I’ve been putting off writing this post and editing the associated podcast for a while now, because I have such mixed feelings about Pai I simply didn’t know where to begin! You can hear the podcast by clicking the play button above.
Pai (pronounced ‘Bai’) is a small town in northern Thailand about 140KM north of Chiang Mai on the main Chiang Mai – Mae Hong Son route. Years ago Pai was a quiet market village, mainly inhabited by Shan people, but nowadays it thrives on tourism thanks to its arrival on the ‘backpacker map’ of Northern Thailand. Nowadays both Thai and foreign tourists are making their way to Pai in droves – the numbers of Thai tourists has increased dramatically since 2006 after Pai featured in two popular, Thai-made romantic movies. There are also frequent music festivals held in Pai – including the Pai Reggae Festival that also features briefly on this podcast.
The drive from Chiang Mai to Pai is undoubtedly a very beautiful one, taking you across a stunning mountain range through some very winding roads, until you descend into the picturesque Pai valley. I have driven it four times on my motorbike now and always feel incredibly exhilarated upon arriving in Pai.
The first time I went to Pai with a group of friends, in June 2007 we had a rather negative incident that has perhaps tainted my view of the place. To cut a long story short, a group of six of us were quietly and soberly walking home at about midnight after a late dinner, and a Thai man drove past on his bike – obviously drunk out of his mind, and with his hand permanently on the horn, almost ran us down. He then proceeded to get off his bike, square up to us for a fight, get back on his bike, and then repeatedly try and run us down for the remaining ten minute walk back to our guest house. It was a frightening experience.
To put it into perspective, this kind of aggressive behaviour is almost unheard of in Thailand, and in my two and a half years here, the only other place I can say I have encountered any kind of aggressive vibe has been Koh Phangan. What’s the obvious parallel between these two places? The short answer is that nowadays they are both on the backpacker drink & drugs party circuit, and this has for some reason contributed towards the tension between the locals and foreigners, perhaps through the sheer numbers of inebriated foreigners invading the town.
What’s more, there are some serious questions being asked over the conduct of the Thai police in the Pai area. In January 2008 an off-duty and reportedly very drunk police officer fatally shot Canadian tourist John Leo Del Pinto, and shot and injured a second woman Canadian tourist. Both the foreigners were also reportedly drunk. This particular officer was alleged to have taken his gun out on a number of occasions (whilst off-duty and drinking), and start firing it randomly in the air.
The changing vibe in Pai was summed up very well in an anonymous letter to the Chiang Mai CityLife magazine – some of which is quoted below:
One Saturday in particular remains in my memory, where several police officers decided to inspect a party at a bar in town. I believe that they were looking for drugs. I along with many other tourists was especially shocked to see that one officer was carrying a machine gun…This kind of behaviour is likely to scare tourists and leave very negative impressions on them with regards to Pai town as a holiday destination…The police are also actively confiscating other vehicles, testing individuals at random for drugs and alcohol abuse, detaining owners of restaurants and bars for remaining open past the agreed time, and generally making a lot of noise in a relatively quiet town that did not appear to have many problems beforehand….The increased police presence is clearly visible and does not, in my opinion, make Pai town look like a place one would like to visit. There is also a general feeling of unrest here and I feel that it is quite obvious to the tourist travelling through. The police are unapproachable and menacing. This has a strong negative impact on the atmosphere here in Pai town. The previously friendly and welcoming town appears to have changed into a place where everyone is afraid to even walk down the street in case they are accused of doing something wrong.
I would still recommend visiting Pai, for the drive there, and the beautiful surrounding countryside and villages, but if you’re going there to party, be careful – it seems to have an increasingly lawless underbelly that perhaps most tourists remain oblivious to. I encourage you to read the section on the Wikipedia Pai entry – Controversy over Police Conduct.
For a very comprehensive guide to Pai with some great photos, check out Chris Pirazzi’s ‘All About Pai‘.