Bus, Minibus, and Van Options From Chiang Mai to Pai and Mae Hong Son
While there are plenty of various options available to get to Pai or Mae Hong Son from Chiang Mai's Arcade bus station, tickets may not be available at the last minute, so you should stop by and get them in advance if possible (contrary to what the girls at our hostel told us).
Summary of Van/Bus/Minibus Options
Since there is no official website for the bus company or the bus station, I found some conflicting information regarding the schedule before getting to the bus station. So, for anyone looking for the same info, here is the summary of options available:
Note: You can see the detailed schedules at the end of this post.
Arcade Bus Station
Located in the north east corner of Chiang Mai, the bus station is about 15-20 minute tuk tuk ride from Tae Pae Gate. We paid 60 baht for the two of us (plus large backpacks). There are two terminals - Terminal 3 looked new and modern, while Terminal 2 looked just as you would expect a bus station look in south east Asia. We did not see Terminal 1 so I am not sure if there is one.
The ticket office for vans/minibuses/buses to Pai and Mae Hong Son is located on the north side of Terminal 2, near platforms 11, 12, and 13 where the buses and minivans leave from. Inside the terminal, there is a free (donations-based) dirty restroom with toilet paper sold outside. There were also some vendor stalls inside, but I did not pay much attention to them.
Bus vs Minibus vs Van
In general, vans will get you there faster, but buses may or may not be more comfortable. To give you an idea, here are the representative pictures of each:
They do practice assigned seating for minivans (not sure if the same is true for buses). Each van holds 15 people with two next to the driver up front, a row of three seats behind them, then 1+2 configuration for two rows, and finally four seats at the back. Tall people - go for seat 1, 6, or 13. Those have the most leg room while 3, 4, and 5 appeared to be the next best choice.
Van Ride From Chiang Mai To Pai
Surprisingly, we left just five minutes past our departure time, which is essentially ahead of time in Asian time. Our van was full and of course I got stuck in a seat with no legroom with my kneecaps literally pushing into the seat in front of me. We covered the majority of distance in the first half of the ride and stopped at a break point/food station right after an hour and 30 minutes. There were a number of different options for food - from coffee stand to fresh fruit to traditional Thai cuisine. The restroms were big, free (also donation-based) and fairly clean.
After the 15 minute stop, we jumped back in the van for the more exciting part of the trip. Soon we were in the mountains going up and down, left and right with steep drop offs all over the place. I sure felt good about my decision to not get any food at the rest stop. While there were a couple times when the driver jerked the van a bit to hard into a turn, it was not too bad of a ride overall and we arrived to Pai bus station (really just a dirt lot big enough just to fit half a dozen vans).
[message type="custom"] For returning from Pai, see Bus Options From Pai to Chiang Mai and Mae Hong Son
For returning from Mae Hong Son, see Bus Options From Mae Hong Son to Pai and Chiang Mai [/message]
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Minibus Schedule (Chiang Mai to Pai)
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Van Schedule (Chiang Mai to Mae Hong Son via Mae Sariang)
Bus Schedule (Chiang Mai to Mae Hong Son via Pai)