Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Pai in the Sky?

I can't do this last week justice in one post. I have a good story to tell about one place, and another completely different story of how I found myself in the worst personal scrape I've been caught in this trip. That post will come later.

I originally came to northwestern Thailand do some trekking. My friend from JYA, Jason, did an episode based on what a fantastic experience he had trekking in this area. One of the features of the local treks is to support some of the local tribal villages-- part of your trek fees kick back to them, and in return, you get to spend a night there, learning about the local culture.

I got two really enthusiastic recommendations for a town in the area called Pai. So I took a couple buses over switchbacks to get there and looked around. After comparing prices for treks, I had a drink at a place called The Good Life, whose menu opened with a little blurb beginning “You might not believe it, but the (soon to be) health food empire you see today started with a modest tea shop and restaurant in Pai...” I walked around the walls lined with racks of wheat-grass plants to the swings hanging from the ceiling being used for chairs. Where the walls weren't covered with artwork or wheat-grass, they were covered in bookshelves. I pulled down a few titles, including a guidebook to Laos, and sat down next to a couple who were wearing matching, loose, bright colored, hemp outfits, discussing natural food supplements while being served tea. The man brushed his blond dreadlocks aside and peered suspiciously over his massive beard at his honey and murmured that he 'really hoped it was local, organic honey.' I struck up a conversation with them-- It turned out the man had been to Laos. When I found this out, I asked if he had any advice. He turned to me (he hadn't made eye contact with me until this point) and said,

“Love. Just... open yourself to love all around you. Be... love.”

I thanked him, paused, and said I'd actually meant advice about traveling Laos. He trailed off and the woman took over from there, but she's never been, and I don't remember her response exactly. I mostly remember them getting sidetracked soon afterwards into discussing differences in how their respective kamboocha tea batches came out after brewing.

My guidebook entry for Pai, Thailand starts with the sentence, “The hippie trail is alive and well.” I'd come to Pai learn about local culture. I stayed to learn about local culture. It's just, somewhere early on, I changed my mind about which local culture to learn about.

I slept in my own cabin. To get there, I had to cross a small river over a wooden bridge. It looked really cool, but it felt like (and inspired as much confidence as) crossing over something made out of Ritz crackers. I spent my time in town hanging out at the Good Life and exploring the surrounding areas. I got a motorbike for three dollars a day and not much more than that for gas and insurance. I went on an amazing hike through the jungle to waterfall that involved hopping from rock to slippery rock to cross a creek at least fifty times over. I took a private tai chi lesson while watching the sunset in exchange for helping the teacher with his website. But the main thing I'll take away from Pai were the nights I spent at a little place called Edible Jazz.

Two out of the three nights I got there just as the barkeep was trying, in vain, to shut the place down. The problem was his clientele was having too much fun. The first night we had guitars out, a melodica (a tiny plastic keyboard with a hose and mouthpiece you blow into to create sound) egg rattles, and bongos while we sang and drummed on tables. The second I refereed an educated, and intense debate between an 87-year-old British WWII veteran with an American accent and a British 25(?)-year-old who ended every few sentences with the phrase “and that's why I'm a Nationalist.” The veteran had some amazing stories and was clearly very with it for his age. He had also told me confidently the night before that he spoke dog. Both of them were up yelling (the nationalist doing most of the yelling) and arguing well past 3 am. I think the poor barkeep had been subtly trying to kick us out for two hours at that point.

I was having a good time making friends and enjoying Pai, but I just kind of had the itch to get out. That's one I've learned to pay attention to, and it's a good thing I did-- what I thought was a 30-day visa waiver in Thailand turned out to be a 15-day waiver. Paying more than two days of overstay charges would have landed me in very serious trouble. Much more serious than I realized I was actually in at the time.

But that's for the next post.

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