A Backpacker Paradise
A Budget Guide to Pai
Dates Visited: January/February 2019
- How to get to Pai
- Budget Friendly Things to do
- Best Places to Eat
- Where to Stay
Pai truly is a backpacker’s paradise. Located in the mountains of Northern Thailand its beauty is undeniable. Every morning a layer of fog covers the earth as mists slowly rises from the green rolling hills. Every night the sky fades from baby blue to pink while colorful clouds explode over the horizon. Just before 6:00PM, expats, locals, and tourists start to roam the streets for the nightly Walking Street market.
If you’re planning a trip to Pai, most backpackers will take the van from Chiang Mai. Why? It’s the cheapest route. We got a one way ticket there for 150-200 THB each (roughly $5-6 USD). You will want to book a one way, once you get to Pai, most travelers end up extending their stay. This is commonly referred to as “falling into a Pai hole.”
Our first time in Pai we intended to stay 4 nights and somehow ended up staying for 9. We loved it so much we decided go back for another 10 nights the following month. It’s honestly just hard to leave. Life in Pai is slow paced. Everyone is happy (mostly artists and hippies) and the food is very affordable.
How to get to Pai
Pai is roughly a 3 hour drive from Chiang Mai and vans leave every hour from each location. Van tickets can be bought at the Arcade Bus Station for 150 THB ($5 USD). However, if you want to be picked up at your hostel or hotel, tickets can be bought online or bought at your accommodation for roughly 200 THB ($6.50 USD). Our first time to Pai we bought tickets through the Islander Hostel and got picked up out front.
If you're looking for a van ticket from Pai back to Chiang Mai then just go to the main Walking Street and look for Aya Service or Prempracha. Tickets can be bought directly through their ticketing office for 150 THB.
Budget Friendly things to do in Pai
Hostels in Pai start around 120 THB/night ($4 USD) for a dorm bed and food options start at 20 THB ($0.60 USD) on the nightly Walking Street. Therefore it's super easy to do this place on the cheap which is why we put together a budget guide to Pai. Nonetheless, if you overindulge or go with posh accommodation it can easily add up.
Large beers at the bars usually average about 80-100 THB ($2.50-3.15 USD) which is a little pricey. However, there are plenty of happy hour deals offering 50 THB ($1.60 USD) cocktails. We also found that buying large beers at the local convenience stores are about 55 THB ($1.75 USD).
1. Hit the Walking Street Market
We basically did this every night for dinner. Make sure you go say hello to our two favorite chefs in all of Pai. They sell banana coconut pancakes, 4 for 20 THB ($0.60 USD), and a variety of flavored spring rolls, 3 for 20 THB. You will leave this place with a full belly and a fat wallet which is why we added it to our budget guide to Pai. In addition to cheap and delicious food, there are plenty of craft stalls selling locally made goods.
2. See a Fire Show
Backpacker's Paradise, a short walk from the main town of Pai hosts weekly fire shows. They are typically Thursdays/Sundays starting at 9:00PM and last about an hour. It's truly a must do in Pai. A big group of fire spinners come out and do choreographed dances to amazing music while spinning poi balls.
After the show they ask for a small donation, which we felt was totally worth it. Most people give about 100 THB ($3.15 USD) which absolutely makes it one of the best budget friendly things to do in Pai.
3. Visit the White Buddah
You can either rent a scooter or walk to the White Buddah (Chedi Phra That Mae Yen) but it’s worth the trip either way. It's roughly a 2km (1.2 miles) walk or drive from the main Walking Street. If you decide to go, remember to dress modestly as it is still considered a temple - pants and for ladies something to cover the shoulders.
If you forget, don't worry, you can rent a wrap or shaw for 20 THB ($0.60 USD). It's possible to see the White Buddah from Pai, sure, but the view from the White Buddah of Pai is unreal. Admittance is free which makes it another one of the great budget friendly things to do in Pai.
4. Live Music at Jazz House
This restaurant/bar/music venue is has incredible food - for all three meals of the day. We loved coming here at night and ordering bruschetta and a hot Thai tea. Then we would watch the live acoustic sets that happen nightly from 7:30-9:30PM.
The atmosphere couldn’t be any better. They have hammocks, bungalows built around the trees with pillows and small tables with candles on them to sit. All the seating is under string lights which makes the place pure magic. If you want to get a bit up closer to the music, you can sit under their white draping curtains next to the bar. Can you tell we loved Jazz House? Something to note: it was hardly jazz music but more of an acoustic variety.
5. Rent a Scooter
If you want to get out of town and explore, then renting is one of the best budget friendly things to do in Pai. Prices range around 100-200 THB/day ($3-6.50 USD) with helmets included. Fuel is quite cheap too with prices around 30-40 THB ($1.25 USD) per liter. With a scooter you can explore tons of places like Pai Canyon, the Hot Springs, Memorial Bridge, and more.
6. Go to Pai Canyon
It's best to rent a scooter to get to Pai Canyon since it is a little ways out of town, about a 15 minute drive (roughly 8km). Sunset is a popular time to visit, and if you hike just a little bit down the dirt paths the views get even better. Definitely wear shoes with good traction if you plan to go. Unfortunately, Josh slipped a fell when we were hiking down and smashed his phone screen.
If you need a screen repair while you’re in Pai, by chance, this guy was very helpful and fixed his screen in just a few hours. He came to the hostel and did it for about half the price the same service would have costed at home, 1700 THB ($53 USD).
7. Walk along the Memorial Bridge
The Pai Memorial Bridge is located about 10km (6 miles) outside the main town so we recommend taking a scooter here. It's a historic landmark because during WWII the Japanese built a bridge over the Pai river to create a route from Chiang Mai to Mae Hong Son. The original wooden bridge was burned down by the Japanese soldiers after they left. However, the villagers rebuilt the bridge became so useful in their everyday life. This place fits perfectly into our budget guide to Pai because there is no admission fee so visiting it is totally free!
8. Relax in the Hot Springs
We went to Tha Pai Hot Spring because of the draw of the Huai Nam Dang National Park. It was 300 THB/person ($10 USD) to get in and you do need to rent a scooter to get here since it’s about 15 minutes outside of town (roughly 8.5/km).
The air was cool and there are several different pools to choose with varying temperature. If you walk all the way to the top hot spring, the water is nearly boiling (80°C). Sometimes local people will sell eggs so you can boil in them in water. You’ll see the bamboo baskets hanging on the line between the trees to boil them in.
Personally we thought these hot springs were a bit overpriced and would recommend the Sai Ngam Hot Springs which are a bit cheaper and cooler in temperature. The Sai Ngam Hot Springs are a bit farther out but are only 200 THB/person ($6 USD).
9. Take a ride to Jabo Coffee
We were recommended this place by a few people that we met at our hostel. It's about 1.5-2 hours from Pai by scooter, but the drive and viewpoints at the café are absolutely worth the trip. Jabo Coffee is much farther north (almost into Burma/Myanmar) just off the curvy 1095 highway.
The café serves coffee for 30 THB ($1 USD) and noodles for 35 THB ($1.10 USD) so it fits nicely into our budget guide to Pai. Though the fuel will cost more than your meal, it's still relatively inexpensive. Scooters are roughly 100-150 THB and the fuel will cost about the same, so the total transport cost is under $10 USD.
10. Get a cheap Thai Massage
Thai massages in Pai are among the cheapest massages we found in all of Thailand. A full hour long Thai massage costs roughly 150-200 THB ($5-$7 USD). We found two of our found our favorite places right next to Pai Jadee Restaurant at the end of walking street. They both offer the 150 THB Thai massage and 200 THB foot massages. We ended up going several times because they were so affordable and relaxing. It's definitely worth checking out and adding this activity to your own budget guide to Pai.
11. Go on a Meditation Retreat
We had heard about going on a Meditation Retreat from people we met both in Chiang Mai and Pai. However, we hadn't considered doing it until we were on our way back from Pai. There are plenty of retreats that can be done around, but we settled on Pa Pae Meditation Retreat. It's a 3 day retreat about 1.5 hours from Pai.
Originally I (Josh) was a bit hesitant to commit the full 3 days but after the experience I wish I had more time there. Everything is optional at this retreat but they encourage no internet connection during your stay and one full day of silence. A teaching monk led us through 4 guided meditation sessions per day. Additionally, a big buffet style breakfast, lunch, and small dinner are provided along with room/board and comfortable clothes. The entire retreat is donation based, but it is recommended giving 400 THB/day ($13 USD).
Not only was this a rewarding and peaceful experience, it was surprisingly affordable. With all meals plus room and board included for ~$13 USD/day it's definitely one of the best experiences we did. For that reason we added it to our budget guide to Pai.
12. Find all the Bamboo Bridges
There are several bamboo bridges in Pai that allow you to cross the various rivers flowing through the town. If you decide to walk behind Common Grounds hostel you'll find a pretty dodgy looking one, but it's sturdy enough to support foot traffic. We found 3 total during our stay in Pai, but heard of at least one more. Though it may not be super exciting, it's still something fun and free to do. Plus you'll see some beautiful landscapes along the river during your walk.
Best Places to eat in Pai
We ate here one afternoon after staying out until 4am the night prior. One of our friends whom we’d met at Common Grounds was leaving that day couldn’t leave Pai without getting one more of these burgers. After we ate there we understood why.
This place has an amazing vegetarian selection on their menu. Definitely worth a shot to give the vegan sweet potato burger a try and share the onion rings and french fries with your group. So. Good.
We came here for breakfast two mornings. It’s a good place to go get an English or Western breakfast at a decent price and fun to sit at one of the two tables facing the street to people watch as you sip coffee and wait for your food.
Yes, they have an actual espresso machine. Definitely an upgrade from that instant coffee you’ve been drinking in Asia for God knows how long
This is probably my (Molly) favorite restaurant in Pai since we went here so many times. The food is very reasonably priced (40 THB for a Thai Omelette) and is delicious. They even brew their own kombucha which they sell here and at other places around Pai.
This was the first place we actually ate at in Pai. It was so refreshing to order a large salad and just shovel the veggies straight to our faces after eating only noodles and rice for the past week, we were all carb(ed) out. The food is decent enough but the prices are quite cheap, which we like. But you get what you pay for.
Where to stay in Pai
From our experience, we like to use Hostel World to check out potential hostels, then check other booking websites like Booking.com to make our reservations. Sometimes we also message hostels directly to get a better price. We also like to use Airbnb to book accommodations if its a better deal than hostels. Clicking on either of the icons will give you a deal with either of the sites, but are affiliate links so we earn a small commission.
Dorm: 300 THB ($10 USD)
Private: 980 THB ($28 USD)
Amenities: Free wifi, Free Water/Coffee/Tea, Excellent Location, Free Nightly Pub Crawl, Daily Activities offered through the hostel, Free luggage storage
Though this hostel is a bit pricier than the other ones we stayed at, the atmosphere is amazing. We met some great friends that we've stayed in touch with at this place. The common area has an excellent communal vibe and they even have free nightly pub crawls starting at 9PM. Though most people go out each night it's not really a party hostel as there is a nice laid back vibe to it.
Dorm: 120 THB ($4 USD)
Private: 450 THB ($14 USD)
Amenities: Free wifi, Free Water, Excellent Atmosphere, Weekly Fire Shows, Bar/Restaurant, Live Music
This hostel is located a bit out of town, though it's only like a 20 minute walk from the main walking street. The atmosphere here is amazing since the hostel is located on a massive plot of land. There is a huge hangout area with 2 pool tables, hammocks, and a lounge area with live music and more seating. Plus they have weekly fire shows on Thursdays and Sundays.
Dorm: 120 THB ($4 USD)
Private: 450 THB ($14 USD)
Amenities: Free wifi, Good Location
This hostel is the cheapest we could find in town off the main walking street. It was decent enough for the price, which is why we stayed but the wifi was a bit spotty. Nonetheless, it was cheaper to get a private room here than two dorm beds at Common Grounds which ended up being full during our second time in Pai.