‘Bei Pai Mai’ means ‘Do you want to go to Pai?’ So what is Pai, you might wonder? Answer: A small town in Mae Hong Song province in Northern Thailand and one of the more unique and beautiful places yours truly has stumbled across. At first I was a bit sceptical of heading to Pai as the town’s stunning landscape, rolling hills, and alternative atmosphere have become less and less of a secret over the last few years. It is a gathering spot for many of Thailand’s backpackers who have scheduled a generous amount of travel time and almost invariably seem to have arrived in Thailand via India or Nepal.
Pai has an artistic and artsy flair to it. Besides being a favoured spot for trekkers, nature lovers and bird watchers, the serenity and beauty of Pai has inspired some of Thailand’s own artists, freethinkers and musicians to take up residence there. Pai is a quirky little town. Quite a few locals and visitors stroll the street sporting tattoos, dreadlocks, facial piercings and political slogans. The local rice farmers and market workers no longer take a second glance at the most unique and eccentric looking of individuals. This is indeed part of the reason why people come to Pai in the first place. In Pai, it seems most anything goes and everyone manages to find an activity and/or place to suit his or her budget and personal interests.
Whether it be sampling herbal rice wines boasting healing properties at a small pub called ‘50 Satang,’ eating French food at Chez Swan restaurant, sipping coffee in a local coffee shop, trail blazing with a guide to visit remote hill-tribe villages, rocking out in the Be Bop bar to the roaring sounds of rhythm and blues and 60’s rock, taking a meditation, yoga or massage course, wandering the local fresh produce market, exploring temples, taking a ride on an elephant, chilling out in a hammock on the front porch of your jungle bungalow, delving into the rather impressive nightlife scene, snacking on organic food, taking in a waterfall or two, getting a tattoo, soaking in a hot spring, exploring some small jewelry shops, taking a cooking class, renting a motor bike and taking off into the hills, or finding some absolute peace and quiet, you are certain not to be bored in Pai.
Diversity and beauty are two words that spring to mind when thinking about Pai, but regardless of where the visitors come from that have chosen to spend some time among the 8,000 or so residents that live there year round, the one thing that most have in common is the fact that they have had to endure the winding, gut-wrenching road that leads to Pai from north of Chiang Mai. The road twists and climbs and swerves and swoops all the way into town, leaving even those who have never been carsick feeling a bit green. The 132-kilometre journey takes four hours and everyone is more than glad to feel his or her feet hit land by the time it is over.
Another common experience many visitors to Pai may have shared is the unfortunate event of a motorcycle accident. As the ever-popular Honda Dream moped can be rented for 150 baht (USD$3.75) a day, it is a popular form of transportation. Unfortunately, the steep, winding and sometimes slippery hills of the area leave many people severely scraped up and/or with broken limbs.
Pai is picturesque in every sense of the word. The surrounding scenery is so stunning it is like watching a live series of National Geographic photographs. Besides relying on tourism for income, Pai is an agricultural town that produces rice, garlic, cotton, peanuts and fruit; your breath will be taken away by the scenery these fields provide, especially if you head out of town. The diversity of Pai is also reflected in the local population. Along with the local Thai population, Shan, Lisu, Lahu, Karen, Muslim, Thai-Chinese and foreign residents can all be found.
Although Pai is a small town and has a very rural and mellow feel to it, most any facility you can think of is available. I visited Pai during the low season for tourism (due to the rain). Given the amount of people visiting that were undeterred by the weather, I would be hesitant to return during the high season. Nevertheless, I would definitely go back to Pai. Another thing this town reminded me of is just how beautiful and diverse the Thai countryside is. If you can’t make it to Pai, how about choosing to take a detour, drive on a lesser-known road, or check out a small town nestled in the middle of nowhere just for kicks? The scenery along the way is most likely to be more than worth it.