Disastrous floods and mud slides in the surrounding mountains devastated this popular tourist haunt in 2005, but the town rapidly recovered, and now the only reminders of the catastrophe are a few high-water marks on the walls of some buildings and empty swathes of riverside land. A building boom is again in full swing as the former market town struggles to cope with another annual flood—the thousands of visitors who outnumber the locals in high season.
It was exhausted backpackers looking for a stopover along the serpentine road between Chiang Mai and Mae Hong Son who discovered Pai in the late 1980s. In 1991 it had seven modest guesthouses and three restaurants; now its frontier-style streets are lined with restaurants and bars of every description, cheap guesthouses and smart hotels, art galleries, and chic coffeehouses, while every class of resort, from back-to-nature to luxury, nestles in the surrounding hills. Thus far, Pai has managed to retain its slightly off-the-beaten-path appeal, but that may change as Bangkok property investors pour money into its infrastructure and flights arrive daily from Chiang Mai.