Wednesday, March 10, 2010

I love Pai

Aside from the fact that my bus from Bangkok to Chiang Mai was filled with a bunch of whining babies, the ride was fairly uneventful, which was good. Seriously, I've never seen such a bunch of complainers during my travels. People were upset that pillows and blankets weren't provided and that there wasn't enough leg room. One guy from Holland expressed his dissatisfaction by urinating on the back of our bus during one of our breaks--real classy group of people, let me tell you. Sure it was a bit uncomfortable but what form of transportation in SE Asia isn't? It really wasn't THAT bad, either. I mean, I actually fell asleep for a few hours, something that I hadn't been able to do up that point on my trip. Luckily the German girl who sat next to me was really cool and interesting.

After I arrived Chiang Mai I went searching for a travel agency that my friend, MariJuana (yes, that's her real name), recommended which offered ridiculously cheap accommodation for only 50 Baht. I walked all around the Old City before finding the place. Chiang Mai appeared to be a small, pleasant city--the complete opposite from the hectic and bustling streets of Bangkok--with many temples, meditation centers, massage parlors, restaurants and music.

And once I found the travel agency, again, to my dismay, I was greeted by my friend, MariJuana! I was surprised to see her as she was supposed to have already left Chiang Mai. Apparently she had a couple of crazy nights out and needed a day to recover before departing. She told me that she was heading to Pai and asked if I wanted to join her. I mean, I literally just got to Chiang Mai, but the idea of teaming up with MJ did sound appealing.

"Eh, what the hell, " I said, " Let's go to Pai!"

I only intended to stay in Pai a few days, but I had heard and read that Pai was the sort of place where everyone initially intends to stay a few days but gets stuck for weeks, months, and even years. It sounded a bit cliche if you asked me, but, as I would find out, it was indeed true.

The town of Pai is quite small which is nestled in a valley between the mountains. The surrounding areas of Pai contains hot springs, waterfalls, a beautiful canyon, mountainous scenery and small villages; all of which is easily accessible by motorbike. As I mentioned before, the town itself is small but with many arts and crafts shops, restaurants and bars, bookshops, and plenty of cheap accommodation to choose from. There's also a bit of a music scene in Pai. Every night there are live bands and music being played. And you'll be hard pressed not to find someone carrying his/her guitar down the street. Also, if you don't fancy going into town to find music, you can always find people playing some nice tunes at their bungalows.

I got stuck here for nearly three weeks. There's just something about Pai that makes you feel at home. There were so many other places I wanted to see but I couldn't get myself to leave Pai. I found myself telling other long-term travelers my dilemma (not really a dilemma, but hey...), to which they would all reply, "Man, you just need to relax; make yourself at home. Just slow down and go with the flow, and stop thinking about and planning for the future." It seemed like sound advice. It all kind of reminded me of a scene from the movie Almost Famous where the main character in the film, William Miller, couldn't bring himself to leave the band he was assigned to write about after traveling with them. (Watch below) And strangely enough, the people in Pai look pretty much the same as the people in the movie clip, just picture a few more of them with dreadlocks. Oh yes, Pai is a hippy town.

The first few nights in Pai, MJ and I rented motorbikes and rode around the surrounding areas and viewed the nearby waterfalls, canyon, and scenic countryside. Renting a motorbike in Pai is the best way to see the surrounding areas. Plus, it's cheap. It only costs 100 Baht per day for an automatic through Aya Motorbike Services. But if you do decide to rent a motorbike, DRIVE SLOW. I can't tell you how many times I've spoken with people who have told me that they've gotten in motorbike accidents. You can see many people walking down the streets of Pai with bandages from these accidents. So I repeat: SLOW DOWN.
And if Pai couldn't get any better, every evening at 6:00 outside of the local high school there are basketball pick-up games. So of course I had to make my way over there and check out the local scene. I have to say, they weren't too bad. The really good players were actually the ones from the hill tribes who don't speak Thai and are about 4 feet tall. I mean, these guys were lightning fast. It was strange watching them run up and down the court, it looked as if they were skipping but, again, at lightning speed.

One night MJ and I were walking back to a our bungalows and saw a sign that said Chai Tea. "Ooh, Chai tea!" I said enthusiastically. I was excited to try it as I had delicious chai tea in Myanmar (Burma). The chai tea was delicious and was better than the tea that I had in Myanmar. Plus, it was served in a larger cup. The shop, Pai Art Design Way, is ran by Otto and Sandy, a lovely couple who have been living in Pai for 2 years.

Sandy is from Sweden whose been traveling since her early 20s and Otto is from southern Thailand. And together they're a great team. Because not only do they serve tea which is normally made by Sandy, but they also sell t-shirts and bracelets which are designed and created by Otto. I just loved the atmosphere at the shop--very chill and laid back. I went to the shop every evening to enjoy the tea, music, and interesting conversations with new people that I had met everyday. There was so much positive energy flowing through the shop that I literally felt addicted to it, and needed my "positive energy fix" every night.

One day MJ and I decided to take a bit of a road trip on our motorbikes to Lod Cave, located 10km outside the town of Sappong. The main reason why I visited Lod Cave was to see the birds and bats fly in and out of the cave, which occurs every morning and evening. The ride to Lod Cave, which took about 2 hours, was well worth the trip because of the beautiful scenery along the way (see pictures above). We stayed at Cave Lodge and stayed in the dormitory room, costing only 100 Baht.

In our dormitory room we met Frank. Frank is from Germany and he's been traveling for the past 7 years. He had been staying at the Cave Lodge for the previous 3 nights and took on the role as our guide for the night, showing us the cave and providing info about cave and the surrounding areas. Afterwards at the lodge, Frank and I enjoyed many games of ping pong, a nice meal, and interesting conversations. One could easily spend 3-5 days at the Cave Lodge. Good luck traveling back to Germany, Frank!

MJ and I parted ways again, as she had to get back to Chiang Mai to attend her first day of massage school. And even though this was our third time partying ways, I was still sad to see her leave. I'm sure we'll see each other again on the trail someday. Many people from the states ask me if I get lonely traveling by myself. And to be honest, I'm really never traveling by myself. I always seem to meet someone to travel with. And again, it wasn't but 2 days after MJ left that I'd meet Bryan from Lafayette, Louisiana. It was nice to meet a fellow Cajun, as my dad's side of the family is from New Orleans, Louisiana. Bryan had just spent a year on an island off the coast of Honduras as a scuba diver instructor, and after spending a few months home he decided to hit the trail once again. He told me that he'd just came back from Mae Yen waterfall and that he was considering going back to camp. I told him that I would love to camp at the waterfall--so we left the following day. We spent 2 days and 2 nights at the waterfall. It was great. I decided to leave my watch and camera back in town and to bring only the essentials: a few items of extra clothing, a toothbrush and toothpaste, a flashlight, and fruits and nuts for food. I didn't have a tent or a sleeping bag so I had to rough it for a few nights, sleeping on the ground next to the campfire. We also drank the water from the waterfall. We had an unlimited supply of delicious water. Good times.

We only saw a few people for the entire time we were there, too! The first day we met two girls who traveled to the waterfall with a guide. That reminds me: if you're going to trek to the waterfall, don't hire a guide. If you somehow lose the trail, just follow the river to the waterfall. It took us, maybe, two hours at a reasonably fast pace to reach the waterfall. And later on the first night while sitting at the campfire, Bryan and I noticed two Thais approaching our camp with large rifles strapped onto their backs. Bryan and I looked at each other as if to say, "And what is going on here?" They ended up being a couple of Thai locals who were hunting and camped next to us. These guys were both former boy scouts and were hardcore campers. After they assembled their tent they put up a tarp and shrubbery on and all around the tent to camouflage themselves. And with their Rambo size knife they were able to make everything from the bamboo trees. It was quite impressive to say the least. I mean they made cups, plates, chop sticks, and most impressively, they made a bong. Again, it was quite the spectacle to witness. They were exceptionally nice guys who shared their deliciously cooked meals with us. I felt a bit lame as we only had nuts and some fruit to offer.

Bryan and I decided to do some trekking after a late start the following day. Bryan had his eyes set for this one particular mountain peak to climb. However, it was a bit further away than we expected and once we reached the mountain that he wanted to climb, I noticed that the sun was setting rather quickly and was a bit hesitant to continue any further. And the only way to get there was to trek off the beaten path, i.e. no trail, just straight up the mountain. Again, Bryan was pretty keen to climb to the top.

"Let's just climb a little further," Bryan said.

We walked a bit further up the steep mountain until I expressed my leeriness to continue. "I don't know, man. The sun is coming down pretty fast." Bryan and I starred at the top of the mountain for a few minutes in silence. I could tell he really wanted to continue to climb it. However, in the end he decided to turn around. "We'll just walk back to camp real slow then," he said. That was fine with me, just as long as we were heading back in the direction of our campsite. However, we couldn't seem to find our trail. The leaves falling from the trees appeared to have hidden our trail. This wasn't good. I mean we had a general idea where we came from but all the mountains began to look the same. Once we decided what mountain to trek to, we quickly got going, but, again, with no trail to swiftly guide us there. It was pretty rough to say the least. I won't even go into the details right now but it's safe to assume that it was excruciating tiring and dangerous.

Once we made it to the top we realized that it was the wrong mountain! I can assure you that obscenities were yelled at that point. I was also beginning to feel dehydrated--my lips were completely dry and I was experiencing brief moments of chills--and I didn't have any water left. We just couldn't seem to find the correct path or mountain. Bryan and I exchanged many looks as if to say, "Dude, this is not looking good." We were beginning to accept the fact that we were going to have to sleep in the mountains. My concern, however, was that I needed water and that Bryan wasn't wearing a shirt--it gets fairly cold at night. If only we could find the river we would be alright, as it would lead us to our campsite. We decided to try one more route. By this point the sun had already set, and it wouldn't be too long before it would be dark. After about 45 minutes of walking down this new path we thought we heard water. We both stopped and looked at each other. Just listened.

"Is that water or wind?" Bryan said.

"I think it's water, man!" I responded.

We quickly picked up the pace--well, more like Bryan did, as I felt like I was going to pass out. I had also developed blisters on the bottom of my feet which felt like I was walking on nails every time I took a step.

"Hey, I think I hear the river!" Bryan yelled to me.

That got me to move a bit faster. And once I caught up to him where we had a decent view of the surrounding area, we both began panning right to left looking for...........

"The river!" we both shouted with joy.

Oh man, I've never been so happy to see a river before in my entire life. We quickly made our way to it and began rinsing off and filling our bottles. We both gave each other a high five and let out a nice sigh of relief. Getting lost in the mountains pretty much ranks up there as one of the most horrifying moments in my life.

Back in town I ran into a friend who told me about a market that occurs every Tuesday morning in the town of Sappong, near Lod Cave. What's suppose to be so unique about this market is that hill tribes from all around the area come down to sell their goods with other hill tribes and Thais, then go back when finished. It's not a market for tourists. This sounded very interesting to me and wanted to check it out. I decided not to rent a motorbike and to take a local bus. People asked me how I would get to the Cave Lodge, as it's 10km away from town and I wouldn't have a motorbike. Honestly, I really wasn't worried about it. I knew that everything would work out somehow. Everything seems to work out since I've been traveling. I was talking to a German woman about this, how I feel as if I am able to change the laws of the universe in my favor. I thought her response was interesting, she said, " I don't necessarily think you're changing the laws of the universe but rather falling back unto them."

I left my backpack with Sandy and Otto at their chai tea shop and took only my day bag. When I arrived Sappong I thought I would check some guesthouses near town before trying to venture to Cave Lodge. I was about to start walking to Cave Lodge after failing to find any cheap guesthouses when a young Japanese tourist pulled up on his motorbike and ordered something to eat. So I introduced myself and inquired what his plans were for the day. He told me he planned to see Lod Cave, adjacent to Cave Lodge, after finishing his meal. I smiled, looked up to the sky and gave the traveling Gods a wink. Ah, yes, everything always seems to work out. After I hitched a ride with him to Cave Lodge I gave him a guided tour of the Lod Cave which, Frank from Germany, gave me the previous week--just paying it forward.

Later that night I met two girls in my dormitory room, Lisa (from California) and Tiziana (from Sicily). I enjoyed the rest of my night with the both of them over dinner and pleasant conversations. I woke up early the next morning and hitched a ride on the back of a pick-up truck with a bunch of Thais going to work. The truck dropped me off literally in the middle of the market. Nice! And as far as the market, well, eh, it was a market. I was a little disappointed. I don't know, I just envisioned it a bit differently. I guess once you've seen a SE Asian market, you've seen them all. Afterwards I ran into Tiziana and took the local bus together back to town, which was another adventure in itself (just ask me about it).

There was another party held at the Pittalew my last night in Pai. I had attended the last one which was held nearly 3 weeks ago. This was definitly a fitting ending to my stay here. The Pittalew is an art gallery that hosts frequent parties where great dance & fire shows and live music can be found (see pictures above). And I'm not talking about your ordinary type of music here, I'm talking about Astonapai music! Astonapai is a local band which plays music that's sort of a mix between Gypsy, Middle Eastern, and Indian music--and I love it! It's a trippy atmosphere at the Pittalew. When I'm there I almost feel like I'm in a tree house partying with the Ewoks from the movie Star Wars, with many bamboo trees and bonfires. The party felt like a friend reunion. Everyone I had met or become friends with were in attendance. Again, it was a fabulous finale.

I said my final goodbyes at the chai tea shop the following morning where I would have my final cup of chai tea, and hang out with friends I had made. Pai had been extremely good to me. I was very sad to leave. I'm beginning to realize that it's not the destiniation in itself but the people that make places special. And I met so many special people in Pai. That reason alone is a reason while I'll be back.

Next Stop: Chiang Rai
Check out my Flickr link for pictures ------>

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