Photo: Where the fields go and go.

How to get to and from Pai

Use the quicklinks below to jump to the desired section regarding transport in and around Pai.


Air

In recent years Kan Airlines scheduled several weekly flights between Chiang Mai and Pai’s tiny airport, with even occasional links from Pai to Mae Hong Son. At time of writing (mid-2017) all services were suspended. Their website claims this is due to aircraft maintenance, while rumours point to financial difficulties. When we enquired at the airport itself we were told flights might resume in October, so perhaps it's a low season thing.

In 2016, the 25-minute flight by small prop craft was going for around 1,900 baht, so it would be a quite extravagant way to reach Pai anyway. By the time you’ve factored in taxi to the airport, check-in and waiting around for bags on arrival there’s little time saving to be made on the 3.5 hour bus ride. The short run from Pai to Mae Hong Son is to our minds even more superfluous; if you go that way you'll miss out on some of north Thailand’s best scenery.

You can check their contact details below for any new developments. Pai’s airport—originally built by the Japanese army during World War II—is a five-minute drive northwest of town off Mae Hong Son Route 1095. The airport code is PYY.

Kan Air call centre: T: (02) 551 6111; http://www.kanairlines.com/.

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Bus

There is only one road through Pai: Route 1095, along which you can either travel southeast to Chiang Mai or northwest to Soppong and Mae Hong Son. Obviously, that includes any stops along the route, like Mae Malai, but any other destinations you see advertised will necessitate a change of bus.

That means changing in the provincial capital (Mae Hong Son) for Mae Sariang or Mae Sot and changing in Chiang Mai for anywhere else including Tha Ton and Chiang Dao, and any towns in Chiang Rai province. You’ll see Bangkok rates posted and even southern destinations such as Krabi or Surat Thani listed, but all direct Bangkok services depart from Chiang Mai and southern terminuses will require a second change of bus in the capital. Driving time from Pai to Chiang Mai or vice versa is between three and four hours, depending upon traffic and with a brief coffee and toilet stop half way.

If you do want to travel to Tha Ton or Fang without returning to Chiang Mai, then you need to alight at Mae Malai, where the Pai highway meets Route 107 heading north. Wait at the side of the road for a northbound bus to pass.

At the time of writing there were three services running between Pai and Chiang Mai: Prempracha, Aya Service and a new company called Green Terminal. The latter has nothing to do with the well organised Green Bus Company (which doesn’t serve Pai). It displayed a decided lack of professionalism and not many departures when we visited, so we’d stick to the other two companies.

Both Prempracha and Aya advertise hourly departures for identical 150 baht tariffs. The former's buses depart from Pai bus station and the latter’s leave from outside their office. In Chiang Mai, Aya’s also terminate outside their office and Prempracha’s at Arcade Bus Station. If you have a certain time in mind, then book in advance which you can do at any hotel or guesthouse for a service charge, while you can also reserve Prempracha seats online and make payment at a 7-eleven store.

Minibuses between Pai and Chiang Mai can also be booked online through Travelfish partner 12GO Asia, and this can be a good idea in high season. See below for links to schedule details.

Minibuses from Chiang Mai to Pai
Minibuses from Pai to Chiang Mai

At present only Prempracha buses continue from Pai to Soppong and Mae Hong Son. Soppong is one hour further up the mountain road and Mae Hong Son another hour again. Though they are scheduled hourly, buses tend to depart whenever there are enough customers, which during busy periods can mean several per hour. The first Chiang Mai-bound vehicles depart at 07:00 and the last at 17:00, with more or less hourly departures between 08:30 and 17:30 for Mae Hong Son. Please note that both companies’ schedules are on the flexible side and vary according to season and day of the week. The fare is 100 baht to either Soppong or Mae Hong Son.

All buses are of the 13-seat minivan variety; at the time of writing there were no larger buses or songthaew services. Driving on what can be a hairy, very winding mountain ride seems to have improved of late. Maybe we were lucky or maybe drivers have got fed up of cleaning up after car-sick passengers?!

If you wish to book onward bus travel from Chiang Mai before departing Pai, any of the town’s agents will sell you a combined Pai to Chiang Mai, then Pai to say Bangkok ticket, or you can reserve a seat yourself online. Most of the major transport companies operating out of Chiang Mai offer website bookings these days. In town we’ve always found May World Travel, on Chaisongkran, to be very reliable.

Aya Service, Pai: 22/1 Moo 3, Chaisongkran Rd, Wiang Tai; T: (053) 699 940;(053) 699 888; http://www.ayaservice.com; open Mo–Su: 07:00–22:00.
May World Travel: Chaisongkran Rd, Wiang Tai; T: (053) 699 435; (085) 620 9918; mayworldtravel@yahoo.com
Prempracha Transport: Chaisongkran Rd, Wiang Tai; T: (053) 064 307; http://premprachatransports.com/.


International bus services
As is the want in such tourist hotspots, you’ll see long distance travel to the next perceived hotspot advertised; in the case of Pai, that would be Laos. We saw tickets for Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng and Vientiane on sale including bus and boat travel (with slow or speedboat options) on the Mekong. All of these involve a transfer via Chiang Mai to the border crossing at Chiang Khong, an overnight stay and onward bus or boat travel the following day. Slow boat options would necessitate a second night in Pak Beng.

Quite why anyone would wish to purchase a ‘direct’ Pai to Vientiane ticket or even Pai to Vang Vieng, both of which involve arduous rides right across Thailand to Nong Khai, is beyond us. Presumably some do, however, or agents wouldn’t advertise them. We’re not suggesting it’s a guaranteed nightmare experience, but these kind of all-in long distance packages do leave a lot of room for feedback of the herd of sheep or cattle truck nature. Agents were suspiciously reluctant to tell us which accommodation in Chiang Khong and Pak Beng was included in the ticket. Nor are we convinced there’s a financial saving to be had, so unless you are in a desperate hurry we wouldn’t recommend a package that is straightforward to organise on your own, and do at your own speed. Below are standard rates offered by Chaisongkran travel agents.

Chiang Khong: 650 baht
Luang Nam Tha: 1,350 baht
Luang Prabang (slow boat): 1,750 baht
Luang Prabang (speed boat): 2,350 baht
Vang Vieng: 1,550 baht
Vientiane (via Nong Khai): 1,250 baht

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Getting around

Pai town itself is too small to warrant tuk tuks, and though you’ll find a few taxis and motorcycle taxis hanging around the bus station area—serving more distant destinations or for those carrying loads of luggage—all in-town sites are within easy walking distance of each other.

There are two permanent bridges and another dry season one across the Pai River, so again, unless you’re heavily ladened, the numerous east bank resorts are also within easy reach of Chaisongkran Road. Even if you do have a bicycle or motorbike, Chaisongkran, or Walking Street in particular is so congested for much of the day with pedestrians and unsure scooter renters fresh out of hire shops that it may be easier to park somewhere and do it on foot.

Note that most out of town accommodation spots offer a free pick-up from the bus station if you tell them in advance of your arrival time.

Bicycle
Cycling is a woefully underused means of transport in Pai since, with largely flat terrain in the wide valley, generally good quality rural roads plus lots of country back lanes to explore, it is an ideal way to get around. You do have to look hard to find a cycle hire shop amid the myriad scooter ones, but there are a few around . Some resorts and guesthouses also provide them for guests either free of charge or for a few baht.

The best cycle hire shop we came across was Chang Bicycle, around half way down the busy section of Rangsiyanon by the 7-eleven. They offer a good and well-maintained selection of road and mountain bikes for rent from 50 to 150 baht per day depending on how fancy a set of wheels you’re after. They have plenty of bikes and stay open until 22:00, so no excuses! If you’re planning to do some serious off-piste mountain biking, you would need to obtain a better map than one of the guesthouse freebies. Chang’s English-speaking staff ought to be able to help with some suggestions. Mae Yen or the aptly named Huay Chang waterfalls could prove interesting rides but again, check with staff re cycling conditions before setting out.

Chang Bicycles: Rangsiyanon Rd, Wiang Tai; T: (083) 066 8683; (093) 262 8174; Singha006@hotmail.com; open Mo–Su: 08:00–22:00.

Taxis
There’s an imposing taxi counter next to the bus station on Chaisongkran Road plus numerous smaller ones dotted around town. Drivers would preferably be looking for punters for more profitable day hire (Pai sightseeing tours, for example), or longer runs to Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai and so on, but if they’re not busy, taxis will ferry you out to whatever far-flung resort you’re staying at. Prices vary according to distance, number of passengers and how busy they are.

All long distance fares are clearly advertised on their posters and below are a few examples:

Chiang Khong: 6,500 baht
Chiang Mai: 2,500-3,000 baht
Chiang Rai: 4,500 baht
Mae Hong Son: 2,500 baht
Soppong: 1,500 baht
Sukhothai: 6,500 baht
Tha Ton: 4,200 baht.


We also came across Pai to Chiang Mai by pick-up with your motorbike in the back for 2,500 baht—handy if you can’t face the return ride.

Mae Hong Son and Chiang Mai are both easily reached by regular bus, so we can’t imagine hiring a taxi for these runs being necessary except in emergencies. Routes involving changes in Chiang Mai, such as onward travel to Chiang Khong or Tha Ton, for instance, can be a bit fiddly, so they could conceivably be worth a splurge if you’re in a hurry and have a car full of fellow passengers at hand.

Private day hire comes in at between 1,500 and 2,000 baht as long as you don’t plan on going too far from town while a return to Pai Canyon or the hot springs, for instance, is 400 baht per person including waiting time. Shorter rides will vary considerably and are open to negotiation.

The word taxi in Pai does cover a variety of vehicles. It could refer to a pick-up truck, saloon car, minibus for larger numbers or you may even be referred to a moto-taxi for a short ride to an edge of town resort if you’re not carrying too much luggage.
Taxi station: Chaisongkran Rd, Wiang Tai; T: (053) 699 698.

Motorbike hire
Motorbike hire shops are ubiquitous in Pai, dotting Chaisongkran and Rangsiyanon Roads in particular, while many hotels and guesthouses will also organise you a bike on request. Bikes go from automatic scooters to semi-manual Honda Dreams up to trail bikes, with Aya Service on Chaisongkran still being the most prominent. They have a wealth of choices plus a very convenient scheme whereby you can rent in Pai and leave the bike at their Chiang Mai office or vice versa. There is a 100 baht surcharge for this service and their new Chiang Mai office is located close to the Kamthieng Flower Market.

Prices depend on the make of bike, with discounts generally available for longer hires. Rates may vary slightly from one shop to another. Hotels will probably add on a small service fee for calling, reserving and getting the motorbike delivered to your door. This may seem convenient but a disadvantage here is that you can’t see, try or check the bike beforehand. We also recommend renting your bike from one of the more professional agents rather than the noodle shop waitress’ cousin and check any bike thoroughly. Tyres, klaxon, lights, both brakes, locking system and any existing damage or scratches would be the minimum checklist and if you are not 100% satisfied ask for another.

The price range is extremely reasonable and runs between 100 and 150 baht per day, making them some of the cheapest rental bikes we’ve seen anywhere in Southeast Asia. There will be a small deposit for a helmet and optional additional daily insurance supplements from 79 baht up, depending on how much cover you require. Note this covers damage to your bike and/or other vehicles but not hospital fees in case of an accident. If you don’t have your own adequate accident insurance then you could find yourself in serious trouble and if you don’t pay for at least minimal damage cover you’d be nuts! They ask for a passport as a deposit so if you’re not happy leaving it with them you’ll have to negotiate a cash deposit of 3,000 to 4,000 baht or so.

Despite locals often not wearing a helmet, you can expect to be pulled over and fined if you are stupid enough to ride a scooter without a helmet.

250cc trail bikes can also be rented for around 900 to 1,000 baht (and up) per day while Tip Offroad in Mae Yen village offer off-road tours including rental and equipment for 3,500 baht per day. They will also give you lessons beforehand and their tours receive excellent feedback. The office is on the main road in the centre of Mae Yen.

Aya Service, Chiang Mai: Sri Monkol Rd, T: (053) 231 815-6; (053) 231 833; http://www.ayaservice.com; open Mo–Su: 07:00–22:00.
Aya Service, Pai: 22/1 Moo 3, Chaisongkran Rd, Wiang Tai; T: (053) 699 940, (053) 699 888; http://www.ayaservice.com; open Mo–Su: 07:00–22:00.
Tip Offroad: Mae Yen; T: (086) 190 5120; https://www.facebook.com/tipoffroad; open Mo–Su: 08:00–20:00.

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Where to next?

Where are you planning on heading to after Pai? Here are some spots commonly visited from here, or click here to see a full destination list for Thailand.


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