As I reach for my lonely planet, I feel a mild sense of embarrassment. No matter where in the world, if there are backpackers there are lp’s and where the LP has been a backpacker culture has risen.
Backpacker culture is now so thoroughly integrated into tourism, it requires it’s own services and ambience. Little enclaves that herald normality and safety to the weary traveller.
The whole idea of getting with the locals could not be further from the truth. Backpackers mix with backpackers and hunt out the western in the eastern. I’m being cynical and stereotyping, I apologise. Step onto a local bus going to a village you have no hope of pronouncing and there may well be a backpacker, a die hard backpacker who wants to experience the culture but for the sake of this post I am focusing on the traveller so epitomised in Pai.
The walking street of Pai is lined with rows of traveller pants, anklets, mango sticky rice and bars. You escape Bangkok to find the Khao San road has been replicated here in the North, where drinking is what people have in common. The central street and bars that spill out wards enable easy interaction between backpackers, and with four 7-elevens in the space of two hundred metres you are not short of a western comfort or two. The purpose of travelling appears to have escaped me. Vast hoardes of people descend upon these places recommended by other travellers, yet in fact there is very little to see in Pai. Save a couple of waterfalls and a hot spring I was struggling to see the initial attraction.
Although Pai originally attracted those from the art scene, opening coffee shop and art gallery combinations, much of these have either long since left or play on this not for love of it but to create a profit. Replacing the coffee are motorbike rentals and organised ‘non-tourist’ tours and it has been noted in Exploration In Thai Tourism by Erik Cohen that this boom in tourism-orientated business has had very little benefit to the natives. With profits directed out of the area to developers and big businesses. Even the agriculture in the area is now predominantly illegal or migrant workers who send money back to their families.
The traveller grapevine is a wonderful thing in many respects yet whispers turn to talk which in turn becomes a roar and secret havens such as the Pai of old is transformed into a town whose sole aim is to cater for the backpacker.