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Pai New Year, Part One
By Adam Corney
19 February 2011





Location: Pai
Soundtrack: The breeze in the trees, the running of the water
 
I woke up on the morning of New Years Eve and stretched in my little bungalow by the river.
 
I hadn’t prebooked a place – I’d tried, but everywhere was booked out, so I gambled on finding a place when I got to the town. I lay on the mattress on the raised bamboo floor and looked up at the mosquito netting. I stuck my hands behind my head, and listened to the early morning noises outside and the quiet flow of the river.
 
I was finally starting to unwind from 2010, just as 2011 approached.
 
At breakfast at Pai Country House, I watched as the town slowly filled with more and more Thai as the morning rolled on. The Thais came on scooters carrying backpacks and tents to camp beside the river, or with their family 4WDs and sedans packed to the brim with luggage. I felt like, in a way, I’d intruded on their secret oasis.
 
But then I likened it to a German backpacker turning up at Maroochydore at New Years – I’m not an intruder, I’m just another face in a rather large crowd of holidaymakers. Sure, my face is a bit different, and I was stopped twice by people who wanted a photo with a 6 foot redheaded white dude wearing purple shorts and mismatched blue and yellow socks (it was laundry day!). But I wasn’t intruding on anything private.
 
My choice for breakfast was also where I found the expat enclave, and they were taking a different view to what was happening in their town.
 
One old Dutch guy bemoaned loudly “I’ve been here 12 years, and it’s never been like this,” he said, gesturing at the traffic choking the main street. “I’m thinking about leaving.”
 
He passed an article over to two French expats sitting at the table beside mine. “You want to cheer yourself up? An article on Pai.” It was by Anchalee Kongrut in the Bangkok Post, and you can read it here.
 
To Pai or Not To Pai
For many, Pai is the latest case of cultural and environmental decadence and negative gentrification. Antique shops have been converted into beer bars and shops selling T-shirts bearing the word “Pai”. Investors from Bangkok have rushed into town and opened either cheap guesthouses or boutique hotels if not chic coffee houses, Italian restaurants or herbal spa retreats. Ethnic villagers are no longer living cultural heritages, but are fast becoming eye-catching exotic subjects for Facebook photos.
 
As much as Ms. Kongrut paints a picture of a changed Pai than the one from her past, it’s not an overly negative picture.
 
I love it here, so it’s easy to imagine that I’m not the only one. But I’m not a Pai local. So when your quiet little town gets invaded every year, and the invaders keep increasing in number, what happens? Over time they’ll keep leaving bits of themselves and their culture behind – a few new tourist-oriented businesses, an increase in guesthouses, a few more market stalls selling more trinkets and souvenirs, another coffee shop or juice bar. The banana pancake trail effect.
 
Each year, the path to Pai gets easier for people to follow, and they’re welcomed with open arms by local business for the influx of easy capital they bring. It’s nothing new; it happens to small awesome places the world over, time and time again.
 
Ms. Kongrut sums it up well: “To Pai or not to Pai is still a question to be asked. But it is time for another question, not about the place or the impact of tourism. Places change, for better or for worse, or both. And so do we.”
 
The question of whether or not to visit Pai is redundant – of course you’re going to visit Pai. It’s a wonderful place.
 
The question is really whether or not you’re comfortable with the changes that make it an easier place to visit.
 
As the sun started going down, the town reached capacity. Every now and then I saw a foreign face flash among the crowd, then vanish again. This was definitely not going to be a Western New Year: this was going to be a completely Thai celebration.
 
We are not the same persons this year as last; nor are those we love. It is a happy chance if we, changing, continue to love a changed person.
~ W. Somerset Maugham, (1874-1965)


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