When I first heard of Pai, I was 19 and in Vietnam listening to a bulky Scotsman solo traveller who’d injured himself on a scooter (write me a more ‘gap yah’ sentence, I’ll wait). For a solid 20 mins I thought he was talking about pie. As it turns out, he was gesturing to what a travel pal I accompanied there one year later called ‘a sleepy little mountain town’, tucked away in the very North of Thailand. He told us he’d abandoned his whole schedule after getting trapped there for three weeks, never wanting to leave. The more I heard about this Pai, the more I wanted a piece.
Pai is a regular bus ride from Chiang Mai, which is how I and a few friends from Elephant Nature Park found our way there. Weirdly, it’s bustling with backpackers but somehow still left off of a vast majority of tourism lists – one of the big reasons I chose independent travel in Thailand was that no company I could find featured it on their itinerary, and person after person I bumped into on the road had never heard of it.
On the road to Pai I heard repeatedly that Scottish guy’s same story: people book a 2-night stay and then extend and extend and extend – it became, to me, this legend of a place you could never leave, with everyone in consensus on its ability to suck you in for the only given timescale of: tbc…
In reality, there isn’t much in the way of tourism. If you’re in the mood for sight-seeing, bucket-list checking, you could spend a day here and move on. There’s the gorgeous grand canyon, ‘Love Pai Strawberry Farm’ (the height of Thai culture, ofc), a few lovely waterfalls, and several different options for a trek, but Pai’s real appeal is in its unique ambience: it’s a true backpacker haven. Only a handful of hostels litter the main street (the most famous being the Circus hostel which boasts a pool and acrobatic games), with not much else in town. At night it comes alive with endless market stalls and street food from local Pad Thai to bruschetta, plus a line of little shops. In the day you can chill in one of the edgy local cafes or rent scooters and head for the hills – this was the first time I’ve ever ridden one and I’m in no way exaggerating when I maintain that I think it’s the best feeling in the world.
I can absolutely see how you’d get lost here and accidentally stay for several weeks, months, or years. It’s remote enough to forget the world and live in a sublime fantasy of abandoning everything just to relax by the most serene mountain scenes. The Pai lifestyle is the epitome of ‘laid-back’, and I think it’s this, in conjunction with its nowhere-ness that appeals to anyone partial to a backpack.
I am inclined to acknowledge, though, that it doesn’t have a great deal in the way of authentic Thai culture. Whilst I did find it to be a haven of so many arty, creative, indie things I love (vegan restaurants and tie-die shops feat. the shorts I’m sporting above), it doesn’t sit too comfortably that a lot of these are Western, some are a lil tacky, and I can see the street becoming overrun with foreigners fairly soon. I like to think you can make an effort to reduce your impact, to interact with locals, learn some Thai and place your spendings as ethically as possible, but it’s certainly something to give more thought to.
A place that deserves a special mention is ‘The Container’ – an amazing little spot onlooking the mountains. Roshan found it somewhere obscure online and we agreed to check it out – after a good 40 minutes trying to find it on mopeds. It’s a bit hard to spot as it doesn’t really look open, but you can see a few remaining letters of the word ‘Container’ in boldly painted metal by a long, otherwise empty, roadside.
We were expecting some edgy Minimalist 4th wave coffee shop or cafe, but when we arrived we found no menu, just the most relaxed hangout space I’ve ever seen. The owner is an abstract artist who uses a large part of ‘The Container’ as an outdoor studio, whilst selling her work and Thai tea for visitors downstairs. If that’s not enough, she also happens to run the number one tattoo parlour in Bangkok and had a fabulous pheasant cascading up her calf. She brewed us up some amazing tea and let us grab cushions for these pear-shaped wire swings upstairs. This was the kind of day that really made it clear why people stay.
Pai was particularly special for me as it was one of the first times I’d gone totally independently, off the road with no tour or project, and just hoped it would work out. Looking back, it feels ridiculous how scary that seemed when it felt supremely safe, and beyond the friends I arrived with we made many, many more. And lo: the real solo travel adventures begin. We eventually did manage to leave Pai, after originally booking two nights and staying for seven, as everyone had warned we would. We split off one by one, but the ultimate departure was in Chiang Mai where I boarded my flight home and said goodbye to the only remaining person in our group (for now).