Christmas Road Trip from Chiang Mai to Pai

This Christmas, we took a 2-day road trip from Chiang Mai to Pai. Because we work full-time, we use our Christmas holiday to make sure we go on an adventure! I know that doesn’t sound much like what you do at Christmas back home, but to be honest we’re both quite rubbish at sitting down, relaxing and doing nothing — we’ve tried, I swear.

Pai is a town in northern Thailand, about 4 hours drive north of Chiang Mai. It’s surrounded by mountains, green rice paddies and hot springs. To us, it sounded charming and idyllic. However, Pai has gotten a bit of a bad reputation amongst some because the town itself has become a hotspot for backpackers and hippies — some who even refer to it as a “backpacker ghetto.” We knew this before we went and planned our trip to avoid the party areas and enjoy nature.

Driving by Scooter to Pai

On Christmas Eve, we drove over 300km from Chiang Mai to Pai and back again. It’s a long scooter ride taking around 4 hours if you’re driving sensibly. We’d already rented a scooter for the month in Chiang Mai and were keen to have our own freedom and make our own way to Pai. We knew the drive would be beautiful too as it goes through winding mountain roads.

We left Chiang Mai at 8:30AM and the mountain roads were freezing! We were both wearing three-layers, including rain jackets. We only had an average scooter but most people driving this route had motorbikes with very thick tyres because it’s easy to skid on the way down the mountain side. We saw two couples who had come off their scooter when they skidded on a curve on the way down. They motioned us to go slowly even though we were already driving super slow and carefully (way, way under the 60km/ph speed limit that is sign posted). Fortunately Luke is also an excellent scooter driver so we escaped the mountain roads scrape free.

If you’re planning a road trip to Pai, we actually wouldn’t recommend driving by scooter to Pai. The twists and turns are steep and the mountain roads aren’t easy to drive on, especially if you’re inexperienced on a scooter. You can go by minibus to Pai for only 150 baht one-way and it only takes 3 hours, so it’s cheaper and quicker than renting a scooter and driving yourself. If you do drive, wear a wind-breaker and layers so that you can peel down when you’re driving on warmer parts of the route. Make sure you also get some motion sickness tablets (only 25 baht at Watsons or 7/11) before you as lots of people get travel sick on the winding roads.

Christmas Eve in Pai

After 4 hours on the mountain roads, we arrived in Pai! Luke was ravenous, so we drove straight into town to get some eats. A friend we met in Chiang Mai had recommended a place called Om Garden Cafe, so we stopped in there. There were sooo many backpackers. The cafe and town was teeming with people of every age in elephant pants who may not have washed their hair for quite some days. We giggled about it, absolutely not minding the situation because everyone around us seemed very friendly and because where there are hippy-backpackers, there is always healthy veggie food too.

Om Garden Cafe was definitely one of the healthier options in town, though we were a little disappointed that the majority of the menu was Western food (because we love Thai food!) We were still super cold at this point, so I order a bowl of pumpkin, coconut and lemongrass soup which I burnt the whole of my mouth on — because I literally have no sense of how hot my food is. Luke ate a big plate of potatoes, eggs and tomatoes. Due to my burnt mouth and inability to go a day without a banana smoothie (it’s an addiction), we also shared a banana and coconut milk smoothie which was really good.

After lunch, we hopped back on our scooter and drove across the river (away from the town) to our guesthouse. Our friend Liezl who we met teaching in English in Taiwan had recommended Canary Guesthouse which, as we trusted, turned out to be super lovely. We had our own cabin by the river. It was peaceful and pretty. We buried our heads in our books and relaxed for the next few hours.

Thai Massage in Pai

The same friend who had recommended Om had also told me about a Thai massage place out in the rice paddies around Pai. She had done a 3-day massage course there and said it was the best massage she’d ever had. It sounded so amazing that I knew we had to go. It was a 15-minute drive further out of town. We took the road through the rice paddies and up the hill. It got more and more rural and it was hard to belief that there was going to be anywhere out there at the end of the road, but there was!

The massage hut is called Ananya Massage and is run by Ananya herself. She’s the most talented masseuse we’ve ever met and very sweet. Our massages were focused on relieving pain through various pressure points. The hut has a roof but the sides are open with just curtains around the edge so you can look out over the lush rice paddies whilst having the massage. We loved it! The massage was 300 baht per person for an hour-long Thai massage.

The massage hut is part of a very small, hidden place called Isara Garden. As well as the massage hut, there’s a vegan cafe and cooking class, and sustainable mud hut accommodation. We only had a short time in Pai so unfortunately didn’t get to check either of those out! If you want to go, I hear they’re not always open so message ahead on Facebook to check.

Pai Walking Street

On Christmas Eve evening, we headed into town to go to the famous Pai Walking Street. This night market has hundreds of local stalls selling artisan crafts and local street food. We’d heard the street food was not to be missed — even for vegetarians! Though the night market wasn’t Christmasy at all, the experience is quite like visiting a Christmas market.

The Walking Street market in Pai was much better than the ones in Chiang Mai. The handicrafts and other trinkets for sales were generally a nicer quality and more unique. The food was also much better. At Chiang Mai markets, they really don’t spend much time catering for vegetarians (which is odd because the vegetarian restaurants in Chiang Mai are amazing).

We gorged ourselves on loads of delicious street food snacks. When we walked into town from our guesthouse, we turned right instead of left. Turns out that to the left was where all of the super healthy veggie food was, but we turned right and ate a lot of good but unhealthy veggie food in the mean time before realising what was down the left route.

The street food snacks at Pai night market included purple rice pancakes made from glutinous rice, rolled out and cooked on an open flame. When they start to bubble they’re taken off the flame, drizzled in condensed milk and covered in sesame seeds. There are deep fried vegetarian gyoza, which were great, though we later saw some less fried looking ones. We ate samosas, though wouldn’t rate them that highly. There was also baked sweet potato and corn on the cob. Luke ate some super spicy noodles in a banana leaf, and I ate sweet coconut ball snacks from the same stand. Most snacks were 20 or 30 baht.

The best food at the market by far was the Burmese tea leaf salad. It’s a mix of fresh veggies, fermented tea leaves, chillies and dressing and topped with crunchy peanuts. It was 50 baht for a salad or you could add avocado on top for 70 baht. I only got to eat it once but could eat that salad every single day it was so good!

Christmas Shopping in Pai

As we’re often travelling in the lead up to Christmas and because we carry as little as possible so we can keep our backpacks light, we do very little Christmas shopping. Instead, when we’re abroad for Christmas, we try to find a nice local market to buy each other a small gift. We did the same thing in Panama and Mexico before. This year we thought we were out of luck but Pai’s night market has lots of nice things, so we did our Christmas shopping there on Christmas Eve. We set a budget of 200 baht (around £5) each and had half an hour to find each other a gift to open on Christmas morning. Luke also managed to find some sparklers which we set alight by the river before bed (such kids!)

Christmas Day in Pai

On Christmas morning, we slept in and woke up a little later than usual (not that late because we’re not very good at sleeping in and it’s Christmas!) We put on Christmas songs and opened our little gifts we’d bought last night. Turned out that we’d both eyed up the same locally made bags and got a different design for each other. I’d bought some raw chocolate truffles for Luke, and he’d bought me a red bracelet, each wrapped in those bags.

We went out and breakfasted at a super cute cafe. It was a real backpacker style breakfast of banana pancakes, which gave me a lot of nostalgia about our trip to Vietnam where we’d eaten banana pancakes for breakfast basically every day. After breakfast, we went to the book store in Pai. The book store there is amazing and has tonnes of English language books. I bought myself a bunch of second hand business books that I’ve wanted to read for ages.

Hot Springs in Pai

Before heading back home, we drove out to Pai Hot Spring Resort. We’d heard the actual hot springs were just muddy pools where you couldn’t really get in the water, so we went to one of the resorts where the channel the hot spring water into man-made pools. We had intended to swim as well, but the swimming pool was so cold that I couldn’t even bare to do more than three strokes. Luke managed to do a couple of lengths but his teeth were chattering when he got out! We jumped in the hot springs to warm up and soaked there for a while before driving back to Chiang Mai.

When we left the hot springs, there were lots of retired elephants by the roadside (retired from the logging industry, I guess). Some were chained up to garages like dogs in a front yard while others were unchained and just sitting in the grass. We had to stop the scooter to wait for an elephant to cross the road on the way back. They’re such glorious animals but though it’s sweet to see them, there’s always a lot of sadness at their captivity.

Back in Chiang Mai for Christmas Dinner

The drive back to Chiang Mai by scooter was easier than the way there because it was uphill instead of downhill. We made it back in 3.5 hours and headed to Reform Kafe, our favourite cafe in town. The Thais don’t celebrate Christmas, so all our favourite places were still open on Christmas Day! I tucked into a Christmas dinner of green Thai curry, while Luke ate glass noodle salad and potato wedges. By now we were super exhausted of course, so we rolled home, Skyped our families who had just woken up and watched a Christmas film before falling asleep.

Merry Christmas from Chiang Mai

Thanks to all our friends and family for putting up with our insatiable travelling! We love to adventure for Christmas, but we always miss our family and friends this time of year too. Much love from Thailand.


Where did you spend Christmas this year? We’d love to hear about!

Charlie Marchant

Charlie is a long-term traveller from the UK who writes about simple ways to travel sustainably, including how to become a house sitter and slow traveller, eating local and vegetarian, and making responsible travel choices.

2 thoughts to “Christmas Road Trip from Chiang Mai to Pai”

  1. How nice and different it must be spending Christmas in Thailand. You drove that scooter quite a long day, and I know is not that simple given that we did the same in Palawan, Philippines. That rice looks good!
    Bella WW recently posted…My 2017 travelsMy Profile

    1. Hi Bella! Christmas in Thailand was really exciting – I love doing something different and less traditional at Christmas time for a change. But yes, the scooter ride was very long. I loved Palawan. Where did you ride to there?

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