A Slice of Pai
It seems to me that these days there are innumerable websites and self-help books to help you find your very own happy place. Now, you may wish to argue that you do not need a map to get there because happiness is a state of mind and not a place although I am also reliably informed that there is actually an agricultural town called “Happy” on Highway 87 part of the wider metropolitan area of Amarillo, on the hedge of the Texas panhandle but it is not in Thailand where I tend to spend an inordinate amount of my vacations and, therefore, not of interest to me.
With no “Happy” in Thailand I modified my criteria to “Magical” or at least “Spiritual” and when I shared that with my Mrs Smith she immediately said: “Pai”. As you may have gathered from previous submissions, I am not exactly the brightest bulb in the room and as a way of proving that, I actually thought that when she said “Pai” she meant the imperative form of the verb “To Go” and a little comical duet ensued where I began by asking “Pai Non?” (Go Where) and Mrs Smith reaffirming “Pai” and we went round in circle for a while with what I understood to mean Pai or Go – followed by Go Where? and followed by Go.
Mrs Smith and I debating whether to Pai or not to Pai
Eventually, she pulled out a map on her smart phone and indicated a tiny place in the North to which I enquired “Pai North?” and she replied “Chai, Pai in the North”. It took me a few more minutes to realise the subtlety and that she meant to travel North to a town which, unheard of ten years ago, has become a rite of passage not only for hippies and backpackers alike, but also a favourite holiday destination for middle class Thais.
Without further ado, we booked our flights to Chiang Mai and, not long after landing in that well known pretty northern town, we found ourselves on an air conditioned mini bus heading to Pai. The journey, by the way, will set you back anywhere from 150 to 200 thb depending on where you buy your ticket.
Up to that point, everything had been pretty straightforward but the drive itself was not for the feint hearted with more twists and bends than a Dana’s story. I stopped counting after the first 100 and allegedly there were 762 curves.
We could have actually flown there from Chiang Mai airport but at 2,500 thb per person for a 20 minute flight compared to a three hour journey by bus, and given the unpredictability of the weather (we were going through a cold spell with misty mornings) we thought it would have been unwise and even a minibus seemed a safer option compared to a propeller driven plane.
During the course of this life, I have had the opportunity to travel extensively both in Europe and South East Asia and I do enjoy a little research on places which capture my interest. From the description I had heard of Pai, I was expecting a meditation or yoga hub but what struck me at the beginning was a combination of beers, tattoos, fags, mopeds and dreadlocks and not necessarily in that order.
I looked at Mrs Smith and, despite my most innocuous and benevolent smile, I am sure she could read in my face what I was thinking…where is the magic of Pai? The place hailed as a spiritual hub of Thailand where kindred spirits drift in from around the globe to swap capitalism for fresh air and moderate integration with a fusion of Thai and Hill Tribe people?
Well, neither magical nor spiritual were words springing to mind. What I was actually seeing was a very tourist-like town and being someone who loves an immersion in real Thai culture and who, where possible, jumps at every opportunity to use a bit of the local lingo, I initially thought I might struggle to blend and bond with the vibe around me.
After alighting from the minibus and before making our way to our accommodation, we sat in one of the many and yet uniquely fine Thai eateries which are known as “hole in the wall” and delighted ourselves with some simple but extremely tasty food and while waiting for our order I realised that, somehow, I looked a little out of place with my cotton buttoned shirt, linen long trousers and loafers while all around me most Farangs strolled in tee shirts, shorts and flip flops.
Please do not misunderstand the meaning of my words as they are not intended superciliously. I may have been dressed differently from the majority of Farangs around me but this should not detract from the fact that the place was tranquil, the people extremely
welcoming and everyone seemed to be smiling and displaying a laid back attitude and I began to consider if this instant feel of relaxation was perhaps what constituted the magical perception that I had so much heard of.
This impression was confirmed later, when having borrowed our bicycles, we took a little tour around our accommodation and, eventually, on our return we lay on the hammock outside our little hut on stilts and we both felt very much at one with the sound of crickets, birds and geckos too!
Our little hut in Pai. Very basic inside but at 650 thb per night a good bargain.
Pai has a population of around 3,000 inhabitants, who, like nowhere else in Thailand comprise a seemingly harmonious mix of various tribal people including Thais, Burmese, and a Thai- Muslim community. Add to these approximately 300 Farangs living there, an abundance of aspiring hippies and backpackers passing through on a regular basis and an increasing number of Thais who have been flocking to the place following a romantic movie Pai in Love, which was quite successful on their home soil.
Mrs Smith is usually pleasant but the sedate setting brought the best out of her.
Will it work for you and your teeruk too?
Prices seemed to be much lower than any other tourist site around Thai soil and there was not a squeak from any person trying to sell you a tuk-tuk ride or offering to take you to a gem store or a trip to an unethical elephant park or any other sub-standard product. However, if you wanted to do some shopping, the night market could be a good place where to start from and spend both money and time.
The never ending night market
Pai was relaxed, and the locals welcoming. It seemed that before the tourist boom, the local people were not used to work hard but now that tourism had come to their town during the last decade they seemed much busier doing…well, not very much!
Locals get busy doing absolutely very little
Cycling around was an attractive option but make sure the breaks are in good working order. Ours were not and we only realised that mid way downhill. I am happy to report no injuries were sustained by any of the parties involved.
Mopeds remained a viable option with some quite attractively decorated.
The young lady featured here was not included in the hire!
Mae Yen, Pam Bok and Mor Paeng were attractive waterfalls.
The latter is the one featured in this photo.
The Tha Pai Hot Spring and Spa was an absolute delight. Modestly priced around 100 thb for swimming, at 35 degrees Celsius the springs were definitely hot.
One of the signs prohibited the use of soap and shampoo. Therefore, I assumed that a soapy with these fine looking lasses was out of the question. Mrs Smith would not have approved anyway.
A 20 thb entry fee to watch the sunrise from a nearby view point included free tea and bananas.
This was one of the most popular spots for a photo opportunity.
The nearby Chinese Village of Santichon was a neatly decorated little place selling tea, including the Oolong variety, tea pots and other Chinese style art crafts. The community Chinese Yunnan seemed to me more prosperous than most local village tribes I have observed along the Mae Hong Son Loop.
Chinese green tea has a number of fascinating properties and was available for sale. A lovely range of hand painted tea pots and accessories complemented the offer.
The Pai Canyon
The Pai Canyon was worth saving some space on my camera memory card as it was quite an epic feature with magnificent truly breathtaking views. However, given there were no railings to speak of and that the trail was very narrow at various points, a fall, I concluded, would not have been that epic. I am a little ashamed to admit that my adventure was very short lived as less than 200 metres into the trail I encountered this and decided to abort my mini expedition. Mrs Smith seemed relieved at the possibility that I had seemingly regained my sanity.
If you possess a set of wings on your shoulder blades and do not suffer from vertigo, this promises to be quite an experience.
To the bridge and beyond
If you find the Pai Canyon not quite safe, you may wish to see the World War II Bridge in Pai. A reconstructed version of the bridge built by locals under Japanese instructions during their quest to control Myanmar.
Fasten your seat belts
As long as you did not fall through one of its many holes (did anyone actually think to position this tricycle just by that gap?) it was quite pretty really. It was imaginatively called the Ta-Pai Bridge and it ran over the equally imaginatively named, yes you guessed right, Pai river.
The Food in Pai like its people was just great and, besides Thai food, there was plenty of choice including Italian, Mexican, Halal foods and many more. If you fancied a snack in a hurry you could buy Khao Chi or sticky rice grilled on a charcoal. I have seen this in various places in Isan too but the locals claim it is part of Lanna food. Notwithstanding the exactness of its origins, for 10 thb it was very good value for money.
Lady with flowers
As for the nightlife in Pai – There were plenty of bars open until midnight and there was a Don’t Cry Bar for after hours action. However, there did not seem to be evidence of any working girls in the bars of Pai, none that I noticed anyway. However, as long as you could put up with reggae music, jazz, barbecues, cocktails, beer and chatting then you were likely to find the vibe absolutely chilled out. This lady with flowers did not ask me for any money to have her photo taken. She seemed just pleased to notice that I was taking an interest in her craft although she did not seem to convey this as convincingly from this photo.
Pretty as a picture
Inevitably, the increasingly popular Pai is attracting countrywide investment and more upmarket accommodation is evident in places. There are already five banks and I counted three 7-11s. It would not surprise me to hear that Tesco Lotus will be here soon and it will not be too long before the well known golden arches of a burger-cooking company will follow.
Although I am somehow ashamed to say this as it may comes across as haughty, the local economy will surely benefit from being able to charge higher prices to luxury travellers, rather than having to put up with non-tipping backpackers seeking the cheapest option possible and as it happened Mrs Smith was not the only middle class Thai, who, after seeing the Pai In Love movie decided to come here. Several thousands of Thais, allegedly, have, at times, been clogging the streets with their cars in repeat scenes reminiscent of the best Bangkok’s traffic.
Room with a view?
Pai is a lovely area gifted with amazing scenery and plenty of tranquillity. However, the feel is not so much of a Thai culture but more of a commune-like, with Farangs who would not be totally out of place in Woodstock but who for their own reasons seem to be seeking out spirituality in the town of Pai.
If I had to be brutally honest, nevertheless, for some real peace of mind, spirituality and beautiful scenery without the ever miserable tour operators begrudgingly booking your next tour or minibus, and apart from the part-time Che-Guevara look alike revolutionaries, I would suggest that places like Chiang Rai are more the real deal of what I would expect of Northern Thai feel and culture.
Again I would not wish to be misunderstood as I really enjoyed Pai, but no more so than many of the equally beautiful places I have been to elsewhere in the North, Northeast and the South of Thailand and perhaps, when I can shake off those indolent feelings that keep me away from the keyboard I may share a place or two in a future submission.
I came to Pai with Mrs Smith to be happy for more than an hour and we succeeded.
How long will the scarecrow depicted here will be able to hold onto his fishing rod in total bliss unaware that a property developer will bulldoze him soon?
The invention of money at times seems to produce such horrible dreams changing landscapes forever. Personally, I found that the real treat of visiting Pai was beyond the town. The actual treat was in riding and riding again in the foothills enjoying the tranquillity of the valleys, set in never ending rolling hills and abundant greenery. This provided the perfect place to reflect about life, to be creative when jotting down a few lines and, given that Mrs Smith was there too, to be romantic.
Travelling in pairs can be great fun
Despite the mostly laid back bohemian attitude among the Farangs and the friendliness of the locals I would reiterate that there are dozens of other places in Thailand where one can eat and drink surrounded by trees and hills of magnificent beauty. Pai,
I concluded, was a truly lovely place, but on reflection it was not magical. To me it seemed more of an accident, a place that, quite easily, will, one day, be replaced by the next untapped rural haven.
Let’s get a ticket to Tomorrow…wherever that is.
Post Scriptum – I nearly forgot to tell you that I saw Caveman while in Pai. He was munching on some high power avocado bars while patiently signing copies of his book “80 days around the Mae Hong Son Loop…and again…and again”
his tenth sequel apparently. He looked happy and I avoided disturbing him.