Once a sleepy and somewhat remote Shan town, Pai, while still a bit of an effort to reach, is these days well and truly on the traveller’s map of northern Thailand. Old timers and more experienced travellers may sneer at it, as it's certainly not the "real Thailand" any more, but if you're a young backpacker on a first trip to Thailand it can seem like a great scene and it is easily accessible in every sense.
The original settlement on the left bank of Pai river by what is now Wiang Nua village dates back to the Lanna period when it was an important regional centre, though there's nothing much left of it to see these days. During the 1970s it was probably a fairly dangerous spot, being an area controlled by the Kuomintang (KMT or nationalist Chinese) and an important opium transit point. In the 1980s a sealed road to Pai was built; the government began to exert more control and the area was cleaned up. The pesky KMT were offered decent farmland if they behaved themselves, Khun Sa and his Shan State Army were pushed far enough away to not pose a threat, while the lingering CPT (Communist Part of Thailand) insurgency was restricted to even remoter northern areas such as Nan, effectively making the area accessible to tourists at last.
Pai was relatively convenient to visit from the existing tourism centre of Chiang Mai and soon became de rigueur on any northern Thailand trip. Adventurous trekkers flooded in along with a wave of backpackers looking for cheap grass, (then) easily available opium and something to do while waiting for the next Ko Pha Ngan full moon party to start.
The drugs scene has now been seriously clamped down upon and Pai has had something of a rebranding as a rural Chiang Mai, with wholesome activities, picturesque scenery and a chilled out scene, though a strong backpacker slant with tubing, parties and family sized cocktails served in plastic buckets lingers -- indeed with the recent clean up of Vang Vieng it's now making a strong comeback. The influx of farang men with northern Thai wives setting up cafes or guesthouses in Pai was followed by a wave of southern Thai hippies fleeing the commercialism and over-development of Samui, Krabi and so on, who arrived to set up bars, cafes, tattoo parlours and new-age accoutrement stores. Shops selling handicrafts, jewellery, hill-tribe gear, mojitos and cappuccinos now abound.
Bangkokians looking for a change of scene too bought up land and built either resorts or personal homes in an attempt to recreate what they feel has been lost in Thailand's urban centres. A strong new age scene translates into an organic food industry and all manner of holistic courses being offered. Yoga courses and classes, massage and spa treatments all vie for traveller attention and of course there’s the Thai cooking schools.
Pai doesn't have many sights to see as such, but rather people come to just hang out in a beautiful setting. A plethora of activities however are available to compensate: bamboo rafting, tubing, elephant riding, trekking, cycling and of course exploring the surrounding area on motorbikes. Several ethnic minority groups have settled in the area and their villages are often visited by treks striking out from Pai -- as are some of the surrounding waterfalls. In more recent years white-water rafting has become popular and it's even possible to raft almost all of the way to Mae Hong Son.
Thai and increasingly Chinese tourists now outnumber the Western backpackers during high season and Chaisongkran Road turns into a rural replica of Saturday night Khao San Road. You can be hard pushed to find a room, a table in a restaurant or get someone to serve you in a coffee shop and you'd be even more hard pushed to find a local -- even the Lisu vendors can come from anything up to 100 kilometres away!
Needless to say, Pai is perhaps best avoided during high season from November to January, when apart from the crowds most accommodation prices double and sometimes even triple. Try out one of the genuinely bucolic rural villages in other northern provinces, though you may have to forgo the buckets of mojitos, cheesecakes and parties... If you can't avoid peak season but still want to visit Pai, look carefully as you'll still find some reasonable deals though it's worth looking farther out of town to at least escape the crowds.
By Mark Ord.