Pai: The changing face of a northern charmer

Pai, Thailand

Pai, Thailand:

PaiPai, a small district in Thailand’s northernmost province of Mae Hong Son, has become a favourite destination for travellers in the last several years and, like it or not, the once idyllic town has changed almost upside down.

The past two years have seen more than half a million tourists flock to the mountainous district following word of mouth recommendations, whether backpackers or more well-off travellers, who described it as a “must-visit” spot to get close to nature –the mountains, a lazy river, cool breeze, fresh air and stunning views.

Vorathep Gantadee, chairman of the Pai Tourism Association, said the small town had less than 30 guesthouses and hotels some eight years ago but the number has currently increased to over 200 outlets, owned by locals and outside investors alike.

It is now easier access to Pai by commercial flights that have played a major role in its rapid development for travellers, so that they could avoid the tough land journey on rough roads that zigzag through the mountains.

According to Vorathep, backpackers formerly paid only Bt80-120 per room/night but the accommodation rates have sharply gone up to as high as Bt10,000 per room/night. During the high season, a luxury room can shoot up to Bt11,000 per room/night. He also reminisced that in the past, Pai’s early hoteliers only had small cottages with fans, which was part of the charm.

But now air-conditioned rooms are needed for their business.

Land prices in Pai have unbelievably skyrocketed for the past ten years to almost the same rate as in highly-developed Chiang Mai province, Thailand’s economic hub for the North. In ‘tourist-infested’ areas such as the walking streets, Vorathep said, land is sold at Bt50,000-60,000 per square wah (about two square metres) or around Bt20 million per rai. Land in the district’s outlying areas has also increased at average of Bt1-2 million per rai.

“Within a short period of time, the price of land has gone up so quickly from Bt5 million to Bt10 million, and further on to Bt20 million within a year,” said Patchari Arjharn, a resort owner in Pai.

The rapid development and changing infrastructure have affected Pai’s rural charm as well as local residents’ way of life, while businessmen in the travel industry have observed a gradual saturation which compels them to rethink on to which direction Pai should move forward in the future.

As a local resident, Arporn Sangchot described the rapid change in her hometown in the last few years as “unusual and too fast.” She expressed concern that the growth was so fast that the people’s simple and traditional way of life has been replaced by business-oriented and money-making attitudes. Many locals sold their land to investors and moved away, out to the outskirts of the town, or even further.

Pai’s traditional identity and culture are on the verge of vanishing and, if the situation carries on, Pai will finally lose its charm, said Arporn.

“If we don’t help each other and ignore to take any action, nothing will be left for us in the next five years,” she warned. “Our way of life will become thing of the past and people at the grassroots will suffer most.”

Local hotelier Walaiporn Ruengnitigul admits that she has contemplated selling her business to get away from the tough competition.

“The situation is like outsiders want to come in and insiders want to get out. The competition in the hotel business is fierce. Local entrepreneurs can hardly compete with big-time investors who own major resorts and hotels,” Walaiporn said.

She added that a room is rented at only Bt700-800 a night during off-peak season and “some local operators think it might be better if they sell off their businesses.”

Pai, once a “young girl” of the North, has grown up and become a fashion icon. Some say the town has only become gracefully sophisticated but others blame her for putting on too many excessive accessories, thus obliterating her own genuine style.

But in the end, no matter what Pai would become, it depends on the cooperation of local people, businessmen and visitors in sustaining its beauty so that tourists will come back — again and again. (TNA)