Exploring Pai by Motorbike

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Pai, Thailand, is a tiny mountain town about three hours from Chiang Mai.  Originally a hippie enclave, today Pai is now a resort town popular with both Thais and foreigners.  It’s still massively popular with the hippies as well.

For me, going to Pai was all about seeing the northern Thai countryside.  The town is so small that it has no real sights.  You can go trekking, take a rafting trip, or rent a motorbike to explore the landscape on your own!

Since it was the cheapest option by far, I chose the latter.  Let me add this:  I had never ridden a motorbike before.  Nor a motorcycle.  I hadn’t ridden a bike in years.

This was a disaster waiting to happen.

And it was.  I rented a motorbike costing 100 baht (about $3.33) for thirty hours, plus an extra 40 baht ($1.33) for insurance.  The attendant taught me again and again how to start, stop and go.  And then I peeled off way too fast, weaving wildly between cars, as he yelled, “Slow down!”  People stared.  I took a left turn far too widely.  Yep.  Disaster.

But a few kilometers later, my worries turned to spellbound wonder as I realized what now surrounded me.

How could there be so much beauty in these mountains?

The sun was beating down, the wind was running through my hair, and I couldn’t stop grinning.  The occasional bug smacked me in the face, but I didn’t care — this was one of the greatest feelings in the world!

There is a loop around Pai that takes in most of the major sites in the area.  I hit up three of the most popular spots.

First stop: Mor Paeng Waterfall.

Mor Paeng Waterfall is located northwest of Pai town, past several small villages.  After arriving, you descend a steep hill and cross paths of rocks to get to it.

One American guy told me he slid down the waterfall like it was a waterslide and everyone clapped. Considering how freezing the water was and how rocky the bottom was, there was no way I was going to try that!

Next stop: Pai Canyon.

Pai Canyon is about six or seven kilometers south of town.  Once arriving, you climb a steep 50-meter trail through the woods, then arrive at the incredible viewpoint.

Check out the panorama:

This is a place where you can sit and stare for hours.  Or, if you’re feeling daring, there are some terrifying trails with steep dropoffs!

Third stop: Tha Pai Hot Springs.

The Tha Pai hot springs, located two kilometers beyond Pai Canyon, are one of the area’s biggest attractions, and there are several upscale resorts located nearby.  That said, I was one of only five tourists there, all of them foreigners.

There are areas where you can get in your bathing suit and soak in the hot springs, but since I didn’t want to be the only one, I didn’t partake.  Instead, I soaked my increasingly disgusting backpacker’s feet and my Teva sandals — and, lo and behold, it worked.  After a fifteen-minute soak, both my feet and shoes were cleaner than they’d been in weeks!

The hot springs were the only attraction of the three that charged admission: 200 baht, or $6.66. There’s a shop on site with overpriced drinks and snacks, including eggs that you can boil in the hottest pools!

After the hot springs, I decided to ride around aimlessly, enjoying the beauty of the countryside.

And then came the greatest moment of all.

I rounded a corner and found myself face to face with these:

ELEPHANTS!  Just hanging out! I started laughing so hard I had to stop the bike.  How often does that happen?!

And then it hit me.  This is the life of which I’ve dreamed — and I’m living it now, in the present, riding a motorbike through the mountains and jungles of northern Thailand!

This trip was the right decision.

I’d like to say that the day was a complete success, but it wasn’t.  While making an unnaturally wide right turn, I slightly overshot it and crashed headfirst into a ditch.

I was fine, though shrieking and covered in dirt, and a man stopped to help me and pull the bike out of the ditch.  He then insisted on taking me back to town.  I thanked him but told him that I’d be fine. And I was.  There were no more major mishaps.

I also made a complete ass of myself when returning to town, still unable to do a proper turn, but I was (and am) proud of myself for still being alive.

Thinking of renting a motorbike in Pai?  Here are some tips:

Stay on the left. Don’t forget that they drive on the left in Thailand!  Be careful on your right turns!

Make sure to fill up. The tank tends to empty faster once you’ve gone through half of it.  You don’t want to get stranded!

A GPS can be incredibly helpful. If you’re going far off the beaten path, it’s essential.

If you’re an inexperienced rider, start somewhere rural. Get somewhere where you can be alone on the road. I’m glad I didn’t start in Chiang Mai like I originally wanted to — there’s no way I could handle the traffic!

DO NOT ride from Chiang Mai to Pai or vice versa! The road is extremely steep, extremely treacherous, and has 762 turns.  Yes, they counted.  Only advanced riders should consider this trip.

Overall, if you have a chance to explore Pai by motorbike, do it. The experience was nothing short of magical.

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40 thoughts on “Exploring Pai by Motorbike”

  1. Haha that’s great! I rented a motorbike for the first time in Vietnam and the guy made me drive it up and down the street for him. It went okay until I had to merge into a traffic circle! But I lived to tell about it 🙂 I never made it to Pai but it sounds like a fun trip.

  2. It looks sooo beautiful! And running into those elephants would have been so cool!

    Glad that you survived the motorbike. I would have looked like an idiot too, I’m sure!

  3. Awesome!

    So fortunate… it’s so rare that we get the experience of realizing that our present is the one that we’ve dreamed of, while we are in it, as opposed to in hindsight!


  4. Hi Kate,
    I am curious to know where you keep your backpack and precious belongings when you are off on these adventures. It looks like your backpack was really small so where is the rest of your gear?
    I know, random question, but that’s what occurred to me when reading this.
    Your Twitter Mom,

    1. Hi, Priscilla!

      I keep them locked up in my Pacsafe in my room during the day. Sometimes I take my computer with me, sometimes I don’t, but it’s always either on me or locked up!

      Right now I’m in my first hostel dorm (and QUITE a nice one — Reggae Guesthouse 2 in KL) and I have a safe there.

  5. Sounds to me the day WAS a complete success if you had the epiphany that the trip was the right idea!! I was kinda waiting for you to say that to be honest, 🙂

  6. Hmm… I’m sure Shaun would love to do the curvy ride. He was having a blast driving through the Pacific Coast Highway and it can get pretty crazy sometimes. I’m glad to hear you were okay after your scooter mishap!

    1. Oh, God! Erica, I can’t encourage you enough to NOT do this…of course, that would probably encourage Shaun to do it even more. 🙂 So start really early, because the trip takes three hours under ideal circumstances and it gets freezing cold at night.

  7. AWESOME! I saw your comment on my picture post last week, and you were correct, it was indeed from Pai. We LOVED renting motorbikes and just tooling around the countryside exactly like you did. And like you, neither of us had ridden a motorbike or motorcycle before either. There’s definitely a learning curve. We were addicted though, and we ended up staying in Pai for about a week, just hanging out and riding motorbikes all around. We also took a cooking class, Let’s Wok with T, which was awesome. If you’re still there, look into it. He’s a wildman, but the class was very informative, we learned a ton about cooking Thai food, and then he took us out to an all Thai karaoke bar later at night after we had taken down several bottles of Sangsom. Good times, good times. Keep enjoying yourself, it looks like you’re having a blast.

    1. That sounds like so much fun, Adam! I have to say, though, I didn’t care for Pai the town and couldn’t wait to get back to Chiang Mai. I’ve tried writing about it but I’m having trouble finding a good narrative. Hopefully I will.

  8. Ahhh I got goosebumps reading this post! I LOVE these kinds of days that just make you feel like you’re the luckiest person in the world and you’ve discovered the secret to life. What an incredible and extraordinary day this was for you. Just wow!!!

  9. This looks so exciting! I haven’t been to Pai yet, just Chiang Mai. But hopefully I will be there around April next year. I want to learn how to ride a motorbike first though.

  10. Thanks so much for posting about this! I’m in Pai right now and am hoping to rent a motorbike tomorrow but have zero experience; basically I’m really excited to have stumbled upon an account from someone else who was in the same boat and lived to tell the tale!

  11. The ride from Chiang Mai to Pai was amazing!! I just did it today. Bit sore on the bum. Ide definitely recommend it to anyone with novice skills.

  12. Hi Kate! I’m planning a trip to SE Asia this winter and I’m wondering if you can recommend a GPS. I’d love to be able to rent a motorbike and go exploring without having to worry about getting lost, or being chained to a guidebook. Do you know of any reasonably-priced GPS’s that are good for international travel?

    Thank you for writing about all your adventures…you’ve definitely been an inspiration!

    1. Hi, Christine —

      I’ve always used my phone with a local SIM card and it got the job done; that said, I never went too far off the beaten path. I’ll be honest; I can’t recommend one because I haven’t used one. Good luck!

  13. Charlotte Ainley

    Erm yeah… Drove past these elephants yesterday CHAINED up not “hanging out” these elephants go on 10 40 minute walks a day and don’t even fight against it because they are exhausted and will be punished! I don’t really know what there was to laugh about?

  14. Hey,
    I just cycled past the elephant places along that road. Perhaps things were different at the time of writing but there is little I could see that was funny. The elephants were chained up, rocking from side to side, bobbing their heads up and down. One was just pushing his head against the concrete pillar he was chained to. The enclosures were about one and a half times the size of the elephants. I met a few groups on the road riding the elephants, Thai guides beside them, bull hooks in hand, prodding and poking the elephants. Make no mistake about it, none of these places are anything but places of abuse and neglect, regardless of what you might be told or the happy front these people put on. These animals are wild, they do not belong to these people. It is all just a money making scheme for tourists who don’t know any better. Do not go there, do not give them money, do not participate in the horrific abuse of these amazing creatures. Go to ENP in chiang mai. No elephant rides, legitimate sanctuary for abused elephants.

  15. Hi Kate,

    I arrived at this post Googling ‘pai motorbike’, to find out if an inexperienced rider should even think about doing this. Your post made me decide to give it a shot.

    Couple of questions: how do you know how long a full tank will last? Did you plan for it? And did they give you any sh** about damages to the bike? also, were you comfortable leaving your passport? I read that Thai law no longer allows original passports to be taken in.


    1. I couldn’t tell you how long a full tank lasts — it depends how much you ride. But I always kept an eye on the gas gauge and you can always get more near town (nothing is too far away). I didn’t damage the bike so I had no issues, and I was comfortable leaving my passport as it’s standard to do that around the world.

  16. Hey there. My brother and I have been nearly a month in Thailand and are wrapping up our trip. Scuba in Koh Tao, Two Weeks Muay Thai training in Koh Phangan, we rented dirt bikes in Chiang Mai and are now in Pai. What an exhilarating ride through the mountains. Lots of really beautiful stuff to see.

  17. I first went to pai in 1995. 2 cars, 3 motorbikes (none for rent), 1 bank, no 7/11’s, no thai tourists just 15 back packer guest houses. Today 2016. Thousands of cars and grey vans bringing thousands of Thai tourists all year but high season maybe 500% more. 500 bikes for rent at least. 7 7/11’s, at least a dozen banks or ATM’s and 350 accommodation places up to 5 star. The true locals are still the best people in Thailand but unfortunately many business’a are now run by greedy outsiders who have destroyed the entire aura of the place. The attraction of Pai was the serenity and now it can take minutes just to cross a road. While it is still enjoyable during low season the best advice is stay well away between October and mid April when you either cannot even walk in the packed streets or the fire season engulfs the entire valley in smoke unfit for human habitation. (usually fem to mid April). lastly, the chances of seeing an elephant by chance is almost nil these days.

  18. I’ve been in Pai for a month and absolutely love it! I somehow haven’t made it out to any waterfalls yet though, but it’s on my list! Crashing the motorbike seems to be part of the Pai experience – I got my Pai tattoo, which goes nicely with my Bali tattoo, my first day driving around on my own, but I’m still motorbiking around!

  19. May I just add – elephants that you saw and was excited to see them – they all had their spirits broken..google pahajaan for more info. It’s not right. It’s cruel. Instead I recommend all to visit elephant sanctuaries where they rescue abused elephants such as the two on the pic..

    1. Hear, hear to that Aleksandra. I love Thailand and many Thais but the way some treat animals (especially elephants) is disgraceful.

      The next time you encounter an elephant like these, send it love, metta, hope. It needs all the help we can give it.

      Peace, out.

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