On September nineteenth, a lot of people somewhere in Thailand where collectively preparing for an epic hangover. The nineteenth was the full moon, and Thailand is famous for Koh Pha Ngan’s full moon parties. This time around I skipped it and stayed in the North, where it seems I was no less affected by the lunar cycles. A few nights in a row I couldn’t sleep. Not that I had a hard time getting to sleep — I just could not. I spent the night staring at the ceiling, the windows, the ceiling again, rolling to face the wall, sometimes putting my face under the pillow. For some reason I was just wide and by five I decided to listen to some music (my old iPod is turning out to be handy after all) and do Sudoku. By around 6:30 I maybe dozed off for an hour. It was strange business, especially since I usually have no problem sleeping. I attribute it to the lunar cycle and my own monkey mind that was in overdrive, swinging through the dark forests of the future and making my pulse quicken with anticipation and ambition.
The sleepless nights aside, the rest of my time in Pai passed pleasantly. Most days I pottered around town, patronizing establishments with names like Earth Tones, the Sun Hut, World Tea House (which could give Oxford Exchange a run for its marble-tiled money), Om Garden, Art of Chai, Starbucks, and so on. … Totally kidding about Starbucks, by the way. Pai would cease to be the place it is if Starbucks were to move in. It would be like the next Ubud: used to be a cool place until the yuppies moved in so now you can use your Visa or Mastercard to buy “accessories for the soul” and have a rendezvous at, yes, the Starbucks. In fact, Pai installed traffic lights only recently, amid some protests from locals. But so many tourists rent motorbikes that the lights have become a necessity.
This whole trip I have been tempted to rent a motorbike, but given my lack of experience and the dicey way people drive here (Thailand is better than Vietnam but still) I let caution prevail and rent a bicycle if a grueling day of slogging through the nearby sights takes my fancy. In Pai, there is a one-day route that takes in views of the Pai River, the Pai Canyon, a WWII bridge, and a hot springs. These are all marked on a readily available tourist map, but one must be observant and would do well to take note of the “map not to scale” disclaimer in the corner. This I discovered when I tried walking to the Mae Yen waterfall my first day there. The waterfall appears to be just a hop down a squiggly road that branches off from the main one, but as I was walking on the squiggly road I asked a local person and they said it was another good seven kilometers to get there. Ooo-kay. So with this experience in mind, I rented a bike and set out with some reservations.
Riding through town is nice. There are shops selling all kinds of clothes and trinkets. Everyone is wearing either a tie-dye t-shirt or baggy pants, and the dreadlocks per capita is the highest I have seen since February’s rainbow gathering. There is even a shop on the main walking street where you can “make sad dreads happy again” or have new ones started. People are friendly, and many smiled when they saw me pedal by, chanting the Batman theme song to myself.
First stop: some Strawberry-themed rest stop that seemed to be an homage to the kitschy nature of Asian tourism. People (all of them Asian) wearing floppy hats and wielding cameras the size of newborn babies were taking pictures of anything and everything. The tackiness was almost unbearable, so I paused only briefly to take in the view (of both the valley and the chattering tourists) before pressing on. The hills were endless, which doesn’t come as a surprise being in the North. Going down was fun, but going up extracted the usual tirade of grumbling. The bike was heavy, the gears didn’t work, and the hills went on and on. I ended up walking up most of them. No doubt some of those baby-size cameras were aimed at me along the way.
Panting and sweaty, the sign for Pai Canyon appeared around the bend at the top of a hill. At last! I parked my bike (no need to lock up here; the guy who rented the bike out to me didn’t even mention a lock (or the replacement fee) like most other places do. He also didn’t ask for my passport number, where I was staying or, tell me when to bring the bike back. He just took my fifty baht (less than two dollars) and gave me directions to the canyon. In fact, most of Pai seems to be founded on a level of trust. At many restaurants you order at the counter, sit outside or wherever, and just need to remember to come back inside to pay. So what was I saying before this parenthetical diversion?) Ah yes, I parked my bike and hiked in. As I heard other travelers point out in a bar later that night: Pai Canyon is not the Grand Canyon. Well duh. It doesn’t advertise itself as such, and the Grand Canyon is a pretty big expectation to live up to. No, the Pai canyon was more like a series of ridges where you could walk along the top and get lost in what seemed to be a maze of trail. I followed on track to the end, sliding down sandy ravines and getting caught in spider webs made by yellow and black creatures the size of the lenses of the Asian cameras. Talk about the heebie jeebies! Luckily no bites, at least not that day. Since then I have found a particularly nasty welt-like bite on my upper thigh. It is starting to fade a bit and at least doesn’t itch so much.
At the end of the trail, I took in the view, which was a pretty nice panorama of the area. And I did something that I like to do when I find myself in the solitude of nature: I aired out my birthday suit and took a commemorative (and tasteful) photo. Or tried to. My camera decided at that moment to come down with Moon Fever itself and refused to let me drag one more second of life from its batteries. Bummer! I did at least get one, but it is not, shall we say, the full view. Entirely unfortunate. If someone came along it would have been a good picture for them: me doing the third-world squat in the dirt, fiddling with a camera, naked as the day I was born except for the glasses. Such is life.
Next stop: the WWII bridge. More Asian people with Asia cameras, and a plaque explaining the bridge’s origin. Apparently, in WWII the Japanese made the locals build a bridge, which they then destroyed before leaving the country. The locals, now used to the convenience of the bridge, built a new one out of bamboo, which was washed away by floods. This happened a couple times, so finally in the 1970s the people of Pai petitioned the government for a fund to build a metal bridge, which still stands today so people can take pictures on it. Another bridge for cars was build more recently.
The hot springs was mercifully nearby, but ruthlessly expensive. 200 baht for a foreigner to enter, 40 baht for a Thai. Bogus, man. Especially since most other hot springs are free. I sat at the front gate, mulling over parting with 200 baht in order to put my feet in some hot water that smelled like eggs. I decided that if I could get the price reduced I would go in, and if not I came out here for nothing. I explained that I was a student (in Thai, of course) and got in for the child’s rate of 100 baht. 50% discount. Not bad, eh? I am thinking maybe while I am in Bangkok I will get an international student ID made with dates for when I graduate. Just a thought. (Funny thing is that I can almost guarantee that the international student ID that AFS gave me on arrival was made in some illicit workshop in Bangkok. It was pretty shoddy but did the job.) The water was pretty nice, and the egg smell actually reminded me of home. I stayed awhile, and was pleased to find that I can read enough Thai to be able to fill out a review/reaction form presented to me at the end. Yeah!
After the springs, the ride was a more or less pleasant pedal back to town. At one point I saw was looked like a pretty good elephant statue, and let out a squeak when it moved. Elephants! There were camps along the road where you could feed the beasts or go for a ride. I had to keep an eye on the road to dodge the dung. A place called the Treehouse Resort caught my fancy, but when I went to the tree lounge for a coffee (it also had nice views) no one was there, so I was able to loiter on a swing for free.
Back in town, I worked on catching up on my scrapbook. I was woefully behind, with my last pages covering Cambodia. In two sessions I caught up on my time with my family, Laos, and the boat trip back to Thailand. The first session I had at a place called Edible Jazz, which had live music and the vibe that it was a hang-out for people who live in Pai. Isa, a ten-year-old girl mature beyond her age, came to sit with me, giving advice for what to do in town and drawing me a map of the best spots. Her family has lived her for two years, and before that she was in Sweden for awhile and spent her formative years in India. What a childhood she is having; no wonder she is so mature. Her mom is Italian and does music (she was singing at Edible Jazz that night) and her dad is Swedish and does tattoos. She had a younger brother too, who joined us and interrogated (that is the right word) me about why I was putting things besides pictures in my scrapbook and why I didn’t watch Disney Channel. Isa and her brother are each allowed one hour on the tablet per day, and he referred to the thing as his “baby.” Ah, kids and technology. Where will we go from here? (People said the same thing about the television fifty years ago, didn’t they?)
On another day in Pai, I was wandering in the fields out of town and was picked up on the way in by Jerry, a young guy from China traveling abroad for the first time. He was heading out to see the sights north of town, so I joined him. We went to a viewpoint with a terrifyingly steep ascent (the automatic bike almost didn’t make it), saw a Chinese settlement, went to a waterfall, checked out the airport (the only flights are on weekends and they only go to Chiang Mai), and drove around the backroads. It was a nice and unexpected day, which is part of the joy of travel. You never know what you will find when you step out of your front door.
Alas, all good things come to an end and it was time to say bye bye to Pai. I was hoping to take the night train from Chiang Mai to Bangkok, but will have to save it for the next trip. Something new to look forward to, right? So I took a minivan from Pai to Chiang Mai (150 baht, 3.5 hours), a local bus from Chiang Mai to Bangkok (485 baht, 11 hours), another local bus from Mochit station to the nearest BTS (sky train) station (11 baht, six minutes), and from there I went to the stop nearest my hostel (45 baht, thirty minutes). What a journey! Most notable not for its duration but for the lady that sat next to me for the longest leg of the journey. Her name escapes me, but she was from Japan and talked nonstop. Apparently she had been in Chiang Mai for three days and couldn’t find anyone that spoke English or Japanese. She called her consulate about the problem, and they told her to go back to Bangkok. So there she was, and she was chattering like she hadn’t spoken to a soul in weeks. If I tried to get a word in edgewise she would grab my hands, push them down with some force, and say “please” with a forceful smile before continuing on. Ever polite, she at least apologized for continuing to talk but didn’t stop until I hadn’t said anything for an hour and sensed that maybe it was time to take a stab at sleeping. Thankfully, she noticed that the bus was fairly empty and moved to another seat so we could spread out. I was free! Thank goodness for a blindfold as it makes a nice barrier in situations like these.
And so here I am, back in Bangkok. And, can you believe it, I fly out tomorrow! Hopefully I will manage another post between now and then but for now I have some business to which I must attend. But before I go I will share some exciting news: I got an email with my housing assignment at Oxford. Each day part of the mystery is revealed. I will be on Woodstock Road (only mildly ironic given my chosen field of study) but was unable to read the address. In any case, I made a little map for myself of how to get from George Street (where the OSAP office is) to Woodstock. Cheers!