A slice of Pai, Thailand
Walking down one of Pai’s four main streets it’s not hard to imagine it as the one-horse town that it must once have been. Tastefully restored wooden shopfronts line the dusty streets and even on a busy weekend afternoon the pace of life is so slow that it could be Laos. Come evening though the town changes its stripes as food vendors start to cook up pancakes, curries, pad thai, kebabs and skewers and a retro white and orange Volkswagon-van-cum-coffee-shop rolls into town. Come evening, Pai becomes that rare kind of town thats so cool it hurts your teeth.
Technically Pai shouldn’t be cool. A longtime sweetheart of the backpacker scene, Pai should by now have become another Vang Vieng – fun for a while but tacky as hell. Indeed according to my Lonely Planet guide, many people say that its Northern Thailand’s version of Bangkok’s Khao San Road (loud, lairy and just for tourists.) Yet when the market stalls string up their coloured bobble lights and a local policeman picks up his guitar and starts belting out Elvis ballads on the street – still in full uniform and riot helmet of course – it’s obvious that Pai is a little different from your average backpacker haunt.
A lot of this, I think, has to do with a level of cross-pollination that is so hard to find in Asia. For a start, Pai is as much a haunt of Thai tourists as farangs (foreigners) but not the camera-toting, socks-and-sandals set. No, its the well-heeled, achingly beautiful, beautifully young Thai crowd that come to Pai every year to escape the heat of the south, stretching out on cushions alongside every breed of hippy known to the western world.
On a more permanent level, the town has more than its fair share of expats – young families come to scratch out an existence until Junior gets to school-going age; western women cling onto their Thai husbands’ backs as they zip about town on motorbikes; and lifelong backpackers find their patch in a small commune outside of town. Hearing an American woman exchanging friendly fire in fluent Thai with a local, it is hard not to compare this Thailand to that of Chiang Mai or Bangkok where balding men with sweat-stained shirts rub their greasy hands all over young Thai flesh. This Thailand is no country for old men.
Of course the biggest draw for many young tourists (ourselves included) and the key to Pai’s sub-zero status is it’s music scene. Whatever your taste in music, Pai has a bar that is catering to just that – cross-legged reggae bars, sexy jazz haunts, indie bars decked out in Ikea’s latest and greatest and a fantastic live venue where a pure white daytime studio opens up its french doors to become a stage by night. After months of hearing nothing but Chinese pop and, more enjoyably, nails on chalkboards, perching on a footstool outisde in the cool evening air sipping a beer and listening to live performances of Jeff Buckley numbers or sitting barefoot and cross-legged enjoying a Pearl Jam cover is beyond magical – its miraculous.
For the most part, visitors to Pai are too relaxed to do much more than sleep all day but for those who have already recharged their batteries there are a few things to do in the area – trekking, visiting hilltribes, elephant rides, whitewater rafting (although at this time of year whitewater drifting might be more apt) and tubing down the river are a few of the most popular. Still recovering from Vang Vieng and our trip down the Mekong though, we hadn’t the energy to buck any trend so we contented ourselves with renting motorbikes and touring the hotsprings, Pai Canyon and a nearby waterfall where hippies go to do their laundry, locals go to wash, couples go to canoodle and backpackers go to sip a few beers and laze in the sun. Watching other people enjoying their friends (while we miss ours so much) turned out to be a depressing, lonely activity so we didn’t stay long, opting instead for the most epic mid-day nap in our little bamboo hut.
Tourist blackspot or not, everyone could do with a little Pai in their life.
More pictures from Pai are available in the gallery