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.0