Pai: A hippie town or clever marketing?

Nestled in the mountains of northern Thailand, along the famous Mae Hong Song loop, this little village has kept its charm and held onto its spot on the global tourist map.

Today, a stay in Chiang Mai warrants a visit to Pai. You can’t do Chiang Mai and not Pai – say the guide books. Check out Pai – say the travelers you meet on the road. For us, it was simply a change of scenery. Having spent two months island hopping in the south, the northern mountains with its cooler weather sounded appealing.

Pai 762 curves
Pai 762 curves

Pai’s claim to fame lies in its laid back feel, lush jungles, sort of remote location and more than a handful of curves it takes to get there. Throw in some rasta bars, yoga studios, organic cafes and you’ve got yourself a tourist mecca for 20 somethings embracing select versions of a hippie life and the rest who are simply here because they’ve heard about it.

Walking street Pai
Pai walking street
The walking street and night market are tourist staples. By late afternoon, the small town turns into a bustling wonderland of music bars, cafes, street food, souvenir stalls equipped to tackle the constant stream of tourists arriving every hour hungry for their own slice of Pai.
Pai-radise, Pai-lifornia, Pai in love are just some of those captions that stay with you. The signs are hard to miss. But what’s more interesting is how effective they are. A branding strategy well executed.
Pai in love
Pai in love
But of course, you can’t have a successful brand without an audience and a cult following and this is where Pai’s hippiness helps in spades. The mere sense of traveling appeals to the wanderlust in all of us. I personally can’t think of a subculture that personifies this state of being better than the hippie era. And Pai, to its credit taps quite brilliantly into this niche market.

Pai hippie scene

          Rasta in Pai

A testament to the success of this strategy can be seen in the multitude of travelers around town, lounging in chai cafes, sipping on wheat grass juice, sporting dreadlocks and hemp shirts. Tattoos are synonymous to Thailand, and Pai showcases some extremes including those with facial art. This is a town where body hair, bare feet and hippies smell for a wifi password is considered cool.
Pai music scene
Pai music scene
Away from town, the few sights that Pai has to offer, it promotes well. Take your pick – Pai canyon, hot springs or the Chinese village. Frankly, there isn’t much. With the influx of Asian tourism, Pai has also become a popular wedding destination.
However, how much of Pai’s hippie-ness is real? Its certainly easy to spot its cheerleaders. They do dress the part. But what ideals do they embrace? Love and peace for all seems to be a cop out. How about commercialism? Walking around town one has to wonder, if this isn’t in fact being promoted instead by the new age successors of an era long gone. And therein, lies Pai’s success.
Pai water wheel
Pai water wheel
So, on a closing note – would I recommend Pai? Yes, I would put it on the travel itinerary. If you’ve made it to Chiang Mai, do carve out some time for Pai. Pai, to me represents a success story. Visualizing a concept that appeals to the masses and abstracting it just enough to make a profit. How would you see it? I’ll let your wheels turn.
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