point, I realized we didn’t have enough time to see the other spots like Bamboo Bridge and Sai Ngam Hot Springs.
5:30 pm: Hike and Sunset at Pai Canyon
After some refreshments at Love Strawberry Pai, we drove our scooters to Pai Canyon, where visitors come daily to catch the breathtaking sunset. Fair warning: The canyon has narrow, ledgy hiking trails, where you can easily slip and fall. Hike with caution.
We headed back to our hotels at 6:30 pm to freshen up and get ready for dinner.
7:00 pm: Explore Walking Street at Night
I had some time to explore Walking Street’s night version before dinner. I noticed that while it’s summery hot in the day, come nighttime Pai gets very cold. I returned my scooter before dinnertime because I knew I’d be drinking that night. Responsible Kate gets a pack on the back! I got my driver’s license and security deposit back.
7:30 pm: Italian Dinner
We had an Italian dinner of pizza, pasta, and wine at Witching Well, where we chatted with the owner, who told us about how he moved from Italy to Pai, Thailand, to put up a business. I fed one of the local dogs some pizza. We met a few more friends, fellow digital nomads who invited us to Pai’s version of the Full Moon Party. As backpackers and tourists know, the Full Moon Party originated on the island of Koh Pangan and continues to happen there every full moon throughout the year. Other islands and cities hold their own versions of the Full Moon Party, although not as wild and notorious as the one in Koh Pangan. I was happy to be invited to Pai’s “tame” version.
9:30 pm: Shuttle to Full Moon
We headed to Revolution Club, where the pre-party was wrapping up, but waited outside for the shuttle service to the “The Temple of Boom” party at Flow Bar.
10:00 pm: Full Moon Party
We entered jungle venue bathing under the full moonlight. We paid the ฿300 entrance fee plus ฿50 shuttle service. They had the usual elements of a backpacker festival—liquor booths, henna and body art booths, bbq stands, poi dancers, a bonfire next to the river, a DJ stage, a dance area, and graffitied portalets that smelled worse as the minutes and hours rolled by.
Overall it was a fun and unplanned night with hardly any trouble—no fistfights, arrests, or lost items, just your usual backpacker party with some standout characters. No need to take me to Koh Pangan. This was as wild as I got on my Thailand backpacking trip.
2:00 am: Pack Up
I was safely back at my guest house at around 2 am.
8:00 am: Last Look at Pai
I managed to hear my alarm at 8 am, took a quick shower, grabbed my backpack, left my key on the doorknob as instructed by the guest house owner, and walked to my van shuttle in time for the 9 am trip back to Chiang Mai.
12nn: Back in Chiang Mai
I grabbed a recovery lunch of Tom Yum at one of the restaurants in front of Chiang Mai Bus Station before heading back to my hostel to meet my friends for a trip to The Sticky Waterfalls.
What would I have done differently? I have no regrets about choosing Pai over the temples of Chiang Rai. But now I realize I should have cut my Phuket trip shorter and stayed longer in Pai.
If I were in my early 20s, I would have wasted my time and money on Koh Pangan’s Full Moon Party, hopefully emerging unscathed. But as a more responsible flashpacker (a.k.a. old backpacker), I know that one can catch the full moon anywhere in the world, and any social gathering with music can count as a party. Cheers!