Copyright © 2012 by Eric Kaufman

Pai – A Village in Transition
By Eric Kaufman

Remember what it was like before they leveled it and put in a shopping mall? Most of us have a childhood memory of a place that has long since been replaced with something more profitable. These bittersweet memories prompt artists to reflect. Mike Ness of Social Distortion sings, “...and the pool hall that I loved as a kid is now a Seven Eleven.” There must have been more money to be made inside that Seven Eleven, but a whole lot less fun to be had for one nostalgic Southern California local. He’s not the first or last songwriter to lament in the woes of a changing and lost landscape. Imagine a young boy in the Thai community of Pai growing up and years from now writing a similar song recollecting what’s vanished from the days of his childhood. For Pai, the force driving the current change is a sudden burst of tourism.
Pai, Thailand, up until recently, served as an untamed mountain village attracting relatively few tourists. A few hours’ drive into the mountains outside of Chaing Mai, Pai was primarily visited by quiet-seekers looking for a more genuine Thai village experience. From Chaing Mai in the North the two most popular destinations for this type of getaway were Chaing Rai and Pai. But after the recent release of Pai in Love – 2009, a mainstream Thai film set in Pai, the town may have lost its tranquility forever.
Director Tanit Jitnukul's movie follows a group of friends who visit Pai in order to make a movie, one that best describes the town. They each set out individually to explore Pai and bring their own perspective to the film. Naturally this has encouraged film-goers to visit Pai and consider for themselves what the town means to them. But the flood of tourists that the film has attracted has changed the very thing that they came to savor and ponder.
What once were dirt roads are now freshly paved. Traditional night markets take on the less sincere look of commercialism with items for sale that may not be from Pai at all. Factory made T-shirts and crafts suddenly turn up and attempts to cash in are made. Some of the traditional street food still exists, but is now more expensive. It’s doubtful that the sweet corn fritters that I binged on every night will disappear from the roadside but likely you’ll spend a bit more for them. Pai’s traditional ginger tea mulled in ceramic vats really helps with the motion sickness you’ll suffer through the mountains on your way in. Unfortunately, the price has doubled from ten to 20 baht and will continue to rise.
Before, only a few guest houses were sufficient to handle what little hippie tourist traffic came through. Now those guest houses have been able to raise prices from 600 baht per night to 2400 baht in accordance with the demand, and large scale resort hotels are beginning to build on the outskirts. The amounts may not sound substantial to those accustomed to western pricing but for the Thai tourists the increase is considerable. The scale is dramatic and these changes are only the beginning.
Reclusive western expatriates have been living in Pai for years. It’s easy to understand the allure of the simple life and they've integrated well into the local culture. However, it’s hard to imagine they’ll want to stay much longer now that this change has been set in motion. Yet still, some of them have started to adapt and cash in as well. A dread-headed westerner harmoniously sells her handmade dresses alongside a Thai local peddling his ginger tea. Another expat bangs out a tune on his homemade kettle drum in the middle of the road for tips and the sound is surprisingly nice considering his instrument looks like two large woks welded together into a clam. Although not native to the area, these foreigners do their best to adapt and assimilate to the local culture.
This region known as The Golden Triangle due to its proximity between Thailand, Burma, and Laos, was once a major opium trafficking zone. The gold brought in to pay for the drug gave it its name. As recently as the early 2000s the government made efforts to end opium production in the area. Now coffee and rice thrive in its place. The people of this region have been able to adapt successfully to shifting industries and will likely have no difficulty riding the recent wave of change. This change, however, threatens to transform a sleepy village into a bustling tourist attraction devoid of its original character.
Thailand has a history of suffering the ill effects of tourism and dealing with disproportionate economies. Widespread prostitution shows up in more than a few Thai cities that cultivate sex tourism. Pattaya, one of Thailand’s most famous prostitution playgrounds became so after it was used as a western military recreation site in the 1970s. Sadly, a number of Southeast Asian cities that were used by western military underwent the same transformation. Prostitution is an extreme worst case example of what sudden tourism can lead to. Thankfully, it isn’t military tourism that Pai is dealing with.
Influence from outsiders has always been a disrupting force against a culture. In the past the face of that disruption was more clearly recognizable. It might have come running at you with a machete, or it may have aimed a gun at you from the tree line. Modern colonization has adopted a more passive form – tourism. The end result hasn’t changed much but the tools and tactics have. Those who once brought weapons, politics, and religion, now bring cash and credit cards. As tourism hacks its way across the map a trail is left behind that affects the local inhabitants as well as future tourists.