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Pai

Getting there and away

Air

SGA Airlines -- don't worry if you've never heard of them, they are part of the Nok Air group associated with THAI -- have daily 30-minute flights to and from Chiang Mai. Departures from Chiang Mai are at 11:20, with additional weekend flights at 15:20, and in the other direction, 12:05 and 16:05, as well at weekends. In the high season these can fill up very quickly as they're only small planes. You can book through an agent in Chiang Mai, ask May if you're in Pai already, or book directly at www.sga.co.th. T: (053) 280 444.

Prices at time of writing were advertised at 1,930B but check their website since prices change throughout the year. You can also check www.nokair.com.

    Bus

    There are three options here if you're off in the Mae Hong Song or Chiang Mai direction, plus of course any points in between. (They are currently the only destinations available anyway as direct Chiang Khong and Chiang Rai minibuses no longer operate.)

    There's the fan bus, which takes two hours (more or less), is beaten up, often very crowded, always very old, but a good way to meet the locals; spanking new air-con buses; or minibuses.

    Schedules are so changeable it's hardly worth giving the current times. They can also get very crowded so best to turn up at the bus station and see what's happening. If you're out of luck for the air-con buses then you'll not have to wait long for a fan one, or buy a ticket on the next air-con one and go off for something to eat. Fan buses are 72B for the Pai - Chiang Mai route or vice versa, and air-con buses 101B. All these buses actually run between Mae Hong Son and Chiang Mai, so if you're waiting at Pai bus station don't be surprised to see an already full bus arrive. Times are around four hours between Pai and Chiang Mai, one hour to Pang Mapha and Soppong and two hours between Pai and Mae Hong Son.

    Minibuses Pai to Chiang Mai and Pai to Mae Hong Son are easier, especially if you're stuck at the Pai end since they merely go when they're full. In high season, this is very frequently. The three to there-and-a-half hour ride to Chiang Mai is 150B, while it's 100B and 90 minutes from Pai to Mae Hong Son. They do therefore shave an hour or so off the trip but that does mean they are going much faster around all those bends, which is not to everyone's comfort. They are however, air-con, and you do have a whole seat to yourself. All minibuses and buses leave and arrive at Chiang Mai's Arcade bus station, despite whatever they may say. First one is officially 06:30 and last 16:30 and minibuses -- in theory -- run between 07:00 and 17:00.

    For any other destination from Pai you will have to change in Chiang Mai whatever the agent claims. We saw 'direct' tickets offered to all sorts of odd destinations -- including Siem Reap, Luang Prabang and Ko Tao (!?!). You will have to change buses in Chiang Mai and again in Bangkok if you're going further even if you've bought a 'through' ticket. Luang Prabang tickets by boat include an overnight at the border in Chiang Khong plus a night in Pakbeng. (May's World Travel will sell you tickets to Luang Prabang by speedboat or slow boat.)

    For Chiang Khong, Chiang Rai and so on, change at Chiang Mai and for Chiang Dao, Tha Ton and so on, get out at Mae Malai, where the Pai road hits the main Chiang Mai-bound artery, and wait for the next hourly northbound bus.

      Getting Around

      Bicycles or motorbikes are easily and cheaply rented in town but please be careful! Check your bike thoroughly before departing, get a helmet and pay a bit extra to get insurance cover -- it's worth it. Motorbike accidents are by far the number one cause of death and injury among tourists in Thailand and many people's holidays have been ruined by forking out loads of money for a smashed up rental bike.

      Aya Service on Chaisongkran Road is a reliable spot with okay bikes at reasonable prices. But don't forget to check tyres, brakes, horn and so on. Honda Dreams go for 80B per day, Waves 100B, trail bikes for 500B and larger Honda Super Fours for 700B. Full insurance is 120B per day on top. Please note for one person a Dream is generally adequate and for two a Wave is powerful enough. Aya will also let you return motorbikes in Chiang Mai which could be very convenient, though with your rucksack and partner on board, it's further than you think and there are more hills and bends than you remember from the way up! Also it's a long, straight, busy and boring four-lane stretch from Mai Malai to Chiang Mai. A couple of other hire places (for bicycles as well) are on Chaisongkran Road and some guesthouses, particularly out of town ones, will hire them too.

      If you do have a bike and nowhere in particular to go, then go nowhere in particular -- it's nice! Get yourself a free map from the bike hire people and just cruise around the scenic lanes of Pai valley, stopping off at the occasional Shan temple or Thai coffee shop. Most roads will end up looping back to Pai town anyway.


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