PAI IN THE THAI SKY
PAI, THAILAND -- You needn't be French to love Pai, but it's easy to
see why so many francophone travellers are drawn to the mountainous northern
Thai town midway between Chiang Mai and Mae Hong Son.
Of course, Pai boasts many features not found at Giverny, such as thatched-roof bamboo huts, Buddhist temples and a Muslim mosque. Its diverse populace encompasses seven different ethnic groups that have been migrating southward from China and Myanmar since the 13th century. According to a small home-grown pamphlet called "A Study of Pai," the majority of the approximately 3,000 residents are Shan (from what is now Myanmar) and Northern Thai (originally from China and then part of the Lanna kingdom in what is now Thailand).
In the late afternoons, other ethnic villagers, mainly Karen, Lahu, Lisu and Meo, come down from the nearby mountains -- on motorcycles instead of the elephants of earlier times -- to sell their produce at the bustling sidewalk market on Rungsiyanon Road. The most recent immigrants to Pai were the Jiin Haw (Haw Chinese) Muslims, who fled China with Chiang Kai Shek's 93rd army in 1949. Besides operating the streetside bakery that sells delicious chocolate croissants and other French-inspired pastries at the afternoon market, they include some of the wealthiest landlords in the four-block town.
The Shan apparently established the first community in the elongated, verdant valley in 1251. Destroyed by the Shan in 1869 during the centuries-long tug of war between Thailand and Burma, it was rebuilt in its present location by northern Thais. Although Pai officially became part of Thailand in 1911, it remained geographically isolated until the Second World War, when the Japanese carved a dirt transportation route through the evergreen-forested mountains from Chiang Mai to Burma via Pai and Mae Hong Son. Before the Thai government widened and paved this interminable series of switchbacks in 1980, the 135-kilometre journey from Chiang Mai took anywhere from three to seven days by horse or elephant.
Pai isn't a place you inadvertently stumble upon en route to somewhere else. (Unless you've taken an organized van tour from Chiang Mai to Mae Hong Son that stops off in Pai for lunch and a brief gawk.) Even today, the trip takes two to three hours by private van or more than four hours on the crowded, smoke-spewing public bus. Descending from the mountainous pine forests and the stands of bamboo and pampas grass into a valley of well-tended garlic, soya and rice fields, travellers are lulled into delightful indolence by the languid rhythms of Pai. In addition to its ethnic minorities, the town is filled with foreigners and Thais who originally came for two days and are still hanging out two weeks, two months, or even two years later.
From the quaint wooden houses to the difficulty in getting change for a 50-baht note ($1.78), Pai is old-fashioned in all the best senses of the word. Motorbikes may have replaced elephants as the primary mode of transportation, but the panniers hanging from the backs of those Hondas are still made of woven bamboo.
And the locals still display the unconditional warmth and friendliness toward strangers that is the hallmark of Thai hospitality (but is fast disappearing in the larger, heavily touristed destinations). Maybe they're echoing the sentiments written atop the local tourist map: "Welcome to Pai in the Sky." Or perhaps they perceive visitors as just another ingredient in their multicultural melting pot.
Backpackers were among the first Westerners to discover Pai in the late 1980s, and they still make up the majority of the town's foreign visitors. A cluttered display of signs at one intersection of the main Chaisongkram Road advertises typical budget-traveller fare: adventure treks to nearby hill-tribe villages, waterfalls and hot springs, mountain biking, rafting, yoga, herbal massage, overseas calls, Internet cafés, bookstores, a hammock factory. There is also a variety of cheap and cheerful guesthouses with names such as I'm Fine Garden, Banana House and Brook View. Pai's "alternative" atmosphere encompasses standard muesli breakfasts and retro-hippie tie-dyes but so far has none of the burned-out seediness of Bangkok's Khao San Road.
The next wave of Western visitors consisted of the European bon vivants who fell in love with Pai -- or perhaps with someone living there -- and stayed on. These laissez-faire entrepreneurs are responsible for business ventures with names such as Chez Swan and Lek's Pause-Café (French restaurants), Elite Galerie (a French-run gift shop) and Latino Swimming Pool (a French-managed pool and nightclub). Resident expats often wear berets and hang out smoking cigarettes in the cafés.
Foreigners aren't the only non-locals to come under Pai's spell in the past decade. The hippest spots in and around town belong to the artsy young Thai bohemians who have fled Bangkok, Chiang Mai and other crowded urban centres in search of a slower-paced and less profit-oriented lifestyle.
Opened in 1999 by two disaffected Bangkok advertising execs, All About Coffee on Chaisongkram has to be one of the coolest cafés in Thailand. None of the large Western coffeehouse chains or pseudo-trendy minimalist venues can compete with its homespun ambiance, mellow jazz sounds and charming, personalized service. Not to mention the 28 reasonably priced coffee drinks made from local and imported beans, a vast selection of natural herbal teas and scrumptious desserts, including Binoffi "Pai."
Be-bop Bar is to live blues what All About Coffee is to hot beverages -- heartfelt and happening. The Thai owner heard B.B. King live in London in the early 1990s, and later recreated a blues-bar atmosphere in a wooden storefront on Chaisongkram. Resident and visiting bluesmen bop against a backdrop of Indonesian batiks, Western blues festival posters and Chiang Mai lanterns. Out of consideration for his downtown neighbours, the owner voluntarily turns off the amplifiers at 10:30 p.m. (He plans to relocate the club to the outskirts of town this year.)
Visitors with bigger budgets now include Pai in their itineraries, but they'll be hard pressed to spend much cash. Restaurants are universally cheap and even the most expensive accommodation is amazingly affordable. The new Pairadise guesthouse, set amid terraced rice paddies on a knoll overlooking the town, offers impeccably maintained bungalows, fluffy duvets, bedside reading lamps (a luxury rarely found in the no-star hotel world) and the snazziest bathrooms in Pai, all for a measly $10 a night.
About six kilometres south of Pai near Tha Pai Hot Springs, the recently opened Spa Exotic Home consists of seven individual bungalows with Balinese-style bathrooms with private hot mineral-water tubs. The cost is around $25 a night for a double room.
For better or worse, the world has woken up to Pai. It has become the flavour-of-the-moment in Thai lifestyle and travel magazines. Two years ago, about 20 guesthouses were scattered throughout the traffic-light-free main roads and tiny country lanes. Now, there are at least 70, with local craftsmen erecting new bamboo huts as fast as you can say "cheap and cheerful guesthouse."
For now, the cultural melting pot has assimilated the onslaught of visitors without compromising its authenticity. You can still take an afternoon stroll on the outskirts of town to the accompaniment of nothing more than bird song (and the 5:15 Muslim call to prayer).
If you go
WHERE TO EAT AND DRINK
WHERE TO STAY
Copyright © 2003 Jennifer Gampell