Now that Pai attracts caravans of hipsters and intrepid kids from the big smoke each weekend, it is losing its right to use the ‘serene’, ‘peaceful’ or ‘traditional’ labels. Commerce has replaced culture, and what was once a quiet, thrifty weekend getaway is now an all-out party experience where the countryside has been turned into a carnival, and pockets most likely turned inside out. That’s not such a bad thing for some people, but . . .
For those pining for a slice of the old Pai, where do you go for your fix? We asked some of Thailand’s most knowledgeable pundits on matters of travel and tourism and they all came back with the same answer: Mae Chaem.
Mae Chaem, located in a deep valley and surrounded by picturesque mountains (including Doi Inthanon) to the south of Chiang Mai, is certainly similar in many aspects to Pai: the stunning views, the river running through it, the laid back charm and genuine friendliness of the locals. The pace of life in Mae Chaem almost runs backwards it’s so slow, leaving the visitor in a nearly hypnotic state. To be honest there’s not much to do, though as one local told us, “people don’t come here to do much”. There are a string of resorts and guesthouses, two (!) new 7/11s, two internet shops, a bamboo rafting joint, some textile shops (Mae Chaemers are famed for their weaving), thousands of farmers, and a few karaoke places and tin roof restaurants. True, there is little to do, but that is what makes it so attractive, so ‘serene’., it is the Pai of the past. And once you get on your bike and explore you will find colourful villages, mountain roads leading to hill tribe settlements, and much more that will make you stop and take a snap. Investors know this: they are already there, erecting new resorts at the sides of roads and on river banks while giant cranes dig up dirt, silhouetted above tired farmers pulling out cabbages from the ground. “70% of the land has been bought up by Bangkok investors,” one local told us, “the price of land has really shot up in the last three years and people are saying that Mae Chaem will be just like Pai.” She seemed quite ambivalent about this speculation: being a business owner she is bound to profit from development though she did say that she enjoys the peace and quiet of Mae Chaem.
For now Mae Chaem has yet to see dreadlocked Thai guys on old Hondas flogging shots of hooch to adoring lasses from Leeds. It will be a year or two before caravans of travellers force the government to widen the roads and buff up the police force.
Staying in Mae Chaem
The Navasoung Resort (Navasoung Resort Tel: 053 828 477, 084 809 2171 www.navasoungresort.com) is the oldest and still the best place to stay in Mae Chaem. The friendly owners are a FinnishThai family who’ve been there for almost 15 years and speak English, Finnish and Thai. The rooms are pleasant and there’s a swimming pool and sauna at the top of the resort that affords spectacular views of the mountains. The bungalows are all fully equipped and there’s internet in the restaurant. They serve western food in addition to Thai food, which is quite remarkable for Mae Chaem at the moment. Rooms are 1,200-1,500 baht per night for single or sharing.
Take the Hang Dong turnoff and drive towards Doi Inthanon. When you are about 40 kilometres up the tallest mountain in Thailand and you see the second check point take the immediate left. You will then descend down a very steep hill (carefully) into Mae Chaem, passing the Navasoung Resort on your way. It is about a two and a half hour drive.