I attempted to do a day-by-day account of our trip around the north of Thailand, but several days of camping and no WiFi (and simply not wanting to sit at a computer for two hours every day) meant I couldn’t keep up with the blogging. So now there’ll be fewer, but hopefully more interesting ones.
Our journey inevitably led to Pai, and we had heard mixed verbal reviews about the place:
“Pai is amazing. It’s a real hippy town.”
“Too many tourists.”
“It’s too crowded.”
“I think you’ll really like Pai. It’s a bustling town – very popular with the western backpackers, David.”
“There’s a very nice swimming pool.”
So we expected a busy little place, and had already formed preconceptions. The highway ran through the centre of town and revealed mostly what we were expecting: Thai-branded beer singlets. Chunky thighs flapping underneath impossibly small denim shorts. Green alcohol. People who sounded like Fran Drescher asking, “Is this locally made?” Authentic Thai pizzas. Leathery old men with long hair who thought they had found the next Haight-Ashbury. Tribal replicas. The steady plink plink plink of a Karen hill tribe family in full garb, dancing and plucking a bamboo guitar for coins. Glamour-muscles and cleavage. However, the tourists seemed to be quite relaxed and non-confrontational.
Pai, a town with a population of only 2,300, had about 350 guesthouses, with names like ‘Pairadise’, and ‘Peach Pai’, and ‘Pai in the Sky’. It was Thailand’s pun equivalent of ‘Bulls’ in New Zealand. Trying to find out why there was such a large tourist presence here compared to other nearby places we’d visited revealed the following origins: for Westerners, it was a good base for visiting the surrounding hill tribes. A Chinese film shot in Pai called ‘Lost in Thailand’ attracted the mainland Chinese. A Thai film called ‘Pai in Love’ attracted the big city Thai tourists.
Of course, those were the original reasons. Once the bars, resorts and souvenirs moved in, the popularity increased exponentially. Pai advertises itself as something of a mellow, hippy town, and with a lot of competition the prices for most things are very low, which is a further draw card to the budget-conscious visitor.
We turned from the main street and drove for 15 minutes out-of-town, passing a desolate looking place called Bam Nam Hoo homestay.
“How much for a room?” Caroline asked.
“Erm… 200 baht?” came the reply. This was very cheap – about 8 NZD.
“Can we see the room?”
We were taken on a short walk through a lovely little overgrown garden, past a pair of ducks (their names were Kip and Kek), and stopped outside a pair of very nice-looking bamboo bungalows.
“You want number one or number two?” the man asked. They looked identical, and we were closer to number two, so number two it was. Inside was a comfortable double bed with a mosquito net, and a private bathroom. There were also a LOT of ants in the bathroom, mostly in the sink, but they weren’t red or bitey, and so we agreed to stay and live together in mutual respect with the ants.
And so, in a town with plenty of ‘No Vacancy’ signs, we became the only guests at Ban Nam Hoo Guesthouse. It was cheap, comfortable, and quiet. The owners’ names were Wen and Jojo. They had wonderful, generous hearts, but were a tad bonkers. Jojo had spent 30 years as a nun, and now, at 50-years-old, seemed child-like, bubbly and innocent. Wen laughed often but became serious when discussing the higher levels of meditation which, told to us in very broken English, were mind-bogglingly confusing. They brightened when they learned we had done a couple of days teaching English with Ben, who Wen knew well.
“Sit sit sit!” said Jojo, “We are family now! You want lunch? We eat together!”
We sat down and were given pad Thai, papaya tamarind curry, small eggplants with sugar and fish sauce dip, and rosella drinks. Without warning, Jojo gave us a large bag of tea leaves. “For you!” she cried.
Suddenly, seconds after eating, Wen showed us some UNICEF photos of starving children in Africa and India. They were both members of the charity, and were in the process of growing fruit – drying it in a huge industrial dehydrator, and putting it into sachets which were then shipped off to help the needy. It was very hard to understand Wen as he spoke, but the King of Thailand had something to do with funding the plantations and paying for the drying equipment. Wen showed us his dehydrating machine which, judging by the amount of cobwebs and state of disrepair, hadn’t been used in a long while.
The photos transitioned from starving children into fruit trees. We showed interest in a purple mango tree.
“You like fruits?” Wen asked.
“Mangos?” said Jojo, getting excited. “You want to see the farm? We can go together and get fruit?”
“Sure…” I said, hesitantly. It was all happening rather fast. Didn’t we have to pay for all that delicious lunch we just ate?
“We go now then!” Jojo exclaimed.
Jojo and Wen closed up the guesthouse, and we hastily followed them to their orchard. The bumpy road led down to a small hut, where a gardener and his two young sons lived surrounded by several acres of fruit trees. We spent an hour picking jambu, a bunch of bananas, several mangos and a huge jackfruit. The farmer’s sons helped immensely in our gathering of fruit, shooting down mangos with a slingshot, and scampering up the jackfruit tree (not caring about the red ants) to twist the heavy fruit off. We paid them 20 baht each for their trouble.
Between our two motorbikes, we managed to get all the fruit back to the guesthouse in one trip. There we learned that most of the fruit was for meant for us to take – six shopping bags of jambu, a huge bunch of bananas, and five mangos. Telling them it was impossible simply drew laughter.
“Sit! Sit!” said Jojo. “You relax!” She pointed at Caroline. “Very beautiful. Beautiful face and beautiful here,” she pointed to her own heart. Then she plucked a flower, giggling.
“Put in you hair!” she exclaimed, thrusting it into Caroline’s hair, then grabbed a coconut and gave that to Caroline. “Photo photo!” she said.
“All you need is a ukulele,” I said.
“We have!” cried Wen, and got some kind of traditional guitar that wasn’t a ukulele.
Jojo fell in love with Caroline. “You are like Romeo and Juliet,” she said. But she wasn’t speaking about me and Caroline, just Caroline.
“Beautiful. Like Romeo and Juliet.”
“Like Juliet? Like the movie?”
Was she saying Caroline looked like Claire Danes? Jojo just giggled again, infatuated.
It’s a strange thing to say, but we started suffering from hospitality overload. As long as we sat out near the front entrance, our hosts constantly brought drinks and food – much more than we could possibly consume. Green tea. Fruits. Vegetables. Curries. Lime juice. Rosella. It just kept on going. They bustled around us giving us books to read (in Thai), and padding cushions, and strategically placing fans to cool us.
“Well, we might go shower,” I said, looking for an escape from this onslaught of generosity.
“Good, yes! Come here for dinner at 7pm. Good for you?”
Dinner was, of course, huge and delicious.
The following day we explored Pai a little bit, occasionally returning to the guesthouse to have food stuffed into us.
We stayed one more night at our odd little guesthouse and chatted. Wen claimed a few things that sounded slightly credible.
– He knew Bob Dylan
– He met the Red Hot Chilli Peppers when they came to Pai to smoke opium
– He was friends with the crown princess of Thailand
– That last point meant that he could obtain Thai citizenship for Caroline and I, if we wanted it.
They made us promise to return next year to help them set up their new resort, and to volunteer for UNICEF with them. “We will go to Africa with the sachets of food,” they said.
“You’ll come back?” said Jojo to Caroline.
“We’d like to,” was Caroline’s reply.
“Promise me!” she asked, puppy dog eyes, almost pleading.
“Er… we promise?” we said, not wanting to offend, or knowing what to do.
And so, if we were the sort of people who kept our promises, we’d be back here again in the future.
Then we left Pai.