Pai is a hippy mecca reminiscent of the glory decade of the 1970s on the Kathmandu-Kabul-and-Beyond hippy circuit. Many years ago, Pai was an edgy village in the Thai highlands -the Golden Triangle- with a brisk and dangerous opium trade. Today, the beautiful countryside and romance of the dangerous opium days of the past lure hordes of tourists in. The center is full of shops with signs in English, but we really came here for the beautiful surrounding areas.
This town is full of deadlocked hippies from all over the globe drinking $3 shots of wheat grass juice while smoking Marlboro cigarettes (seriously, as if this is a healthy combination) and decrying the materialism of everyone back home. The center of town is full of shops where savvy Thai people sell all kinds of hippy clothes, hippy jewelry, yoga classes, meditation retreats, organic coffee, Che-Guevara shirts, wheat-grass shots, bagels, pizza, and other hippy-type stuff to foreign visitors. There are tons of farang (Thai word for foreigner) who have never left, and they have either opened restaurants, bungalows, or even tried to jostle with the locals in order to sell hippy jewelry on the street. One restaurant, the Witching Well, has really good pesto pasta, among other things.
During this time of year, many Thai people are also on vacation, so the town was also full of middle class Thai people who come to the beautiful highlands to camp, raft and spend time with their families. For the record, we haven’t seen many Thai people wearing the hippy clothes that are sold here, but we see plenty of hippy tourists wearing baggy, ethnic looking clothes, but these styles really seem to have little or nothing to do with actual Thai culture. You could throw a stone in this town and it would either hit a hippy or land in a Reggae bar. Like most other backpacker tourist havens in SE Asia, the sounds of Bob Marley tend to be the soundtrack in restaurants and bars catering to travelers.
The mix of middle-class Thai people on holiday (who dress fashionably, have trendy hairstyles and sunglasses, and eagerly snap photos or videos with their digital cameras) is an interesting juxtaposition to all the dirty hippies and imitation hippies who come up here to dirt out and escaped the “materialistic modern world”. It seems like the Thais aspire to show their status in the form of fashionable dress and hairstyles, while western hippies eagerly try to ditch the appearance of all the money, income-potential, education, medical care, etc. that we are privileged with in order to show off their status as “poor travelers”, which is ironic since it costs about 1/4 of the per capita income of the average Thai person just to fly here. Thai people also wear clothes when they go swimming. They do not really approve of bikini tops, so both men and women wear shirts while swimming. Even Lao people would go swimming in pants and shirts, instead of wearing a revealing swimming suit.
The surrounding areas are the real draw here. There are hotsprings (with attractive bungalows in the countryside nearby) and other minor sights to see in the surrounding areas. We have been in the mountains of SE Asia for more than a few months by now, so the scenery is pretty standard for us by now and we are ready to head south for some beaches. If we had not already spent so much time in the mountains of Laos already, this would really be much more impressive for us, so we definitely can see why so many other people come here from Chiang Mai for a quick taste of the mountain highlands.
A few days of relaxing and reading about Ayurvedic medicine, Zen meditation and holistic living and we decided it was time to return to Chiang Mai in order to remember that we were in Thailand, not a tropical version of Berkeley. Love it or hate it, Pai is nice, but not very Thai.
***click to enlarge photos***