Updated: 5/9/22 | May 9th, 2022
I didn’t like Pai. Wait. Check that — I liked Pai, I just didn’t love it.
For years, travelers have told me how much they loved Pai. “It’s aaaaa-mazing! It’s so much fun. There’s healthy food, lots of booze, waterfalls, and mountains to hike. You’ll never want to leave,” they would explain as if talking about the Garden of Eden.
When I started traveling around Southeast Asia in 2006, I rarely heard Pai mentioned. It was far off the beaten path, and back then I was all about staying on the beaten path. I wanted people and parties.
Over the years, Pai grew in fame as a destination where people smoked weed, drank, hiked, and did yoga. And the longer I traveled, the less destinations like that appealed to me.
But, given its popularity — and the number of questions I got about it — I decided that it was time to finally see what all the fuss was about.
Driving through northern Thailand into the mountains, my bus followed the many twists and turns. The road to Pai has over 700 turns, but I barely noticed them as I stared out the window at the densely covered hills that rolled 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.
On arrival, it didn’t take long to see why backpackers love Pai, why they write so effusively about it and stress the word 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 stores lining the streets of the town. Additionally, drinks and accommodations are cheap, and the parties run late.
It is a backpacker’s mountain paradise.
But it was precisely those things that turned me off. The town is simply too touristy and culturally washed out for me.
I’m not one to hate the tourist trail — I’m writing this in a Western café in Luang Prabang while drinking lemonade. But when people seek out imported food and 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 much of it. I actually had to wander somewhat 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, and 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 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 splits 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 on the beach an obnoxious sight.
But I can see why so many travelers come here and love it: cheap accommodation, excessive partying, the beautiful setting, and Western food to remind them of home. If I were a much younger, first-time traveler, this would be great. You get to interact with a lot of other travelers, maybe meet a few locals, and have a wild time. There’s nothing wrong with that.
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, majestic caves, stunning viewpoints, and a quiet place to read a good book.
This is where Pai shines. This is what makes it the place to be.
If you should go to Pai, be sure to stay on the outskirts of town in a lovely little bungalow. Rent a bike, traverse the hills, bathe in cool waterfalls, and explore some caves.
Find the Pai that is not a haven for Western hippies, backpackers, and yoga teachers, and you’ll find a place worth visiting.
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