I didn’t like Pai. Wait. Check that — I liked Pai, I just didn’t love Pai. For years, travelers have told me how much they loved Pai. “It’s aaaaa-mazing! It’s so much fun. There’s healthy food, incredible drinks, and beautiful mountains. You’ll never want to leave,” they would explain, as if talking about the Garden of Eden.
When I started traveling this region in 2006, I rarely heard the name Pai mentioned. It was far off the beaten path, and back then I was all about staying on the beaten path. Over the years, Pai grew in fame as a destination where people smoked weed, drank, hiked, and did yoga. Having never been to Pai, I decided on this trip that it was time to finally check out what all the fuss was about.
Driving through northern Thailand into the mountains, my bus twisted and turned. The road to Pai has over 700 turns, but I barely noticed them as I stared out the window at the densely covered hills rolling like waves into the horizon. It was green as far as I could see, and I was again struck by the beauty of the Thai countryside. We drove on for hours as our bus driver auditioned for an unseen F1 judge. But the heart-stopping speed was worth it to once again see such beautiful tropical forests.
As I explored town later that day, I understood why backpackers love Pai, why they write so effusively about it and accentuate the world love when they mention it. Nestled in the mountains and surrounded by waterfalls and wondrous hiking trails, Pai is a tiny town where life moves at a pace that would frustrate even the most laid-back Spaniard. It’s also a Western paradise: there’s organic food, wheatgrass shots, specialty teas, and Western food in shops lining the streets of the town. Additionally, drinks and accommodations are cheap, and the party goes late.
It is a backpacker’s mountain paradise.
But it was often just those things that turned me off to Pai. The town is simply too touristy and culturally washed over for me. I’m not one to hate the tourist trail — I’m writing this in a Western café in Luang Prabang, Laos while having a lemonade. But when people seek out imported food, drink beers from Belgium, and when the street food consists of burgers, bruschetta, and lasagna, I think things have gone too far.
Thailand itself seems to have gotten lost in Pai as waves upon waves of Westerners and Chinese tourists reshape most of town. One had to wander to find Thai restaurants that catered to the local population. (They were delicious and cheaper than the food found at the “market” on Walking Street.)
Of course, Pai is not all bad — there’s plenty to see and do. From town, you can hike to waterfalls, wander through farms and rice terraces where the only sounds are the birds and farm animals, and bike to caves and more waterfalls.
I especially loved the day trip to the Tham Lod caves. In mid-afternoon, you’re driven by one of the many tour operators (don’t worry which, they all go the same way) to Mo Paeng waterfall, where you can go for a swim, and then to Sai Ngam (secret) hot springs, a viewpoint, and finally the caves, where you arrive right before sunset. After a hike along a short path, a Thai guide leads you through three large chambers before you board a raft to float down the river that splices this cave in half. There the cavern opens up as you witness thousands of birds flocking around the entrance. It was mystifying, breathtaking, and the highlight of my time in Pai.
What I loved about Pai was the setting, not the vibe. In a town that charges you to plug your computer in, I found watching bare-chested backpackers get drunk obnoxious. As to fully showcase what Pai had become, my trip was bookended by overhearing two girls discussing whether they are “damp” or not according to Chinese medicine and two older guys discussing how Monsanto and governments are conspiring to depopulate the world.
I can see why so many travelers come here and love it: cheap accommodation, excess partying, the beautiful setting, the good Western food. If I were a first-time traveler and much younger, this travel atmosphere would be great. You get to interact with a lot of other travelers, maybe meet a few locals, and have a wild time.
But it’s not for me anymore.
The Pai of the backpacker is not the Pai that interests me. I love what made Pai famous in the first place: the mountains and the long forest paths to secluded waterfalls, caves, stunning vistas, and a quiet place to read a good book.
This is where Pai shines. This is what makes Pai the place to be. And why you should go to Pai, stay on the outskirts town in a lovely little bungalow, rent a bike, traverse the hills, bathe in cool waterfalls, or explore some caves.
Pais is much more than a haven for Westerner hippies, backpackers, and yoga teachers.