It’s easy to say that Pai is beautiful. And it really is, ridiculously so. The world appears in saturated colors: lime green rice paddies, outlined in brown grass and planted in perfectly spaced rounded curves. Rolling viridian mountains in every direction, blanketed by thick baby powder white clouds. Driving through winding, poorly paved roads, sunlight peaking through head tall grass, the paths seem to stretch on forever with the promise of some unknown exotic adventure, so trivial and yet so enticing for a lone traveler like me.
I spent 3 nights and 4 days in Pai, each day characterized by its own wayward adventure. On the morning of my first day, a group of rebellious Thai boys taught me how to jump into a waterfall. My friend Lori and I made the dangerous drive to a remote hot spring, and both managed to fall off our motorbikes while trying to complete the journey in the rain. I walked away with a cut foot and some road burn, and her with a slight concussion. Needless to the say the experience bonded us in a way that we won’t soon forget, and while slightly traumatized we were able to laugh it off later over some bloody bandages and beer.
The second day I joined a few other friends from the hostel to go driving around town, and we had an epic day that consisted of visiting more waterfalls, playing card games under abandoned bamboo awnings to wait out the rain, eating the most delicious sweet potatoes and tamarind paste at a free organic farm, and taking photos on the treacherous slopes of a giant orange canyon.
That night, every single person at the hostel headed out to a nearby bar, and under the shrouded warmth of glowing rainbow colored lamps and pillowed bamboo balconies, we laid out drinking and laughing into the hazy hours of the early morning. I even commandeered the DJ table and played some of my favorite songs, dancing in fairy circles between groups of friends, feeling appropriately whimsical, calm, and wonderfully incandescent.
What I loved most about Pai were the people I met there, and the conversations we had about travel. This is the conundrum of conscientious travel: no matter how much fun I have, there is always a slight feeling of guilt in the back of my head knowing that my pleasure is dependent on the work of local Thais, who quite literally make their livelihood off my being there for fun. But at the same time, and maybe this is something special about northern Thailand as I would say the same about Chiang Mai, the mutual beneficiality of tourism (this is a made up word, I know) works in proper balance so that tourists are respectful and are actually there to take in the culture, and local natives are happy to share it with us, with the added importance of economic compensation.
If you’re going to come here, or anywhere in the world really, you should always treat the people who live there with dignity and respect. I shouldn’t even have to tell you that, but it’s quite sad that not everyone who travels considers this common sense. I dread visiting the south, as I’ve heard from many people that it’s quite different due to the more party oriented atmosphere, but I’ll just have to see for myself come January when I make my way there.
There is a camaraderie in backpacker traveler that everyone should experience once in their life. The familiarity of conversation, of repetitive questions asking, “Where are you from? Where are you going? Where have you been?” and being able to talk like old friends without even knowing each others’ names. I was insanely lucky to meet such a great group of people in Pai. Writers, journalists, teachers, doctors, even the occasional arrogant investment banker — colorful characters and wonderful people from different parts of the world that come together to create an intersection of perspectives, humor, and very different opinions. There is a serendipity to those connections as well, as the dynamic between groups of friends and lone travelers meshed rather effortlessly that week, and I wouldn’t have experienced any of it had I not been at the right place, at the right time, and with the right people.
I had the option of staying a bit longer in Pai, but in the end thought better of it. There is a famous Argentinian chef named Francis Mallman, who says that once two people have learned and grown all that they can together, that is the time they should separate. Maybe it’s because I’m too sentimental to let go of people in my life, so rather, I find myself feeling that way about the places I go. On my last night in Pai, I remember looking out over a balcony at all the friends I’d made in the span of 3 days, smiling as a group broke out in laughter over an inside joke from the other night, music quietly wafting in from the second floor above clouds of smoke and the sound of pool balls cracking. I realized how undeniably happy and at ease I felt. Sadly, that’s also how I knew it was time to move on.
The strange hypocrisy of traveling is that you crave familiarity, but hate feeling too comfortable. Pai was definitely all it promised to be and more. I’m not sure when I’ll be back, but I won’t forget the friends I made there (who I plan on seeing again in the not too distant future), and the memories I made. Either way, I have the bug bites and motorbike scars to remind me for the rest of my life.