I mentioned in my last article that Pai, North Thailand, is one of my favourite places in the world. When I first went there, back in 2007, I felt immediately at home. This isn’t a story as such, but a collection of memories and visions I have from my time in Pai.
About Pai: Pai is a tiny little town in the Mae Hong Son region of Thailand. I hesitate to even call in a town. It’s a crossroads with one main street and a few side streets, and that’s about it. However, it’s set in the most majestic location: nestled in the jungle-clad mountains with a small river flowing along one end of it and rice paddies all around. Here are a few pictures to show you what it’s like.
Pai became famous when a Thai romance film was shot there, and it became a magnet for hippies, misfits, and drifters of all kinds. I went for a weekend and stayed for a couple of months the first time. I’ve been back twice and can’t remember in what order these things happened, but they’re roughly chronological.
I’m buzzing along the main strip of Pai on a moped at a nifty 20MPH. I’ve never driven one before, but this seems like as good a time as any to learn.
I get momentarily distracted by something, and when I regain awareness, I’m headed down the steps of a restaurant and crash straight into a table. Thank goodness there’s nobody eating at it, and I’ve managed to slam the brakes and take much of the speed off. After receiving a bollocking by the Thai owner, a woman stops and asks if I’m OK. Her name is Gail, and she’ll later let me work in her bar for a few weeks, but that will be on another trip a couple of years later.
I’m OK, and so is everyone else, and Gail and I become good friends. This is definitely the weirdest way I have ever met a new friend. She later introduces me to her boyfriend, Steve, a buckfast enthusiast from Lurgan.
I’m in Pai for the second time after my first stint teaching in Indonesia. I see two women I used to know called Nan and Joy, and I stop the moped I’m driving to say hi. Nan is carrying a small boy, and she waves at me. Another backpacker on a moped whizzes past me, and the handlebars of his bike miss the small of my back by inches. Nan will feature again later and will cause me to receive the biggest ass-whooping I have ever received in my life.
I’m in a small temple. There are monks chanting, praying, and lighting incense. I stop for a moment and think how beautiful this religion is.
I’m in a bar made entirely of bamboo. There are fires inside pits in the bar, and there are various groups of backpackers sitting around them chatting. Joy, Gail, and Nan are in my group. I know these ladies pretty well by now as I’ve met them on several trips, and I consider them friends.
We’re drinking heavily, and a big Eastern European bald guy suddenly reaches out and grabs Nan by the hair. “How much for night, bitch?!” he says. I grab his arm and tell him to fuck off and stop treating her like she’s an animal. It’s pretty sad, but some Westerners think they have a license to behave like this in Asia.
She misinterprets this and jumps into my lap. I immediately pull out of the situation as I have a girlfriend, Venus, in Indonesia, and I’m not that kind of guy. However, this small act sets in motion a chain of events which leads me to believe I’m going to die.
As I’m leaving the bar about half an hour later, I notice an angry guy yelling something at me from the entrance. I ask what his problem is, and he tells me Nan is his best friend’s fiance and mother of his child. I tell him I really don’t care and to move out of the way because I’m going home. Naturally, this doesn’t de-escalate the situation.
Directly outside this bar is a bridge, and I’m trapped on it because this absolute madman is threatening to kill me. Just across the bridge is my hut, and the other way is the mountains. He tells me to go the long way, and a nice English guy who seems to know him offers to take me home on his bike. I decline and tell him I’m going straight across the bridge. He advises me it’s a really bad idea as this guy, Sebastian, is dangerous.
Drunk and oblivious, I offer the Frenchman what he wants. “Let’s fight” I yell and motion him to come at me. He charges, I put him in a headlock with the intention of pulling a DDT and driving his skull straight into the bridge, but I’ve miscalculated the situation. Before I know what’s what, I’m flying through the air, then tumbling down a riverbank, and then he’s got me pinned and is repeatedly punching me in the head. To be honest, I’m too drunk to feel it, and the punches aren’t very hard, but I’m stuck.
He figures this out and switches tactics. He puts his thumb into my windpipe , and within 10 seconds, I’m blacking out. This isn’t a choke where you cut the blood supply off to the head, it’s an actual choke where you cut someone’s air supply off, and I’m sure I’m about to die because this madman isn’t letting up. I tap like a defeated UFC fighter, but he holds on until I’m right at the edge, and then to my surprise, he releases me, jumps to his feet, and celebrates like a wild gorilla who has just defeated a rival.
It turns out Sebastian is a former French foreign legion soldier, mixed martial arts professional, and he literally runs a Muay Thai gym in Pai.
I wish I’d known that before, and I might have taken the Englishman up on his offer to go the long way home.
I eventually get back up to the bridge; the Englishman says, “I tried to tell you” and I walk back and pass out in my hut.
I’m in some meditation teacher’s house, but he isn’t Thai. He’s American, and his name is Garuda. He introduces me to his wife, laughs loudly, and tells me his PHD stands for “Piled Higher and Deeper in bullshit.” He says he learned how to empty his mind and be happy, and he laughs madly after anything he says.
Garuda runs a morning class where he encourages people to simply express any emotion fully. Apparently, people laugh and cry hysterically, scream, yell, and dance. I don’t attend any of these sessions, but he assures me it’s the only way to start the day and encourages me to do so.
I’m outside a bar and once again am hammered. I’m standing beside an American woman I’ve just met who cooks falafels (I think) on the side of the street. She’s a pretty cool backpacker chick, and she’s telling me a cool story when a ruckus breaks loose.
Nan and Joy (same ladies) are in the middle of a catfight with about half a dozen Thai women. Hair is being pulled out, women are screaming, and at one point, someone throws a large 1-litre beer bottle at someone else’s head. A few people try to intervene to no avail.
Then, out of nowhere, a big burly Thai guy stumbles out of the bar, pulls out a pistol, and fires several shots into the air. I leap behind a tree with my new American friend and we hug in a “Hi we just met, but now we’re going to die” kind of way. She looks at me with sheer panic in her eyes, as I assume I also look at her, and the Thai man shouts a bunch of stuff as he fires a few more shots.
I later learn he’s the chief cop in town. On a subsequent trip, I find out he shot and killed a male Canadian backpacker and was on trial for murder.
The shots came nowhere near me in retrospect, but they did leave a ringing sensation in my ears, and I never want to hear anyone say how they’d act the hero in a mass shooting. Trust me; you will run and hide before it even registers.
When I was in my early twenties, one of the websites that inspired me to travel was called Hitchhike the World. It was run by a Polish couple, Kinga and Chopin, who hitchhiked all around the world on $5 per day.
I remember reading a blog post they wrote about an Argentinian guy they’d met who was doing the same; Juan Valarino. One day, dandering along in Pai, I’m sure I spot him, and I walk over and ask him if he is the fabled hitchhiker.
“I am Juan,” he says with a huge, charming smile. We talk about Kinga and Chopin, his travels, and his advice for travelling on a shoestring. I didn’t see him again, but I thought it was a fun coincidence that I met him there. I did start following his blog later, and he hitchhiked through the Middle East detailing how kind and giving the Muslim people are in reality in places like Turkey, Iran, Iraq, etc.
Despite all this absolute madness, I love Pai. It’s still one of my favourite places in the world. Nothing happens on the surface, yet everything happens underneath it. And if I ever do go back, I have been training and learning a lot this last few years, and I look forward to seeing Sebastian again.