Travelers talk about Pai like it’s the holy grail of backpacking in Thailand.
It’s the kind of place where many end up staying for three weeks, instead of the three days initially intended. The hippie haven is a three-hour drive into the mountains north of Chiang Mai. To reach it, you have to conquer 762 curves in a cramped van (or on a motorbike, if you’re willing to risk your life). As someone that generally gets motion sickness on winding roads, I was a bit skeptical, but after hearing so much praise for one town, I had to see for myself. I popped a few motion sickness pills and closed my eyes for the entire drive.
Emerging from the van as the sun set, I noticed the town start to come alive. Street vendors set up food stalls along the major thoroughfare and boutique shops opened their doors. Backpackers filled the streets eating everything from kebabs to lasagna to pad thai. The food in Pai is unlike anywhere else in Thailand.
In addition to delicious Thai food, there’s endless variety. Hidden garden cafes offer organic pasta dishes. Street cafes make smoothies and toast using avocados bigger than your face. At one stand, a lady makes an incredible falafel from scratch. You could almost forget you’re in Thailand.
And that’s the thing about Pai; it’s an escape. From real life, and from Thailand itself. Backpackers and other transients who work there run the town. The laid-back vibe means you could easily spend the day reading and relaxing in a hammock before taking a quick motorbike ride to Pai Canyon for a breathtaking sunset. At night, head to a bar with blacklight paint on the walls and reggae music. Rinse and repeat.
I enjoyed my time in Pai, but I think a lack of self awareness has led it to become almost a caricature of itself. Dudes in dreadlocks drink mushroom shakes and discuss the meaning of life. Girls in tie-dye dresses denounce the materialism of the Western world. On my last night there, I attended an electronic music festival in the middle of a field, where they had wooden huts set up, neon art installations, and a giant fire pit. I couldn’t help but laugh a little at the absurdity of it all.
We all need an escape every now and then. Some need it for a little bit longer than others. Outside of the backpacker town lies beautiful scenery including sprawling mountains, tucked away hot springs, and looming caves. But after a few days in Pai, I longed for a bit more: city streets I can get lost in; local markets where no one speaks English; and a place where time moves just a little bit faster.
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