Rattling through five countries had taken its toll and we needed to re-group. Pai seemed just the relaxed spot to help us transition into serious laid-back backpacker mode.
Pai, northern Thailand, is a small, beautiful town nestled in a mountain valley, welcoming travellers to stay in riverside bamboo huts, nip about on rented mopeds, drink wheatgrass shots and live in an idyll of bohemian chic. There are a few waterfalls, elephant rides and some hot springs to visit, but these distractions are quickly dispensed with allowing time for the more serious businesses of self-discovery and enlightenment.
It took a week or two to find the right ‘home’ for the month. The manager of our first bungalow, Sarah, was a charismatic but tortured lady boy, whose lewd propositions soon became background noise and part of the daily banter. But we decided to decamp after she tried to set fire to a hammock belonging to Adam, a young Canadian from whom her advances had been politely spurned.
A few kilometres out of town we found our wooden hut with views across the valley at ‘Spirit lodge’, run by Bang and Hachamama, a dreadlocked Thai couple who smiled and mothered us and tried to feed us as often as they could.
We soon settled ourselves into a routine:
– Pre-breakfast swim at the pool with chill-out soundtrack
– Eggs and coffee at hippie café full of incense sticks and ethnic jingle jangles
– Then select from one of following: meditating, guitar playing, hanging out with friends, hiking or visiting somewhere pretty
Pai is full of spiritual soul searchers and we met quite a few in our month’s stay there. But how to become just like them?
Rule 1 – Cultivate an existence incongruous with your past life
If you are going to be a true manana merchant you need to have at some point worshipped at the altar of Mammon. Take Mat, my guitar buddy who started each day with inverted yogic moves and ‘soul explosions’ in order to stimulate the pineal gland. Fiercely averse to making any plans at any time, his main ambition is to become ‘pure love’. Yet, until recently he was making serious money in Chicago real estate and driving a swanky convertible. Another friend – who for the purposes of anonymity we will call ‘Jimmy’ – was probably the gentlest, most unassuming person you could meet. During our first week he could be found most evenings wandering around in a Tramadol induced stupor having dosed up to dull the pain of having his arm beautifully tattooed in an elaborate sleeve of Om symbols and Shivas. Living with his Thai girlfriend and selling circular didgeridoos, he was heavily in to being a peaceful, meditative guy. But before leaving for Thailand, he owned a successful ship brokerage company turning over $1.8m a year. And before that he made most of his money through armed robbery.
Rule 2 – Meditate
This, the first step to enlightenment, seems essential yet full of contradiction. My first session was with a tall, long haired German with a bony face and a judo outfit. First, I was told I would have to ‘unlearn’ everything I had ever learned, from school, parents and life. Anything less would have been closed minded, obviously. The next step was to release all thoughts of narrative and judgement. This went well until I started thinking, “Yes! I am awesome at meditating!” I just could not get the idea of following someone’s instructions, then being told that meditation is about not trying to achieve anything. I’ve always thought achieving things was good, but I now recognise this is all ego and judgement. Presumably this makes me an ideal candidate for Vader’s legions on the dark side of the force.
Rule 3 – Maintain the hypocrisies intrinsic to an alternative lifestyle
This rule was best exemplified by a German lady of a certain age who was also staying at Spirit Lodge. Sporting a long silver mane, beads, patchouli oil and all the rest, this former air hostess (see rule one) had some interesting ideas. First was that vertigo was a condition cultivated by ‘the machine’ to make us so scared that we buy more insurance. Fear of heights must be an entirely 20th century phenomenon. Later, when we compared broken ankles and requisite tablets and injections, she complained that it had taken at least 6 months to get all that ‘poison’ out of her body. With no hint of irony, she referred to the cheap whisky she was swigging and her roll up smokes as ‘medicine’.
Despite my best efforts to adopt this way of life; concentrating on the now, realising that achieving things is simply ego, not being judgemental etc, it was not easy. So Rose and I set ourselves a few minor goals, one of which was to sing and play at an open mic night, encouraged by our friend Mat. Mat is one of the least technically able guitarists I’ve met and can hit most notes with the exception of the right one, but despite (or perhaps because of) this gave some seriously soulful performances that his crowd adored. Rose and I came at our performance from a less enlightened angle, agonising over every note and break. And it showed. But, although terrifying, open mics are a bit like giving a speech at a wedding. Everyone expects to enjoy it and unless you tell the bride she is too fat for her dress, people will still clap.
Pai is full of lovely people, locals and travellers, all just waiting to hang out with you. The scenery is gorgeous and the view across the valley to the mountains on the way to Spirit Lodge never failed to put a massive smile on my face. We left Pai with a heavy heart, but knew it was time to move on and so we dragged our egos onwards, neither scrubbed nor pampered.