Pai, a small town in Thailand’s northern Mae Hong Son province, has that laid-back, coastal paradise feel, only without the coast. Packed dirt roads, grass-roofed shops, and a tightly nestled community surrounded by hills and a lot of green make the place cozy and calm. Once the four of us climbed out of the suicidal driver’s van we hiked through the town and up a dirt path for about a mile or so before coming to a beautiful hostel. The Darling View Point Hostel is a burgundy wooded, clubhouse-looking place designed to keep everyone who stays there in a chill mood. It succeeds. For the first day nothing but Reggae played on the speakers, and I swear at all times there was at least one trekker swaying in a corner to a beat only he could hear. Even the owner, a French guy named Peter, seemed to have been on the down slope of a very substance-friendly lifestyle.
Pai is definitely a place to see in Thailand. The island feel and the scenery alone is worth a two-day stay.
Once the four of us got checked in at the hostel I walked back into town and rented a Scooter. Within an hour I managed two almost crashes and one legitimate tumble when I attempted to start and turn at the same time. No worries, though, by day three I was riding like a pro…
That first day I just rode around a lot, taking in the area and watching the people. There were so many tourists I had a hard time discerning who was a local and who was just passing through. I ran into the Finnish girl a few times, and even the Chinese couple from Shanghai Dean and I met at the Doi Suthep temple. Maybe it’s just me, but whenever I travel I seem to run into people multiple times. It’s amazing how that can happen. You bump into people once and then find them later on and share a meal and a story with them. Anyone else ever feel that way?
I don’t know what it is about me wanting bags or hats, but every time I go somewhere I seem to want one or the other. In Pai I wanted a hat. A fedora, precisely. So I bought one off a local merchant and haggled her down, but not as good as when I bought the brown bag I was still totting around. And unfortunately I did wear both of them together. I wish I could have gotten a picture of what I must have looked like on the scooter.
The food at the hostel was fantastic and each morning I made sure to get up around 7 and get some. On the second morning I happened to leave my fedora (my awesome fedora) on the table. When I came back for it it was gone. Peter said the tall English guy took it, but swore he’d bring it back later. Apparently the hostel has hats it lends out and the English guy thought this was one of them. On one hand, he’d given his own black fedora to Peter for collateral, so I knew he’d probably be back with it sooner or later. On the other hand, the guy was a loon. The first night we were there we hung out around a fire pit and this guy just kept rambling about this young woman he was traveling with and how she was the sun in his life, the energy and heart that keeps him sane (obviously not so good with the last part). The guy was so burnt-out he made Peter seem like a calm, calculated accountant.
When he did finally come back to the hostel I happened to be around and I asked him for the hat back. He relinquished it easily enough, but the look on his face made it seem like I punched his dog in the face or something. He mumbled again and then spoke up so I could understand him. He asked if I’d be willing to trade for the hat. When I told him I just bought it he looked just barely Okay with the refusal, but then asked me what the story behind it was. I asked him what he meant. “You know, the story, man. What’s the story about this hat? It feels like a story to me.” I told him I just bought it in town and that I doubt it had a story. He persisted by saying, “Well, surely you spoke to the woman you bought it from. Did she say anything about it?” I suppose this would have been a great opportunity to embellish, to say, well, shit, yeah this thing has a GREAT story! Each straw thread used in it had to be carried across war-infested borders, and the little girl who made it sold it as a means to feed her family…I don’t know. I just looked at him and shrugged, put the hat on, and walked away.
On the second night we hit an actual Reggae concert in town. Along with a few Leo Beers and dancing, the night consisted of meeting a group of Australian girls who gloriously over-used the word, “Oi” to the point that I had to simply walk away from them, a guy with dreadlocks following us around, and a song with a chorus of “do, do, do, do, da, da,” that is still stuck in my head. Pai isn’t a party town at all, but that night we did all right.
The next morning while I was eating breakfast the tall English guy strolled into the common area wearing a tightly wrapped, multi-colored skirt, ankle-high snake skin boots, a woman’s denim jacket, and sunglasses. Clutched in his right hand—at 8 am—was a large Leo and a thin cigarette. He called Peter over to him and told him twice, “You’re name is Peter. That’s like ‘teacher,’ but funnier because you’re funny.”
To his credit, Peter just nodded and continued taking orders for breakfast.
Eventually we all got together and headed out for some trails. We rode for hours, up and down hills, weaving around on the dirt roads and paths. We got to a few waterfalls where we swam for a bit and even one where we did flips off the rocks. I met a Chinese woman named Sara at one of them. She works for Tabao, a Chinese internet company like Ebay. She filmed us jumping around. I’ll link to the video below.
On the day I was to catch the 3:30 bus back to Chiang Mai Dean, Brendan, and I went for a hike that was supposed to be like two hours. Four hours later found us deep into the woods where we waded through several twists in the river, trekking deeper and deeper in search of a waterfall. I decided to commit to the hike and just catch the last bus out of Pai, and eventually we made it to the waterfall. Honestly, it was a bit underwhelming, but it was a fun hike through actual forest trails. When we got back to our scooters we careened down the roads until we reached the Hostel. I grabbed my gear and headed into town to arrange my exit strategy.
Once that was done I met up with the guys for lunch and we talked about our plans. Brendan was going home soon like me, but Dave and Dean still had a lot of traveling left to do. It was a good meal—American style Cheese Burger, baby. We said our goodbyes and each of us extended offers for room and board if any of us were in each other’s neighborhood later down the road. At about 7 I said so long to the guys with whom I’d become fast friends and hopped on the bus back to Chiang Mai.
The ride back was just as crazy as the one in, but this time it was in complete darkness. Twice the driver stopped for wild dogs and once for a random herd of cows crossing the road. How he saw them in time to stop I’ll never know. Somehow I slept a little.
I checked back into the Little Bird Hostel I stayed in a few days before and dropped my stuff on the same bunk as before. I was wired, so I headed out. I hit the night bazaar again and wandered around for a while by myself, lost in thought. I felt completely alone for the first time my entire trip. The next day I would be catching a plane to Kunming and the day after that one back to Dalian. I wouldn’t meet random strangers and begin traveling with them again. I couldn’t really chat with the guests at the hostel, either. All of them seemed much busier than the ones who’d been there before. Although Yanis, the French guy who designed those abstract graphs, was still around. I thought about him and how his life seemed perfect. After working in a massage parlor for a year training, he decided to branch out. He figured he could help someone start their own massage place, and that’s just what he did. He helped create a new business and even designed their website. He doesn’t have a lot of money, but the work he did for them keeps him comfortable. One time I remember him complaining that sometimes he even has to work four hours a day! No wonder he possessed such zen calm half the time and reminded me of Garfield the cat the other half.
But as I wandered around on the streets I began thinking about the hostels I’d stayed in throughout some of my recent travels. There were definitely levels to them, but the comfy ones were truly special. The one in Beijing and the one in Pai, those were great. Sure the owners probably weren’t rich, but if it was a good location I’m sure they did all right for themselves. Back at the Little Bird I asked the owner about what it takes to open a hostel in Thailand and he said it was pretty easy. A lot of other Westerners also had book shops or cafes in the area. When I was younger I dated a girl and we sometimes joked about a combination book and café shop we’d someday own. MJ’s Book & Café, we’d call it. Now I wonder if owning a hostel could be possible…
Just as I was deciding on turning in for bed I decided to take a look at the second level of the Little Bird hostel. I’d never been up there, so I just wanted to see. When I got up there two Chinese girls were chatting. I said hi in Chinese and asked how they were. They commented on my Mandarin and asked me to sit with them. We chatted a bit, but it wasn’t long before we switched back to English, my Chinese having run out rather quickly. B. and W. were both traveling, but were friends. W. was studying for a Thai Language test the next morning and B. was just enjoying the evening, thinking about her recent travels to a monastery in Nepal where she met someone and fell in love. After about an hour W. turned in and B. and I walked around the market. I bought a pair of black fisherman pants that looked cool, and got the merchant down more than half. B. was impressed, but I just told her it was from living in China. We walked and talked a lot that evening. We ended up hanging out by the western side of the mote surrounding the town until the night air got a little too cool. She told me about her family, about how her parents couldn’t have children years ago, so they went to a small village and bought her as a baby from a local and raised her as their own. A few years later they finally had a son, but all through childhood B. felt divided, separate from them some how. Originally she wanted to go to Japan, but there were money problems, so that’s how she ended up in Nepal instead. She still seemed determined to make it there some day soon though. I walked her back to her hostel and then I headed back to my room where I fell asleep and dreamed about my family.
The next day I packed up my stuff and decided to lounge around and finally finish the book I was reading, The Psychopath Test. Just as I turned the last page B. walked by. She asked me if I’d seen W. and I said no. She plops down and we chat a few before I ask her if she’s eaten, “Ni chi fan le ma?” It’s a very common question in Chinese. About the closest they get to small talk. In my case, though, I meant it. I was hungry and so was she, so we set out for some lunch. After ten minutes of looking for the “right” Pad Thai place I happened to spot Yanis and asked him for directions. He pointed me down the right alley and soon B. and I were munching on some good Pad Thai. After the meal we said goodbye and I caught a cab to the airport.
I still had one more night before I had to be back in Dalian, so I decided to find something to do once I got to Kunming. When I landed a friend of my friend directed me through texts where to go to catch the right bus to the Youth Hostel. Once I got situated in the room I tossed my stuff on the bunk, changed my shirt, and headed out. I wandered around the streets of Kunming, China’s Spring City, and then found my way into a packed bar. Filled with mostly college students, the place was dark, flashy, and loud. Dancers in wild outfits gyrating and lip-synching to Lady Gaga and Britney Spears, crowds of young Chinese, and one Westerner—Me. I grabbed a drink, stood by a tall table, and within five minutes was invited over to a table with girls and guys all dancing and drinking. Once they learned I could speak to them in Chinese the drinking games began and the dancing and laughing continued. We hung out for a few hours, everyone laughing and joking like we all grew up together.
The next morning I slept in a bit too late and found myself rushing to catch a taxi to the airport in time. Before boarding I sent out a few texts to the people I’d met along the trip. I didn’t worry about goodbyes, just told them how much fun I’d had with them all. And then I got on the plane and headed home to Dalian.