A Few Days in Pai
Phew it has been a few days! We may have been a little ambitious in trying to post every day. Trying to do so quickly became stressful and distracted from our adventures and creative endeavors. As Laughing Water, the quirky, 14-year Pai-veteran says, “I’m too busy learning to write!” That said, holy water buffalo we’ve been having the time of our lives in Pai and we can’t wait to tell you all about it!
After a sleepy overnight train, we arrived in Chiang Mai and then transferred to a van that drove us up the twisty jungle road to Pai. The contrast from Bangkok struck us immediately. Stark concrete flats and shops were swapped for quaint coffee shops with wood chalkboard signs and bungalows. Chang Beer tanks were replaced with colorful linen hippy-garb. Slowly we realized how we (mostly I) had built up a wall of fear from the scammers, pushy street hawks, and raw intensity of Bangkok. As we let our guard down, we to notice how wonderful the Thai people are.
They have a culture of kindness, so much so that it is built into their language – almost every sentence ends with the “kindness participle” ka, and most interactions conclude with a small bow. We noticed that Thais always returned a smile or a wave, even when driving by in the opposite lane. These customs are refreshing, but more than mere symbolic gestures, they often allude to genuine loving kindness.
They are also immensely practical. The lodgings that we stay in often come with a key card that, when inserted into a slot in the room, gives access to power. In this way, lighting and air conditioning are not needlessly used while we’re out. Here, scooters are much more popular than cars. The sink in our Airbnb in Chang Mai funnels onto the floor in the bathroom and into the shower drain. I have a strong sense of guilt around wasted things, so I guess this is refreshing for me, and helps recontextualize how we do things in the States.
Our first afternoon in Pai we went to a restaurant called The House and enjoyed yellow curry with tofu and salad on the same street as the night market, where vendors later set up stalls offering the standard Thai street fare as well as falafel, lasagna, vegetarian rolls, and the hippy garb we saw modeled on our entry. We pulled into a bar to enjoy a couple bottles of Chang and a local band. As we walked back on the now quiet market road, we looked down the party street to see scantily clad Europeans and hear the characteristic four-on-the-floor kick drum of house music and shrieks of drunken laughter. We decided to retire early instead.
We chanced to have visited Pai on the Buddhist high holiday of Vesak – when Buddhists celebrate the birth, enlightenment, and death of Buddha.
We began our day by driving a rented scooter to the Pai Canyon. In the soft, mild, Northern Thailand morning we took in the vista: the Pai river snakes between picturesque mountains, through a wide valley where a lattice of rice fields enmeshes small ethnic towns including Thai, Chinese, Lisu, Lahu, and Karen peoples. During our hike we discussed what we had learned about the area. The latter three ethnic groups are animistic/shamanistic, enjoy relative political and economic independence, are only reachable by long hikes or dirt bike, and practice distinct cultures and traditions. Take the Lahu people for example: “Kinship and clan don’t play a major role in their society… It is quite common for Lahu people to move between villages, because, within the tribe, they consider each other to be brothers and sisters” (https://allaboutpai.com/hilltribes/).We talked about visiting them but decided against it due to time constraints – we already had a place booked in Chiang Mai on the 20th. Furthermore, we didn’t feel comfortable going because we were uncertain of how capitalism and tourists may affect these communities. It would be tragic if these people lost who they are – their unique cultures, religious ideas, ways of life, self-sustaining and separate from Western influence. We don’t feel comfortable being part of something so destructive.
At the Canyon, we were in awe of how the path we walked on, which seemed to be equidistant between the mountains, was sometimes only a foot wide with sheer cliffs on either side. Clearly this was a large hill or mountain that divided the valley into two, but the vicissitudes of time had eroded its prominence – uniting these two halves save for this thin strip. In respect of the occasion we reflected on the principle of impermanence – how all complex things, including us, are broken down and reformed anew – and this soothed our fear of heights.
There it is – fear. We’ve reflected on fear a lot the past few days. Laura happened to pick up Pema Chodron’s book When Things Fall Apart, which we have both been reading. While we aren’t even a fourth of the way through, we have realized that our experience is constantly limited by fear. Laura commented, “I didn’t realize that our adventures would require us to constantly confront fear.” In Bangkok, after we were scammed (it wasn’t just that one time – we were swindled into overpaying for temple visitation, tuk-tuks, food, and drinks… basically everything), we were constantly in fear of it happening again and of our own naiveté. The barber I went to for a hair cut shaved my neck with a strait razor but no shaving cream. As he leaned my chair back, I glimpsed the thug themed décor. A bottle of cognac full of razors. Kill written in red letters next to the mirror. I’m not saying it was rational, but I felt my heart skip a beat. This trip has already taught us a lot about embracing our fear. As Chodron writes: “Sooner or later we understand that although we can’t make fear look pretty, it will nevertheless introduce us to all the teaching we’ve ever heard or read. So the next time you encounter fear, consider yourself lucky. This is where the courage comes in. Usually we think that brave people have no fear. The truth is that they are intimate with fear.”
After the canyon hike, we went to the Pai land split, where there was an earthquake that opened up a fissure in 2008. The kind farmer who owns the land gave us roselle tea, dried banana chips with roselle jam, fresh tamarind, and mulberries, asking for nothing but donations in return.
Our last stop on this scooter excursion was the longest bamboo bridge in the world. The bridge is suspended 5 feet off the ground by bamboo poles and its surface is composed of woven bamboo strips. We followed in the footsteps of the monks who take this path every morning – winding through rice fields, which were dry at this point in the season, to a secluded forest temple. Apparently, visitors aren’t normally allowed inside. However, due to the holiday, we were in luck and took the chance to pay our respects at the shrine of happy Buddhas and Naga carvings. We left feeling at peace.
After an incredible Thai lunch of stir-fried morning glories, black rice, and vegetarian noodle curry, we decided to use the remaining time on our rented scooter to explore the area surrounding Pai. While zooming up a quiet mountain road, I saw signs to a famous overlook and made a spur of the moment decision to turn off onto a side street. While we missed the overlook, I saw a temple and pulled in so we could stretch our legs for a moment.
We walked down towards the shrine near the entrance of the temple complex. It was surrounded by a fifteen-foot-wide moat. The water was grey and full of algae. Iridescent oil framed off-white foam. It was sad to see that this sacred space, which was supposed to be insulated from the chaos that surrounds it, had been so corrupted. A one-foot dorsal fin broke the surface. Soon, a large koi fish was gaping up at me. It was joined by several others. I looked around the corner and saw two children feeding the koi chips of some kind. Dozens of fish mouths and dead fish eyes stared up at the children, hoping for a morsel. There were plenty of fish, but they no longer ate the algae, as fish do, because they had become adapted to the higher caloric offerings. This is why, I thought, Leave No Trace (hiker common law) dictates that wildlife should not be fed under any circumstances. It makes them slaves – completely dependent on a food which is totally alien to their ecosystem and stop performing the behaviors that make them what they are.
We turned to see what was in the shrine and were surprised to see that it wasn’t a Buddha. Instead, there were soldiers with guns. I realized that we were in the Chinese village. Chinese freedom fighters who fought against Mao’s regime fled to the valley and founded this village. This was one of those villages touted as a preserved example of a distinct ethnic culture. We exited back to the highway and back down into the valley.
In Pai, we slowly began to realize that we didn’t have to stress to find just the right thing to do or find “the best” restaurant or street food stand. In fact, our favorite restaurants were ones we stumbled on, while the ones rated highly by bloggers and Googlers were often bland and uninspired.
Back in town on the way to dinner we glanced at our phones and realized there was only 15 minutes until dusk. We happened to be a 10 min scooter ride from the massive white buddha that overlooks Pai and the surrounding valley. After sprinting up the stairs we just caught the beautiful sunset.
On our second full day in Pai, we woke before sunrise and threw on the gear we had laid out the previous night to embark on a ten-mile hike to the Mae Yen waterfalls before the heat of the day set in. The trail traverses the Mae Yen riverlet amongst pristine jungle hardwoods and bamboo groves. We were enveloped by alien birdcalls and insect chirps. Yellow and periwinkle butterflies, green and blood-red dragonflies, burst from the brush as we past. Daddy longlegs piled on top of each other three-deep in balls filling spaces between mossed logs. The hike was arduous- oppressively hot, full of river crossings, and sometimes obstructed by fallen branches. However, it was well worth the effort. After a long climb we saw the falls ahead of us. A healthy gush of white water tumbled from the top of the canyon into three separate pools. We scrambled up to the second pool, which was deep, clear, and fantastically refreshing. We didn’t encounter anyone else until the return journey and enjoyed the seclusion.
After the hike, Laura wrote poetry and I started this post. While bringing water back to our bungalow I ran into Laughing Water and she invited me to play some music on her porch. Laura later joined us, and we ended up hanging out until past nightfall.
Between preaching contrail, vaccine, and micro-wave weather and mind-control conspiracies, she serenaded us with The Last Resort by the Eagles,
She came from Providence, the one in Rhode Island
Where the old-world shadows hang heavy in the air
She packed her hopes and dreams like a refugee
Just as her father came across the sea
She heard about a place people were smilin’
They spoke about the red man’s way, how they loved the land
And they came from everywhere to the Great Divide
Seeking a place to stand or a place to hide
Down in the crowded bars out for a good time
Can’t wait to tell you all what it’s like up there
And they called it paradise, I don’t know why
Somebody laid the mountains low while the town got high.
… and Motherland by Natalie Merchant:
Where in hell can you go
Far from the things that you know
Far from the sprawl of concrete
That keeps crawling its way
About one thousand miles a day?
Take one last look behind
Commit this to memory and mind
Don’t miss this wasteland, this
Terrible place when you leave
Keep your heart off your sleeve.
“The town’s all changed,” she said. “The House used to be where we would all gather and have amazing conversations. Then the owner married a woman from Bangkok. She changed things man. It’s never been the same. Nobody there but yuppies these days.”
Conspiracies aside, our conversations and songs struck a chord with me. I realized we had walked markets almost every night we had been in Pai – looking at the same shirts and mouthwatering cuisine. But, we were hungry and wanted to buy a couple items that we had been eyeing. We bought tofu pad Thai from a woman who had been pointed out to us by another tourist, utilizing the two phrases we know in Thai: Hello, S̄wạs̄dī, and thank you, K̄hxbkhuṇ. Laura and I talked about how we didn’t belong. “Traveling,” Laura said, “makes you uniquely aware of your identity. How your color, haircut, language, and very presence matter.” Whatever Pai once was, it is now fully committed to catering to tourists. And we were part of it, no matter how much guilt we felt. We didn’t want to go back to our lodgings quite yet and didn’t feel like drinking, so we just walked around. A Chinese man holding an erhu like a guitar (they are played seated with a bow – like a cello) and his wife stood, wearing traditional Chinese garb, and playing a recording of a kind of plucked lute-like instrument, perhaps a pipa. As we approached, he started to move his hand and up and down as if he was strumming this erhu. He and his wife began a choreographed dance. Step-hop onto their right leg, then back to their left. Right. Left.
I thought of the koi.
On our final day in Pai we caught a tour bus to Lod Cave. We swapped travel stories and talked politics with three couples from Australia and Canada, enjoying the opportunity to spend time with people our age. The cave itself was impressive and exhibited large caverns and formations. I have caved a good bit in Southern Indiana, but this one was unique. The stalactites twisted in unexpected ways, and none exhibited the standard conical shape I am familiar with. We marveled at a small cave painting of a hunter and deer as well as ancient coffins made from hollowed out tree trunks, and enjoyed a short ride in a bamboo longboat to see the bats and swifts (of bird’s nest soup fame). We were sad to bid Pai and our erstwhile companions goodbye.
One long, twisty bus ride later we began our stay in Chiang Mai.