Northern Thailand has so much to offer travelers, from rolling mountains, stunning waterfalls, busy cities, and a laid-back vibe, this part of the country truly has it all.
One of the top tourist spots in Northern Thailand is the small hippie town of Pai, not too far from the Myanmar border. With many activities in the surrounding landscape and popular ‘hammock culture’, it’s no wonder why so many people are eager to visit.
You’ll start your journey in Chiang Mai, and there are various options for traveling from Chiang Mai to Pai.
How to Get from Chiang Mai to Pai and Back
Both buses and mini buses depart from Arcade Bus station in Chiang Mai. You can get a Grab taxi to get there or ride a songtaew (red taxi trucks).
Don’t forget to check out my posts on Pai for all the info you need for your visit…
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Chiang Mai to Pai by Bus and Back
If you want to keep both feet firmly on the ground and are looking for a budget-friendly option, then catching the bus is a popular choice. Busses leave from Chiang Mai to Pai at various times throughout the day, departing from the Arcade Bus Station.
It’s recommended that you buy your ticket in advance, although you can also buy tickets directly from the bus station, and arrive at the bus stop with around half an hour to spare unless it’s high season, you may want to book even earlier.
The journey is full of twists and turns, so expect it to take around 3.5 hours. The ride will cost roughly 90B each way.
There are two terminals at the main bus station, Arcade Bus Station, in Chiang Mai, but both of these are right next door to each other. Generally speaking, the more local services will use the old terminal. The station is located just off of the main highway that runs around the city, on the eastern side.
To catch the bus back, head to Pai Bus station which is located at the center of town. The bus back will take 3.5 hours and will take you directly to Arcade bus station in Chiang Mai.
Cost: Around 90B one way
Time: 3.5 hours or so
→ More info: Check bus times here
Chiang Mai to Pai By Minibus and Back
There is a huge range of tour and travel companies in the city of Chiang Mai where vans and minibuses can be booked. For a small booking fee, many of the hotels and guesthouses in town will also arrange a minibus for you.
It is worth doing some research into the different companies that offer this service, as only some will have air conditioning, and some will pick you up directly from your hotel. There are two different types of minibus, one that is government run and the other that is run by the tourist companies.
The trip takes around 3 hours through twisty mountain roads, and there’s around a 15-minute break halfway.
There’s also a regular and reliable minibus service between Pai and Chiang Mai which leaves from the bus station at Pai. It’s small and is located right in the center of town. It’s from here that both mini-buses and government buses start their journey to Chiang Mai.
Personally, I prefer to use the regular government minibuses as I feel they are more regular and ever slightly more careful (although, that’s a relative term when speaking about transportation in Thailand).
The drivers for the tourist buses that pick you up from the hotels seem to drive a bit more erratically as they are trying to keep to a tighter schedule and “care less” about the tourists.
Cost: 150B from the bus station or 190B+ if you buy it from guesthouses etc that may pick you up in town.
Time: About 3 hours
→ More info: Check bus times here
Chiang Mai to Pai by Plane and Back
If time is of the essence, then you should consider catching a plane to Pai. Kan Airlines offers this short flight, and the as the airport of both towns are relatively close to the city center, it is an easy journey. Head to Chiang Mai International Airport (CNX), which is just a 10-minute drive from town, and get a flight to Pai Airport (PYY). The flight itself only takes 30 minutes, so you will be touching down before you know it, however, flights do not run every day so if you want to fly, this is something that needs to be planned in advance. Although this is the quickest option, it can also be the most expensive.
There are also flights from Pai to Chiang Mai, and these should be booked in advance. Pai airport is located just 2km from the center of town. The cost of a flight will vary greatly depending on the time of year, but they can cost as little as 990 baht, with the standard price being more about the 2200 baht mark.
I have never flown because I don’t think it’s worth it. You’ll spend almost as much time getting to the airport, waiting to board and deboard etc saving very little time in the long run for a lot more money. But it may be the best option for those with terrible motion sickness.
Cost: Around 1000-2000B depending
Time: 30 minutes but this doesn’t account for time spent at the airport.
→ More info: Check flight time and prices here
Motorbike from Chiang Mai to Pai and Back
If you’ve been traveling all over Thailand, then you’ve surely seen motorbike for rent signs everywhere. And going from Chiang Mai to Pai is one of the country’s most popular routes to drive!
Be prepared that if you chose for this option, you will have to navigate over 700 turns on Route 1095.
There are no proper gas stations in the mountains, so make sure you have at least a full tank before you set off, otherwise you’ll need to find fill up station at people’s houses. You’ll see old whiskey bottles sitting on a shelf with a yellowy substance in them, that’s gas!
During the rainy season, the road can also get very muddy and slick. Despite the dangers, this is arguably one of the best ways to travel between towns, but only if you are experienced. The scenery is stunning and the mountain roads can be thrilling.
Do note that no matter how experienced you are, your ass will take a beating and there will need to be many stops along the way for stretching and ass resting!
When I did this route my low back hurt a bit too as you’re going uphill and bending forward a bit. I will admit, it’s a beautiful drive but it’s not really the most comfortable. On top of that, it happened to rain the day I went which made the drive even less enjoyable.
To reach Pai from Chiang Mai, you have to take the North Exit out of the old city and head towards the 107. The route is pretty well signposted, and after about an hour of driving, you should see a sign for 1095 to Pai. This road will take you all the way there.
If you still have your bike with you, you will be able to follow the same route, but in reverse, on your journey back from Pai to Chiang Mai.
Although, if you only wanted to go one way on the bike, you’d need to book with AYA as they are the only service who offers one-ways with their motorbikes. They stick your luggage on the back of a minibus for you.
On average, you should expect to pay around 150 to 200 baht per day for a small moped style bike or automatic motorbike. If you want a ‘big bike’, then you should be prepared to pay around 1500 baht per day.
For the winding, mountainous road to Pai, it is recommended that you get at least a semi-automatic so that you are more in control of the vehicle. The larger your engine, the more power your bike will have, so when it comes to this type of driving, the bigger the cc rating the better.
Bikes tend to range from 110cc to 125cc, so try to opt for the higher rating. It is not advisable to use a moped to make the drive, as these are less powerful and more suited to city driving.
Cost: 150B + depending on the bike
Time: 3 hours + depending on how quickly you drive and how many times you stop
Tips For Motorbiking From Chiang Mai to Pai
- If you rent a motorbike, taking video and photos before you leave the shop is a must. You want proof of what the bike looked like when you got it.
- Cover up in case you have a spill. In fact, you should have some decent protective gear if you’re on the bigger bikes as well. You don’t want to look like the other tourists who are covered in bandages because they thought shorts and a tank top was appropriate motorbike attire.
- Let trucks, buses, and cars pass you, there’s no reason to try and race them uphill alongside the drops!
- Take all the turns very carefully as most people on the road don’t necessarily stick to their own lane (Yep, that’s all 700+ of them)
- Helmets are not a suggestion, they are a must! (And for the record, regarding the first picture in this post we had helmets, they were off for the picture only.)
- It’s best to have an international driver license with you. American’s can pick them up at AAA for $20 very easily.
Although Pai is a fantastic destination to visit, and one that is well worth making the 3 hour trip for, be aware that the only continuing route out of Pai is to proceed towards Mae Hong Song which then loops back towards Chiang Mai, which is a great route but it does take around 5-7 days to complete properly.
So, if that’s not in the cards for you, to visit anywhere else in Thailand, you will have to head back to Chiang Mai the way you came.
Which way do I prefer to get from Chiang Mai to Pai and back? By minibus! Buses are longer and crappier, motorbikes require too much effort and hurt my ass, and flights are expensive!
No matter how you have decided to travel, it will all be worth it when you reach this small mountain town. Lay on a hammock, go for a mountain adventure or just enjoy the scenery. You deserve it after that grueling trip!
Where will you go after Thailand?
Which way are you traveling to Pai? Let us know in the comments!
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Nina Ragusa is an adventurer, messy bun master, breakfast fan, and full-time travel blogger. She’s been abroad and epically failing at the American Dream since 2011. Her sassy yet informative blog, Where in the World is Nina? is all about how to work abroad to live a more adventurous life. If you want to travel longer you have to work to wander.