We were advised to go to Pai by some of our friends and many travellers we bumped into on the road. And indeed, it is worth going, but let me tell you a few things before you get unrealistic expectations.
A while ago, Pai was a paradise for backpackers, mainly because of the ‘easy’ access to drugs in the area – opium and thai marijuana mainly but also the splendid surroundings, the hills and the settings away from the big cities (3 to 4 hours from Chiang Mai and close to Myanmar – ex-Burma – border). With the amount of backpackers coming to this area and the outlawing of opium, the opium fields around Pai and throughout the Pai valley became rice fields and the dynamic had to change. More and more tourists started coming to Pai years after years, mainly for the beauty of the area, its remoteness and its ‘chilled’ atmosphere that sticked with the town, even after the disappearance of the drug ‘culture’ there, and you can see why:
The locals and the town had to adapt and unfortunately – according to us and what we have seen so far – not for the best.
What do I mean by this? Well, I’ll be quite blunt here, but when I arrived in Pai, I told Dennis that I felt we had just arrived in a ‘Thai Disneyland for tourists’. Everything in the town is made to entertain the young Westerner coming to get tattoos and party. It seems that Pai has lost its authenticity and has now only one goal: entertain the tourist and ensure they spend their money.
Here are a few examples:
– Many shops and cafes have ‘Western’ cakes (carrot cake, chocolate cake, keylime pie…).
– There are just so many coffee shops and tea rooms I nearly felt like I was back in the UK (if it wasn’t for the zen atmosphere and the meditative music).
– There are hipsters shops in town selling Herschel backpacks and lumberjacks shirts…
– Many restaurants offer ‘Western food’ (actually written like this on the menu), for 4 times the price of a normal meal.
– The market is full of tacky souvenirs due to the fact that – apparently – a very popular romantic Chinese movie was shot here so now all sellers want to get a bite of the (money) cake. I don’t blame them.
– When you walk in Pai, 9 out of the 10 people you will see are Westerners and 99% of people in bars, cafes and restaurants are Westerners as well.
– According to Tripadvisor, there are 266 hotels, guesthouses and other hostels in Pai. Officially there is around 3000 inhabitants in Pai… And 3000 tourists, plus the people who are here for business. You got to accommodate these people, right!
Honestly, I could probably go on and on, but now I want to get to the nice aspect of Pai so that you DO decide to go there, even just for a couple of days.
Pai is a town with a lot of potential, and especially not a developed town, at least on a touristy level. It has a lot to offer but ‘same same but different’ to what you get in Northern Thailand in general. So yes you have the hippy atmosphere, but if you ‘dig a little deeper’ – I had to quote my favourite Disney there, 50 points to Gryffindor to whomever guesses what it is – there is just SO MUCH you can do and see if you stay there for a couple of days. You just have to behave less like a tourist and stay away from the Westerners traps. So here are my Pai Pieces of Advice:
– PPA1: except if you are traveling on your own, I wouldn’t advise for you to stay at the hostels. I know everybody says: ‘OMG you should like TOTALLY go to Spicy like’ (same goes for Circus) but actually the danger with these places is that you’ll get into the Pai trap, which is spend your money, go out, party, drink and then sleep all day. Some people enjoy that – no judging – but I am here to give you my advice, so here it is. From what we saw of Spicy when we went there – and couldn’t stay there in the end, long story – it was just a bunch of people in hammocks having a cigarette and a beer at 2pm… Some people called it life but I am personally not travelling for that (although I do welcome a chill if there’s a good opportunity). My point is that in Pai, it is easy to become lazy, laid back, and forget to enjoy the surroundings, which is such a shame. Instead, I’d recommend you and your travel compagnion(s) get a hut or a bungalow in one of the resorts around, you can get some for 300THB a night, or stay in a cheap place in town (Charlie’s House, 200THB with shared bathroom) and go out there! Go explore! It’s fun to meet people and learn from them, but you don’t just travel for the people, do you? And to be honest, the good people always come your way and cross your path in some form or fashion, you don’t have to hit the cool hip places to find them.
– PPA2: get a scooter. Pai without a scooter is a bit of a killer. It’s a bit like going to Disneyland and getting stuck in the Doll World ride. You want to get a scooter and go explore. Pai Canyon and Pam Bok waterfall are situated south and super easy to find. Go to the waterfall for a chill and to Pai Canyon for the sunset. When at the waterfall, about a kilometer and half before getting there, is a little area on the right called The Land Crack where the owner will treat you to roselle juice, sweet potatoes, passion fruit, bananas and other delicacies and all you have to do is leave a donation! Don’t miss it. Also, go East to Wat Phra Mae Yen and walk the (many) stairs to the gigantic White Buddha overlooking the Pai Valley. Drive two hours away from Pai and go discover the caves and have a chill or spend the night there. Just go explore! Free yourself from this idea that you go to Pai to get drunk with other backpackers. There is so much more to do than wasting time.
-PPA3: discover the good food places. Even though you can never have 100% organic products, Pai is pretty good at having natural products of very good quality. If you walk or ride to Wat Phra Mae Yen, you’ll find many shops and stalls on the way offering vegetarian and vegan food, or organic ‘regular’ food. Art In Chai offers incredible Chai and there are many vegetarian restaurants (Na’s Kitchen, Charlie and Lek, the Curry Shack…). Om Garden has a fantastic breakfast menu and serves the best carrot cake I have ever tasted. But the amazing thing about Pai is the quality of the street food! Spring rolls, rice paper rolls, lasagna, pad thai, tofu sticks, banana and chocolate cake pops, green tea scones… Seriously, you will regret your stomach is that small and you will want to eat more, always more (good food).
-PPA4: do a juice detox. Pai has amazing fruit juices, shakes, smoothies and lassis and it is the perfect occasion to try a three days juice detox. You can look it up online or just go the flow. Many cafes, restaurants or street stalls offer fantastic healthy juices with spirulina, passion fruit, avocado, pineapple, beetroot, dragon fruit, coconut juce, guava, banana and all these beautiful gifts from mother earth!
-PPA5: do a yoga or meditation retreat. I cannot tell you how good our yoga retreat was (with Xhale Yoga), although I think Dennis is going to try to tell you in his post! But really, you should do it. I had never done yoga before, or meditation and I had the greatest time there. It was amazing and life changing. It would be a shame to miss that opportunity. Do it!
-PPA6: get interested into all the Art scene going on in Pai. You can go to Spoken Words on Thursdays at Art in Chai – or the jam sessions on Fridays where you can bring your own instruments – you can go to open mics night at Edible Jazz on Sundays, you can go to the Open Mind Center south of town and so many other things! Pai is a beautiful place to meet artsy people and share more than a pint… Just saying.
All in all, Pai is a lovely place that I learned to discover slowly, especially after our yoga retreat. I was being very judgemental at first and then learned to see in between the lines and got to discover and enjoy a totally different side of Pai. Really, I cannot advise you more to go there. Such a beautiful place to be at and to feel content at.