Wednesday, 4 January 2017

Pai, backpacker's heaven or hell?

The small town of Pai, in north-western Thailand, is very popular among backpackers who visit Thailand. Lured by their ravishing tales, I decided to give it a go.

There is nothing special about Pai itself. There are no amazing temples, the food is mediocre and as in the infamous Khao San Road in Bangkok, the place lost its authenticity long ago. There are more guesthouses, souvenir shops and trekking agencies than private houses, not to mention more Western food that in any other parts of northern Thailand. On top of the that, the 4-hour minibus drive from Chiang Mai is a nightmare of 700 turns where you'd better not look out of the window.

Relaxing in Pai
Yet tourists keep flocking to Pai for the laid-back atmosphere: hippies, yoga enthusiasts and 20-somethings devoted to smoke weed, but also some hiking enthusiasts decide to visit this relatively remote corner of Thailand close to the border with Burma. Oh, and tons of Chinese tourists, to the point that some of the accommodation especially caters for them.

The real attraction is not Pai itself but its countryside: the rice fields, the lush vegetation and the mountains in the background form the perfect example of a relaxing break from more chaotic Asian cities. You can explore the area by hiring a motorbike or a bicycle, or by joining a guided tour that will drive you around for most of a day. This is what I did, as I don't trust myself driving a motorcycle.

A rice field around Pai
One of the places that I enjoyed the most - really photogenic and picturesque - is the WWII Memorial Bridge. Like the more famous bridge over the river Kwai in Kanchanaburi, Pai's Memorial Bridge was built during the Second World War by Japanese soldiers to build a transportation route between Thailand and Burma. In spite of the fact that it is a reconstruction, it is considered one of Pai's most important tourist attractions and many people take pictures next to it or read with interest the panels that explain its history.

Bridge over the river Pai
While our tour included a few unimpressive sites, like the treehouse in the garden of a guesthouse (?), one place that kind of impressed me was the Pai canyon. It is not the Grand Canyon of course, but it is a pleasant place, with narrow paths of red earth and steep valleys. In some points it is not clear if a path is ideal and safe, but the view is breathtaking. Unfortunately, our driver did not give explanations and I suspect that he did not speak English either, so we had to figure out things by ourselves. The geological origin of this canyon, for instance, remained unknown.

View of the Pai canyon
One of the most surprising things in this tour was to see how well Pai caters for Chinese tourists (after all, southern China is only a three-hour flight away). I noticed so many Asian girls wearing perfect city outfits, taking one selfie after the other, and looking one hundred per cent glamour in a country of unpaved roads where locals and western backpackers wear flip-flops and t-shirts all the time.

Posing in the garden of a guesthouse
Around Pai there are guesthouses, cafés and tourist attractions that are made especially for the tastes of urban and fashionable Chinese tourists. We stopped for example at Love Pai Strawberry Café, where we were offered strawberry cake or strawberry smoothie and the possibility to take photo ops with cartoon-like characters in the gardens. Asian girls loved this place! It's just my personal opinion but it's not the kind of place you fly to the other side of the world to see.

The garden of Love Pai Strawberry Café
Another interesting stop was at the Chinese village of Santichon. If you don't know the story you may think it's a Chinese-themed amusement park, because the place looks totally fake: there is a fake Chinese wall, some entertainment for children, Chinese products of dubious origin for sale and cheesy photo-ops. The village was actually founded by Yunnanese soldiers who escaped the Chinese communist regime over 50 years ago. Their uniforms and their stories are on display in the simple traditional houses built with mud and straw. Aside from that, it is quite sad to see a part of Chinese history turned into a cheap tourist attraction.

View of the chinese village
In other words, our tour, like Pai itself, was the kind of thing where you have to find the juicy bits by yourself and discard the parts that you like less.

Have you been to Pai? What did you think about it?


  1. I used to live in Mae Hee, a small village, 2.5km from Pai, and I completely agree with you that the countryside is the best part of the area. I saw and photographed so much wildlife during my time there - it was heavenly!

    Getting to know some of the local people in the village was good too - a far cry from the hippies and stoners in the town!

    Although saying that, the hippies and stoners in Pai were so much better than the ones in Chiang Mai (where I lived for a year and a half)! At least the ones I came across in Pai weren't pretending to be entrepreneurs)!

    As for the food, if you know where to find it, there is some very good stuff... but you may not come across it on Walking Street.

    Re. the Chinese tourists, a lot of it is due to a film called 'Pai in Love'. Before it came out, Pai was pretty much unknown to the average Chinese tourist, then suddenly they started making pilgrimages. Especially to Strawberry (and the other one nearby, the name of which escapes me right now).

    From personal experience, I can tell you that some of them are a pain in the neck - usually silly young girls hiring scooters, never having driven them before, and without any kind of driving licence. They are a danger to themselves and to other road users and pedestrians. Also, most of the Chinese tourists seem to be blissfully ignorant of their surroundings, often stopping in the middle of the road to look at a map, take a selfie, or whatever. They do it in Chiang Mai too, and it can be very problematic.

    I've not actually visited Pai Canyon but Land Split, not far from there is fab! It's basically an enterprising family whose land has been split apart by various earthquakes, so they've opened it up as a tourist attraction. They don't charge to visit but they do have a kind of café. But it's a café with a difference; they bring you a selection of food and drink they've grown and prepared themselves, and then you pay what you think it was worth. I can tell you that the food is fantastic. They actually gave me a tour of their farm, and insisted I took a load of fresh fruit and veggies when I left! If you ever return to Pai, do pay them a visit!

    And if you do go back, either drive yourself in a car - it's a lovely journey around the mountains, and far less nauseating, I'm told, than taking the bus - or fly up from Chiang Mai. I must admit that as much as I love driving between between Chiang Mai and Pai, the 20 minute flight in a little Cessna is the best thing ever (especially when you fly over your house!)!

    1. Thank you for sharing this, Nico. Interesting to learn how Pai became famous for Chinese tourists for a movie. It happens with Indian films as well I'm told. I've seen a picture of the land split the other day and I was surprised that we didn't stop there! I'll make sure to go if I visit again Pai. It looks astounding!


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