Pai has to be one of my favourite places in all of Thailand.
Nestled in a valley on the banks of a river in the mountains of Northern Thailand, it has a peaceful, laid-back atmosphere which differs hugely from the islands and beaches in the south of the country.
The area boasts incredible views; lush rice paddies, waterfalls, canyons, hot springs and mountains make for incredibly beautiful scenery!
And the best part is that it’s super easy to explore Pai on a budget! Here, I’ll show you all the best free and cheap things to do in Pai.
How to get there
There are a few different ways of getting to Pai from Chiang Mai, but it is not the easiest journey, whichever option you take.
The road consists of 762 curves and corners, meaning that if you suffer from motion sickness, you might be in for a bit of a tough time!
In my opinion, this is by far the best option!
But it is probably only a good idea if you have driven a motorbike or scooter before and are confident.
The road is quite steep in places and can become very slippery after it rains, plus there are those 762 curves to negotiate and quite a few minivans, too.
However, the journey is absolutely stunning, there are lots of places you can stop off for a break and you’re free to take as much time as you like!
And, if you get your scooter through a company like Aya Services, they’ll even take your luggage in one of their vans so that you have complete freedom.
If you’d love to do this but don’t have experience driving a scooter, it’s probably a good idea to get some practice around Chiang Mai. Then, when you feel more comfortable, you can head for the mountain road!
Get a full account of the rental experience and the journey in this article: Chiang Mai to Pai – a stunning scooter road trip.
The easiest and most popular way to get to Pai from Chiang Mai is to book a seat on a minibus.
In most cases they will pick you up from your accommodation in Chiang Mai and drop you either at your accommodation in Pai or in the centre of town.
The journey takes around 3-4 hours, with breaks, and the driver is often trying to complete it quickly. Meaning all those corners will probably be taken at speed.
Not great for sufferers of motion sickness!
However, if you’re not confident on a scooter, this is the quickest, cheapest and easiest option. A one-way ticket usually costs around 160 baht.
I did try to look into flights from Chiang Mai when I was there, and found it surprisingly difficult to find anything.
It is possible, though, and there are a couple of return flights per day.
With ticket prices ranging anywhere from 900 to 2,200 baht, this is definitely an expensive option.
It is also the fastest at around 30 minutes.
Cheap places to stay
So, now you know how to get to Pai, but where are you going to stay?
As you’re interested in seeing Pai on a budget, I’m going to assume that you don’t want to spend too much on accommodation, either.
Here are two places that I have stayed at that have different vibes – one being a larger hostel with a party atmosphere and the other being a smaller guesthouse with a relaxed, homely atmosphere.
Spicy Pai Backpackers
This is where I stayed on my first trip to Pai as a solo traveller.
The communal area was great for relaxing and meeting the other guests, plus there were puppies to play with and other animals around too!
You can either stay in a big wooden treehouse-style dorm structure with comfortable beds and mosquito nets, or you can stay in your own little private hut.
Dorm beds are around 180 baht.
Private rooms are 350 – 500 baht.
Check them out on Hostelworld here.
Pai Yard Guesthouse
I absolutely loved this place and I really hope I can go back some day!
The owners, Jip and Josh, are kind, friendly and wonderful people who won’t fail to make you feel welcome and at home from the start.
Plus, they serve some incredible breakfast and smoothies!
The WIFI is fast, too, which can be very hard to find in Thailand.
When I stayed here with Theo, he and Josh quickly found some common ground as they are both from the same town in the UK! Small world.
There are no dorms here, but the rooms are very reasonably priced.
Private rooms range from 150 to 400 baht.
Free and cheap things to do in Pai
There are plenty of free and cheap activities in Pai to fill your time.
Here are my top 8 free and cheap Pai activities!
1: Rent a scooter
I’m putting this one first as it will help you do all the other items in this guide.
While it is possible to stay near the center of Pai and wander the streets and markets, you will be able to see so much more if you have a faster way of getting around.
If you arrived by scooter, then you can just keep that one and pay for the number of days you’ve used it when you return it. (We originally only rented our scooter for the journey to Pai, but we spoke with the staff at the Pai AYA office and decided to keep it for our entire stay).
If you didn’t arrive by scooter, there are plenty of places where you can rent one in Pai. Many hostels and guesthouses will even rent you one.
The price will vary depending on where you hire it from so shop around; you can get them for as little as 150 baht per day, so don’t settle for much more than that for a standard scooter.
You will now be able to roam around to your heart’s content!
Tip: Practice on the even streets of Pai town before heading too far out; reaching the outer attractions is a lot easier than riding up from Chiang Mai but some of the roads are unpaved or in bad condition. Take it slow and don’t do anything you’re not comfortable with.
And if you know you won’t be comfortable on two wheels, you can always grab a songthaew. Speak to your accommodation staff about transport options.
2: Pai Canyon
One of the best free or cheap things to do in Pai is to visit the Pai Canyon.
The entrance is located south of the town, back in the direction of Chiang Mai, and is well signposted.
From the little car park you’ll need to hike up some stairs to the first viewpoint. From here you’ll be able to see the incredible views over the canyon and the mountains and valleys beyond.
You can continue to hike along the walkways after the viewpoint, but be aware that the paths can be very narrow in places with huge drops either side.
If you do want to explore these paths, make sure you’re wearing sturdy shoes, as you will literally need to climb up and down parts of the canyon.
The most popular time to visit the canyon is at sunset, and it is beautiful, but there are always a LOT of people.
3: Memorial Bridge
Just a little further along the road from Pai Canyon is the WWII Memorial Bridge.
When the Japanese Army wanted to reach Burma, they used elephants and the local villagers to build a wooden bridge across the river.
The bridge has been rebuilt twice since then: once after the Japanese had left, burning the bridge before they went, and once after a flood destroyed it.
The steel bridge that stands today was built in 1976 and is a monument to its history. It is not used for road traffic as the main highway crosses a newer, concrete bridge right next to it.
4: Land Split
About 3 miles back towards Pai from the canyon, you’ll see a sign for Pam Bok Waterfall pointing off to the left from the main road.
If you follow this side road, you’ll soon find yourself pulling up in a parking area by the Land Split.
A little bamboo hut, tended by the incredibly friendly land owners, offers some wonderful tasty treats including my personal favourite on a hot day: iced roselle juice!
As you sit down to relax in the shade, the owners will bring you a whole platter of things to try from their land, all of which is delicious, I can tell you. And they won’t charge you for any of it! All they ask is that you leave a donation in the box.
Once you’ve had a little rest, you can start walking up to the land split, which is exactly what it sounds like.
In 2008, an earthquake split this farmer’s land 2 metres across and 11 metres deep! You can view the split from above and then descend into it, exploring its whole length.
When you come out the other side, you can see the wonderful garden where trees, flowers, fruit and veg are all growing beautifully.
Follow the path and you’ll end up back where you started.
We grabbed another glass of roselle juice, put a generous donation in the box and bought some roselle tea and dehydrated banana chips to take home for good measure.
The land split is cool to see but the real attraction here are the friendly owners and their wonderful wares.
It really is a fantastic cheap thing to do in Pai.
5: Pam Bok Waterfall
There are two more fun, free and cheap attractions down this road, so keep going after the land split until you reach the parking area for Pam Bok Waterfall.
Just before you park up you’ll pass over a river, and this is the one that you’ll be following up to find the waterfall.
The path is slippery and narrow in parts so be careful. After a short way you’ll reach two bridges, which are right next to each other.
One is a rickety old wooden bridge and the other is newer and much more sturdy, so I guess you can choose how brave you are at this point.
Shortly after this you’ll reach the waterfall, and you can swim in the pool below it.
This area is usually quite busy, so here’s a little tip: if you follow the path up and over the hill, you’ll come out at another pool above the waterfall.
There was nobody else there when we went, and it seems not many people know about it, so you can have a nice peaceful swim away from other tourists.
Even though there are often quite a few people at the waterfall, this is still one of the quieter waterfalls in Pai.
Be extra careful on your way back down, especially if your feet are wet.
6: Bamboo Bridge
The final attraction on this road is the Boon Ko Ku So Bridge.
The road between the waterfall and the bamboo bridge does get a little harder to negotiate with a scooter so do be careful if you continue this way.
We visited in the low season and were not charged to enter, but since then an admission fee of 30 baht has been applied.
The bamboo bridge is around 800 metres long and stretches out over some wonderfully green rice fields.
There is a lovely coffee shop and an area where you can feed fish. You can walk the entire length of the bridge to the temple at the end.
Unfortunately, the temple was closed when we visited so we were unable to enter.
This whole place is so peaceful and there are areas where you can stop, sit and take in your surroundings. This was definitely another of my favourite free and cheap things to do in Pai.
7: Upside-down house
Okay, so this one is little more than a photo op. But at The Heart of Pai Resort, on the way back into town, there is an upside-down house by the road.
No detail has been excluded from the design; it includes a mailbox, a bike, chimneys and windows.
I didn’t know about this until I came across it while driving past, but it turns out it’s a popular photo spot for tourists.
Luckily, there was nobody there when I found it, so I got my photo easily and continued on my way.
8: Walking Street Night Market
Every night in the centre of Pai there is a market, which stretches along Chaisongkran Road and Rungsiyanon Road from 6pm to 10pm.
If you want to buy a souvenir of Pai, this is the place to come!
Everything from clothes, jewellery, bags, magnets, sculptures and ornaments, to many different types of food are sold here.
There are food stands and restaurants which open on to the street, with so much choice!
My favourites were the Indian food stand, the kyoza stand, and the Khao Soy curry from the local restaurant.
If you like Thai curries but you haven’t tried Khao Soy yet, I recommend you do so in Pai. This is a Northern Thai dish, so it’s much harder to find when you head back down south.
There is also some great live music around at this time in the evening, too.
Entry to the market is free, but there are plenty of things to buy.
So if you want to have a free or cheap night, this is entirely down to your willpower!
A little bit extra…
I couldn’t include this in the “free and cheap things to do in Pai” section, because it does cost a little bit extra, but I still didn’t want to leave it out of this guide.
Sai Ngam Hot Springs
There are a few hot springs in the Pai area, but Sai Ngam was recommended to me by a local and, having been there, I can see why.
Located in a National Park about 11 miles north of Pai town, Sai Ngam Hot Springs are natural, three-tiered cascading pools.
The hottest pool is at the top and they get cooler as you go down.
The entry fee for the springs themselves is only 20 baht (plus another 20 baht to park your scooter). It’s the entry fee for the National Park that bumps up the price at 200 baht per person.
However, if you want to visit a hot spring, this is still one of the cheaper options; others will charge you 300 baht for entry.
We spent an hour or two relaxing in and around the warm water before heading back into town.
Believe it or not, this is just a sample of the free and cheap things to do in Pai. But, hopefully, it’s enough to get you started and once you’re there you’ll find even more awesome, cheap Pai activities.
Riding a scooter along all the different streets out of Pai is a wonderful thing to do; the views are just stunning wherever you go.
You’ll soon find that it’s pretty easy to enjoy Pai on a budget!
Are you planning a trip to Pai? Or is there something you think I should add to the list? Let me know in the comments! 🙂
Want more like this? Check out these articles:
- Chiang Mai to Pai: a stunning scooter road trip
- 6 Useful tips for scooter rental in Asia
- Experience the Bangkok to Chiang Mai sleeper train
All images in this post are the property of lastminutewanders.com
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