It’s the rainy season in Northern Thailand, which I soon realise is no misrepresentation. It rains almost constantly during my first few days in Chiang Mai and in the precious few breaks in bad weather I rush around doing all of the things that people typically do when they come to this part of the world. I see elephants and I visit temples. In the evenings I wander night markets, and pass through streets where the girls call out “hey handsome boy, massage?” and try to grab me by the arm.
The ancient city and the surrounding landscape is beautiful, and seeing elephants is incredible in all the ways I had hoped, but still it’s easy to feel a kind of tourism fatigue here. On first glance it’s a town drowning in souvenir shops and tour operators offering excursions to famous landmarks, and even disturbingly to “long-neck villages” (Karen communities) and refugee camps on the Myanmar border. A quick bit of research confirms the terrible reputation of these human safaris.
But Chiang Mai also holds its share of unexpected surprises. Thanks to a tip from the girl working in my hostel I discover the North Gate Jazz Bar. Chiang Mai is hardly a place you would think of as a center of jazz, but here talented musicians come from all over to jam to a crowd of both tourists and bohemian locals that spill out from the tiny bar and into the street. After a long set, and just when it seems as if everything is winding down for the night, a bus pulls up and more musicians jump out with saxophones, trumpets and flutes.
There is also horse racing here every saturday, but this is not the kind of racing accompanied by champagne flutes and women in elaborate hats. The atmosphere is one of hot-blooded and scrappy excitement. I get lost on my way to the racetrack and end up entering on the opposite side to the stands, where the jockeys and trainers are preparing for the race. I suspect that I’m not allowed to be here, but no one asks me to leave so I wander up to the first bend in the track, and find the perfect spot to sit and watch the race.
After Chiang Mai I had planned to take a train to Bangkok, but everyone I meet seems to be heading in the opposite direction, to the small town of Pai about 90 miles north. In the end, my curiosity gets the better of me and I also take a bus along the windy mountain road, famous for it’s nausea inducing 762 turns, all the way to Pai.
Pai is a disorientating place to spend time. Surrounded by mountains and farmland, the town itself is an island of boutique stores, trendy bars, tattoo parlours, and even a rabbit cafe. In the evenings there’s a walking street where you can pick up anything from a pad thai to pizza or sushi for around 80 Baht (1.80). Only the presence of the local Tai people remind me I’m actually in Thailand and not back in East London. I wonder what it has been like for these locals who have watched their small town grow so rapidly and seen the arrival of wealth and new opportunities, accompanied by the predictable problems of tension between tourists and police, and the gradual loss of a traditional way of life.
I meet a couple of other solo travellers, Ben, a carpenter from Léon, and Diana, an American fresh out of university. Together we spend a couple of days on motorbikes, exploring the sights that draw so many people here, including spectacular waterfalls, hot-springs, and Pai canyon, with it’s network of narrow ledges that give way to sheer drops. I feel grateful I hadn’t taken up the earlier offer by a group of fellow travellers to come out here at night to take mushrooms. I shudder as I wonder how none of them had wandered off the trails and fallen to their deaths.
On our way back from the canyon we’re stopped on the road by police who check our belongings for drugs. Another sign of the issues lurking behind the backpacker paradise.
As the sun sets we find a bar with a terrace that looks out on the surrounding landscape. In the fields around us farmers are getting into trucks and heading home after a long day, while more people turn up at the bar to listen to music and drink Singha beer as the sun goes down.
I keep thinking about this new kind of colonialism by tourism and I feel uncomfortable in my own comfort and my enjoyment of everything Pai has to offer. Like Thailand’s southern islands, towns here have also become cheap places for young westerners like myself to come to party with other westerners, without needing to know anything about the place, its people, or its history.
For better or worse, it seems things will carry on in this way, and maybe the expats and locals can continue to carve out what appears to be a happy and thriving community. I’m sure it’s possible, but for now it’s unclear. I watch the sunset and try not to think about tomorrow, and the stomach churning road back to Chiang Mai.