Not so long ago Pai was an amazing place to visit. I suppose it may still be, but for a different group of travelers now than formerly. The relatively remote Pai has now been ‘discovered,’ and its character greatly altered. Once a quiet village in a broad, peaceful valley, tucked between range upon range of mountains, Pai is now a backpacker mecca.
The northwestern province of Mae Hong Son is known for the difficulties imposed by its geography. It is the most lightly settled province in Thailand, and probably the most inaccessible. The province shares a boundary with Myanmar (Burma), through the Shan mountains. The region is laced with remote villages – Shan, Lisu, Lahu, Ahka, Karen and Hmong.
Travel is difficult – the main road is narrow and twists through countless hairpin turns. As an alternative to the slow, car-sickness inducing but scenic road, it is now possible to fly into either Mae Hong Son or Pai. But the road is as interesting as the destination.
The resident population of Pai is under 2500. While I have seen no statistics on the high season visitor population, the village feels overrun. Yes, it still has significant charm, blessed by the peaceful beauty of the location, good trekking opportunities, hot springs, a dollop of history, and quite an interesting live music scene. It also has plenty of eating options (a few too many of them Western) and accommodation ranging from budget to resort. These assets have evolved in response to the demand as Pai has become a popular destination. But none of that was what I was seeking.
I wanted to find a sense of place, a sense which has been increasingly lost in Pai. My reason for doing the Mae Hong Son Province loop was to get away from the tourist oriented scene, to experience the small villages, the flavor of a more rural Thailand, and to parallel the Burma border where the cultures of the two countries are blended.
To be fair, my impressions of Pai were pre-shaped and I found what I had expected to find. I arrived in Pai in the very late afternoon. I would travel on from there at first opportunity – mid-morning the next day. It was a perfect amount of time.
Because I wanted to taste the place and run, I chose the most ordinary accommodation possible – an old, basic guesthouse directly across from the bus station. No point getting too comfortable and being lulled into staying on. The strange thing, as it turned out, was that all the live music venues were in more appealing parts of the village so my ultra-budget room was perfectly quiet that night. There was no one else using the shared bathroom. I was even able to pickup a wifi signal in my room.
In the few hours after arriving, I had wandered the streets in the village, had taken a long walk up a nearby hill for the sunset, then examined the very limited night market and listened in on some of the local music scene. Nothing more to do really, so headed early to bed.
In the morning I started out early to walk the couple of kilometers to the hilltop temple Wat Phra Tat Mae Yen, arriving before the gate at the top of the steps was unlocked.
What a joy – to be in those quiet surroundings, out of the tourist center, before other visitors arrived.
In theory there should be a quite a lovely view from up there of the village and the valley, but smoke from the burning fields lay thick and low in the cool morning.
Quite soon I needed to head back to town to gather up my gear and catch the local fan bus a couple of hours onward to the village of Soppong. In complete contrast to my quick stop in Pai, I would spend many days in that area. For that was what I had been seeking.
For an interesting look at Pai from someone who appreciates what it offers, Chris Pirazzi’s website All About Pai will give you a more balanced viewpoint and some very nice photos. Most of the site was written in 2007 and before. This segment from 2009 tends to align with my observations.