Northern Thailand 2
The sound of crickets chirping was the only thing that broke the silence of the cool night air. I decided to open my eyes just a bit to survey the scene. I was sitting cross legged on a little mat in front of an elevated platform adorned with two large Buddha statues and six monks facing us, all of whom were deep in meditation. It was so quiet with my eyes closed I could swear that I was sitting alone but there were easily a hundred fellow monastery goers sitting in rows around me, completely silent and motionless in the moonlight of the open air pagoda. “Ok, this is pretty cool.” I admitted to myself before attempting to clear my mind and return my focus to my breath.
"Enlightenment here I come”
Maybe this meditation and enlightenment stuff wasn’t so bad. Ah, nevermind. After about ten minutes my ankles and knees were screaming in pain. I imagined the famous 1963 photograph of the Buddhist monk who lit himself ablaze in protest to the Vietnam war. The image is so profound because during his self-immolation the monk remained sitting cross-legged, eyes peacefully closed in meditation, as flames consumed him. If he could do that, certainly I should be able to meditate through some minor discomfort. I redoubled my efforts to return to meditation. Nope. Not even close. Fuck it. I’m moving. As I uncrossed my legs my knees cracked loudly throughout the hall. As if that had been all that everyone else was waiting for, more knees started cracking around me as other uncomfortable, rookie meditators shifted their position. Good to know I wasn’t the only one who hadn’t reached a higher plane of human existence yet.
Earlier that day, the minibus from Pai had pulled to the side of the road and sent up a rolling cloud of dust. I hoisted my bag onto my back and started the 1 km walk down the road to the Wat Pa Tam Wua Forest Monastery. Nestled in among the hills in Mae Hong Son, an hour and a half outside of Pai, the gardens, ponds, and grass fields are immaculately manicured. The grounds are dotted with young westerners dressed in baggy, white drawstring pants and tunics walking slowly, reading, or lying in the grass gazing at the surrounding mountains. It sort of reminded me of what I would imagine a rehab center for celebrities might look like.
As I walked up to the reception with beads of sweat beginning to form on my brow, a man dressed in simple clothes invited me to put down my bags and grab some food in the open air dining area. Afterall, it was 11am, when the last meal of the day is served. I usually eat at least four or five times a day so I wasn’t sure how this was going to go for me. After filling my plate with rice and a vegetarian Thai stew I took a seat at one of the long communal tables. In contrast to the hostel atmosphere where everyone plops down together and social interaction with strangers is the norm, here most people were sitting alone silently or quietly talking with one other person. At the six long tables around me there wasn’t a word being spoken by anyone. I was almost done with my meal when I noticed the “silent section” sign. That explained why no one was talking at my table or the ones near it.
Pre-meditation Vipassana talk
I washed my plate and glass before signing in at the reception. Name. Passport Number. Date of Arrival. Projected length of stay. Hmm, how long did I think I could do this for? I put down three days. I should be able to swing that, I thought. Maybe even longer. Free food and lodging at a rockstar rehab center. Why not? A German volunteer walked me first to select some white pants and a shirt before showing me to the male dormitory. The experience felt a bit like summer camp. Inside the dorm there were painfully thin sleeping mats with a pillow and some clean linens. I smiled slyly to myself as I blew up my sleeping pad and slipped it under my mat. Sorry I’m not sorry. If I were going to achieve enlightenment I was going to need a good night’s sleep.
I consulted the daily schedule and realized I only had a few more minutes before the afternoon meditation session. I lowered myself onto my sitting mat in the meditation hall and within minutes the entire monastery population was neatly in rows around me, which was not surprising since participation is required for every scheduled event and ritual. The monk provided a Vipassana talk about Buddhist principles before we did seated meditation. This was followed by a walking meditation, in which you keep your gaze directed at the ground a few feet in front of you and try to keep a completely clear mind. We walked over teak bridges and along a foot path running past impressive cliffs, caves, and towering rainforest trees. I made a mental note that I would have to do the walk again when I could actually look around and enjoy the landscape. When we made it back to the open air pagoda we finished with a meditation lying down. Within minutes the sound of snoring started emanating from somewhere to my right. I tried to suppress a smile creeping across my face.
After the lying down meditation was over and my snoring neighbor had finished his nap, there was an hour of scheduled “mindful working”, during which one sweeps up around the grounds while keeping a clear mind. Before the evening chanting and meditation session, I made myself a big bowl of oatmeal with cashews and honey that I brought along. The next scheduled meal wasn’t until the following morning and I wasn’t going to achieve enlightenment on an empty stomach.
The chanting before the evening meditation was brutal. It was essentially an hour of awkwardly mumbling transliterated verses along with a monk who had a microphone on stage. It felt a bit like other organized religions and I decided that part sucked. Then, as if to remind me that I wasn’t cut out for Buddhism, a mosquito landed on my prayer book. Now I know I’m not supposed to harm any another creature while I’m here so instead of swatting it, which might attract attention, I opt to subtly squeeze it between my thumb and finger. Satisfying crunch. I look around. No one seemed to notice the assassination and we finally we settle in to meditate.
That night I slept deeply except for a trip to the bathroom outside. As I walked along the stone path the stars were brilliantly splashed across the sky above as they can only when there is no light pollution from nearby cities. The next morning I was up at 6am to partake in the monk feeding ritual. Everyone gets a bowl of rice to spoon out to the monks as they pass along the row with a food donation basket that you shovel some rice into. I ate a quick breakfast and hurriedly packed to catch the 8am roadside bus out of there. It was a great experience but if I had spent one more second there I would have probably lost my mind. I guess I’m just too restless.
As soon as I got back to Pai I breathed a sigh of relief. Thank God I didn’t try to stick that out for a full three days or, heaven forbid, a full ten. I booked a bus back to Chiang Mai later that afternoon and then booked a flight to the Philippines the following day. But within 24 hours I had pushed that flight a week so that I could go check out Chiang Rai with my friend Amy, a UK social worker who had just quit her job.
Chiang Rai has the feel of a working city and so after one night there the two of us hightailed it 45 minutes north to a private bungalow at “Nok’s Garden Resort” set back in a quiet village with a wooded mountain backdrop. We were the only two inhabitants in one of the four bungalows that are along a little lake. The Austrian owner, Rudy, was a warm world traveler that decided to put down roots in northern Thailand. The following week was a relaxing retreat that included scooter adventures to waterfalls, hammocking, eating homemade pizza with Rudy’s family, and lounging next to koi ponds at cafes. With my batteries recharged and my tourist visa out of schlitz, it was off to the Philippines.
My legs dangled precariously above the concrete patio below as I hung from bottom bar of the hostel’s second floor balcony guard rail. I paused a second to collect myself before swinging a foot up onto the balcony. Now I was parallel with the ground 15 feet below and worked myself to standing before hopping over the railing to safety. “Jesus, that would have been so much easier sober,” I whispered to my brother Luke who was doing his absolute hammered best to slink across a low roof to the same balcony. His approach was arguably less dangerous but required moving laterally across 10 feet of ceramic roof tiles. He almost made it too. But then just a few feet before the balcony one of the tiles under his foot slid a few inches before tipping off of the edge. It shattered the silence on the patio below, dashing any hope of a stealthy infiltration. We grimaced at each other and listened for any movement inside the hostel. Nothing. Luke began to close the last few feet to the balcony as the patio door creaked open. Our eyes shot to the door and saw the glint of a machete gripped tightly in the hand of the hostel owner, Noom.
Despite obviously having just woken from a deep slumber, Noom’s eyes were wide open with the intensity of a man who fears he may need to use a machete against an intruder. His gaze swept the patio before locking eyes with us. It took a second to register what he was seeing. In the moonlight he could probably just make out the two drunk americans on his balcony and roof in various stages of breaking and entering. We were completely motionless, returning a deer in headlights stare. The scene must have looked like two racoons who had just been caught raiding the garbage cans. Brothers and hostel owner stared at each other in utter silence for several very long seconds before Noom let out a hearty laugh that was generated by a combination of the absurd scene and genuine relief. Still laughing, he set the machete on the patio table and put his hands on his hips before asking with good-humored amusement, “So, what are you guys up to?” “We forgot our key,” we shrugged. Then, still at three different altitudes, bathed in moonlight, all three of us laughed.
Although I don’t have footage of us climbing the balcony in Thailand, here is me breaking into my apartment in Germany when I locked myself out and is about what it looked like.
Almost exactly ten years later I strolled through the doors of Spicy Thai Hostel in Chiang Mai, Thailand, walked to the registration, and locked eyes with a macheteless Noom. Although we had forgotten each other’s names, we recognized each other immediately. After a good laugh about our sneaking in misadventure, he showed me to my dorm room.
Ten years later, Chiang Mai was still charming but had become significantly more built up and touristy. The international airport makes it easy for a torrent of european travelers to flow into the markets and myriad guesthouses which sprung up to meet burgeoning demand. I decided that I would splurge on some adrenaline pumping downhill mountain biking before making my way up to the hippie village of Pai.
Coughing up 1900 Baht ($60USD) to go for a bike ride is a tough pill to swallow considering it is 10 night’s worth of lodging but if I can’t splurge on the activities that make my heart sing, what am I doing this all for? It was worth every penny. The circa 2003 Kona Stinky downhill bikes were the same ones that Luke and I had ridden in 2008. Impressively, frugality and diligent wrench time had kept the downhill dinosaurs operational. The double black diamond rating on the single track insured that the only other rider was a veteran downhill rider from the mountains of British Colombia. The two of us and the Thai guide bombed down through the rain forest and bamboo groves occasionally launching off a dirt jump or log drop. By the time we made it back to the road at the base of the mountain my forearms were screaming with lactic acid build up from using the breaks over the technical rock gardens and steep rutted out sections.
In the morning I bid Noom goodbye and ruffled his 8 year old son’s hair as I walked out the door to my shuttle to Pai. The ride was riddled with hairpin turns and I was relieved when I stepped off into the cool mountain air. At Noom's recommendation I had booked a dorm bed at Spicy Thai’s sister hostel, Spicy Pai. I paid my pick-up truck cab driver and emerged from the darkness into the glow of the hostel front desk. The petite 20 something that was checking me in had a neck tattoo and dreads but there was something different about her that I couldn’t put my finger on. Ah, she was wearing very life-like elf ears lending her a mystical appearance. Ok, we aren’t in Kansas anymore Toto. This is going to be a very hippie, alternative scene and I decided to do my damnedest to keep an open mind and fit in. The art of being a social chameleon can always use some honing.
Set a kilometer outside of the little town’s walking street, Spicy Pai is as much a transient hippie commune as it is a hostel. The bamboo and thatched roof huts are surrounded by forests and rice fields. Inside, the open floor plan reveals beds lofted at different heights and facing in different directions. I opted for the highest bed which looked out over the entire room. The place looks like a cross between the Ewok village from Star Wars and the sleeping situation the lost boys had in Hook. The communal area is a lofted, open-air, long-hut with hammocks slung up. Below is a fire pit surrounded by log benches. Ample hostel guitars and firewood often keep the atmosphere going into the wee hours. Ear plugs can block out sound pretty effectively but my bed would shake precariously when people walked through the dorm. Another minor inconvenience was descending the ladder to take a late night wee. There are no half asleep bathroom runs. You need to have your wits about you to make it down the dangerously high, handmade, wooden ladder. If you’re not wide awake by the time you make it safely to the ground, the freezing night air will jolt your eyes open as you scamper barefoot to the communal bathrooms beyond the fire pit.
Thankfully, there are bungalows directly next to the hostel that have their own bathroom, kitchen, and porch. I decided that the extra $3USD a night was well spent and made the switch. Now I had the social benefit of the hostel with all of the privacy and creature comforts I could ask for. Although I had only booked two nights, the next two weeks flew by effortlessly. I rented a little scooter and explored waterfalls, canyons, and hot springs with new friends from the hostel. I shopped for fresh produce, found the local gym, and would sample the street food stands in the night market. The Mae Yen Waterfall trail is a 12 mile hike through the rain forest along a stream to a cascading waterfall. With at least 30+ stream crossings, having reliable trail running shoes and a solid day pack made a huge difference. I did it twice with different groups of people. Spending several hours Tarzaning around the rain forest before being rewarded with a beautiful remote waterfall is worth redoing.
Some days a group of us would go lay by the river, taking occassional dips to cool off. Other days, we would take a scooter tour around the surrounding hills to do a stream walk and visit the friendly waterbuffallo in the surrounding fields. In the evenings everyone would congregate in the common area to have some beers and bullshit. There is usually a cohort that heads to the bars in town as well as a few veterans that host movie nights in their bungalows. On several occassions I’ve hosted a cocktail hour on my bungalow porch with friends. The chill atmosphere, extensive social outlets, and inexpensive cost of living lends Pai its own gravitational pull known in local parlance as the “Pai Hole.” It is totally understandable that some people come here for a week and end up staying for a year.
The difficult aspect of open ended travel is deciding when to post up for a bit and cool your heels and when to move on to the next destination. Traveling from place to place with a sense of purpose can be exhausting and expensive. That type of travel is for the folks on vacation for a few weeks, looking to pack it all in. For those of us trying to keep the adventure going as long as possible, there is no rush and economic sustainability plays a central role in planning. Relaxing in a place for a few weeks helps to recharge the batteries and save money. Unpack your bag entirely, make some friends for longer than a few days, find your favorite restaurants, do laundry, go grocery shopping, hit the same gym, do all of the activities, and settle into a routine. I have done just that for the past few weeks and it has been delightful. However, I can sense a little bit of restlessness building up in me. So, to wrench myself free from Pai’s orbit I am heading up to a forest monastery for a Buddhist retreat for a few days. Enlightenment, here I come!
Ben quit his job to travel the world. He intends to keep winging it as long as he can.