slice-of-thai.com Journal 2/27/2003-3/12/2003: Chiang Mai and Pai

This is an entry from my travel journals about Thailand and Laos.

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27 Feb 2003 - 2 Mar 2003

Took a long, impossibly comfortable aircon bus ride to Chiang Mai. After spending a month in Lao and obscure provinces of Thailand, it seemed too good to be true that the bus made it all the way with no breakdowns and that there were the same number of people as seats.

Spent a few days in Chiang Mai. My main goal was to visit Geoff, a fellow student from the Wat Buddhanusorn temple Thai language class in Fremont, CA. Jeff was a software engineer who, like the rest of us, spent years bouncing from company to company collecting stock options which we were totally sure were going to make us rich, but which never did. Unlike the rest of us, one day Geoff just decided that enough was enough. He moved out of his burbian apartment, sold his car and all his stuff, and moved to Thailand for good. He now has a job teaching English part-time at Chiang Mai University and is happier than he ever was in the Silicon Valley grind. On his income he can live in a nice three story townhouse near markets, great Thai food, and the University, and he can do the things he enjoys.

Geoff occasionally writes columns for the Bangkok Post Wednesday tech section, which, interestingly, is significantly better than the Mercury News, the watered-down "newspaper of Silicon Valley." He had just written one about Microsoft's .NET!

Other than that pleasant visit, I found this trip to Chiang Mai extremely uncomfortable. It was really hot, the densely packed houses and walls made any thought of a cooling wind laughable, and at all hours of the day and night there were dogs barking, roosters crowing, and there was irritating hammering and power tool noise from endless construction. I experienced this discomfort everywhere I went in Chiang Mai, not just the moat area where my guesthouse was. I got very little sleep at night. During the day, it seemed there was not a single shady, cool spot where I could rest without being touted for some trek or pressed for English lessons by a monk. It also did not help that there was a pack of boys living downstairs who work at a local boy bar, and who kept sending people up at various hours of day and night to proposition me nomatter how I responded.

My only respite was this little farang-oriented restaurant in the moat called the Breakfast Club, which serves a wide variety of delicious, freshly prepared veggie and non-veggie Thai food, 6 or 7 varieties of fresh baked bread including wheat muffins and croissants, real yogurt, and a wide selection of smoothies. I spent most of my time hanging out here under their generous collection of ceiling fans, reading an amazing Thai grammar book I had found at the local (enormous) bookstore.

On Sunday I visited the weekly Tha Phae street market, which, unlike the massive for-tourists-only Chiang Mai night bazaar, is a Thai affair as well. They close off about 300m of a wide road and it becomes a huge market of foods and clothes from all over the country, and, most interestingly, a place for street musicians. There's Thais playing farang music, farangs playing Thai music, Thai kids breathing fire, dancing, and banging drums (a la Taiko), and all variety and experience levels. Most of the musicians bring their money tin and CDs for sale and this seems to be a major source of income for them.

One American guy's cheeks bulge and compress like a frog as he plays a didgeridoo pointed at a small mic and amplifier. He sits on a drum, which he bangs with his hands, occasionally reaching over to bend and pluck the string of an old japanese-looking instrument. Bells on his ankle and a gong pedal at his other foot complete the picture, and as he plays his tribal beat, he keeps the Thai and farang spectators mesmerized for his whole set. Judging from the chatter in the crowd, the vast majority of the Thais there never saw a didgeridoo before, let alone a farang playing it as part of a one-man band. After his 10-20 minute show he chats people up, sells some CDs, and informs people he's got to "get back to work" as this gig is his sole form of income. In fact he has been supporting himself with this gig for around 10 years in a variety of countries! There were also groups of Thai teenagers with western instruments singing Frank Sinatra and other lounge music, and school groups playing traditional Thai music at the wats along the street.

One night at a restaurant I was chatting with a young, innocent, kind of geeky looking American guy who teaches English in central Thailand. Turns out he has a story very much like the Vang Vieng Internet Trapper but from the other perspective. Shortly after he arrived in Thailand for the first time and started teaching, he started dating a Thai woman. He was happy for more than a year and assumed this was an "ordinary" relationship. At a certain point, he started noticing subtle signs that perhaps she was not being 100% honest about her whereabouts when away from him. He still wanted to believe she was exactly what she seemed to be on the surface, so at first he ignored them. But eventually it got to the point where he felt it necessary to pry, so he asked if he could read her e-mail. She gave him her password and they went to an internet cafe. While he sat down at a computer, she rushed off into a different room of the cafe without explanation. Unfortunately, it turns out she was busy logging in and deleting all her mail from her 3 or 4 other boyfriends, none of whom knew about the others. Fortunately, she was not too tech savvy and did not realize that deleted items end up in a 'Trash' folder (how ironic) which you can still read, unless you empty it. So he read emails covering all of her exploits and even collected the addresses of the other men. He was crushed, but after a bit of time gathering himself together again, he actually created a little mailing list of men who had been duped by this woman. As a form of commiseration, they even pooled their information and produced a little schedule of her weekly rounds. They're sure that she has moved on to 4 or 5 new men by now.

3 Mar 2003 - 11 Mar 2003

Note: most of this is obsolete! After this first visit to Pai, I came back and ended up living there for the long term. You can now visit allaboutpai.com, a whole site devoted to Pai which I update frequently, and which includes everything in this page and much more. Thanks!

Now I wanted to see more of northern Thailand which I had missed before, so I took off to Pai (pronounced exactly like the word 'spy' without the 's': more of a popping 'b' than a 'p'). I intended to go all the way to Mae Hong Son but like many people I ended up staying in Pai the whole time!

The main streets of Pai are now almost entirely dedicated to farang needs and there are over 1000 guesthouse beds total. Like Khao San Road, Pai is not Thailand, but it is interesting. Pai is an old hippie mecca in a small town high up in the hills of northern Thailand along a quiet river. There's not yet an airport in Pai. There's just an hours-long windy road leading to Pai from Chiang Mai, and your only public transportation choice is the extremely painful, hot, overcrowded 3rd class bus. This means the tourists in Pai are a particularly hard-core set of travelers who like cheap, simple accomodation, and who, for some unknown reason, tend to be a lot more creative and interesting in general than the aircon set. Pai has a reputation as a magnet for amazing musicians who bring their instruments to improvise and play music of all styles in its many bars and restaurants.

Around Pai there are beautiful fields and towns to explore on motorbike, various small to medium waterfalls, caves, and canyons to visit, and most interestingly, a nice hot spring! I decided to motorbike there in the freezing pre-dawn hours, but it was worth it: the place was nearly empty and you could sit in a hot pool while steam rose through the frigid air around you. Someone has also built a swimming pool near town and charges 40B entry; it's an interesting mix of scantily clad farangs and teenage Thai boys trying to make it seem as if they didn't come to stare at the scantily clad farangs.

Pai is a place which helps teach people how to relax. There are a ton of guesthouses, and most of them consist of a few simple one-room thatch huts held up on stilts over former rice fields. The rooms contain mattresses, skeeter nets, and sometimes a light or candle. Most guesthouses feature a large, central shade structure with hammocks and comfortable bamboo and pillow couches (angled just right for slouching) next to tables filled with games and other time-wasters. There's usually a restaurant and the proprietor is usually some kind of Thai hippie or other dropout who is just as interested in slouching, playing music, and chatting as the guests. In Pai the mornings are cool and nice and occasionally people go out to explore the natural sights, readying them for a long nap. In the afternoon it gets extremely hot and this further reinforces the desire to rest. In a major display of good taste, most of the guesthouses in Pai do not have TVs or radios so it is actually possible, and quite easy, to chill out. In the evening it is nice again and everyone goes out to see music. At night it is extremely cold (a welcome change from other parts of Thailand) and everyone sits around by campfires or wraps up in blankets and/or sleeping bags in their huts.

Another interesting feature is the bathrooms. Far from the smelly, insect-ridden concrete squat cell one would normally expect at such establishments, the proprietors of many of the guesthouses have constructed huge (4m x 3m at least), roofless bamboo huts at ground level. Inside the huts they landscaped a forest scene with bamboo, flowers, lush greenery, and in one corner, raised on a concrete pedestal as if a ruin of some ancient shrine to the gods, a fully functional western sit toilet with a seemingly endless supply of TP, squirt hose, water bucket and pail. While marveling at this, one ponders where the shower must be. Turns out that a bamboo contraption on the other wall of the hut is a "waterfall shower," whose concealed PVC pipes squirt you from every direction when you turn the handle!

In general the guesthouses blend in with the scenery of Pai and it is not possible to figure out if you are looking at a guesthouse or some huts for the locals. This comes at a sharp contrast to the intentions of the local municipal district office, which last year mailed threatening letters to many of the guesthouse owners claiming their building licenses had been revoked (or would never be issued, in the case of the many guesthouses who did not wait for their permit to issue) because their huts were not made of concrete. There was one incident in the rainy season when a guest got stuck in his hut due to a flash flood, and the district is using this as an excuse to mandate a set of completely ridiculous and inappropriate building codes. The local guesthouse owners think the corrupt district is taking bribes from local construction and materials companies who are trying to drum up more business. I think the district, knowing that the local airport will be complete in a year or two, is finally scratching its years-long itch to bulldoze away all those guesthouses and replace them with ugly, multi-story, air-con hotels where the room rates are 1000/night instead of 100/night. Nomatter what the reason, it's clear that Pai is going to undergo massive changes when the airport is complete.

Unsurprisingly, Pai also used to be a drug mecca of northern Thailand. Just 8 months ago, it used to be normal to find bongs, hash, and other substances just lying on the tables of some of the guesthouses. However, last year the Prime Minister announced his "War on Drugs," which turned out to be a much different affair than the American campaign. The Thai government published a blacklist of suspected drug criminals and made it a point (possibly even involving quotas and/or bonuses) for police throughout the country to track down and "apprehend" these men. When, after a year or so, it was found that large numbers of the blacklisted individuals had "disappeared" or met with sudden unexpected "accidents," there was an uproar from human rights groups around the world and vehement denials by the government. The campaign included numerous, frequent sweeps of guesthouses and bars in Pai where many Thais and farangs were arrested and jailed. The net affect of the frequent inspections and the looming threat of extrajudicial killing (whether it's real or not) is that the campaign has been almost 100% effective. Now every single guesthouse in town has a large "No Drugs" sign and many proprietors make it a point to lecture each new guest. One sign at a restaurant reads "No Drugs: We go to jail together." People can still find hash and other drugs but they have to search quite hard and confine themselves to shadows.

When I arrived in Pai, two farang women, who make a living playing guitar and fiddle at bars 3 nights a week in Chiang Mai, were visiting Pai. Like many guests, they decided it would be cool to put on a concert and within a few hours they had arranged to play at their guesthouse! They posted some signs around town, built a little stage with a bamboo raft, the guesthouse owner sold food and beer, and lots of people showed up. I think they split the proceeds with the owner. Another guy visiting from Chiang Mai is an expert at the Djembe, a kind of bongo-ish drum. He brought 10 drums with him which he had made himself, and after blowing people away with his performance (he played along with the two women at the guesthouse), he offered drum lessons and also sold his drums.

Word of these events spreads quickly. Another night there happened to be a lot of Japanese in town, and so a local cafe owner put on a whole show of Japanese music. I think he maybe distributed 20 flyers but about 70 people showed up. A jolly japanese woman played simple but engaging traditional music on a 3-string banjo-like instrument. A group of Japanese hippies (something I never considered was even possible: their dreads, if unwound, would probably reach their thighs. I wonder if they would even be allowed back in their home country :) played a variety of music on the flute, mandolin, and this strange twangy soundboard thing which I think one musician had invented. The players used their limited English to shamelessly plug their CDs and make bad jokes. If their English was good it would have been crass, but instead it was charming and kept the audience engaged. One musician explained that on his way back to Japan from a 10 year stay at this famous hippie utopia in India, he stopped off in Pai, and 3 years later, hasn't managed to leave. Young girls, the daughters of several of the musicians who've obviously spent their whole life "on the road," sat at the foot of the stage and watched their parents play. Some of the music was more like new age or "tribal" stuff, some was traditional. Later they started mixing in other farang musicians playing western flutes, and even a guy on didgeridoo (which, it seems, is a required instrument in Pai).

Another staple in town was the Edible Jazz cafe, where you can sit at low tables and drink various kinds of coffee and tea, and eat delicious farang desserts, while you watch people play. Every night a young Thai co-owner of the place, named Gung, gets up on a stool and plays a mic'ed acoustic guitar. He is absolutely amazing. He plays his own music, which is like new-age music but with a soul. He seems to have invented several new hammering techniques whereby he holds the neck of the guitar in strange ways, and he de-tunes the strings of his guitar by whole semitones between numbers! He plays for about an hour and then a brit named Andy, who has become a regular here, plays guitar and sings for another hour while Gung improvises an amazing accompaniment alongside him. One time, someone's cellphone rang during Andy's set. Within seconds, Gung figured out how to mimic the ring tone on his guitar and improvised melodies around it which matched Andy's music! At a certain point during my stay in Pai, Andy had to decide whether to fly home to a set of lucrative pre-arranged gigs, or stay in Pai. Like many, he chose to stay!

The requisite loud scene in town is the Bebop Cafe, where long-haired Thai musicians belt out blues, and other folks play rock and jazz, till the early hours. Strangely, I discovered that Shira, the person with whom I had gone trekking in Phongsali, Lao, had returned to Pai and become a regular fixture at the Bebop. She spent several weeks there working on a large painting for their wall!

There are many farang restaurants in town. One night I ate at the Shark Bar, run by an Austrian gentleman who is very, very proud of his Schnitzel. The menu was full of jokes but when I chuckled upon reading Schnitzel and French Fries for sale in Thailand he assured me "zees is a very fine dish, ya? ven you order zis dish ve have two challenges, ya? you see we must do zee french fries crispy on zee outside and varm on zee inside just correct, and zee schniztel ve must also prepare zee correct vay. order I sink you will like, ya?" With a speech like that I just had to order it. It was good, I guess, but I have a hard time getting excited over breaded veal. "not zo bad," he said, "for farang food in thailand, ya?"

I hung out at a guesthouse called the Yawning Fields, co-owned by a 20-something transplanted Bangkok city slicker named Jay and a jovial and gregarious Thai woman named Mink. Their shade structure had the best hammocks. Their setup was so rigged for relaxation that I managed to spend an entire day in a hammock, something I've never done in my life.

Amongst the peaceful, clinking mobiles hanging from the roof edge and ceiling were intricate, nested, multi-pointed geometric polyhedra made out of plastic straws; a guest the week before was a major math nerd and he spent several days calculating the angles and building them. He also calculated the lengths and angles for a geodesic dome, and another guest who's particularly handy with bamboo built a 2-3m tall geodesic half-sphere frame out amonst the bungalows. By the time I left he was planning on making it into a shade structure by thatching each of the faces! I was wandering by another riverside guesthouse in town and noticed this giant, 4-story, open-walled bamboo structure with dramatic thatch fan patterns, stairs between each level, and roof sections at odd, exaggerated angles. It was sort of like the bamboo version of the SGI headquarter buildings. Turns out this is the art/architecture project of another guest who just decided one day that he wanted to build a giant hut. He hired a bunch of local Thais to help him and built it in a month or two, and the guesthouse can use it as they please. He also built a giant pentagram surrounding a stone mound nearby, I suppose for those last-minute times when you've just got to have a Pagan ritual. The artist was actually gone for a bit and his friends were watching over the hut. One of them was busy making didgeridoos out of local wood, which he sold to other guests to sustain himself.

It's really interesting watch all this improvised creation happen in Pai, but at times it makes me feel unworthy since I can't play any instrument or build things! Maybe next time I should bring a computer and a video projector.

Jay, co-owner of the Yawning Fields, is a very interesting character. It seemed to be some kind of soul searching that led him away from Bangkok university/city life out to the countryside. He built the Yawning Fields in search of a sustainable lifestyle that was quiet. After a year or so, he decided that not even Pai was quiet enough for him, so he found Mink to take care of the guesthouse and searched the countryside for the place he 'really' wants to be. He eventually found the tiny Karen hill tribe of Pang Tong, and he has now more or less adopted the village. The place has no electricity except for battery-powered flashlights and a few appliances which charge by government-provided solar panels during the day. He stays there as much as he can, up to 6 days a week. They've even built a hut for him, just the way he wants—a much, much more primitive hut than the other villagers have, right at the edge of the village where it is most quiet. He teaches English to the villagers and is currently trying to improve their low economic level by introducing tourism there. He has no wife or girlfriend but is a father figure for the village's 30 small children, who run to him when he pulls into town. Usually some of the kids stay with "Pii Jay" in his hut at night.

He's clearly concerned about the effect foreigners and their money could have on the village's customs, but shows it in a strange an uneven way. He takes groups of foreigners to stay at the village and does not charge the foreigners. Instead, he has the foreigners purchase and bring certain foods that are useful to the village. But he also brings trinkets from the Chiang Mai tourist night bazaar to the village, telling the villagers (who currently do not make any clothes, bags, spoons, or other trinkets) that if they can figure out how to make those goods, they can sell them to the foreigners!

Jay seems to keep the kids happy by always bringing along some modern lure for them. If he's going to teach, he brings along a sweet green soymilk concentrate, and before each lesson the villagers cook up the dessert in a giant vat and distribute it to the kids, one bamboo cup at a time. After the kids' lesson, they generally get to watch a movie, which Jay plays from his portable VCD player on the village's battery-powered TV set. When I was there Jay had chosen Blade 2, which has got to be one of the most disgusting, senselessly violent kung-fu snap-their-necks-2-at-a-time cut-open-see-the-moving-guts gratuitous-vampire movie Hollywood ever made. Why he chooses films like this is beyond me; the kids of this village had likely never seen a movie, let alone a movie that makes Americans question the integrity of their own culture. With their eyes glued to the tube for 2 hours of horrors, the kids didn't quite know what to think, so they mostly laughed. Many of them were scared to even walk home that night and they had nightmares. When I first arrived I saw that all the boys, when they played outside, played at shooting kung fu fighting with each other. Another villager told me they never did this before Jay arrived and played shoot 'em up movies for the kids. I suggested to Jay that maybe this was doing more cultural damage than any number of farang visitors could ever do; he just said that he was careful to tell the kids that it was "just a movie; not real." I don't know, maybe a boy growing up in a Thai hill tribe regularly experiences things so horrible compared to my sheltered suburban upbriging that a few extra Hollywood trash movies can't hurt.

Jay often has the foreigners teach English too, either to the kids or the adults. When I showed up, since I could speak some Thai, he had me teach a very enthusiastic group of 6 or 7 adults. They all carried notebooks in which they diligently wrote every phrase and pronunciation they had learned, including some good ones from previous foreigners such as "I have a big hangover." Since I could write some Thai, Jay had me write sentences in English and in English with Thai letters for pronunciation, and attempt to give them explanations in Thai. I asked Jay what would be the most useful subject to teach, and not surprisingly we ended up doing "Would you like to go trekking?", "Would you like to visit a hill tribe?", "Would you like to visit a waterfall?", etc. It turns out that, after Jay's description of the outside world, these adult villagers were very excited about learning how to be trekking guides!

When I first met Jay at the Yawning Fields, he told me I could visit Pang Tong on motorbike in 40 minutes, so I included it in my "day trip" one day to the hot springs and canyon. I drove down the road on his map about 40 minutes, then 1 hour, then 2 hours, as it became clear to me that the entire "road" was going to be a steep up and down, narrow, treacherous dirt switchback which forded rivers and rickety bamboo bridges. I think maybe Jay chose this village because it will be the last one to see modernity; it is literally the last thing on the road and it is far from any public infrastructure. 3 hours after leaving, shaking and amazed I was still alive, I pulled into Pang Tong on my 100cc automatic bike and there was no way in hell I was going to try to get back the same day. So I ended up staying overnight and discovering all the stuff above. I couldn't help but wonder if Jay had understated the trip difficulty on purpose, but at any rate I came to peace with it after I had a chance to shower, cool off and calm down. It turns out that Jay, and (as usual) the 10-20 year old kids of the village actually can bike to and from Pai in 40 minutes, but if you're like me and have some sense of mortality, that is simply not possible.

This village was full of odd surprises. In addition to its modest Buddhist wat, it has a little Christian church too. Some of the villagers had been converted a while back, but everyone I asked clearly didn't want to talk about it. When I helped Jay return the TV to the school storeroom, I discovered that Pang Tong's tiny, mostly open-air school has a huge language lab, complete with 16 stations, speaker/microphone headsets, and all the gear! But there are no teachers (left?) who know how to operate it. Pang Tong also has two computers, but again nobody who knows how to use them. Jay told me this in such a matter-of-fact way; he seems to be unaware of, or indifferent to, the tragic waste of resources going on here. Perhaps, I guessed, the missionaries came to Pang Tong with generous gifts, but then got kicked out? The truth is likely to be even more scandalous, intertwined, and interesting :)

12 Mar 2003 - 13 Mar 2003

About the only bad thing that happened to me in Pai is that, on the evening of the 11th, some dumbass dog nipped me without warning as I was walking down the street in the evening. He did this after I had already passed him and by the time I turned around, he and his buddy were already 20 feet away. Stray dogs, rabid or otherwise, are a major major issue in Thailand, especially northern Thailand. It is a miracle that I was not bitten sooner. I was properly relaxed and about ready to go, so this was my trigger to get back on the 3rd class bus to Chiang Mai. I went to the hospital and was overjoyed to find I would be having not one, but five rabies shots over the next month. The doctor said a rabid dog does not live for more than 10 days, so hypothetically if I could find the dog that bit me (not a chance—in Thailand it's like finding the mosquito that bit you) and if that dog were still alive on the 21st, then I woudln't have to continue my shot series—how comforting.

Back in Chiang Mai I visited Geoff again and then skipped out of town as quick as possible. All the sleeper and non-sleeper trains were booked, and all the buses I had taken along this route were a day of pure hell, so I did a first and actually chose to fly instead (about a 4x price penalty over bus or train). I arrived in Bangkok and checked into my usual dumpy place.

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get the best thai-english phrasebook app
Experience Thailand richly with my Talking Thai-English-Thai Phrasebook app.
get the best thai-english dictionary app
Learn Thai with my Talking Thai-English-Thai Dictionary app for iOS, Android, Windows.
get a cool thai-english paper dictionary
Don't leave home without the Thai-English English-Thai Compact Dictionary I co-authored.
get thailand fever
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Visit China easily with my Talking Chinese-English-Chinese Phrasebook app.
get books or almost anything
Pick a Thai learning book from my list or buy anything at all from Amazon.
See AlsoYou'll probably also like these sites...
allaboutpai.com
A site about Pai, my peaceful home in the mountains of Northern Thailand.
lurkertech: video tech and diversions
Buzzword bingo, bill the borg, MEZ, lurker's guide to video, and Thai, oh my!
mapfling.com: free custom maps with your own labels
Party? Meeting? Request a map, label it yourself, and easily fling it to your friends!
world's stupidest everything
See some of the worst the world has to offer, and add some of your own!

World's Stupidest Holiday and Birthday Presents - stupidest-presents.com
World's Stupidest Wedding Websites - stupidest-wedding-sites.com
World's Stupidest Baby Websites - stupidest-baby-sites.com
World's Stupidest TV, Movie, Music, and Sports Stars - stupidest-stars.com
World's Stupidest Politicians - stupidest-politicians.com
World's Stupidest TV Shows - stupidest-tv-shows.com
World's Stupidest Movies - stupidest-movies.com
World's Stupidest Blogs - stupidest-blogs.com
World's Stupidest Websites - stupidest-websites.com
World's Stupidest Company Websites - stupidest-company-sites.com
thailand your way
Travel with my friend Nang, who is a great nature, birding, and cultural guide.
jeed illustration
My English-fluent Thai friend Jeed is a freelance illustrator who is available for hire.
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