Nestled in between the rollercoaster ride of hairpin bends and mountain ranges of Chiang Mai and Mae Hong Song is the one horse town of Pai. It's your quintessential sleepy provincial but with one major difference. It's also the epicenter of a funky local arts scene. A small posse of former advertising executives, artists and musicians, have made a mass exodus from Bangkok and settled in Pai where they cater to a growing market of ex-pats, travelers and day trippers all drawn to this mini bohemia by word of mouth.
Between them, this group of friends have opened up the cool Coffee Shop where Miles Davis provides the soundtrack for creamy cappuccinos made from coffee cultivated by local hill tribes. A stones throw across Rungsiyanon road is the Tea Shop which is flanked on one side by the Be Bop Jazz Bar and on the other the local art gallery. If Be Bop provides the live entertainment, the coffee and tea shops the meeting points then The Gallery dictates the aesthetics of this cool little community. All rustic charm with a post-modern twist there's not a plastic chair or florescent strip light in sight. It's all candles, rickety chairs, wooden tables and organic ambience. Bursts of creativity in the form of arty black and white postcards, quirky wind chimes and 3-D picture frames litter the walls and tabletops
In keeping with the cool vibe is Sip Song Panna (12,000 Rice Fields) is a small retreat on the outskirts of town run by local artist Charn and his gentle, extended family. Flanked by a legion of rice paddies, wooden bungalows called 'earth', 'air' and 'water' are dotted along the local river. The feng shui here is seriously swinging. The Bungalows are all hand built with and boast huge barn doors that can be flung open to greet the stunning mountain vista. There really is no better way of waking up then catching an early morning mist crawling over the mountain tops as you lay in bed. People lucky enough to stumble upon Sip Song usually stay far longer than they'd intended wooed by the personal touches that make them feel right at home. The battered bike you can borrow to explore the surrounding area. The organic vegetarian menu. Wash basins fashioned out of tree trunks. The fact that, just like those make-believe places on TV, everyone knows your name.
It has to be said that Pai has got the brutal business of tourism down to a fine art form. There's just enough of everything to keep even the shortest attention span occupied but all tucked away discreetly down little country lanes. .Herbal saunas, massages, river rafting, mountain biking, art classes, cookery courses and even meditation beckon literally around every corner. The Khone River slices right through the center of Pai, which is where most of cheap and plentiful accommodation is situated. Most are family run businesses, like Sip Song Panna, which operate on a relaxed time schedule fuelled by a laid back atmosphere that pervades even those tricky financial transactions. Most people who venture through Pai end up returning lulled by the sense that they're actually really welcome and not just another faceless foreigner.
Maybe the open arms approach has something to do with the fact that Pai provides sanctuary to such an eclectic mix of people. As well accommodating the Bangkok bohemians, it's also home to Chinese and Burmese refugees, hosts a large Muslim community and provides a meeting point for Lahu, Karen and Hmong hill tribe people. Everyone tends to congregate at the evening market (Rungsiyanon Road) where the call to prayers from the local mosque melds with the sing song of hill tribe elders selling their wares. Despite the couture clash of women in black burkhas gliding past flushed Germans in bikini tops, locals seem more than happy stumble through faltering conversations with curious tourists. You'd have to try really hard not to get on first name terms with at least one of Pai's roll call of odd bod characters. There's the mild mannered Mr. Priew who rents out mountain bikes (just over a dollar a day); Tony the French artiste replete with goatee beard, stripy jumper and Gauloise stained accent who runs the Elite gallery and the Amazonian figure of Jo from Namaste who provides a safe space to drink chai (Indian tea) hang out and jam on a digeredoo if the mood takes you
If you're more into bonding over basslines then stick to the islands. Socializing in Pai is a little less frenetic. There are of course exceptions to every rule which here takes the shape of impromptu parties at the Latino swimming pool (Raddamrong Road) which have established a legendary reputation not least because there's way too much chlorine in the water and someone always ends up with bright green hair. However for the most part nightlife takes the shape of live music with locals strumming their way through the Beatles back catalogue or inciting drunken karaoke to songs for life (luang por cheewit) which all seem to make perfect sense after sharing several bottles of whiskey. Most of the action tends to center round Be-bop. This smoky, pokey venue is decked out with pictures of jazz icons who also drift out the sound system.
The downside of this close knit community vibe is that it can feel like you're in ‘Ground Hog Day' after bumping into the same people ad nauseam. The only answer is simply to escape. Nestled in the belly of a valley Pai looks like a tropical version of Switzerland replete with babbling brooks and verdant pine forests, yet flanked by palm trees and a landscape peppered by Temples, their roofs glinting magically in the sun and golden Buddhas beaming down beatifically on the surrounding villages. For backpackers searching for virgin territory, it's nirvana. In fact many of the operators (Back Trax, Rungsiyanon Rd) who organize treks offer participants a fifty percent refund if they bump into anyone else whilst out tramping hill and dale.
Those looking for something a little less arduous can hire out a motorbike or go for the safer but rather more strenuous option of mountain bikes. Everything outside of Pai is up a hill that boast ninja gradients so be prepared to sweat it out before reaching paradise. The local waterfall (Nam Dok) is about 8 km from the center of town. Once off the main road it's a slow toil up a dirt track and past the rickety Lahu village with occasional pit stops to make way for herds of cattle lumbering down the hill. It's not Niagara but the waterfall has pools deep enough for swimming. However people tend to congregate here after 4pm so go early morning if you want the tranquility of solitude
There's also an abundance of hot springs dotted around the outskirts of the village. It may seem like an odd idea to go and boil your feet pink in a pool full of sulphurous liquid having just toiled through the afternoon sun, but oddly enough the springs are quite refreshing. They're not quite deep enough for swimming and a little bit too hot for a full soak (Thai's love to boil eggs in the water) but there are places along the way offering spring baths where temperature is regulated and you don't have to battle with mud or gruesome looking green algae.
Cave Lod some 50 km along the road to Mae Hong Song promises the spectacle of stalactite, stalagmites and a close encounter with a Neanderthal coffin. You can hire out guides for a little over two dollars who, armed with a hissing gaslight that throws a ghostly light over everything, will lead you through the intricate nooks and crannies. The Neanderthal coffin is actually a shabby looking log with a groove hollowed out in the middle. To be honest it's not much to look at but the tension in the air is palpable. Thais are afraid of ghosts. The guide politely but firmly declined our request to explore any deeper into the dark saying it was full of poisonous snakes. The labyrinthine caves are linked by a shallow underground river, packed with fish that thrash around in an alarming fashion. We took a bamboo raft and pretended we were crossing the river Styx on our way to meet our maker. Squinting into day light as we came out the other side we were greeted by slightly more surreal sight of a woman sweeping the rocks. Sadly it wasn't the local obsessive compulsive but just someone collecting bat dung for fertilizer - the smell of which alone could power several small villages.
Thankfully though Pai is powered more by conventional means - electricity, coffee and good old fashioned Lanna hospitality.
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Published on 12/3/06