Every person I met in Thailand told me I had to go to Pai before I die.
I had never even heard of this tiny town before, but I took their advice and headed to the far northwestern mountains of Thailand to check it out.
Pai is pretty easy to get to from Chiang Mai, if you aren’t sensitive to car sickness and don’t mind sitting in a van for hours going 100 mph around hairpin curves in the mountains. The road to Pai is so treacherous, that normal buses can’t make the journey. So traveling to Pai requires booking a seat in a large van that holds about 12 people. And while it’s not the comfiest form of travel, the views of the Thai contryside are incredible!
Surrounded by stunning mountains, Pai is known for it’s slow pace of life, access to nature, westernized healthy food and late night parties. It’s a place where backpackers go to chill, drink, smoke weed and do some yoga. A place where many plan to spend a few days, but end up staying forever.
While I’ve, personally, never been interested in the organic, weed-smoking, yoga-practicing lifestyle, I was excited to explore this little dot on a map for a few days. And in true Pai fashion, I spent my entire first day chilling in a hammock reading a book with views of rice paddies and mountains.
But, by day two, I was ready to get out and explore. I rented a motorbike for a few dollars (it didn’t sound as dangerous at the time) and headed into the countryside. They drive on the left-hand side of the road in Thailand, which took some getting used to, but I loved the freedom of being able to explore anywhere I wanted to go. I drove around for hours, down dirt roads and up mountains, finding temples and hidden gems along the way.
After a full day of exploring on my motorbike, I headed back to town to see what Pai was really all about. There is one main road running through town that is lined with shops, restaurants, cafes and bars. Everywhere you look, signs are in English and it seems like there are far more westerners than Thais out and about. There are healthy restaurants and cafes on every street corner, serving things like acai bowls, granola and herbal teas, while food stalls sell cheeseburgers, falafel and bruschetta. You see a lot of westerners posing for photos to post to Instagram to validate their happy, hippy life in Pai.
To be honest, it felt fake. I no longer felt like I was in Thailand, but instead in a world where people thought eating an acai bowl made them a hipster and running away to this small dot on a map in Thailand would somehow make their life more organic, easier and happier. When you listen to someone talk about Pai, it’s all about the westernized food, the chill atmosphere and the beautiful, surrounding nature. While Pai does have all those things, there is never any mention of the local Shan culture or traditions, which have seemingly disappeared in this overwhelmingly westernized town.
Despite its flaws, I decided to make the most of my time in Pai. I made some friends at the hostel and we went to the night market to snack on bruschetta, ate at a delicious Indian restaurant, found a hidden bar with live music and brought in the New Year chilling in hammocks overlooking the town below.
While I didn’t have a bad time, in Pai, I wouldn’t say I had a good time either. Overall, I found Pai incredibly disappointing and I was uncomfortable by how westerners seemed to have taken over the town and turned it into what they wanted, disregarding local cultures and traditions. Maybe it was because of my disappointment, the uneasiness I experienced or because of the strong urge I felt to get out of town, but in the midst of the New Year celebrations, I found myself buying a one way ticket to the Thai border.