Things To Do In Pai – Bathe With Elephants!

The purpose of life is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience.

Eleanor Roosevelt

The day I spent with these massive and amazing creatures was one of my most memorable days traveling in Thailand.  It was on my first trip to Pai, but first let me explain how this opportunity came about.

Taxi Ride – Chang Phuak Bus Station to Arcade Bus Station

After getting re-settled in a new apartment near Chang Phuak Rd near the old city and forfeiting my travel plans to Singapore, I went to the Immigration Office in Chiang Mai to have my visa extended for 30 days.

Earlier that week a few of my classmates from CELTA started heading out to Pai to unwind from a very stressful month of classroom training, lesson planning and English teaching to local Thai students.  I decided to meet up with them at the end of the week, once I took care of my errands.

Once I was finished with Immigration I stopped at the Chang Phuak bus station, to find out how much it would cost for a minibus(van)ride to Pai.  The bus station is walking distance from my apartment, but then I found out I would have to take a song thaew (red truck) to another bus station, called the Arcade, to find the minibus to Pai.

Bus station at Chang Phuak Road

I drove my motorbike back to the apartment packed my backpack and started walking to my  bus station.  As soon as I walked up, the tuk-tuk drivers asked me if I needed a ride of course.  They wanted to charge me 100 baht to go to the Arcade Bus Station.  The lady at the counter told me it was only 30 baht($1 USD) to get the song thaew, so I declined the tuk-tuks.  After waiting over a half hour for a song thaew, I realized maybe I should have spent the extra 70 baht to take the tuk-tuk.

Even though, prices are very reasonable, its still best to watch every single baht, especially if you are on a budget.

I arrived at the Arcade Bus Station and found the Pai ticket in Terminal 2 at the counter way at the back of the station.  The cost was 150 baht (approx.$5 USD)  The lady showed me on a computer screen the seats available and I picked one in the back corner and the bus would be leaving in 20 mins.

I believe a bus leaves from Chiang Mai Arcade Bus Station for Pai once every hour or half hour.

The open road beckons you.

Road To Pai

Pai is a small town located about 80km/50 miles north of Chiang Mai.  It is about a 3hr drive from Chiang Mai and a little over an hour of driving through winding steep mountain roads.  There are signs along the way with a drawing of a person with their head in a toilet.  I didn’t know what those signs were for but found out later it was because people tend to get sick on the drive through the mountains because it is basically like a rollercoaster ride and opting to sit in the back of the bus was also not a good idea.

I had a brief anxiety attack, when I imagined being trapped in the back of the bus.  I am very claustrophobic.  There are no aisles, so once all the seats are down, you are pretty much stuck, and I had two rows blocking me in to the back of the bus.

We made one brief stop for snacks and toilet and another stop at a police checkpoint.  Police checkpoints are common in Northern Thailand but do not worry.  As long as you’re calm and polite, you should have no problems moving forward.  Just make sure you have copies of all of your traveling documents and preferably an International Driver’s License.

Thai Police

I did not have an International Driver’s License, and it was not an issue at an established checkpoint. However, I have heard of friends who have had to pay on the spot because they did not have an international driver’s license.  I have been pulled over twice in Chiang Mai, but never asked for an international driver’s license.  I once made an illegal turn and paid 200 baht on the spot!

My police officer seemed quite forgiving, since he laughed out loud when I told him in broken Thai “Mai Ru!” meaning “I don’t know!” present tense.  These police officers are not known for their humorous side, but just a little effort on my part to be respectful and speak in Thai, I think helped me to avoid paying 400 baht at the police station, which is what he originally told me.  200 baht is approximately $6-$7 USD.  Which is not bad for a nerve-racking police confrontation in a foreign country where you do not speak the language fluently.

Pai Elephants
Mahout or Kwan Chang(Elephant Handler) and Chang(Elephant)

Arriving in Pai

When I arrived in Pai, I had no idea where anything was or which direction to walk.  Once I got off the bus, I saw a map of the town and realized I was on the main street and many of the affordable bungalows with a view were on the other side of town across a bridge over the Pai River.

As soon as I began walking, there were street vendors already out selling food for Pai Night Market. I grabbed some chicken satay, and fed some stray dogs that were following me, to the delight of some other tourists who noticed my convoy of tattered but cute mutts.

Shortly after, I found a fruit stand ordered a watermelon shake and kept walking.  Within 5 minutes of getting off the bus, I was stuffing my face and I also tried what I didn’t know at the time is known as a Chiang Mai Sausage which I guess is a popular street food in Northern Thailand.

This isn’t the actual sign in this story, but worth noting.

I walked for about 10 mins. with my backpack in tow, no laptop.  I left that at the apartment in Chang Phuak. This was to be a real getaway weekend.  I looked to my right down a small side street and noticed a huge Burger sign.

Since, I have been in Asia, I have become a real burger connoisseur.  Well….not really, I just miss good old American Cheeseburgers at times and that truly has been my comfort food since I have been traveling. Although, it is not always easy finding a good quality cheeseburger in Thailand. I will save that story for another post.

Pai Beautiful Girl at Burger Queen
The Burger Queen! Not the burger spot referenced in this story but also definitely worth noting!

After I noticed the burger sign, I looked down and I see a pretty, young woman waving at me!  I was happy to see that it was Rose from my CELTA Certification class.  I greeted her with open arms of course, and she immediately gives me a quick summary of what’s been going on and where she is staying etc. etc.

We agree to link up on Facebook later.  I leave Rose and start walking down the main street towards the bridge to see if I can find the Darling Viewpoint Bungalows I had read about on and before I know it Petra zips right up to me on a motorbike and begins to interrogate me!

Yes, Petra is known for her confrontational, sometimes sweet, sometimes sour approach.


Petra is another one of my pretty classmates from CELTA.  How did I get so lucky? 🙂

Within 20 mins. of arriving in Pai, I have found two of my classmates.  It is a small town after all.

We agree to meet later that evening for dinner and drinks, where I meet Sid from Australia.

That night the four of us planned to see the elephants the very next day. We also agreed that we want to find a camp where we can ride bareback on the elephants which is supposed to be much better for them than using the large harnesses.  Petra has heard about an elephant camp  where we can play with the elephants in the river and supposedly they do not use the heavy harnesses strapped to their backs.

Pai Local
Local Lady hanging laundry by the river in Pai.
Pai Elephants - Thailand
My assistant photograher on a Chang headed down to the river. “Umm… hold on, let me get out of your way!”

Chang Time

The next morning I heard Petra from outside my cabin say that she is meeting Rose and they will be back in a little while to leave.  Coincidentally, she booked at Darling Viewpoint Bungalows too.  Her Bungalow was right below mine but was more of a dorm like setup where she shared a room with others. Despite her trying to convince me it was a better deal, I felt I was already getting a good deal at 400 Baht/nt.  Approximately $12-$13 USD/nt So, I opted for my own bungalow.   I am not sure what happened exactly but I thought I heard Petra when she came back and she said she would be at the front.

By the time I came out I didn’t see her or Rose or Sid.  I waited a few more minutes, and still no one, so I figured maybe they left and went to the intersection.  I rode my motorbike out there and still no sign of them.  After waiting around a few more minutes, I decided I would just head out on my own.  It is such a beautiful scenic drive anywhere around Pai.  Tyson and I made a short video of us just riding a motorbike around the country, but still, I am not really sure it captures the beauty of the scenery.

Pai Countryside.
Pai Countryside.

I rode my motorbike maybe 5km to an area that opens up to a beautiful view of the countryside so I stopped to take a picture.

As soon as I finish, I see my entourage riding towards me on their motorbikes and beeping their horns.

After a brief reprimand from my dear Petra, we were on our way through the peaceful countryside. Hehe.

We opted not to ride the elephants down to the river, but walk with them. That was just as amazing of an experience.
I’ll be down by the river.

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Karen’s Elephant Camp

We finally reached Karen’s Elephant Camp and each paid 500 baht to spend time playing with these amazing creatures in the river.  They did have the large seated baskets harnessed to the elephants when we arrived, but we asked them to remove them.  They removed the baskets and we began walking with the elephants down the street for maybe a kilometer before we cut right onto a dirt road, that led to the river.

I took out my DSLR and one of the mahouts immediately waved me to allow him to take pictures for me.  I asked him to please be careful in the water, and he just smiled at me.  After looking at the pictures he took of our experience, most of which you see here, you can see he did a great job of capturing some fantastic moments for us.

From the moment that Rose was nearly swept away by the river, Sid’s elephant whispering, Petra’s many intimate moments with the elephants, not to mention my own intimate moments with my chang and getting hurled into the air like a ragamuffin, it is definitely one day I will never forget.

Thanks to the Mahout who took so many amazing photographs for us with my DSLR without even getting it wet! Chok Dee Krap!

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Author and Website Designer | Website | + posts

Brian Dennis is a full-time software engineer, some-time traveler and location-independent entrepreneur.

Chasing his passions in addition to travel in recent years has become a little challenging but even more fulfilling with his wife Betina and 1-year old son Divine.

Currently he is located in S. Florida and continues to share what he's learned with travel tips, guides and some motivating inspiration to encourage others to do more and experience more outside of their comfort zones.

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