Getting a piece of Pai

James Austin Farrell visits Pai and finds the town in a state of transformation. Does he like what her finds?

By | Fri 17 Aug 2012

Monday was a holiday compliments of the always magnanimous HRM, so I decided to visit Pai with a few friends for the first time in about a year. I wasn’t surprised to see that after my last visit there has been torrential development, a kind of domino flop in reverse where structures rise from, not fall down on, the earth. Where there was once space, you can now buy an iced-Cappuccino, or a plastic cat with kaleidoscopic eyes – in the same shop. The question is (also very pertinent to Chiang Mai right now): how much space can be sacrificed before its replacement manifests as an eyesore, and also an ecological migraine that might not ever go away?

Clothing boutiques catering for both the dreadlocked and neo-travel chic, laid back pubs still into Marley but not afraid of doing Dubstep, old-skool food stalls, new Italians, lush resorts, rustic huts on the river, where any Ton, Big, or Salee with an arts degree can make a meager living selling key rings and t-shirts denoting cartoon figures expressing ? for Pai.

There’s nothing minimalist about Pai these days; I could finish this piece with nothing but adjectives, the literary style of the TAT. It’s irresistible not to view Pai in terms of gaudy descriptions, because I think that what the town has essentially become is a made-up place that fits nicely into what travel and leisure magazines deem cool, and most importantly sellable. Yes, Pai sold out, as have Phuket, Pattaya, Phi Phi, but is that such a bad thing?

You will see if you go to Height Ashbury, the former hippy colony in 60s San Francisco (I went in the early 90s) that the place is a somewhat themed reflection of a historically brilliant reality. What was founded on and shaped by ideas and passions, the esprit de corps of the discontent, the dissenters of mainstream culture, is now a shell of its former self, it’s a relic, and naturally a tourism hub.

As Drug Dealer Danny points out in the cult film Withnail and I about 2 men at the end of the 60s: “Politics, man. If you’re hanging onto a rising balloon, you’re presented with a difficult decision – let go before it’s too late or hang on and keep getting higher, posing the question: how long can you keep a grip on the rope? They’re selling hippie wigs in Woolworths, man. The greatest decade in the history of mankind is over.”

That’s the way it goes, art, music, counter-culture, towns, get stolen by entrepreneurs who try to replicate something, and though they do a terribly botched job, they make it digestible enough so that profits are maximized. Monet is a post card painter; The Rolling Stones are ripped off in every musical era; Albert Hoffman is a t-shirt…soft porn poses as literature, and so on.

Art is always sacrificed when money gets involved, and so new counter-cultures arise. The point is Pai was once thought to be a kind of hippie retreat, it was a counter-culture as far as travelling was concerned. It was where people who wanted to get out of it went to smoke opium with the hill tribes, get down with the farmers over a bottle of rice wine, relax, meditate, read, get lost in one of the only parts of Thailand where it was unlikely you’d get hassled by anyone.

And while the town still has some of that same charm, developers and media have been hard at work exploiting its natural gifts, but in doing so they have harmed it, because it is no longer natural. The essence of Pai, sleepy backwater town, is sold in every shop in Pai. By forging and selling an identity, it has lost its identity. The Pai Paradox? Pai went down the rabbit hole and ended up in Pailand.

That’s not to say I don’t like the new Pai, I do like it, I just like it in a different way than I did the first time I visited the place 12 years ago when it really was a chilled hamlet sunken between verdant mountain ranges or whatever the guides books called it then. There were a few whisky bars (the ya dong bar is still there now), the most expensive guesthouse was about 200 baht a night, and it was quite an honorable last stop before the grave for many a heroin addict who enjoyed the impunity they received up in those ere ‘ills.

Now the hospital is full of tattooed (esoteric Hindu symbols denoting peace, scarified by Pai tarmac) farang who’ve taken falls from bikes they verily can’t ride, and the police clamp down occasionally and have their own little hysterical war on drugs party when it suits them, nabbing the odd ill-starred western tourist who never realized scoring dope was tantamount to raping children in terms of punishment – in fact, the latter in Thailand is far less punishable.

Making drug arrests in Pai should be like shooting fish in a barrel. Unless of course arresting too many folk would put an end to the drug trade…and there’s no money in that, is there? It’s not a war against drugs, it’s a war against people, perpetrated by western legislation, utilising failed and now shameful slogans from the 80s and coming down on ‘bad’ people as hard as Ronald Reagan came down on minorities. Imagine what northern Thailand could do with the opium crop? Roll over Glaxo-Wellcome…do you know they grow opium in Dorset now? Well, why not cultivate the crop in Pai?

Wars on drugs? Tut, tut. Why are we not fighting something valid, like greed? What about a war on caviar? A war on 100,000 euro lunch bills? I digress…. I picked up a book of essays by George Orwell whilst in Pai, from a friendly Irishman at a bookstore. One of the things that affected me most is that the things that Orwell was lamenting in the 30’s, is what most liberal, intellectual people are saying right now. The only difference is that some of Orwell’s worst fears, yet to be manifested in his lifetime, have come true. Yikes. He talks in depth about the ‘evil’ policies concocted by the pseudo-democratic governments of the world, and how we as citizens, unless sharp as tacks, will fail to see through the ploys of business backed governments whose legislation is made by the oligarchs to protect the oligarchs. Rules made by the powerful to protect the interests of the powerful. Makes sense doesn’t it? You kind of see it happening in Pai, in miniature: the ad hoc arrests of people smoking a plant, while others drink themselves to death, imbibing chemical cocktails brewed and bottled in Bangkok factories; the static conditions of the poor; the big buildings owned by investors working in politics, natural space being exploited which was once close to holy. If you ask many of the locals, they are not getting much out of the transformation, they’re not getting their piece of the pie, except maybe for those now flogging Pad Thai by the bucketful.

Pai’s alright, but it’s on the cusp of degeneration, it’s still got it as they say…though arguably it’s on the verge of jumping the shark. For some people the backpacker era has come to an end, and Thailand isn’t the place to disappear anymore. Many come here for affordable foie gras, or AC lattes amongst miniskirts and Angry Bird t-shirts. Others are holding onto the balloon (Danny’s metaphor) hanging on to their dear outback, exotic Thailand, trying to ignore the fact there are now more McDonalds than wild elephants.