These days, every time I leave my house, I see an elephant. Sometimes five in a row.
As a child, I would leave my house and see a cow, sheep, or on a more exotic day, a goat, and then I would probably either ride it or milk it, which is what us country bumpkins do. Elephants were something I read about in a large novels on the school bus (yes, I was that girl), and certainly not a daily occurrence.
Fast forward to 2016, and this kiwi country bumpkin finds herself in a hippie town in Northern Thailand, living and working on a yoga & meditation retreat, fist-fighting gigantic spiders the size of her face in the darkest hour of night, and overtaking elephants on her moped. I have not yet ridden or milked said elephant, so I’ve really moved up in the world.
Pai, Thailand. A backpackers heaven, where you can rent a scooter for three dollars a day, eat incredible street food for under five dollars a day, and sleep for around the same (depending on your standards!). Strangers become friends when you a share a bowl of steaming Thai soup under the crumbling umbrella of a street-side stall. Everyone is there for the same reason – to have fun, to relax, and in general to have nothing to do, which is the joy and the downfall of a backpacker – what do you do when you have nothing to do? Drink. And there are plenty of places for that. An atmosphere of late nights, sleepy mornings, and meandering slow-paced days makes this little Northern Thai town a welcome reprieve from bustling Chiang Mai.
There’s a curious duality to Pai. There’s the backpacker crowd, who embark on a windy road from Chiang Mai, unprepared for 700-and-something hair raising, stomach-turning bends they must endure before arriving in the lush Pai countryside. They stay a few days, spend their money on drinks, street food, and scooting about, then head back to Chiang Mai to continue on their travels, another glorious pin in their world map.
Then there are the “alternative-lifestyle” nomads who come to Pai because they have heard through the organic grapevine that there is kombucha, coconut kefir and sharing session aplenty. They come with no agenda, other than to spend their days traipsing from cafe to meditation centre, writing in their journals, drawing in their colouring books, purchasing airy, colourful pants, getting tattoos, and partaking in fermentation workshops. They sit on the pavement in the midst of the night market to sell their handcrafted mandala postcards to fund their travels. They come for three days, and leave three years later, as if emerging from a bubble in time, in need of a good shower.
It’s also a pretty quirky place. As you drive into Pai, coming from Chiang Mai, you pass a handful of kitsch roadside cafes with human-sized letters boldly announcing names like “Pai in Love” and “Strawberry Pai”, which attract hordes of Chinese tourists, doubled up on mopeds, in full length plastic raincoats, seeking shelter from the daily monsoon downpours.
There is a gigantic white statue of Buddha on a hill overlooking Pai, a cavernous canyon, hidden waterfalls, a bridge left over from World War Two, and a cafe called “Land Crack” on a back road into the hills, where you can buy fruit juices from a five year old pig-tailed girl, no parent in sight. There is a sign encouraging you to “Swim in the crack! At your own risk!” I dare you.
You can walk down the street and come across a community gathering, which at the front appears to be a casual get-together and barbecue, but enter through those doors and its a discotheque complete with flashing lights, live music in soundproof walls, a curvy Thai woman singing soulful husky tunes to the backing of an 70’s style rock band, wearing waistcoats and beards and holding their guitars like screaming babies. Western women slide wildly across the dance floor, wafting bodily odours every time they lift their arms, but a tiny little Thai girl with some bodily deformities and a lovely dress steals the show with alternative dance moves that demonstrate both creativity and outrageous self-confidence.
The thing that baffles me the most about Pai, which I will almost certainly never be able to explain, is this: I was driving down the country road in the early evening, heading for civilisation, and stopped dead in my tracks when I saw Captain Jack Sparrow lighting up a cigarette and waiting for his coconut in a roadside bamboo shack. I had consumed no highly fermented semi-alcoholic kombucha before this encounter, and I saw it with my own two eyes. Boots, white blooming shirt, waistcoat, eyeliner, long matted hair, complete with hat and feather, sitting calmly at his table. I sat in the middle of the road, stared for a good ten seconds, then continued down the road, blinking rapidly.
Either he’s been here too long, or I have.