The signs were all there that Pai was a place I would love. On the drive from Chiang Mai, the flat to rolling terrain I’d seen through much of Thailand thus far was replaced by winding, mountainous roads thickly lined with banana trees which are by far my favorite tree in Southeast Asia. As we got closer and closer to Pai, the switch-backs become shorter and more frequent. This stretch of road is reputed to be the curviest in all of Thailand. I’ve seen a statistic on a t-shirt here that there are 762 curves in the 125 km of road between Chiang Mai and Pai and having ridden it, I don’t doubt it. That’s basically a curve every 500 feet. The bus driver was definitely in second gear for the vast majority of the trip.
In addition to the banana trees, many houses and roadside stands edged up to the road and tucked behind them were gorgeous green rice fields. The best thing, however, was that people at the stands smiled and waved to us as we drove by! I couldn’t wait to get on a motorbike and ride through the switchbacks, stopping at the stands to practice my new Thai with these friendly smiling people.
The only regular size bus from Chiang Mai to Pai is unairconditioned and I’m told makes frequent stops turning the three hour trip into a seven hour one so I opted for the air conditioned mini-bus option which is basically a large passenger van. I befriended the Thai couple, Lew and Che, sitting next to me who were going to Pai for a week long vacation.
At a mid-way stop, three Israeli guys who were sitting behind us in the van assembled a hookah at a roadside table and began to smoke. One of them, obviously sensitive to others’ perceptions, was quick to tell all the curious onlookers, “Not drugs. Only tobacco.” My friend Mordy from South Florida had been telling me before my departure about the delights of smoking a hookah. He is planning on opening a hookah bar in either Mexico City or in Argentina and was anxious to share his passion for it with me. I was disappointed that we were never able to coordinate a hookah trial in the busy days before I left Fort Lauderdale. So when the Israeli guys invited me to join them, I didn’t hesitate for a second. The tobacco comes in many flavors, most of them fruit. Mordy had also told me that a chocolate flavor existed although he liked to mix flavors to create fruity or fruit and chocolate concoctions. The hookah I tried was apple flavored. I enjoyed it and the conversation with the Israelis. They were all engineering students about to begin their requisite six year military service in the Israeli army. When I told them I was an artist, one of them wisely commented that doing what you love is a privilege. I heartily agreed.
Pai is a small village of about 2,500 people that sits in a valley surrounded on three sides with mountains. It’s located in northwest Thailand near the Myanmar border. When our bus pulled into Pai at 5:30, the afternoon light was painting magic colors on the surrounding country landscape. We rolled into town and I immediately felt at home.
Pai’s “downtown” consists of four main streets that form a square. The resemblance to the town featured in the TV series Northern Exposure is uncanny. In place of snow, food stalls, restaurants and vendors of hilltribe handicrafts line the streets and in lieu of a big moose wandering down Main Street, Pai’s thoroughfare is filled with friendly dogs who shake paws and lift well-practiced sad eyes to beg food from dining tourists. These dogs are well groomed and well fed – clearly quite popular with the tourist crowd. I’ve been convinced by several to share my dinner and still can’t get over how gently they took the food from my hand, not snapping the way many dogs do.
The energy on the streets reminds me of the shakedown before a Grateful Dead show … laid back, friendly, hippie’ish, artsy, funky. Pai is the kind of place where restaurant and coffee shop owners instinctively know that couches and swings are more inviting and fun than regular chairs and incorporate them into their shops. Pai is known to be a center of liberalism, in great contrast to the otherwise fairly conservative Thai culture. I wouldn’t say that Pai feels very Thai. It’s just a fabulously weird and magical little corner of the world that happens to be in Thailand. Getting into the funky Pai spirit, I wrote part of this entry from a beauty salon chair while two Thai women put hundreds of tiny braids in my hair.
There is great diversity among the people living and visiting in Pai. It’s a place where you can see a local Muslim woman covered from head to toe except her eyes talking animatedly with dreadlocked tourist wearing a skimpy tank top and short shorts. On my second day in town, I was introduced to a Catholic priest by his good friend, Lek, a self-proclaimed gay pagan witch who owns the Witching Well Coffee Shop, a gathering point in Pai. This morning while I ate my rice soup breakfast, I watched three monks on their daily pilgrimage collecting food from locals seeking to make merit. There are the local Thais who work hard running their tourist-driven businesses, expats from around the world who’ve been permanently charmed by Pai’s magic and more Israelis vacationing here than I’ve ever met in my life. I’ve been offered three potential homes in Jerusalem should I ever come visit. It’s such a small and friendly town, I’m constantly waving at locals and tourists I’ve met as I wander around, giving me the feeling that I’ve lived here for years instead of only visiting for a couple weeks.
I’m staying in a little bungalow at the Pai Chan Guesthouse (www.paichan.com) which is located in the countryside overlooking rice fields just outside of town. This guesthouse is spectacular. Each “room” is a separate bungalow set in the midst of an amazingly landscaped mini-jungle. I am greeted each morning by a fully loaded Japanese melon tree right outside my front door. The entire guesthouse is fashionably designed, but my bathroom is one of my favorite features. Those of you who saw my art gallery when I had it know that I love to design a funky bathroom (you can still see the photos at www.angledart.com) I’m sure that my current bathroom is going to offer inspiration to the next house I get my hands on. The shower is open air with lovely blue tile floor and the rest of the room is covered with thatch roof. The designers have used concrete creatively incorporating it into decoratively designed walls.
Pai Chan has a gorgeous blue-tiled pool with open-air thatch hut buildings all around. I’ve spent much of my time in Pai, lazing away in a poolside hammock that swings from one of the open sided thatch hut “buildings.” Facing in one direction, I can observe the pool. If I turn the other way, I have a lovely view of bright green rice fields which of course reminds me of Bali so it brings a smile. Again, the designers have made creative use of concrete combining it and green grass to create beautiful and interesting designs on the guesthouse grounds. For all this fabulousness, I’m paying a whopping 250 baht which is about $7 per night. In low season, the price drops to $5.
The spirit in Pai encourages me to try new and different things; to broaden my horizons. In an effort to stay fit on the road, I’ve started taking Muay Thai (Thai kick boxing) classes at the True Bee Gym (www.true-bee.com). During the heaviest rains last month, the bridge that connected the gym to central Pai washed away so the first few days, the only way to the gym was to motorbike down a steep and deeply gullied dirt path (reminiscent of my tour with Jong) and then to hike through a hilltribe village. I can’t believe I found the place! Since then, a new bamboo bridge has been built across the river so now I park my motorbike on one side of the bridge and hike across (constantly in awe of the Thais’ use of natural resources as building materials) then through some tall grassy fields to get to the gym.
The gym is a small, open-air (isn’t everything in Southeast Asia?) boxing ring with a metal roof covering. There are 5 trainers and about 7-8 other students from all over the world; all guys except for one other girl, Yanna. Yanna is beautiful, Swedish and much younger than I am. She’s either incredibly shy or simply uninterested in my efforts to make friendly conversation. She’s been training for eighteen months and I suspect is having a relationship with one of the trainers. I’ve heard that her parents own a Muay Thai gym in Krabi, a southern island in Thailand. The trainers are all locals while the guy students are from Chile, Germany, Australia, New Zealand, France and Virginia. Although a couple of them are just trying to stay in shape as I am, most of them have serious intentions of fighting professionally. Most of the trainers have fought professionally including Mr. Bee who seems to be something of a celebrity. Some of the students take great delight in teaching each other the choicest curse words in their various languages along with their English meanings. If I ever wondered what went on in the boys’ locker room…. Sometimes they apologize to me later, saying “I forgot a lady was present.” I’ve never known what to say to that statement so I just smile and nod. It’s definitely sweat-and-spit kind of gym.
The training is interesting. We start our training by running 6-10 km. So far, I’ve done this on my own due to miscommunications about where and when to meet for the group runs. When we arrive at the gym, we skip rope for about ten minutes (or in my case, as long as I can) and do various other warm-ups. This is not the easy feat it used to be when I was ten years old. As I finish, I have visions of Rocky slapping his rope on the ground after a particularly grueling, but successful workout. Yeah, not quite there.
As the trainers tape up my hands and I don boxing gloves, my visions switch from Rocky to Million Dollar Baby. Somehow when I signed up for this, I was picturing the kickboxing classes I used to take back at my American gym where a girl could still be a girl and get a good workout. Decked out as I am here, surrounded by the smell of sweat and testosterone (yes, here I believe you can actually smell testosterone … or maybe I’m just confusing that with body odor), I’m feeling less feminine than I’m comfortable feeling. But I believe a little discomfort is good for expanding boundries … and I only paid for a week of training. I don’t really think I’ll grow hair on my chest before then, so what the heck? I’m getting a great workout … and interesting language lessons!
We don’t spar with each other during the lessons. We actually review various offensive and defensive techniques and then put them to the test against a trainer who’s wearing pads and calls out the kicks or punches we should use. Between each session, another trainer poors water in our mouths (our hands are still in the boxing gloves) and then gives us a mini-muscle massage.
Besides being bathed in sweat at the end of the session, the other gym highlights for me are the four-week old puppies who live on sight and the fabulous array of Thai food brought in from the market that we share family style after the workout.
Another new experience for me in Pai is campucha, a tea made from mushrooms that tastes like apple cider with a kick. The owner of The Good Life, where my friends and I enjoy campucha, swears there’s no alcohol in it, but we know we get a buzz after drinking only a little. Must be the mushrooms. My daily routine in Pai has evolved into a morning Muay Thai workout, snoozing or emailing from the poolside hammock at the guesthouse or taking my motorbike out into the Pai countryside. Most evenings, you’ll find me, my German friend Daniela and a few other assorted travelers hanging out at The Good Life sharing campucha and discussing the philosophy of life. We’ve concluded it’s good (life … but campucha too).
The night I arrived in Pai, after settling into my guesthouse, I drove my motorbike toward town. As I got closer, I saw some beautiful and mysterious glowing orange lanterns floating about thirty feet off the ground and rising into the air. Mesmerized, I stopped to watch for a moment. In a few minutes, I came to the bridge to town where people were lighting the lanterns and releasing them. The hot air from the mini fires created the warm glow and also carried the lanterns up into the air. I’ve since learned that these Chinese lanterns are used only in the northern part of Thailand. People use them to deliver their wishes and prayers to the skies or alternatively to carry their bad luck far away. Either way, it was a lovely and magical welcome to this unusual little crossroads in the world.
Would YOU settle for just a slice of this Pai?
Additional photos for this and other blog entries can be found on the “Photos of Her Adventure” page of this blog.3 comments