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!