Things to do and see in Pai
Table of Contents
Introduction to the things to do and see in Pai
Development of a tourist destination
Pai is a small town on the Pai River in Mae Hong Son province in northwest Thailand. Over the past two decades, Pai has become a major tourist destination. It started out as a popular place for backpackers in the 1980s until local tourists discovered this charming town about twenty years ago. About ten years ago Pai started to attract more adventurous visitors from China and other Asian countries.
I visited Pai for the first time in November 1981. Back then it was a sleepy town with two guesthouses and not more than 30 tourists. Before the pandemic, Pai had 425 properties to accommodate tourists. My article “The things to do and see in Pai” is a work under construction. You can find quite a few similar articles with titles such as “21 cool things to do in Pai” online but I try to be more comprehensive. Pai fascinates me and I will add more content to this article over time. I have given a star rating to the things to do and see in Pai. It reflects my personal preference.
A dangerous but beautiful road
The distance from Chiang Mai is only 129km but road no.1095 is mountainous and quite tricky. The road has 762 bends and is often the scene of accidents. It takes most people three hours driving so I am a bit of an exception with my almost four hours of driving time. Construction of this road started during World War Two.
In November-December 1944 Allied intelligence noted a road under construction. Japanese army engineers and local workers were building a road from Chiang Mai via Pai and Mae Hong Son into Burma. The Japanese never finished the road. Even in 1978 the road was unsealed and in atrocious condition in the rainy season as pictures show that Khun Sira Tuangchaipiti took.
Pai has a small airport but at this moment there are no scheduled flights to the town from anywhere.
Birth of a backpacker destination
Pai started to become noticed as a destination for travelers in the 1980s. Author Joe Cummings only cited a traveler report about Pai in the 1981 edition of the Thailand guide book Thailand, a Travel Survival Kit: “Pai has one hotel which is good value for 50 Baht. Although only a small, sleepy town with not much to see I spent an enjoyable evening practicing my Thai with locals at a restaurant. The people here wear a lot of native hill-tribe costumes and display the hesitant, genuine friendly interest common to people who rarely see foreigners.”
In the 1992 edition of his guidebook, Cumming wrote: “It first appears that there’s not a lot to see in Pai, a peaceful crossroads town about halfway between Chiang Mai and Mae Hong Son on route 1095. But if you stick around a few days and talk to some of the locals, you may discover some beautiful out-of-town spots in the surrounding hills.” Thailand, a Travel Survival Kit has three pages about Pai and a map of the town. Cummings mentions 13 accommodations, mostly budget guesthouses.
A bit of history of Pai
Baan Wiang Neua
Thomas Kasper is known as the historian of Pai. He published the guidebook “The Paioneer” in 2006. You can find some of these writings on Pai history on the All about Pai website from Chris Pirazzi. I have not been able yet to find much information about the history before 1900. Sarassawadee Ongsakul doesn’t mention it in her book “History of Lanna” and also in The Chiang Mai Chronicle, an important source for the history of North Thailand, the town doesn’t feature. Apparently, there was a Lawa settlement in this area a long time ago.
Shan (Tai Yai) immigrants from Burma established a community in the 13th century, called Baan Wiang Neua. In the following centuries, there were hostilities between troops from the Lanna Kingdom and the, mostly Shan, inhabitants of Baan Wiang Neua. This resulted in the destruction of this village in 1869. On the ruins of Baan Wiang Neua, people established a new community and called it Muang Pai.
British consuls visit the Salween region
British consuls visited the Salween region of Monthon Payap to look after the interests of the citizens of the British empire in this area. After their trip they wrote a detailed report. The first of these reports I found dates back to 1907 and the last one to 1934. These reports contain interesting information about the infrastructure and the way of life in remote communities such as Mae Sariang (Muang Yuom), Khun Yuom, Mae Hong Son and Muang Pai.
This is a general observation from Josiah Crosby, the British consul in Lakon (Lampang), who toured the Western (Salween) of the Monthon Chiang Mai in late 1906: “Geographically, commercially, and, to a very large extent, racially, the Western Division of the “Muang” of Chiangmai may be said to belong to Burmah, rather than Siam. The region named lies wholly on the Western side of the watershed which divides the basin of the Salween from that of the Me Ping. Its population is in parts composed mainly of Shans, in others the Shan element is at least as much in evidence as the Lao. Trade as I have stated above, is everywhere carried on almost exclusively with Burmah, access to the North of Siam proper being rendered difficult by the intervening hills and by the absence of waterways.”
Consul Crosby’s description of Muang Pai in 1906
Crosby described Pai as follows: “The town, or village, of Muang Pai, lies in what may be termed a small plain running from North to South among the hills. I judged this plain to be about 15 miles long and 5 miles broad. It is traversed by the Me Pai, a feeder of the Salween, and by the Me Hoo, a small stream that runs into the former river. The town is situated at some little distance from the Me Pai itself. Local informants put the population of Muang Pai at about 600 persons, and I do not think their estimate is about the mark. The population is almost exclusively composed of Shans, with a sprinkling of Tongsoos.
There is a general air of well-being about the place, and I noticed that almost every household seemed sufficiently wealthy to own a number of bullocks. The plain in which Muang Pai is situated is extensively cultivated with paddy, which proved much cheaper than at other towns along my route. There is no lack of teak in the neighborhood, with the Bombay Burma Trading Corporation holding the leases of the surrounding forests. This firm has established an office at Muang Pai under the charge of a European assistant.”
The Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation left the Salween area in the late 1920s. The company closed its offices in Mae Sariang, Mae Hong Son, and Pai. These buildings have been demolished decades ago.
My first visit to Pai
As I wrote earlier, I visited Pai for the first time in November 1987 during my first backpacking trip to Thailand. I traveled with a high school friend. Fellow backpackers we had met in Chiang Mai recommended Pai. I had never heard of it. These were the pre-internet days so backpackers exchanged travel information. We also carried the quintessential Thailand guidebook for backpackers with us: Thailand, A Travel Survival Kit, by Joe Cummings. We traveled to Pai by public bus. I recall it was a medium-size non-aircon bus.
We stayed three nights in the Shan Guesthouse, on the edge of town. I remember there was another popular guesthouse, called Pai in the Sky. On the first day, we hiked to the hot springs, of which I remember very little. In the afternoon we visited a waterfall. In those days there were no scooters or motorbikes for rent. I don’t think there were more than 20 or 30 backpackers in Pai.
On the second day, we rented a pickup truck with a bunch of backpackers, some of whom we had met in Chiang Mai. We drove to Cave Lodge, which already had a cult status in those days. It was a harrowing drive on a winding, steep and dangerous road. The surface was loose and slippery. My travel companion proved to be a very good driver but it was a scary ride. I think we visited Tham Lot and Cave Lodge and returned the same day.
Things to do and see in Pai
The Mork Fa waterfall
This waterfall is not in Pai but on road 1095, about 78 km from Pai. Firstly, I include it because most people who visit Pai will take this road and pass this waterfall. The falls are a couple of kms off the main road. Secondly, this is a beautiful waterfall with great swimming. It is part of the Doi Suthep-Pui National Park. The last time I visited (November 2021) the entrance fee for foreigners was 100THB per person. It is well worth visiting as the setting is pretty spectacular.
Find the Mork Fa waterfall on Google Maps.
The Pambok waterfall
This waterfall (น้ำตกแพมบก) is about 9 km from Pai. Along the way, you pass the Pai land split. Like most secondary roads in the Pai district, the road is narrow. The correct translation should be Phaembok waterfall but Pambok is generally accepted. It is a small waterfall, close to the parking lot. If you have been to Doi Inthanon the Pambok waterfall will be disappointing. Foreigners have to pay a hefty 200THB entrance free for this waterfall. This ticket also gives you entry on the same day to the Sai Ngam Hot Springs and the cave Tham Lot, respectively 22 and 55km from the waterfall. Is the Pambok waterfall worth 200THB? No, I don’t think so.
Find the Pambok waterfall on Google Maps.
The Mo Paeng waterfall
This waterfall is about 10km from Pai. The road is sometimes narrow but of much better quality than the road to the Pambok waterfall. This waterfall is much more impressive and enjoyable than the Pambok waterfall. Before the pandemic there probably were stalls and a manned information booth. There are areas where you can swim but the tourist infrastructure is in a very poor state. The bamboo walkways and wooden stairways look too dangerous to walk on. When I visited in November 2021 there was no entrance fee to this waterfall.
Find the Mo Paeng waterfall on Google Maps.
The “World War Two Bridge”
The steel truss bridge across the Pai River has become a popular tourists attraction. A plaque next to the bridge tells the history of the bridge but the information unfortunately is wrong. The Imperial Japanese Army didn’t construct this bridge in World War Two. Yes, Japanese engineers and local workers built road no.1095 from Chiang Mai to Pai and onwards to Khun Yuam but they didn’t construct the airstrip of Pai and this bridge.
Hak Hakanson, a retired American engineer, did extensive research on World War Two in North Thailand and came to this conclusion. His website Lanna in World War Two is the best source on this subject. Nevertheless, the myth of the World War Two bridge of Pai is still very much alive. A couple of years I witnessed a local man posing for pictures, dressed up in a Japanese World War Two army uniform.
Find the Tha Pai Memorial Bridge on Google Maps.
The Pai Canyon
When I visited Pai for the first time the Pai Canyon probably existed but was not developed as a tourist destination. It appears to be an eroded landscape with ravines. There is a network of trails through this interesting but seemingly dangerous landscape. Some of the trails have deep drop downs so you have to be sure of your footing. Wear good shoes and not flip-flops, to start with, because the surface is dusty and sometimes slippery. If you have a fear of heights, Pai Canyon is not your place. Apparently, several people fell to their death at Pai Canyon, which doesn’t surprise me.
Before Covid-19 it was a popular spot to watch the sunset. The entrance to Pai Canyon is free.
Find the Pai Canyon on Google Maps.
Santichon Chinese Village
When I first visited Pai I remember there was a KMT village a bit out of town. KMT stands for Kuomintang, the Chinese Nationalist Party. Kuomintang forces fought a civil war with the communist troops, headed by Mao Tse Tung. In 1949 the communists defeated the nationalist forces. Those in China’s southern Yunnan province crossed the border into Burma and some of them finally ended up in Thailand with their families.
The inhabitants of Santichon Village are descendants of these Yunnanese migrants or refugees. A couple of years ago they have developed a kind of Chinese Cultural Center near Santichon Village to cater to the growing number of Chinese tourists. I visited the village in 2018 and enjoyed it.
Find the Santichon Chinese Village on Google Maps.
Kho Kuu So Bamboo Bridge
The Kho Kuu So Bamboo Bridge connects Pambok village with the Huay Kai Keeree Buddhist Park. It allows monks to traverse the rice fields to go on their daily alms round. The bridge was constructed in 2016 and has since then become a tourist attraction. Entrance fee is 30THB per person. The bamboo bridge is only about 2 km from the Pambok waterfall but the road is pretty rough, narrow and steep.
Find the Kho Kuu So Bamboo Bridge on Google Maps.
Exploring Pai on a motorbike
Blogs and videos on Youtube promote riding a motorbike to explore Pai and its surroundings. Many places in Pai rent out scooters and motorbikes for affordable prices. It is common knowledge that many accidents and even fatalities have taken place involving tourists in the past couple of years. According to a website, there are 250 accidents per year in Pai involving tourists and motorbikes. Even though this article appears to be written for more than then years this claim seems to be plausible.
Not only do young travelers rent motorbikes in Pai, also mainstream tourists ride motorized vehicles. Many tourists are inexperienced, are not used to the traffic in Thailand, and sometimes refuse to wear helmets and proper protective clothing. Anyway, I prefer to ride a bicycle because it is healthier and safer.
The Tha Pai Hot Spring
These Hot Spring are part of the Huay Nam Dang National Park. The entrance fee for foreigners is a hefty 300THB, six times the price of a Thai national. I don’t mind some double pricing but this is a bit outrageous, in my opinion, so I decided not to go in. On my next visit though, I will because the mixed Trip Advisor reviews have made me very curious. For the time being I gave the Tha Pai Hot Spring no rating. Both Pong Duat and Tha Pai Hot Springs are part of Huay Nam Dang National Park. What I recommend is to visit Pong Duat Hot Spring on the way to Pai and upon arrival head straight to Tha Pai Hot Spring. At Pong Duat you have to pay 300THB entrance fee but you can use the ticket also for Tha Pai Hot Spring.
On the road from Pai to Pang Ma Pha, there is the Sai Ngam Hot Spring which I will also visit on my next trip.
Find the Tha Pai Hot Spring on Google Maps.
Pong Duat Hot Spring
These Hot Spring are part of Huai Nam Dang National Park. The name is also spellt as Pong Duad or Dueat. Pong Duat Hot Spring is about 60km from Pai on the road 1095 from Chiang Mai to Pai. Most people who visit Pai will take this road so I decided to include them in the Things to do. It is quite an extensive complex with bathing facilities and a nice walkway through the forest to the area where the water is boiling. If you have the time and drive or ride your own vehicle the Pong Duat Hot Spring are worth a visit.
Find Pong Duat Hot Spring on Google Maps
Cycling in Pai
Pai and its surroundings are great for cycling. I always take my bicycle along on road trips. The terrain is not all flat but it was not too difficult. You can make great rides to villages in the Pai Valley such as Baan Wiang Nuea. I pedalled to the Tha Pai Hot Spring, Wat Sri Don Chai, Wat Tad Ton Chet, Wat Thung Pong and the Memorial Bridge. I had a great time.
During my rides, I only met some local cyclists. Tourists don’t ride bicycles but motorbikes. I have seen no bicycles for rent in downtown Pai.
Trekking in Pai
Mae Hong Son province is great for trekking. Companies such as Pai Trekking Adventures offer one-day, two-day, and three-day trekkings with overnights in hill tribe villages. Most of these tours take place in Pang Ma Pha District, about one hour drive from Pai. This is an interesting area with Karen, Lisu, and Lahu villages and stunning scenery. Some of these treks can be combined with whitewater rafting on the Pai River.
Elephants in Pai
There are several elephant camps in Pai. The most well-known camp is Thom’s elephant camp, not far from the Pai Hot Springs. This camp claims to be the first elephant camp in Pai and that is plausible. The camp has just two elephants at the moment and offers walking tours and bathing and feeding activities with the elephants. They also offer bamboo rafting on the Pai River and have accommodation and hot tubs with water from the hot spring.
Find Thom’s Pai Elephant Camp on Google Maps.
Places of Worship
Michael Freeman writes in his excellent book “Lanna, Thailand’s Northern Kingdom” about Pai: “unfortunately, none ifs few wats are of great interest.” I disagree with him. He mentions Wat Luang, Wat Klang, and Wat Hua Na but has obviously overlooked Wat Sri Don Chai, Wat Thung Pong, and Wat Nam Hu, three very interesting wats in Pai. Apart from that, there are numerous smaller Shan-style temples in villages around Pai, that are worth visiting.
Wat Phra That Mae Yen
This is probably the time where most tourists go because of the fantastic view. The focal point of Wat Phra That Mae Yen is the sitting Buddha statue that is perched on the slope of a mountain that overlooks the Pai valley. The white statue is visible from afar. I just guess that the oldest part of the temple is the viharn, that contains several Buddha statues and a statue of Kruba Srivichai.
A wide staircase with lion statues on both sides leads to a smaller staircase that leads to the Buddha image. From the platform, you have great views of the Pai valley. That alone makes a visit to this temple worthwhile.
Find Wat Phra That Mae Yen on Google Maps.
The Wat Luang
The Wat Luang is in the center of Pai. Wat Luang translates as the big temple. A white Burmese-style chedi, surrounded by twelve smaller chedis is the highlight of this temple. It has a Shan-style wooden assembly hall.
Wat Thung Pong
Wat Thung Pong is my favourite temple in Pai. It is very well-maintained and also pleasing to the eye. The Burmese style multi-staged roofs (pyatthat) and spires are beautiful. According to this website Thai Yai cattle traders from Shan State established this temple in the year 1876. The temple underwent a major restoration in 2003. I consider this the most important Tai Yai or Shan temple in Pai. The temple contains the image of the Luang Por of Pai (หลวงพ่อปาย), the “venerable father” of Pai.
This wonderful temple is just a couple of km from the main road 1095. There is a sign at the crossroads.
Find Wat Thung Pong on Google Maps
The Wat Sri Don Chai
Wat Sri Don Chai is in Ban Wiang Neua, just north of Pai. It claims to be the oldest temple in Pai district. The Lanna-style assembly hall is stunning, on the outside as well as on the inside.
Find Wat Sri Don Chai on Google Maps.
Wat Nam Hu
This pretty, well-maintained temple is on the road leading to the Chinese village Santichon. According to information at the temple, the monk-engineer Kruba Srivichai founded this temple in the year 2485. In front of the temple, there is a pavilion in a pond, that is dedicated to the great King Naresuan.
Find Wat Nam Hu on Google Maps
The Al-Israa Mosque
The Al-Israa Mosque is one of the around 4000 mosques in Thailand. During my first visit to Pai I noticed a substantial amount of Muslims in this small town. Unlike the Muslims who live in Mae Sariang, who came from the Chittagong area in the current Bangla Desh these people came to Pai as traders from Chiang Mai. Their ancestors most likely were from Yunnan, China, The Al-Isra Mosque of Pai dates back to 1999. It is hard to tell how big the Muslim community is in Pai but there must be at least several hundreds. The mosque is located in the center of town.
Find the Al-Israa Mosque on Google Maps
The accommodation Cave Lodge has already had a cult status for decades. Australian John Spies and his wife, a former trekking guide from Chiang Mai, founded Cave Lodge in 1984. I visited Cave Lodge in November 1987 but can’t remember much about it. Cave Lodge claims to be the longest-running guesthouse in Mae Hong Son Province. The lodge is very close to Tham Lot, an impressive cave complex. John Spies is a caving expert and has discovered many caves in Mae Hong Son province. Apart from caving expeditions Cave Lodge also organizes trekking tours to hill tribe villages in the area.
Cave Lodge is in Soppong, a village in Paang Ma Pha district, which is about 50 km from Pai. This is not a straightforward 50 km but a steep and winding mountainous road with fantastic views so take your time to enjoy the ride or the drive. There are viewpoints along the way and villages so it takes me normally about two hours.
Find Cave Lodge on Google Maps
References for this article
I have visited Pai several times in the last three decades.
Website All about Pai
Website Lanna in World War Two
Joe Cummings, Thailand: a Travel Survival Kit, 1981 and 1992
Josiah Crosby, Report on a tour undertaken in the Western (Salween) Division of the “Muang” of Chiangmai, Chiang Mai, 1907