Chiang Mai to Pai and back: A traveler review

Thailand’s person to person culture can be especially characterized by very special moments of hospitality and kindness. Right after arrival in Chiang Mai, a private minivan picked me up at the airport. The driver who greeted me was an awesome lady driver. She was parked outside and was waiting for me at the gate, bending at the waist with hands clasped together. 

The classic “Sah-wah-dee” greeting was exchanged, and I was provided not only a bottle of water but also fresh bananas from a tree which grew outside the driver’s house, which were thrust into my hands. What a wonderful introduction, I thought, to the routes I would explore in the coming days. 

The first path to be trodden through Thailand would be Chiang Mai to Pai. Keep reading to discover all of my tips and thoughts for & about this journey. 

The most affordable option I found was the standard minivan; a nine-seater, a shared vehicle with everything you could possibly need when traversing the untouched Thai countryside. If you’re traveling with a group, maybe with your family, it’s totally doable to take advantage of this ride. What you’ll need to do is book in advance in order to secure your seats. 

As the minivan heads north, there’s no other way to ride up the altitude other than with a vehicle smaller than a bus (meaning, only minivans and cars). The route is mountainous, steep, and has plenty of sharp turns buses simply can’t handle.

Once again, this option provides travelers (like me) with a super affordable ride. The other options in terms of affordability: you can rent a motorbike, at a local provider, for the whole journey to Pai. Of course, this option has few guarantees and assurances. 

For all those who put “solo travel” on their list of New Year’s resolutions, the route from Chiang Mai to Pai is a perfect start. The route provides many opportunities to meet other backpackers. Personally, I love chatting with people sitting next to me on the van, and the close quarters led to many anecdotal situations. That being said, if you’re prone to motion sickness, it may be problematic. The most valuable advice I can give in 2020 is not to overload on the mango rice before a ride like this.

Getting to the station

I knew where to go according to my voucher: Arcade terminal. With such a memorable and funky name, I looked on the local rideshare (it’s called Grab) how much it would cost getting from my hotel to Arcade terminal. The app gave me a fair price straight to the departure station. From the center of Chiang Mai, it takes 15 minutes to get to the station, and costs about 7 USD. It’s much more problematic to make it to the terminal alone. A taxi from your humble abode to the station will make it all easier. If you don’t know the area well enough you’ll get lost and the language barrier may prove to be the most evident. You’ll also travel quite fast on a taxi between points since there’s not a lot of traffic in Chiang Mai.

Station & platform 

You should get to the station twenty to thirty minutes before departure time. The station in Chiang Mai is not such a grandiose place. The vans are sparsely lined up outside. I instantly saw the logo on the van and connected it to the what was on my voucher.  Unlike in other places, you can come to the station with only your phone and show the driver your ticket. The driver was waiting quite cool-ly outside the van, smoking and looking off into the distance. As I approached with my phone, the driver did a normal Thai gesture: pointing to the office. 

Chiang Mai bus station

That was my cue; I shuffled over to the office to check in and showed the office my voucher. They gave me a note with handwriting which provided all the necessary notes for the upcoming journey:

Voucher for private minivan from Chiang Mai to Pai

After checking in, it was luggage time. So far in Thailand, I have had good luck with the drivers. My current cool guy started loading the suitcases on top of the van, and as pictured, hair blowing in the wind was a thing. The driver then covered everything with a tarp, secured the bags, and we were good to go.

Private minivan from Chiang Mai to Pai

Most amenities at the station are quite humble. That doesn’t mean anything is wrong or travelers are treated negligently, just the opposite. All the staff are extremely kind and really care about getting you to your destination. In my case, it was Pai. Although there’s a strong language barrier, anything is possible with proper use of hand gestures.

Vehicle & amenities

The service which I booked, Prempracha Transport, provided a very decent vehicle. I’m not picky at all when traveling and I think this van had everything one needs in a three hour journey. In my mind, if it runs, then I’m happy. 

Let’s talk about amenities! Many travelers, including myself, worry about luggage allowances before booking. On the shared van I took, there was really no limit to suitcases per passenger. Everything goes on top of the bus. Of course, don’t overstep any boundaries because coming with a twelve piece set may get you a strong no. I brought a small backpack with me and I stored it between my legs. 

On board there was plentiful air conditioning, not too cold, so only bring extra layers if a breeze makes you shiver. The seats were cushioned seats. I personally recommend packing snacks,  however, there is a stop midway where you can buy the most amazingly fresh pineapple for less than 1 USD. 

Pit stop on the way from Chiang Mai to Pai

The pit stop’s offerings are like any other, but don’t worry about prices. Sometimes it’s even surprising that things can be cheap and delicious all at once.Thai street food was being sold under the blue skies and between the palm trees. During the stop, you can make a dash to the bathroom in your 15 minute window of time. There, it costs less than .10 cents (USD) for a chance to use the squat toilet.

Ride & view

Despite the ride being one of the most wonderful ones I’ve experienced, the road proved to be difficult. At certain points there are moments where the driver was going very slow because of the route conditions. The turns were sharp and the curves around the mountains were wild. The roads were not bumpy. Luckily, the driver was very careful, taking safety into consideration. It drove me absolutely crazy: other drivers went a lot faster and many cars would over take the minivan.

You’ll have three hours worth of looking out the window, from where you’ll see many wild banana trees and beautiful coconut trees. I grew up in the desert, and such a tropical landscape was absolutely enchanting to me.

From Pai to Chiang Mai, we were traveling down the mountain and the driver abruptly stopped mid-road. He got out of the van with a mysterious bag and headed to the forest on the edge of the road. All the passengers, including myself, crowded to the window to see what would happen. The driver took out of the bag food and began scattering it around the foliage. All of a sudden, tens of wild dogs came out to eat. Thailand is known to have a stray dog issue, but this quiet moment was quite kind. 

Last but not least, you probably also want to hear about the demographics of the ride. With me, it was mostly backpackers and tourists, who were all really polite. Some impoliteness like putting feet up onto seats really grinds my gears, but this didn’t happen. Everyone sat in close quarters, quite tightly, but it was not an issue. I was probably the chattiest person on the minivan, trying to understand what kind of people were traveling with me. A young English couple who accent I quite envied. After the ride I self analyzed and wished I had put on an accent and done a horribly wonderful Austin powers impression. When traversing this route, you may even run into the same people you rode to Pai with, in Pai. 

I arrived in the afternoon in Pai. In general, there are tens of departure times for this journey and service. When the driver unloaded us, he climbed to the van’s roof and began unloading the luggage onto the street. It was quite annoying to see that nobody was helping the guy, so I volunteered to take luggage from him. I wished more people were active about this situation.

Pai Canyon, Thailand

The Pai station is more like a small parking lot on the main street. Pai is a small, small village so getting lost is not possible. Outside the station, there were tuk tuks and taxis lined up outside of the station. Each driver was trying to reach out to me and provide a ride to the center. Don’t worry about any kind of pushiness you may experience, every single driver offers the same rides for the same prices. 100 BHT is really affordable and bargaining seems superfluous to me. You can even rent a scooter for 150 BHT a day, for your whole trip.

My hotel was outside of town and it took the taxi 10 minutes to get me there. 

My recommendation is to think positively about everything during your time in Thailand. Southeast Asia is a whole other world, with amazing qualities. I approached the country with a different mentality, in comparison to other backpackers I met, as I was not concerned about the money. In general, everything is very inexpensive, and I didn’t think twice about paying for convenience. Northern Thailand is more affordable than any other part of Thailand.

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