Some Thoughts on Pai

Decades ago, traveling hippies popularized the town of Pai in Northern Thailand due to the area’s natural beauty and the relative remoteness. Nothing lasts forever, and the quaint village has grown in popularity along with the rest of the country. Pai is now a must-see for travelers in the region, and therein lies part of the problem with the town. As scenic as it is, it’s a strange backpacker bubble that’s about as touristy as possible.

It’s easy to see why the village became so popular in the first place. Nestled in a valley, Pai features waterfalls, rivers and hot springs. Relaxing and low-cost spas are everywhere, and the area is mercifully cooler than the rest of the country. The scenic Pai Canyon, with treacherous walkways and sheer cliffs, offers great views and is a lot of fun to climb on (mind the footing).

The town has a permanent population of 2,300, and while I couldn’t find official tourist numbers, I wouldn’t be surprised if tourists outnumbered locals on a daily basis. The main part of town is like a toned-down Khao San Road, with kebab shops, identical-looking bars and endless tchotchke shops. Yawn.

Amongst the visitors are the typical dread-locked backpackers, European tourists and more recently, lots of Chinese people. Pai was featured in Lost in Thailand, one of China’s most popular films of all time, and now the town is firmly on the map for Chinese tourists. The amenities, from cheap guest houses to restaurants, are largely geared towards Westerners with one firm exception. There’s a nearby village started by Chinese refugees that boasts a “replica” of the Great Wall of China. I didn’t go, but it seems to be as big a tourist trap as it sounds. Thai cooking courses are everywhere, as are plenty of tour agencies offering the same handful of tours in the region.

CreativeCommons / Flickr User Jules
The main pedestrian street in Pai. CreativeCommons / Flickr User Jules

Despite being such a small village, Pai offers some decent nightlife (plenty of bars, raves outside of town and other backpacker-friendly diversions). I don’t want to be one of those curmudgeons who complain of people traveling thousands of miles to party with the people from their own country, as it’s something I’ve regularly done. I will say that one of the pluses of Pai is that it doesn’t have the seediness plaguing Bangkok and Thailand’s beach areas. There’s a laid back atmosphere and seemingly a lack of prostitutes (although I did visit in the low season) which made the trip all the more enjoyable.

Pai probably isn’t a must-visit unless you have plenty of time in Thailand. It can be, however, a nice place to relax and have fun thanks to all the Western amenities offered. It’s a safely packaged and somewhat bland place that looks exotic on the outside but offers the same music, beers and types of souvenirs you can find anywhere else on the planet.

Read about the famous Mae Hong Son motorcycle loop that begins in Chiang Mai and goes through Pai.





I'm an American freelance writer who spent a couple years living in Cambodia. Now I'm on the move again and traveling all over the place. I'm willing to try any bizarre liquor that's presented to me. Any recommendations?