Pai and back to Chiang Mai, Thailand Part 2

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View from the Hostel
View from the Hostel
Some huts
Some huts
Rickety old bridge
Rickety old bridge

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.

The main building of the hostel we stayed in...I wish I lived there...
The main building of the hostel we stayed in…I wish I lived there…
By far the nicest hostel I've seen so far...
By far the nicest hostel I’ve seen so far…

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Although the sleeping arrangements were a, who cares, it's a hostel.
Although the sleeping arrangements were a bit…eh, who cares, it’s a hostel.

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.

Great scenery
Great scenery

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Making our way down the "canyon"
Making our way down the “canyon”
Now there's a rickety bridge...
Now there’s a rickety bridge…

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Yes, I did indeed by a straw fedora for this trip. What? What? You got somethin' to say 'bout it?
Yes, I did indeed buy a straw fedora for this trip. What? What? You got somethin’ to say ’bout it?

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.

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Gathering our wits and regrouping.
Gathering our wits and regrouping.

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.

Some art work back in Chiang Mai at the Night Bazaar

Chiang Mai, Thailand Part One

Sitting in the Kunming airport. This design makes me think of a giant's spaghetti....
Sitting in the Kunming airport. This design makes me think of a giant’s spaghetti….

This past December I got away from Dalian for a week and visited Northern Thailand. I’m not a big fan of heat, so I wasn’t too tempted to go south for the beaches this time around…plus, I’ve been living in NE China: I’m as white as they come. So I opted for Chiang Mai, the capital in the North and one of the nicest places to travel to in that area of Tai Guo (Thailand in Pin yin).

The vacation came about because my school was getting ready to close down and I still hadn’t taken my five vacation days. I timed it so I’d be gone between two weekends, so I had just a little more than a week for this trip. I wanted to go to Cambodia to see Angkor Wat and spend a bit of time in Thailand before jumping back over to Southern China for a day or two. Yeah, not gonna happen. I ended up pushing Cambodia from the to-see list (this time) and instead decided to spend a few days in Chiang Mai and then head over to Kunming, China for a four-day tour of the area south of Shangri La. I booked the tickets, all was good.

It was cheaper to do one-way flights, so my itinerary looked like: Dalian—Kunming, KM—Chiang Mai, CM—KM, KM—Dalian.

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On the descent to the CM International Airport I got chatting with a Chinese couple next to me. I had been switching back and forth from Mandarin to English talking to the flight attendants, so they weren’t sure how to speak to me. Finally we just talked in Chinese about our respective vacations. As I was disembarking a Chinese women a few year older than me struck up a conversation with me. She thought she heard me say I was living in Da Li, a city not too far from the Kunming area where we all boarded. I corrected her, saying it was Dalian, in the North East (Two days later she still insisted that I track her down when I got back to Da Li, so I either need to work on my pronunciation or she has serious selective hearing). We chatted a bit as we walked down the jetway, but then separated once she spotted a friend of hers.

After getting my luggage and lookin’ around for a place to exchange my Chinese RMB to the Thai Baht, the woman showed up again. I was asking the girl behind the counter what a taxi should cost from there to my hostel, but she wasn’t very helpful. Lisa, the Chinese woman I had been talking to, offered to let me share her cab, so we continued to talk as we waited. Her English was fantastic and my Chinese was apparently getting worse, so we mostly got along fine with English.

Once in the taxi—a sporty looking yellow jeep thing with a hatchback—the driver took most of our focus. His parents were from Kunming, so his Mandarin was great, but he also spoke English and Thai. He had a laugh like a hyena with emphysema, but his sense of humor and good attitude made you feel comfortable. Lisa’s hotel was before mine, so she hopped off first and then the driver took me about a mile or so away to my hostel—the Little Bird Hostel. It’s a mostly open-air backpacker hostel tucked deep in a neighborhood of twisting streets and closely packed buildings. A handful of travelers were lounging around in the “common area,” and as I walked in I nodded to a few without stopping.

I checked in with the short, long-haired owner and once he gave me my key I found my room and tossed my bag on the top bunk. I changed my shirt and took off, knowing I’d be back to chat with people once I got a lay of the land.

Come one...this is aweseome
Come one…this is awesome
A mote where the ancient wall used to be...
A mote where the ancient wall used to be…
These little altars are everywhere
These little altars are everywhere

It was a warm sunny day in Chiang Mai and as I walked along the cramped streets, weaving in and out of crowds, twisting around the vendors and merchants, I realized something: I wasn’t dressed right. For some reason I had been under the impression that it would be cooler up in the north. A few days before leaving Dalian I had bought a pair of hiking shoes and since I was spending more time in the cooler Kunming, I didn’t bring light clothing. Mistake, for several reasons.

As I was out scouring the streets for deals on sandals, shorts, and a hat, Lisa texted me and we decided to meet up for dinner. By the evening it was already evident that I also needed sunscreen. My face was getting that nice tomato-red tint to it that everyone just loves. Lisa turned out to be pretty cool, and she and I hung out those first two days while I was in Chiang Mai. We ate some Pad Thai (basically Thailand’s version of Fried Rice) and wondered around the old part of the city.

On my own I walked along what’s left of the old protective wall that used to border the city, and trekked down streets that were mostly empty. I enjoyed being away from the groups of tourists even though that’s exactly what I was. Eventually I bought some sandals and a pair of shorts.

On the third morning I got a call from my friend. Apparently the airlines cancelled my trip to Kunming. Why? No why. So they put me on a flight for the next day. No biggie, right? I still would have enough time to catch the tour in Kunming and all would be well.

I also finally hung out at the hostel and got to know the other travelers. As I talked and listened to them talk I thought about the trip I took to Beijing more than a year ago with Noelle. At the Red Lantern Hostel we met some cool folks traveling from Scotland, England, Spain, and even a married couple teaching in Dalian who, we found out, were practically our neighbors. Though I didn’t meet any people from NE China in that Hostel in Chiang Mai, I did get talking with a few English guys around my age. Two of them, Dean and Dave, were trekking around South East Asia, following their whims and hoping their money lasted. They planned to stay out for as long as they could, I think they said about 8 months. They’d been traveling for more than a month by the time I met them, and had already come up from southern Thailand.

Both of them were really cool and it was obvious they were just enjoying life and out to see as much as they could. The three of us hung out for a few hours, chatting with others from all over. One guy, a French man around 30 years old, seemed different than the rest of us staying there. He had a laid-back, almost sedate way about himself. I’d say it was the cliché surfer dude aura, but there was definitely some Zen thrown in there. He always laid in the same position on the common area platform—stretched out and ready to take a nap, it looked like. The only time he wasn’t nearly catatonic was when he was holding his large note pad a foot in front of his face. When I asked what he was working on the others around us perked up. They had gotten the answer to that very question the night before. He showed me the sketch book and at first I thought, “Oh, he’s making a comic,” but then I looked closer. There were bars representing data of some sort, odd markings reminiscent of cave drawings, and even stick figures doin’ all kinds of crazy things. I had no idea what I was looking at and I told him so.

Dean explained that it was some sort of graph that measures the moods and energy in a group of people over periods of time. The French Guy smiled and said, “Well, that’s what he understands of it,” but wouldn’t elaborate except to say how interesting it was watching everyone interact with one another. The graph or whatever it was seemed pretty amazing to me. It was clearly something he had thought a great deal about and each line and stroke of his pencil indicated a telling piece of info only he could decipher. He wouldn’t let me take a picture of it, though.

Later that same night Dean, David, Greg ( a young wiry English kid with a mop top), and I went out to the Chiang Mai Night Bazaar. Nik naks, trinkets, store-bought clothes, hand-made clothes, paintings, sculptures, jewelry, magnets, and a hundred different types of food lined the streets and were packed into a few buildings. We waded through it all for about an hour, each of us bargaining for different things we wanted. I bought a bag that I knew I’d never use beyond this vacation. It was a simple brown bag with one strap and a white threaded design on the side. It hung low on my hip once it was around my shoulder, and if I were in any other geographical location I would have felt immediately foolish. But I was proud because I had haggled the guy down quite a bit. Negotiating in China has apparently made me much better. Even the other guys said it was pretty impressive hearing me use different tactics to get the merchant down below half of what he originally said. Thank you, China.

During the next morning I was chilling at the hostel, reading a book on Psychopaths that I picked up on the shelf down the hall when two Chinese girls on a moped stop in front of the gate. They spoke in broken English with the owner, the long-haired dude, but it was obvious they were having troubles. As they walked away from the table I said hello in Chinese and they perked up. I figured out they were having problems and asked if I could possibly help. So they told me what they wanted (warm water for their room, a private shower, and a room for two). All of those requests are pretty typical of Chinese travelers, and I didn’t see why it was so hard for the Little Bird to provide them. I talked with the owner and he told me that they didn’t just want a private shower, they wanted one in their room. Ah, hah. That’s the problem.

I told the girls about how the bathrooms were indeed public, but that only one person was in there at a time, so it was basically private. They seemed a bit nervous about that, so I told them I’d heard good things about the place a block away. They were very happy and exchanged numbers with me, asking if we could meet later. I said sure. About an hour later, after they checked in, I met them and took them to this place I had found a day or two before. We ate and chatted in English and Chinese, but afterward I was itching to go wander around, so I pointed them in the direction of their hostel and took off.

A big attraction in the area of Chiang Mai is Doi Suthep temple. Later that day Dean and I grabbed a taxi and it took us to the launching-off point for the temple, a stretch of road with some kiosks and more parked taxis. Because it was just the two of us, no taxi wanted to take us without having us pay an exorbitant amount. At one point a driver calmly sat us down and drew a diagram in the dirt. He drew the bus, the mountain, and then showed us how each taxi takes a certain amount of people at a set price: 800 baht. Gas is expensive, he said. Dean and I told him what we were quoted—70 baht each—and the man laughed, shook his head, and wrote 800 in the dirt. At that point I erased one of the zeroes and said, “there, now it’s 80, let’s go.” He wasn’t amused. He tried to write it again, but we told him that it didn’t matter how many times he did it, we weren’t paying that much.

We ended up waiting about 45 minutes, and just as we were getting ready to forget the whole thing, a Finnish girl shows up wanting to get to the temple. She was a short, mousy girl with boyishly choppy hair. She was quiet, but nice. And just strange. She was followed quickly by another Chinese couple, so now we had five people. We were set. Dean and I got placed in charge of the negotiating because the Chinese couple didn’t have a lot of English and the Finnish girl just didn’t talk. Once a price was agreed upon we hopped in the taxi, a big red thing with a long back area for passengers. They’re called songthaews in Thai.

Along the way I got talking with the couple. Everything was in Chinese, so it made me feel pretty good. They were on holiday from Shanghai, but both had been to Dalian before. One was a teacher and the other an engineer. It felt good to speak in Chinese. In Thailand more people speak English than they do in China, but even with that barrier down I still felt like I couldn’t really talk with any local Thai people.

Once we got to the temple we all agreed on a time to return to the songthaew, and then went our own separate ways. Dean and I wandered around the large temple, looking at the carvings, metal sculptures, and even the view from the top of the mountain. We took our shoes off before going into the center of the temple, and then wandered around. The whole place sparkled as the sun set, the golden yellow surface of everything reflecting and throwing back the sun’s light.

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Notice the brown bag I mentioned...yeah. Needless to say, I gave that away as a gift once I got back to Dalian.
Notice the brown bag I mentioned…yeah. Needless to say, I gave that away as a gift once I got back to Dalian.

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On the ride back we all chatted about the place and our travel plans. That night Dean and I wanted to catch some Muay Thai fights going on. I snapped a picture of a flyer, and we used it to find the area, but once we got close enough the camera was pointless. A young Thai guy announcing the fights with Eye of the Tiger blaring from behind the walls was pulling people in from off the streets. It would have been impossible to miss.

Once inside we sat at a table about fifteen feet from the ring and ordered two Leo Beers, Thailand’s main beer. First up was a bout between two skinny guys, followed by one with two female fighters. They were awesome. We watched five fights, and that one with the girls was one of the best. They had a lot of energy and their kicks and punches were nothing but brutal. Then came the funniest thing I’d seen in a long time. A handful of guys climbed into the ring and each one of them were blindfolded. After the bell rang they all just started swinging. A few times the referee had to fight back as the boxers jabbed him. One fighter liked to jab to find his opponent and then let loose a huge shot that floored a few guys. I didn’t know they did that sort of thing, but it sure was funny as hell.

Then back at the hostel I get another call. My plane is cancelled again, and at this point I will miss the tour of Kunming and have to wander around myself for four days. I mulled it over a few minutes and decided to just stay in Thailand for the rest of the trip. I told the guys I’d been bummin’ around with and they invited me to join them as they went to Pai, a scenic mountain town a few hours away. I said sure, and we made plans to catch the bus at 8 the next morning. That night, however, everyone in the hostel, and a bunch from others, headed down the street where a bunch of bars were stationed. There we all all danced and talked, and hung out for a few hours. Before I knew it the night had burned into the morning and the sun had already risen.

No worries, I’d sleep on the three hour bus ride. By nine am I realized that would never happen. Anyone whose ever taken the bus ride from Chiang Mai to Pai knows what I’m talking about. There are 762 death defying curves on the route from Chiang Mai to Pai, about 50 miles north. Jostled left and right as the driver took each one of them a 60m/h, I had no hope of sleeping. Along the ride, however, Dean, Dave, and I met up once again with the Finnish girl, and even met another English guy named Brendan. Brendan would end up hanging with us for the next two days as we trekked around Pai, sped down the roads on mopeds, and wandered through the woods looking for waterfalls.

Next: Pai, Thailand Part Two