After several days in Luang Prabang, Laos, we caught a short flight to Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand where we immediately boarded a minibus headed towards the mountain town of Pai (pronounced “bye”). The road from Chiang Mai to Pai is legendary – three hours of countless hairpin turns that combine to create one of the best motorcycle rides in the world. As I stared out the window keeping my eyes focused on one object in order to quell the feelings of motion sickness, I momentarily thought I was back in Tennessee driving through the Smoky Mountains on my way from Gatlinburg to Cades Cove – the geography was strikingly similar.

Pai has achieved legendary status among the backpacker, hippie crowd. Its idyllic climate in a spectacular mountain setting combined with ridiculously cheap prices and all the amenities a backpacker craves (including abundant Internet cafes and travel agencies, day trips galore and a friendly, tolerant community) keeps travelers staying here for much longer than originally anticipated. We met several travelers who have stayed here for months at a time and continue to return here year after year. I understand the appeal. While I’m about as far away from a hippie as someone can get, I do enjoy the laid-back feel that the backpacker community generates.
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After a three days of doing virtually nothing in Pai (other than an eventful elephant ride by Shanna and our friend Dana–Shanna’s elephant threw her over its head and into the river…twice) and a couple of days in Chiang Mai doing the same, we flew to Bangkok and headed straight to the most famous backpacker spot on the planet – Khao San Road. Due to Bangkok’s central location in Southeast Asia, backpackers tend to wind up in Bangkok several times during any trip to the region. Needing a cheap place to stay, travelers found a few, cheap guesthouses on Khao San Road (a small street conveniently located near most of the can’t-miss sights of Bangkok) a few decades ago. In the past twenty years, Khao San Road and the surrounding area have exploded with hundreds of guesthouses, restaurants (including the addition of Burger King and McDonald’s, inflaming many in the hardcore crowd), bars, Internet cafes and travel agencies.
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Khao San Road may be the most diverse place in the world and is my number one place to people watch. Sitting in a roadside cafe for just a few minutes, you might see a young German couple passing through Bangkok on their way to the islands of Southern Thailand, a Thai hipster with pink hair, an aging hippie trying to relive his glory days when he came to Bangkok in the 60s, a wide-eyed 18-year old woman from England just starting out on her “Gap Year”1, a dreadlocked Australian and even…a couple of 30-something lawyers from the States.

A visit to places like Pai and Khao San Road draws strong reactions. Many people despise these communities, commenting that these places are not the “real” Thailand or whatever other country in which they may be located. Others understand that, of course, they are not “real”, but they are a community nonetheless where fellow travelers can momentarily escape the stress that traveling in a foreign environment for a lengthy period can sometimes create. Regardless of a vistor’s reaction, travelers tend to keep coming back, seemingly incapable of avoiding their unique and sometimes overwhelming draw. Given that Shanna and I have already been to Khao San Road twice in as many years, I’d say the same is true for us.

  1. In England, many high school graduates take a year off to travel the world before they head to college. The practice is so common that the term “Gap Year” has become common in England and has spread elsewhere in Europe and Australia. I fear the term will never gain traction across the pond… []