A lot of other travelers had been raving about Pai to us for several days.
“It’s just so peaceful!”
“It’s just a hippy little town in the middle of nowhere!”
After having been in the city for a bit too long I thought Pai was the way to get away from all the hustle. The easiest way to get there was by bus (180 baht, or $6 for the three hour ride), and the road there included over 700 curves. I was warned that if I had a weak stomach, I shouldn’t make the journey. I don’t, and thought I would be fine, so the Sons of Chiang Mai were headed for a new destination.
The drive is quite beautiful– straight through the mountains of Northern Thailand, and depending on what time of day you go you may see the sun begin to set over one of the peaks, tossing everything into a surreal orange-green fresco. The only problem was how motion sick I got on that stupid bus. I’ve never come so close to throwing up from motion in my life, even with a break in the middle of the ride. Rose, a Dutch girl we’d been hanging out with for the past day, was coming with us and helped me stay calm and sane the whole way.
Once in Pai, I could see why everyone else had liked it. It was like walking back into the western world. There were shops of every kind, restaurants with international cuisine, and at least 20% of the people in the streets were sporting crazy, baggy pants and shirts with insane colored designs. The vast majority of people there were white and obviously there to smoke hella weed. The familiar food carts that provide me everything I need to survive were now much fewer, more expensive, and less Thai. Many of them were run by expats serving things like waffles, crêpes, doner kebabs, and chai tea.
The night market draws the largest crowds every night, lined along just one of the maybe six streets in the whole city. Near the bottom of the hill this street is situated on, you can buy small trinkets and souvenirs from a few locals, but other things are laid out on cloth and sold by white men and women with half-opened eyes glazed over by their fleeting escape from reality.
We stayed at a backpacker hostel called Spicypai which many people recommended for us. The hostel is set on the outskirts of the city, maybe a 12 minute walk from the shopping streets and has been built recently in a field with a great view of the mountain.
Oddly enough, the majority of the people we met and hung out with were English, and also buff as hell. We were exhausted from the bus trip and decided to sleep early on our first night there.
The next morning we went for bike rentals and decided to see most of what Pai had to offer, including two waterfalls, a viewpoint, and a white Buddha set in the side of one of the mountains overlooking the town. We picked up yet another member: Brittany, from Florida, and took a couple other people with us.
Pai used to be completely untouched by the western world, and the areas outside it still look very rural and traditionally Hmong or Thai. There is a sizable Chinese population here as well, and a whole section of the city is blocked for these Chinese residents.
Riding past huts raised off the ground by wooden poles, chased by dogs asking for a scrap of meat and being asked for cigarettes by local women as we ride past– it’s an interesting experience. Even in Bangkok where there are plenty of slums to remind you just how far the divide has come between the rich and the poor in this country is nothing compared to the complete poverty of more rural areas like this.
Either way, we enjoyed a couple hours of climbing up and down rocks and swimming in a pool at a waterfall, taking turns sliding down the rock smoothed by years of running water.
Then we started to run into issues, and this is where I really started to hate Pai. It’s common to hear stories of corrupt police officers in the USA, and even moreso here. On our way to a second waterfall, other members of our group were stopped by police because of a lack of helmets and shirts (which is really offensive in Thai culture, even for men [women even stay covered when they swim– it’s surreal]. And one of them had weed in their bag, so the police took them away to the station, took pictures of them while they weren’t looking, and threatened them with either a 20,000 baht ($600) fine or six months in jail. They paid the fine. They also didn’t have their driver’s licenses with them, so they were forced to return their bikes and were ordered to leave Pai immediately, which of course no one did because that’s stupid.
But evidently, a lot of money is made of the tourists that leech on this town. I was lost one day walking through the street, and a woman with fiery red hair stopped me.
“Is your phone telling you where to go?”
I was embarrassed that I had simply been staring at my phone to read Facebook, so I said, “Yeah.” As soon as she was standing next to me I was greeted by a chokingly thick cloud of patchouli.
“Where are you headed?”
“Oh,” she said, scrunching her face up. “That place is terrible. And it’s right next to Sun Hut.”
“Don’t buy anything there. You know, I live here, and I can’t tell you how many times they’ve taken advantage of the kids here. Everyone goes there for the mushroom shakes and the ones that end up passing out and spending the night have drugs hidden in their bags.”
“Yeah, and the bar is run by police. They do it and then catch them on the way out of town and extort money.”
“Well, I won’t be going. I’m headed out of town later.”
“Yeah… Just don’t tell them who told you. The police around here allllll know me. But tell your friends to be careful.”
“Thanks, I will,” I said, and she turned on her heel and ambled down the street like a paralyzed frog, her hippy clothes billowing behind her.
After the incident with the weed, only Brittany and I had made it through the checkpoint unscathed and decided to continue with our day and meet up with the others later. Along the way, we picked up Patrick and made it out to a second waterfall where people were climbing and jumping, and the out to the “Canyon” to watch a storm roll over the distant forests.
And that was basically everything interesting in Pai.
For the other two days, it was completely taken up by social time, and I don’t think I would have survived my time in Pai if it hadn’t been for the amazing people I was with.
On the way back, I got one of four tattoos I’d planned on getting for over a year.
It was sort of spur of the moment. Rose made a joke about getting a tattoo as we were walking back to our hostel, and I decided to do it. Some Chinese women inside helped me pick out a “cool” looking version of the tattoo (because it’s in Chinese script), and that was it. It cost only $44, and Kal, Rose, and Brittany kept me company while a fluffy guy with tattoos all over his body who was just sitting outside on the porch smoking a cigarette washed his hands, opened his equipment box and went to work on me. I don’t handle pain well, so I told Brittany to just keep talking at me and not expect responses.
She did brilliantly. She gave me several topics to choose from, so we talked about nerdy things like pairings and Harry Potter, and she literally didn’t stop talking the whole time it was being done. I was sweating from pain and breathing irregularly, but it came out perfectly.
The meaning of the tattoo is “earth,” and the reason I got it is to symbolize my ability to withstand hardship, and also represent that I know where I come from, I’m grounded, and balanced, with just a little bit of unevenness since nothing is perfect. It’s on my right leg because I’m always putting my weight on my right leg. The plan is to get three more in three other writing systems (since I’m a linguist and that sort of thing interests me), but I’ll explain them as I get them…
Pai is essentially everything wrong with tourism all bundled up into one heap of burning crap.
It’s just a place for foreigners to get together and drink and get high with not a single touch of local culture and there’s a total disregard for the local people. One of the worst parts is that there are signs everywhere for tour groups charging ridiculous amounts for day tours to villages to go and take pictures of the women with golden rings around their necks (I’ll save this for another post if I ever go there), right next to pictures of chained up elephants and sedated tigers, as if they’re animal oddities that dont really deserve privacy or understanding and exist solely for the purpose of tourist pictures.
Pai rubbed me the wrong way.
On my last night there, I went with a new group of people including Jan to see the sunset from the white Buddha statue.