International Travel, Reflections

Why I Didn’t Love Pai Despite All the Hype

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“You have to go to Pai!” “Omg have you gone to Pai yet? I was just there and wish I could go back asap.” “Did you go to Pai? Pai is so cool.” I’ve heard dozens of variations of these enthusiastic exclamations over the past year both in Thailand and back home in the States. But I’m here to tell you: forget the hype, Pai isn’t worth your time.

Where’s Pai and what’s so special about it?

A tiny town in northern Thailand’s Mae Hong Son province, Pai is now one of Thailand’s hot spots, especially among backpackers. It’s been home to hippies for a while, but over the past decade, it’s really blown up as a tourist hotspot.

The town, which now has more than 2,000 full-time residents, sees influxes of both Western and domestic tourists that swell up this little place. There are dozens of hostels and hotel options nowadays, with more on the way. Tourists zip by on scooters during the day, en route to various canyons, waterfalls, and hot springs in the area. In the evenings, they swarm the nightly market that stretches through the town’s main streets.

I love you Pai sign

To get there, most visitors take a stomach-churning van ride from Chiang Mai, a trip known for its 762 turns. (Motorbike is the other main mode of transportation, though a lot of experience in that realm is highly recommended for these roads.)

It’s known to be a chill, hippie, oh-so-different-from-the-rest-of-Thailand spot that every cool backpacker has to experience.

My experience in Pai

I don’t remember hearing about Pai before or during my first trip to Thailand about 4 years ago. But then again, that was a short trip to the southern part of the country. This time around, it was almost impossible to go a day without hearing about Pai, especially because I spent more than a month in northern Thailand alone.

I didn’t immediately take to the idea of Pai despite all the rave reviews I heard from other travelers. It wasn’t going to be a place that I sought out. But when I decided to go to Wat Pa Tam Wua monastery for vipassana meditation and realized I’d have to go through Pai anyways, I decided to stay for a day. Poor weather extended that to two days, and that was plenty enough.

I met a couple of other solo female travelers in my hostel, and my first day in Pai basically consisted of us cafe hopping for hours on end due to the constant rain. Vegan cafes and chai hangouts abound. (I will admit though, Om Garden Cafe is pretty solid. It has non-vegan options as well.)

Pai canyon
A couple of us in Pai canyon.

On my second day in Pai, we headed out on scooters to check out the local canyon and a farm that had become a tourist attraction after a series of land splits put it on the map. We also visited a World War II-era bridge and some local Buddhist sites. Each day concluded at the night market, which had more international options such as falafels, burgers, and French crepes than Thai dishes.

Pai land split
Inside one of the land splits.

Why I didn’t love Pai

Perhaps once upon a time Pai was a fantastic village to visit as a jumping off point for trekking and exploring the area’s many natural splendors, but today, it feels like a constructed Western hippie rest spot. In fact, on the rainy day I spent in Pai, I actually forgot I was in Thailand because I was in such Westernized places surrounded by so many Westerners.

When people who love Pai talk about it, rarely do they talk about the Shan culture of the locals or anything indigenous to the area. Instead, it’s always about the vegan food options, the Instagrammable hotspots, and the chill (oft drug-induced) vibe among other tourists. In other words, the stuff that’s been imported in.

And maybe I’m just extra jaded because I’m a few years older than the bulk of the Pai-hyping population. Maybe it’s because I live in the vegan, hippie symbol that is San Francisco (though granted, it’s become less hippie over the years). Maybe it’s because I’m tired of all the people chasing Instagram shots as their priority when traveling. And maybe it’s because I don’t need to go halfway across the world to hang out with other Westerners in Westernized settings. Whatever the combination of these reasons, Pai just wasn’t worth it for me.

Been to Pai and either agree or vehemently disagree with me? Tell me about your experience!

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Why Pai isn't worth your time. If you're looking for an authentic Thai experience, skip Pai.

14 thoughts on “Why I Didn’t Love Pai Despite All the Hype

  1. Thank you sharing such an honest post. I have heard great things about this place- have never been there
    This is helpful in deciding if I want to visit Pai or not

  2. I totally agree with your view, why you didn’t like the Pai. When I go to a city, I like to experience local culture and absorbed the vibes of the place instead of hanging around with people I live with.

  3. I just spent two days there and I agree with your assessment of Pai. I would have loved it when I was 19, but that was twenty years ago.

  4. I was in Pai in 2007 and it was amazing; we stayed in wooden huts because there were no hostels and it was a real back to nature experience. Even then, there were a lot of tourists and some bars but the balance was right for me. I am going back there for a few days in September, kind of excited but scared at the same time to see what I think of it 12 years on!

    1. I wish I had the opportunity to see it back then. You’ll have to let me know what you think of the changes once you get back!

  5. Wow. This is perfection. I am have Thai half Australian, grew up in Thailand and now live in Australia. While visiting my parents in Bangkok over the Christmas holidays I made the choice to visit my friend in Pai. Everyone had raves about it and I noticed so many friends from Bangkok visiting Pai throughout the year. It sounded like everything I’d love. After five very LONG days in Pai, everything you’ve said has resonated with me. It feels like a scam. I travelled this country growing up and have seen much more beautiful water falls, night markets, ‘viewpoints’ etc without the nauseating westernised aspect. As a Thai person, it’s insulting. As an Australian person, I don’t need to go all the way to this small town to be surrounded by westerners, I can just take a walk in Newtown in Sydney to get my dose of white hippies.

    Thank you for your words. Much appreciated.

    1. Hi Mel,

      Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts and for your kind words. I’m sorry to hear that 5+ years on, it seems not much has changed in Pai in terms of these aspects. I hope the rest of your trip was magnificent though! It’s been too long since I’ve been in Thailand (thanks, pandemic), and I’m looking forward to exploring more of the country soon!

      Safe travels,
      Rowena

  6. I’ve been here for three hours and I’m ready to leave. I had to know if I was losing my marbles so I did a Google search to see if there was anyone else experiencing what I am right now. I’m a big fan of smoking weed but this town seems to be super baked and with that, seems indifferent and ‘checked out’. Maybe it’s because it’s low season and weed being legal is fairly new, everyone is just going for it. I’m just finding it challenging to connect whereas typically anywhere else I find it pretty easy.

    Thanks for posting here. I feel less alone in Pai.

    1. Hi Julie,

      I’m glad I was able to offer a sanity check for you! I think that’s one of the reasons I wrote this post since I couldn’t find anyone else who felt the same when I was there (IRL or online).

      I hope the rest of your trip is more appealing!

      Happy travels,
      Rowena

  7. I was wondering if I wanted to return and was googling… I think you put my mind at ease: I visited in 2006 and fell in love with the peace and quiet. The authenticity. I visited a local reaggae festival and was the only tourist. Special times – one high street – full of local artisans. I think I’ll keep those memories

    1. That sounds like a dream, Fran. I often wonder how many places have been “ruined” by folks chasing Insta hotspots, looking to recreate TikTok reels, etc. Don’t get me wrong, I take a bajillion photos everywhere, and I have definitely gone to places that I first saw on social media. But I hope we tip back into authentic, experience-rich travels soon.

      Cheers to your wonderful memories,
      Rowena

  8. Thanks for the review and comments. This helped me scratch Pai off my list of things to see and do in my month in Thailand.

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