Pai is a quaint little hippie town located in the north of Thailand. Originally known for its lush hiking trails, cascading waterfalls, surrounding mountains, and chilled laid-back vibe, the town caters to cheap accommodation, healthy food, yoga, parties until sunrise, and a variety of outdoor activities — it’s essentially the Bali of Thailand, just without the beach. Pai attracts backpackers and expat travelers from around the world, and they increasingly tend to have one thing in common: They arrive via motorbike from Chiang Mai. This is an adventurous route that tackles 762 windy road turns along the way. Motorbiking to Pai is the best way to truly experience the wondrous views of the northern Thai mountains. Here’s how to plan and execute the trip.
The steep route to Pai, along route 1095, spans about 90 miles and on average takes three to four hours to complete. The 762 twists and turns on the road are treacherous at first, but don’t let this put you off. You’ll get the hang of the leaning, swaying motion that goes into them after the first couple dozen, and by the time you’re halfway there, you’ll be a full-on pro. You could take a bus from Chiang Mai’s Arcade Bus Station, but the bus doesn’t stop at the quirky cafes and seriously stifles the mountainous views. Besides the constant switchbacking, the route is very straightforward. Take route 107 north out of central Chiang Mai for 23.7 miles, then turn left onto 1095 towards the town of Ki Lek. Stay on 1095 all the way to Pai, pulling off at quirky cafes and to take what are certain to be the best landscape photos of your trip. You ride at your own pace and won’t have to experience the notorious driving of the bus and van drivers who give the impression that they’re taking part in a rally race.
Where to rent a bike (and which one to rent)
Be prepared to spend around $15 for a one-way rental, and about double that for a roundtrip. Also, make sure you purchase travel insurance (around $3-5), as you don’t want to be stung by heavy charges if you have an accident. The rental companies normally ask for a deposit of anout $60, which they return to you as soon as you hand in the motorbike. As a hack, opt for the one-way rental even when planning to return to Chiang Mai the same way you came. This option is perfect for those who have no fixed plan and would prefer to explore Pai at their own pace, instead of having to rush back to Chiang Mai to drop the motorbike back. There will also be days when you would prefer to take a breather and sip wheatgrass (a popular drink there), instead of zooming around on a motorbike. If you rent a motorbike that needs to be dropped back to Chiang Mai, you will be charged a daily rate, even when you aren’t using the bike.
Now for the process of actually renting the bike — the first thing to make sure is that the motorbike you rent is no less than 125cc, giving you enough power to push up and over the mountains at a comfortable pace, and without the bike sounding like a broken hairdryer. The Honda Click 125cc is a popular option and available at both of the rental services listed below. It has ample space to store your bags and pockets in the front to keep your phone handy, which comes in use if you need a bit of navigational guidance from Google Maps during the journey. These motorbike providers in Chiang Mai can assist you with a one-way rental from Chiang Mai with specific instructions on where to drop it off in Pai, and also offer roundtrip rentals.
- Aya Service — Aya offers to transport your luggage and heavy backpack in its van for free and claim it on the other side of the ride, allowing you to ride lightly without baggage.
- CatMotors — This is a smaller company, but is personable and takes safety seriously. If you rent a bike from CatMotors, it allows you to store your belongings in Chiang Mai for free to ensure you won’t be weighed down by your big backpack on the ride.
Prepping for the ride
If you take only one piece of advice from this or other riders who have completed the trip, let it be this one: Dress appropriately. Which in this case means a helmet and actual shoes. Anything that shows your toes — strap-on sandals included — is inappropriate footwear. You will have plenty of opportunities to flash your toes in Pai. Covered shoes allow you to grip the ground if you need to balance or come to a sudden halt. Toms are a better alternative to flip flops, as they are light, easy to slip on, and protect your feet from the elements, but if you want to protect your feet completely, a pair of hiking boots is the best option.
Equally important is a helmet that covers your face, as there will be all sorts of elements that will fly into you including twigs, bugs, and little stones. If you can’t get a helmet with face protection, make sure you wear sunglasses. You want to protect your eyes from sun and debris, and also don’t want to be up on the mountain, sans sunglasses, when it starts raining, unless of course you’re all about being stabbed repeatedly in the eyeballs as you whiz around a hairpin turn.
Beyond those two critical items, bring a scarf and an extra layer that covers your arms. For the first part of the journey, it will be sunny and bright, but as you ride higher up into the mountains it will become chilly. Quite often, it will also rain. Nothing ruins a great motorbike ride like being soaked to the bone then having cold wind slap your bare arms and legs like you’re a piñata. A waterproof or water-resistant windbreaker will keep you dry and warm during the ride.
Handy tips and best practices
If you fancy yourself a picture taking fiend, now is your time to shine. It is extremely important to take a 360-degree view of the motorbike in the event that you return the bike and are charged for damage which you did not cause. If there are any parts of the bike that are damaged, make sure you draw attention to them before you embark on your journey.
Zooming around the Thai countryside takes up more energy than you might think. Having snacks to boost your energy along the way is a good idea. There are a number of gas stations in Chiang Mai along the way, so fuel up which high energy food items like nuts, sweets, and bread to give you that sugar boost when you need it. It’s important to be focused and awake, especially when you are hurtling around corners and sharing the road with those nutty van drivers. There are a number of sights you can explore along the way, and some involve soaking yourself in pools. So bring a swimsuit, flip flops, and a towel in your pack just in case, as riding in wet clothes will make you feel extremely cold and the ride will be less pleasant as a result.
For an optimal experience, take these pointers into consideration:
- Get an International Driver’s Permit. At some point, unless you are extremely lucky, you will encounter the police. Unfortunately, they will look for any opportunity to fine you, so a bribe can be negotiated. They will initially ask if you have an International Driver’s Permit, or IDP, which you can easily get from a car insurance company like AAA. If you have an IDP, the police will then ask for the bike documents. So, while you are on a picture taking frenzy before your ride, make sure you ask for all the relevant motorbike documents (registration, tax, etc.) in the event that you are stopped by the police.
- Keep cash on you. If you don’t have an IDP or the bike documents, it’s likely you are going to have to pay a fine, which can be discounted, as it’s actually a bribe. To avoid all your holiday money being offloaded by the police, store most of your cash in a hidden pocket in your bag. Keep a minimal amount in your wallet, $50 or less, which you can proceed to show the police when they ask you to pay. It is likely they will take what you have and ask you to go on your way. Also, if you get “fined” on the way to Pai, make sure you ask for a receipt, so if you get stopped again, you can show them evidence that you have already been penalized.
- Leave early in the morning. Leaving Chiang Mai by 8:00 AM will help you circumvent any roadblocks and traffic and make any unplanned encounter with the police unlikely. This also gives you more time to explore sights along the way without feeling rushed. Be sure to fuel up before leaving town. This goes for other towns along the route as well. If you see a gas station and you are at half-tank, fuel up. It’s better to be cautious, as the last thing you want is to run out of gas in the middle of nowhere. Once you get nearer to Pai, there will be numerous little fuel shacks that sell bottles of fuel.
- Nutty drivers. You’re going to encounter speed demons on the highway. The best thing to do is to let them pass and don’t try and engage in a road battle. Ultimately, they are bigger and more dangerous, so it really isn’t worth it. If a bus or van is honking behind you, let them pass, smile and flash them a peace sign. They will be more accommodating when they bump into you again, which they often do, as they make numerous stops.
- Potholes and debris. On a whole, the road conditions aren’t too bad but there will be a few potholes and debris lying on the road. It is important not to ride like a speed demon as you won’t have time to avoid them. In the event you have an accident, don’t panic, it happens to the best of us. Get off the road as quickly as you can, and if you can bring your motorbike with you, even better. Call the bike rental company and you’ll be guided through the next steps.
What to see along the way
Another benefit of leaving early is the opportunity to explore a number of sights along the way before sunset. Here are the must-do’s for any first-timer:
- Mork Fa Waterfall — Around 30 minutes into your journey there will be signs to this waterfall. It costs around $3.20 to enter.
- Pong Dueat Geyser — Take a detour around 3.7 miles, about a 10-minute ride, from route 1095 to Pong Dueat Geyser. Note that it’s a bumpy dirt road, but totally worth it. It costs around $9.60 and a little forest trail will take you to mineral baths as well as geysers of varying sizes.
- Pai Canyon — This is a fantastic hiking trail with multiple viewpoints. Entrance is free but you will have to hike many stairs to get to the beginning of the trail.
- Mari Pai Resort — Famous for its tree swing that looks out onto the lush green hills, visiting is free, but prepare to wait 20 to 30 minutes for an Instagram shot.
- Coffee shops — There are a number of quirky cafes you can enjoy along the way such as Coffee Tea Sapan which has a number of transformer-like statues on the roadside. The Container has colorful swings and equally vibrant fruit shakes to cool you down after your ride.
Motorbiking from Chiang Mai to Pai is a whirlwind journey filled with fascinating scenery. Take frequent breaks and make sure to snap plenty of photos along the way — when your bike is parked, of course.
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