Transport - allaboutpai.com
allaboutpai.com Transport

Transport

Getting between Chiang Mai and Pai is an adventure no matter how you go. Here's a little advice to help make your trip as pleasant as possible.

Last updated in October 2017.

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Visit China easily with my Talking Chinese-English-Chinese Phrasebook app.
get thailand fever
I co-authored this bilingual cultural guide to Thai-Western romantic relationships.

Table of Contents

Minivan from Bus Station

As of October 2017, nearly everyone (Thai and farang) going between Chaing Mai and Pai takes minivans, because other (better) options went away.

Many 150B daily minivans fly both ways between Pai and Chiang Mai in about 3.5 hours, careening around each corner, driven in a way which can only stem from the deeply-held Thai belief in reincarnation. I have been on one minivan where the passengers revolted and refused to let the driver continue.

In short,

Minivan
   =   

All minivans technically have air conditioners, but most of them are woefully underpowered during hot times of the year, and the driver often turns them down to save fuel costs. For that reason, sitting in the front or second row may be a life-saver for you.

The company Prempracha Transport, also known as Avia Booking (not to be confused with the unlicensed Aya Service), has the exclusive government license to operate this route between Chiang Mai's Arcade Bus Station and Pai (see below for unlicensed minivans).

Cost: 150B—bring your ID/passport for purchase

Trip Length: 3.5 Hours, with 15-minute break at company store halfway

Chiang Mai to Pai:

Pai to Chiang Mai:

Advance Tickets: As of October 2017, Prempracha/Avia allows you to go to the station in Chiang Mai or Pai several days early and book a seat with seat selection, and this is highly recommended so that you can get a good seat. Sometimes you can even call them to book a seat without having to pay ahead of time, but this no-advance-payment service seems to appear and disappear continuously as they shift their policies.

Online Tickets: Amazingly, starting around April 2017, a separate company called BusOnlineTicket.co.th started selling Prempracha/Avia Pai–Chiang Mai tickets online.

The good news is that online ticket purchase is convenient. You can avoid an advance trip to the bus station, and they accept PayPal, credit cards, and AliPay. You can actually book minivans up to 90 days in advance, but in order to get seat selection, you must book a minivan that is leaving the same day or the next day (the actual figure seems to be somewhere between 24-48 hours in the future but generally next-day bookings give you seat selection).

The bad news is that they add a fee in the range of 20-50B depending on the payment method you choose. Also, the website requests your passport or driver license number—they don't seem to understand how private this info is for foreigners—however nobody will check whatever numbers you type.

Be sure to book from/to "Chiang Mai Bus Station" and not "Mae Malai Point," which is mid-route:

Purchase Pai-Chiang Mai Tickets Online

Kwah Dao CharityLink Charity: If you use the online ticket purchase link above, none of the money goes to me and part of your ticket price gets donated to Kwah Dao, a non-religious organization which I have personally seen actually help many members of the large Shan (Burmese) immigrant community in and around Pai. Over 15+ years in Pai, Kwah Dao people (both Thai and farang) have donated huge amounts of their own time to offer free medical care, education in topics ranging from health to academics, and scholarships that even brought a few stateless kids all the way through college. Kwah Dao even twice opened a school that welcomed immigrant kids despite enormous cultural barriers (the latest school is now closed but Kwah Dao continues to do tutoring and other useful outreach). This is the real deal, not the typical, fraudulent, all-overhead NGO that just absconds with money "for the children." You can also donate directly to Kwah Dao here.

Transport Alternatives: Especially if you are a tall foreigner, or even if you are not, consider greatly improving your Pai trip by getting a few friends together and renting out a whole minivan for yourself for around 1500-2000B one way (contact your guesthouse to arrange this), or chartering a two-row taxi or sedan taxi to Pai (see below). If you rent out a whole vehicle, the driver will have much less excuse to drive like a madman because he cannot say the other passengers are in a hurry.

Unlicensed Minivan: Beware

The bus company Prempracha Transport (aka Avia Booking) has long held the government monopoly for the Pai <—> Chiang Mai route. The government agency in charge of licensing buses all over Thailand (and some cross-border routes) has a strange, private-sounding name "The Transport Company, Limited" (TCL) that you see printed on the buses, also known as "baw kaw saw" or BKS in Thai. But don't be tricked by the illusion: BKC is a state-owned entity that is the government.

There are multiple private, unlicensed firms operating minivan service between Pai and Chiang Mai, including several individual operators, a company called Ping & Pai, and the highly successful and highly dubious Aya Service. Many of these companies also run visa-run trips to Chiang Khong and other places. You can book these companies through your guesthouse.

Be aware that while minivans which leave from the Chiang Mai Arcade and Pai bus stations generally leave at the stated time, minivans from other companies that claim to "pick you up at your guesthouse" will nearly always circle around guesthouses endlessly for more folks to sardine until they can cram 10-12 people in each minivan. This effect is intensified in the November-February high season, and even moreso in the recent economy where the driver pays more than 800B in one-way fuel costs (2015 price).

Also, while complaints about insane minivan drivers come from all sources including Prempracha/Avia, I have personally heard a lot more complaints about drivers from unlicensed minivan companies such as Aya. Since around 2016, the government has required the licensed minivan companies to equip their minivans with GPS devices that beep annoyingly when the driver exceeds a certain speed, and record and transmit their real-time speed and location to the company boss. Some licensed company drivers have actually been fired for exceeding the speed for too long, including one who wrapped the device in tape to silence the beep and was surprised to find himself fired at the end of his work week. Thailand is full of face-saving, ass-covering laws and schemes that give only the appearance or veneer of safety: having a scheme that delivers actual safety is incredibly rare for Thailand, so you should appreciate it where you can get it!

Around 2010, Prempracha/Avia produced an "FAQ" (Frequently Asked Questions) in unusually good English on signs and fliers in the tiny Pai bus station. The FAQ was not available on their short-lived website, which makes it the first paper-only FAQ I have ever seen. The FAQ provided fascinating advice like this:

Is there any other company who operate service to Chiangmai and Mae Hong Sorn?

Answer: No, because our Company, Prempracha Transport Co., Ltd.is the only one company who have the right to operate service for local bus, mini bus, and the van from Pai to Chiangmai and Mae Hong Sorn.

Ah yes, ladies and gentleman, pay no attention to the huge numbers of Aya, Ping & Pai, and other private minivans who park right outside the Pai bus station and ferry tens or hundreds of passengers a day—they are just figments of your imagination. They simply cannot be, therefore they do not exist.

Two-Row Pickup Truck Taxi: "sawng teeo"

There are also covered pickup truck taxis with two rows of seats in the back ("sawng teeo" in Thai):

Two-Row Pickup Truck "sawng teeo" Taxi

For Chiang Mai local routes the "sawng teeo" taxis are painted red for hailing service and yellow for fixed-route service. For longer-distance routes they are sometimes other colors.

"Sawng teeos" tend to drive more sanely than the minivans, however typically you will not be able to see forward and this causes many folks to get ill on the windy road. Also, during dry parts of the year you will get a good coating of road dust. If you can sit in the front, however, this may well be the most comfortable way to get to Pai short of an airplane.

Offical Company: The official Pai bus company (Prempracha/Avia) also has limited "sawng teeo" service between Chiang Mai and Pai:

Charter: Or, you can charter your own "sawng teeo." You will probably have to ask your guesthouse. But if you wander around the bus station in Chiang Mai or Pai you might get lucky and find a driver who wants to make the long trip and get back some of his ~800B in fuel costs (2015 figure), perhaps for as little as 150B per person (same as minivan) or 1500B for a whole vehicle.

Sedan Taxi

Starting around 2009, Chiang Mai also started getting standard yellow/blue sedan-type taxis of the type that are common in Bangkok and other world cities.

Sedan Taxi

These taxis mostly hang out in the taxi area of the Chiang Mai Airport (which is far from the bus station) and charge a fee per kilometer that is quite high compared to the other transport options (local or long-distance).

But if you want something luxurious and can't take a plane (perhaps your international flight arrives late at night, or the Pai airlines' plane is broken again), you can arrange a taxi ride to Pai for around 2500B per vehicle one-way.

When you arrive at the airport, leave the airport terminal, ignoring the many touts and fake taxi desks that want to charge you 3000B, 3500B, or more. Walk past the second fake taxi desk that just a meter outside the airport door. Walk about 10 meters north of the airport terminal, towards the large pool of parked taxis, and there you can hopefully get the current market rate (as of Septemer 2017) of 2500B.

You can also have a taxi come pick you up anywhere in Chiang Mai for a trip to Pai. Google "taxi Chiang Mai" or check out the TaxiChiangMai website or call 053-241955 or 053-244268. Be sure to discuss price on the phone.

Another option is to arrange a private car and driver taxi via your hotel, which might be more like 3500B.

Uber

As of October 2017, Uber is wildly popular in Chiang Mai (meaning the Taxi Lobby has not found a way to ban it yet).

However Uber has not yet opened up service in Pai, Chiang Rai, or other nearby cities. That means it is not possible to book a trip to Pai through the app, and it is very difficult to find any Uber driver willing to go Pai since they will not find a return fare through the Uber system.

Having said that, if you use Uber locally in Chiang Mai, chances are that eventually you will find a driver willing to make an off-system deal to Pai, especially if they are interested in seeing Pai for themselves.

Airplane! (Sometimes)

Airplane service between Pai and Chiang Mai has been on and off since 2007, with most of the "on" periods being in the tourist high season of November to March. The frequency of flights has also varied from 5 per day to 2 per week.

As of October 2017, there is no service, because the plane belonging to the carrier which has been serving us for several years, Kan Airlines, is, er, broken.

Now a new airline Wisdom Airways claims they will start Pai-Chiang Mai services in December 2017 (booking website opening in November 2017), in addition to an ambitious plan to offer Bangkok-Pai service in 2018 on the 20-passenger de Havilland Canada DHC-6 Twin Otter, a famous/notorious plane that specializes in takeoffs and landings on extremely short runways. Wisdom Airways denies being the same airline as Kan even though at least ten pilots are the same.

Historically, service began on 1 February 2007 (history in my intro) from Nok Mini/Siam General Aviation (SGA), but starting June 2011 things switched to small carrier Kan Airlines for 1900B one-way.

Self-Drive Car Rental

A company called North Wheels does self-drive car rental and has an office in both Chiang Mai and Pai. One-way rental might be a possibility.

See motorcyles below for a safety note.

Self-Drive Motorbike: Beware

It seems like every bright-eyed "gap year" college student who comes to Pai inexplicably decides that this should be their first experience of motorbike riding in Thailand. That might explain why every single day, you can see at least one and usually more than one unhappy tourist limping along with crutches and full-body bandages (they call them "Pai tattoos") and a look that says "why the *@!& did I do that?"

The route between Chiang Mai and Pai is extremely twisty, narrow, full of gravel that makes the very light Thai motor scooters skid easily, and full of unsafe drivers going at insane speeds (see minivans above). Local police report that there are at least two accidents on the route every single day—more in the rainy season.

If you are not experienced with car driving or motorbike riding in Thailand, you should definitely not make this your first experience. Practice for at least a few days in a flat region of Thailand first so you can learn the insane unwritten rules of driving that seem to be in operation, before you add on the extra danger of literally hundreds of hairpin blind curves.

Minibus (Not Minivan): RIP but Returning?

In January 2007, the bus company finally reached into their deep pockets and purchased the Golden Dragon...an exciting new transport option that actually didn't suck:

#24 Golden Dragon Half Bus

#24 Golden Dragon Half Bus

As of March 2010, there were four more minibuses (with brand name Higer instead of Golden Dragon) that were also cool. The minibuses were significantly wider and taller than a minivan, with more legroom than a minivan (though the seats are still Thai-narrow), aircon that actually works (unlike a minivan), but it is only half the length of an ordinary bus. The trip was much quieter than an ordinary bus, and in the rides I've taken, the driver actually drove as if his life meant something. Not bad.

Unfortunately, in early 2014, after continuing problems obtaining parts from the Chinese manufacturers and finally a fatal accident at least partially involving brake issues, the bus company retired all of these vehicles from the Chiang Mai-Pai route (some are still operating on local routes from Chiang Mai). It is unclear if these vehicles were any more dangerous than other types of vehicles though: there have been been multiple injuries and fatalities on the windy Chiang Mai-Pai route from all vehicle types.

So you will have to choose from bus, minivan, taxi, or plane instead.

2017 Update: Apparently there is a concerted effort by the government to ban future purchases of minivans by licensed transport companies like Prempracha/Avia and instead slowly migrate the country-wide fleet from minivans to minibuses like the ones above. Like most half-baked Thai plans, the devil is in the details (and more often than not, such initiatives turn out to be from high government officials whose families sell the vehicle/item being mandated by the government) but personally I would not be sad to see all minivans disappear forever.

Big Bus: Gone for Good?

The giant, ancient (even as of 2003), grinding, behemouth orange buses were an iconic part of the Pai experience since before Pai had a paved road, all the way up until the final ignominious death of the last bus around 2016:

Ordinary Non-Aircon Bus

These buses crawled up or down the windy mountain roads in 4-4.5 hours, although to many, the fact that they take took it slow was actually a blessing (see minivans above) and they were by far the cheapest option at around 80B.

There were even a few "aircon" buses, but the aircons almost never worked and the windows were welded shut, so this was even more of an option to avoid.

The buses were often packed beyond Guinness-Book-of-World-Records full, and they let you discover just how miserable it is to standing, leaning, or leaned upon for 4 hours.

I probably took these buses hundreds of times and only one time in history did I see the bus driver say "we're full." And this is because every cubic inch of space inside the bus was taken up body-to-body-to-farm-animal, with many teenagers leaning outside the door for the whole trip. It was almost a daily occurence that the bus ticket collector had to crawl out of the door and climb on top of the bus, while the bus was moving, because there was no room for him on the bus.

These buses were the only transport option that always stopped for passengers along the route. The passing of the buses is very sad thing, because for literally tens of thousands of villagers along the 110km route from Mae Dteng to Pai, this was their only transport lifeline. I think the two-row "sawng teeo" pickup truck taxis from Prempracha/Avia might stop if they have room (unlike the minivans), but since they are so much smaller than the bus, I suspect they leave the station full every day, which would mean that for the 68km trip between Pa Pae and Pai, there are now no public transportation options whatsoever. Now the minivans, taxis, and other expensive vehicles just whiz by, always full, and the villagers are left to fend for themselves.

In my opinion, this seems like an ultimate and total failure of government. In return for their government-granted monopoly that gives them exclusive access to Chiang Mai and Pai bus stations, I think Prempracha/Avia should be required to guarantee some hailable public transport all along their route. Oh well, TIT (This is Thailand).

Support This SiteThis hobby site is supported by readers like you. To guarantee future updates, please support the site in one of these ways:
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get anything from amazon.com
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get my thai dictionary app
Learn Thai with my Talking Thai-English-Thai Dictionary app: iOS, Android, Windows.
get my thai phrasebook app
Experience Thailand richly with my Talking Thai-English-Thai Phrasebook app.
get my chinese phrasebook app
Visit China easily with my Talking Chinese-English-Chinese Phrasebook app.
get thailand fever
I co-authored this bilingual cultural guide to Thai-Western romantic relationships.
See AlsoYou'll probably also like these sites...
slice-of-thai.com
Tasty morsels of information on Thai food, language, culture, and general silliness.
lurkertech: video tech and diversions
Buzzword bingo, bill the borg, MEZ, lurker's guide to video, and Thai, oh my!
mapfling.com: free custom maps with your own labels
Party? Meeting? Request a map, label it yourself, and easily fling it to your friends!
world's stupidest everything
See some of the worst the world has to offer, and add some of your own!
thailand your way
Travel with my friend Nang, who is a great nature, birding, and cultural guide.
jeed illustration
My English-fluent Thai friend Jeed is a freelance illustrator who is available for hire.
CopyrightAll text and images copyright 1999-2017 Chris Pirazzi unless otherwise indicated.
Support This Site

This hobby site is supported by readers like you. To guarantee future updates, please support the site in one of these ways:
donate now   Donate Now
Use your credit card or PayPal to donate in support of the site.
get anything from amazon.com
Use this link to Amazon—you pay the same, I get 4%.
get my thai dictionary app
Learn Thai with my Talking Thai-English-Thai Dictionary app: iOS, Android, Windows.
get my thai phrasebook app
Experience Thailand richly with my Talking Thai-English-Thai Phrasebook app.
get my chinese phrasebook app
Visit China easily with my Talking Chinese-English-Chinese Phrasebook app.
get thailand fever
I co-authored this bilingual cultural guide to Thai-Western romantic relationships.
See Also

You'll probably also like these sites...
slice-of-thai.com
Tasty morsels of information on Thai food, language, culture, and general silliness.
lurkertech: video tech and diversions
Buzzword bingo, bill the borg, MEZ, lurker's guide to video, and Thai, oh my!
mapfling.com: free custom maps with your own labels
Party? Meeting? Request a map, label it yourself, and easily fling it to your friends!
world's stupidest everything
See some of the worst the world has to offer, and add some of your own!
thailand your way
Travel with my friend Nang, who is a great nature, birding, and cultural guide.
jeed illustration
My English-fluent Thai friend Jeed is a freelance illustrator who is available for hire.
Copyright

All text and images copyright 1999-2017 Chris Pirazzi unless otherwise indicated.