allaboutpai.com Transport

Here's the skinny on how to get between Pai and Chiang Mai.

Last updated in May 2015.

Would you like to spend 4 hours pancaked between a smiling old Thai Yai geezer and a toothless Lisu woman with a half-naked crying baby, who, every time you look away, shifts ever closer and knocks what small fraction of your remaining single buttock is still resting on the seat? No? Then you better read the advice section below to avoid that situation, and many others like it.

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 the best thai-english phrasebook app
Experience Thailand richly with my Talking Thai-English-Thai Phrasebook app.
get the best thai-english dictionary app
Learn Thai with my Talking Thai-English-Thai Dictionary app for iOS, Android, Windows.
get a cool thai-english paper dictionary
Don't leave home without the Thai-English English-Thai Compact Dictionary I co-authored.
get thailand fever
I co-authored this bilingual cultural guidebook to Thai-Western romantic relationships.
get the best chinese phrasebook app
Visit China easily with my Talking Chinese-English-Chinese Phrasebook app.
get books or almost anything
Pick a Thai learning book from my list or buy anything at all from Amazon.
Important
Advice
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.

Ordinary Non-Aircon Bus

The buses are aging behemoths which crawl up or down the windy mountain roads in 4-4.5 hours, although to many, the fact that they take it slow is actually a blessing (see minivans below) and they are the cheapest option at around 72 B - 80 B.

Ordinary Non-Aircon Bus

When traveling by bus, is absolutely critical to book in advance, or failing that, arrive at least 30 minutes before departure, so that you can reserve (from Chiang Mai) or stake out (from Pai) an actual seat. Buses are often packed beyond Guinness-Book-of-World-Records full, and believe me, you don't want to be standing, leaning, or leaned upon for 4 hours. While riding, always remember that this is part of the entertainment.

As of May 2015, it appears that there are only two buses still left in service between Chiang Mai and Pai, and the time is unpredictable (one of those "we go when it's full enough" deals). So you will need to call the bus company (Chiang Mai Arcade bus terminal 053 304 748 (international +66 53 304 748)) to see when the bus is really going on any given day.

The bus makes only one stop, for 15 minutes, at a small town called Mae Lao that is 1.5 hours from Pai and 2.5 hours from Chiang Mai, where there are food and toilets. Be sure you leave the bus station (especially Chiang Mai) with an empty bladder!

If you've been to Pai before, you may wonder what happened to the "aircon buses." Up until January 2007, the regular buses used be divided between non-aircon and aircon buses (which cost about 40 baht more). Unfortunately, the aircon bus windows do not open and the aging aircon units, when they worked, rarely had the power to keep the bus cool. So the bus company has finally admitted this by charging the same amount they do for the non-aircon buses. If you arrive at the bus station and encounter an ordinary bus whose windows are sealed shut, you may want to wait for the next departure. July 2008 and February 2009 Update: Hmm, seems like they inherited one more "aircon" bus (from Ethiopia?) and are again attempting to charge more for certain discomfort. So be sure to avoid that bus. March 2010-2015 update: seems like they're all gone now, but if you see one, be sure to verify that the windows open.

Minivan

This is the fastest way to go, and, with the unfortunate demise of the "Golden Dragon" minibuses, often the only way to go. Many 150 B minivans a day 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=

If you are a tall or even average-sized foreigner and have a little more time to plan, consider the regular bus or taxi instead (the bus seats are also small and close together, but at least you have a chance of getting a bus seat with no seats in front of it, or sticking your legs out into the aisle). If you are Thai-sized and steel-nerved, the minivan might work out.

If you must take a minivan, consider getting a few friends and renting out a whole minivan for yourself for around 1500-2000 B one way (contact your guesthouse to arrange this). If you rent out the 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.

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.

As of May 2015, the company operating minivans out of Chiang Mai Arcade and Pai bus station does actually allow you to go to the station up to 3 days early and book a seat, 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 as of 2015 this service seems to appear and disappear on a weekly basis as they shift their policies. You can try their Chiang Mai Arcade bus terminal office at 053 304 748 (international +66 53 304 748).

Despite denials by the government-licensed bus company that runs Pai's tiny bus station, there are actually multiple private 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. However 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 800 B in one-way fuel costs (2015 price).

Taxi: Two-Row and Sedan

There are also covered red pickup truck taxis with two rows of seats in the back ("sawng teeo" in Thai). They 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. To arrange a "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 ~800 B in fuel costs (2015 figure), perhaps for as little as 150 B per person (same as minivan) or 1500 B for a whole vehicle.

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. These taxis mostly hang out near 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), you could probably arrange a taxi ride to Pai for around 4500 B!

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

Airplane!

You can fly between Pai and Chiang Mai. Service began on 1 February 2007 (history in my intro) from Nok Mini/Siam General Aviation (SGA), but starting June 2011 is now offered by small carrier Kan Airlines for 1900B one-way. The number of flights per week varies a lot depending on the season.

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 Rental

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

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, after continuing problems obtaining parts from the Chinese manufacturers and finally a fatal accident, the bus company retired all of these vehicles from the Chiang Mai-Pai route in early 2014 (some are still operating on local routes from Chiang Mai). It is unclear if these vehicles were any more dangerous though as 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.

Monopoly Bus Company Website

In 2010, the bus company given a monopoly by the Thai government to run the Chiang Mai-Pai route, Prempracha Transport, entered the 20th century with a new website but the online schedule was totally confusing and didn't actually tell you what time the many through buses stop in Pai, or which run is a minibus vs. a minivan (a potentially life-saving distinction). And then the website disappeared in 2012. Oh well.

Interestingly, in the tiny Pai bus station, Prempracha has produced a separate "FAQ" in unusually good English on signs and fliers (the FAQ was not available online as of March 2010, which makes it the first paper-only FAQ I have ever seen). The FAQ gives the bus/minivan/minibus times out of Pai and also provides 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 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.

Chiang Mai
to
Pai
Arcade Bus Station

Most of your transportation options leave from the Chiang Mai "Arcade" bus station on Kaew Nawarat Road (not the "Chang Peuak" bus station). The bus station's telephone number is 053 242 664 (international +66 53 242 664). The direct number of the Pai bus company (Prempracha Konsong) is 053 304 748 (international +66 53 304 748). You can find the Pai bus company at counter #47 at the "back" of the station (facing the giant Nakhornchai Air building) with lots of Pai signs.

As of 2015, the Pai bus company is still accepting bookings up to 3 days in advance (definitely for the minivans, usually not for the regular buses). To make a booking, you must go to Arcade in person and purchase at the Pai bus company's counter. I highly recommend that you do this to get a good seat. Not all of the bus company employees are even aware of this policy and you may need to politely point out the sign on the window saying that advance booking is possible. Occasionally I even hear reports that the company is letting people call the office to book seats without paying in advance, but this policy seems to appear and disappear weekly as they shift their policies.

As mentioned above, there are also other bus companies that meet you at your guesthouse, and which you can arrange through your guesthouse, but the service is not timely and going via Arcade is usually more problem-free.

Airport Connection

For those of you who will be landing at Chiang Mai Airport and then heading to Arcade, you should allow at least 40 minutes of travel time as they are on opposite sides of town and sometimes traffic is nasty (plus extra time to purchase bus tickets in advance, as explained below). Although you can get to Arcade using the private taxis, minivans, or red two-row pickup truck taxis who will tout you endlessly and overcharge you ridiculously (a shared two-row pickup truck taxi to the airport should be no more than 50 baht per person if others are sharing the vehicle too), it is often cheaper and easier to use the Chiang Mai local buses...

Chiang Mai Local Buses

Chiang Mai has a forward-thinking, under-promoted (thanks to mafia lobbying groups who sabotage any attempt by the bus company to promote or advertise) public air-conditioned local bus service from the Airport directly to Arcade. Click here for an old but usable route map (note that north is to the right!) but be aware that one by one the routes are dropping away as the mafia campaign successfully drains their budget. As of 2015 the Arcade-Airport route still exists but there are only a few trips per day. The Chiang Mai bus is a great option if the timing works out and it is only about 15 baht.

Ordinary Bus from Arcade

As of 2015 there seem to only be 2 buses left and the departure time from Arcade varies each day (some days it is "we leave when we get enough people"). So you must call to find out the current schedule.

The bus is the cheapest option by far, around 72-80 B.

Purchase tickets at the bus station ticket counter. Numbered seats are pre-assigned. All the good seats are gone 30 minutes before departure—show up early. If someone is sitting in your seat, tell the conductor immediately so he can reseat them before the bus gets packed.

Minivan from Arcade

As of 2015, with the demise of most of the buses and all the "Golden Dragon" minibuses, there are now a lot more minivans leaving Arcade 8-10 times per day between roughly 7:30am-4:30pm.

Purchase 150 B tickets at the bus station ticket counter. Purchasing ahead of time is highly recommended so you can get a decent seat (see above).

Other Minivan or Taxi

As mentioned above, you can also book 150 B minivans to Pai from many guesthouses in Chiang Mai, though these drivers often circle around Chiang Mai endlessly until they have a full vehicle. If you have a group, it might make sense to book a whole minivan, a taxi, or a private vehicle with your guesthouse for anywhere from 1500 B to 4500 B (see above).

Airplane!

Regular, daily, two-way airplane service between Chiang Mai and Pai began on 1 February, 2007. See details above.

Pai
to
Chiang Mai
Pai Bus Station

The humble Pai bus station is right downtown. As of 2015, the Pai bus company lets you purchase minivan tickets up to 3 days in advance (and you should).

The station now has a telephone number, 053 064 307 (international +66 53 064 307).

Ordinary Non-Aircon Bus

As of 2015 there seem to only be 2 buses left and the departure time from Arcade varies each day (some days it is "we leave when we get enough people"). So you must call to find out the current schedule.

The bus is the cheapest option by far, around 72-80 B.

For ordinary buses, there are no assigned seats and if you choose a departure that is not very early in the morning, the bus may already be full of people who got on at Mae Hong Son before the bus even arrives in Pai. It is important to stake out a seat at least 30 minutes in advance (or as soon as the bus arrives, if it does not start in Pai) to guarantee a place to sit.

Minivan from Pai Bus Station

As of 2015, with the demise of most of the buses and all the "Golden Dragon" minibuses, there are now a lot more minivans leaving Pai 8-10 times per day between roughly 7:30am-4:30pm.

Purchase 150 B tickets at the bus station ticket counter. Purchasing ahead of time is highly recommended so you can get a decent seat (see above).

Other Minivan and Taxi

As explained above, there are many other companies who offer minivan and taxi service to Chiang Mai and you will find them touting you within 50 meters of the bus station. The bus station company minivan service is usually more timely and problem-free. If you have a group, it might make sense to book a whole minivan, a taxi, or a private vehicle with your guesthouse for anywhere from 1500 B to 4500 B depending on vehicle type (see above).

Airplane!

Regular, daily, two-way airplane service between Chiang Mai and Pai began on 1 February, 2007. See details above.

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 the best thai-english phrasebook app
Experience Thailand richly with my Talking Thai-English-Thai Phrasebook app.
get the best thai-english dictionary app
Learn Thai with my Talking Thai-English-Thai Dictionary app for iOS, Android, Windows.
get a cool thai-english paper dictionary
Don't leave home without the Thai-English English-Thai Compact Dictionary I co-authored.
get thailand fever
I co-authored this bilingual cultural guidebook to Thai-Western romantic relationships.
get the best chinese phrasebook app
Visit China easily with my Talking Chinese-English-Chinese Phrasebook app.
get books or almost anything
Pick a Thai learning book from my list or buy anything at all from Amazon.
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!

World's Stupidest Holiday and Birthday Presents - stupidest-presents.com
World's Stupidest Wedding Websites - stupidest-wedding-sites.com
World's Stupidest Baby Websites - stupidest-baby-sites.com
World's Stupidest TV, Movie, Music, and Sports Stars - stupidest-stars.com
World's Stupidest Politicians - stupidest-politicians.com
World's Stupidest TV Shows - stupidest-tv-shows.com
World's Stupidest Movies - stupidest-movies.com
World's Stupidest Blogs - stupidest-blogs.com
World's Stupidest Websites - stupidest-websites.com
World's Stupidest Company Websites - stupidest-company-sites.com
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 1999-2015 Chris Pirazzi unless otherwise indicated.