The Eve

Location: Pai
Soundtrack: The breeze in the trees, the running of the water

I woke up on New Years Eve morning and stretched in my little bungalow by the river. I hadn’t prebooked a place – I’d tried, but everywhere was booked out, so I gambled on finding a place when I got there. Lying on the mattress on the raised bamboo floor, looking up at the mosquito netting, I stuck my hands behind my head and listened to the early morning noises outside and the quiet flow of the river.

I was finally starting to unwind from 2010, just as 2011 approached.

At breakfast at Pai Country House, I watched as the town slowly filled with more and more Thai as the morning rolled on. The Thais came on scooters carrying backpacks and tents to camp beside the river, or with their family 4WDs and sedans packed to the brim with luggage. I felt like, in a way, I’d intruded on their secret oasis.

But then I likened it to a German backpacker turning up at Maroochydore at New Years – I’m not an intruder, I’m just another face in a rather large crowd of holidaymakers. Sure, my face is a bit different, and I was stopped twice by people who wanted a photo with a 6 foot redheaded white dude wearing purple shorts and mismatched blue and yellow socks (it was laundry day!). But I wasn’t intruding on anything private.

My choice for breakfast was also where I found the expat enclave, and they were taking a different view to what was happening in their town.

One old Dutch guy bemoaned loudly “I’ve been here 12 years, and it’s never been like this,” he said, gesturing at the traffic choking the main street. “I’m thinking about leaving.”

He passed an article over to two French expats sitting at the table beside mine. “You want to cheer yourself up? An article on Pai.” It was by Anchalee Kongrut in the Bangkok Post, and you can read it here.

To Pai or Not To Pai
For many, Pai is the latest case of cultural and environmental decadence and negative gentrification. Antique shops have been converted into beer bars and shops selling T-shirts bearing the word “Pai”. Investors from Bangkok have rushed into town and opened either cheap guesthouses or boutique hotels if not chic coffee houses, Italian restaurants or herbal spa retreats. Ethnic villagers are no longer living cultural heritages, but are fast becoming eye-catching exotic subjects for Facebook photos.

As much as Ms. Kongrut paints a picture of a changed Pai than the one from her past, it’s not an overly negative picture.

I love it here, so it’s easy to imagine that I’m not the only one. But I’m not a Pai local. So when your quiet little town gets invaded every year, and the invaders keep increasing in number, what happens? Over time they’ll keep leaving bits of themselves and their culture behind – a few new tourist-oriented businesses, an increase in guesthouses, a few more market stalls selling more trinkets and souvenirs, another coffee shop or juice bar. The banana pancake trail effect.

Each year, the path to Pai gets easier for people to follow, and they’re welcomed with open arms by local business for the influx of easy capital they bring. It’s nothing new; it happens to small awesome places the world over, time and time again.

Ms. Kongrut sums it up well: “To Pai or not to Pai is still a question to be asked. But it is time for another question, not about the place or the impact of tourism. Places change, for better or for worse, or both. And so do we.”

The question of whether or not to visit Pai is redundant – of course you’re going to visit Pai. It’s a wonderful place. The question is really whether or not you’re comfortable with the changes that make it an easier place to visit.

As the sun started going down, the town reached capacity. Every now and then I saw a foreign face flash among the crowd, then vanish again. This was definitely not going to be a Western New Year: this was going to be a completely Thai celebration.

So many markets!

We are not the same persons this year as last; nor are those we love. It is a happy chance if we, changing, continue to love a changed person.
~ W. Somerset Maugham, (1874-1965)

The River

Location: Pai
Soundtrack: Powderfinger

I arrived in Pai, and it wasn’t what I was expecting.

I was picturing a dirty commercial Khao San Road or Vang Vieng. Instead, I want you to picture where your mum and dad used to take you on family holidays when you were a kid.

Relaxed, casual, family-oriented place that had a few restaurants, maybe a couple of cafes, access to some fun kids activities – yeah, that’s the place.

Now pick that place up, localise it, drop it in northern Thailand, and you have Pai. Video.

Pai by the river

There’s something magical about Pai. It’s relaxed in an uncommercialised way. It’s a Thai holiday destination, not a foreign one like the islands down south. The number of Thais outnumber the foreigners like I’ve never seen before, even while in Bangkok. The streets are clean, the crowds are friendly and relaxed, I’m not being bombarded every three seconds with calls of “Hello sir, where you go, tuk tuk?”, and there’s a dude dressed up like Jack Sparrow posing for photos.

It’s a perfect place for a relaxed New Years Eve, which is exactly what I was looking for. And on top of that, I get to experience what a New Years Eve (or Countdown, in this case) festival is like from an entirely different cultural perspective than my own.

It’s a very relaxed place, and I’m wholeheartedly looking forward to the experience that tomorrow night will bring.

Interlude: Postcards

Pai is the postcard capital of the universe. They’ve created an industry out of selling postcards at a stall, having people sit down and fill out the postcards with provided pens and stamps, and then posting them at the postbox right beside the work table. Genius way to reinvent the postcard – make it a snapshot of the moment, not a letter describing the past in “Wish you were here” style. Joe Moran hits the nail on the head when he describes postcards as a form of phatic communication – a message with no inherent content, sent for its own sake and simply saying “Hello, I’m here and you’re there.”

I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I intended to be.
~ Douglas Adams (1952-2001: Don’t Panic.)

The Class

Location: Chiang Mai
Soundtrack: Meatloaf

I’m a bit of an amateur cook.

I love to gather my ingredients, lay them all out on the kitchen bench, turn on some Meatloaf, and lose myself in the joy of food for an hour or two as I prepare a delicious meal. A glass of wine or three always seems to make my cooking taste even better.

So when I get the chance, I love to take cooking classes to learn something new.

Last time I was in Thailand, I took a class at Gap’s House. It was full of character, and taught me about the five sensations of Thai cooking: sweet, salty, spicy, sour, and crunchy. Get the ratios right, and you have yourself a recipe for a delicious meal.

But this time I wanted to take it up a notch. I’m not really a beginner anymore. I know my way around a cutting board and how to craft a Thai meal.

I discovered that the Thai Cookery School does Master Classes – basically one-on-one sessions with Chef Sompon Nabnian, a man who I would come to learn was the head of a sprawling business empire.

I signed up to do a beginner class during the day for AUD$33. After the end of the beginner class in the afternoon, my newfound partner Kim from Spain and I would tackle a Master Class creating five dishes in three hours under the tutelage of Chef Nabnian.

In the morning, after a tour of the markets where we picked up a slew of ingredients for the day, we arrived at the cooking school.

Thai Cookery School
The school was founded in 1993 by Chef Nabnian, and has to be one of the most professionally organised cooking classes I’ve been on.
Upon arrival you’re given your station, and then ushered into an air conditioned training room where the Chefs cook and demonstrate the dish you’re about to prepare.
As an added bonus, there’s an angled mirror above the training station where you can look directly down onto the station: no more craning and peering. Just look up.

We cooked six dishes varying in difficulty, and our group of 20 had no struggles at all. We covered the basics of pad thai (or in this case, fried big noodles with chicken and sweet soy sauce), yellow curry chicken, steamed fish in banana leaves, chicken with cashew nuts, a spicy prawn salad and finally bananas in coconut milk.

If it sounds delicious, I assure you: it was.

Food, glorious food.

After the beginner class, Kim and I teamed up with Chef Nabnian for the Master Class. Since there were only two of us, we got to pick and choose the dishes to cook. We came up with:

  • Barbecued prawns with a kaffir lime dressing
  • Fried pork spare ribs with garlic
  • Lemongrass sticks with minced chicken, prawns, and pork
  • Banana flower salad
  • And the ultimate: Chiangmai Noodles with curry sauce and chicken, or the famous Khao Soi Gai: staple food of the north.

Prawn salad, anyone?Skewers are delicious AND nutritious.

It was intensive and educational, and worth every penny of the AUD$90 we paid. Kim is a cook in Spain, so he’s taking his certificate back with him to move up the corporate ladder.

Me? I’m just chuffed to have cooked such brilliantly delicious dishes under the guidance of a master.

Look out ladies, I’ve got a repertoire of meals to cook for you, and I’m not afraid to use them.

Cooking is like love. It should be entered into with abandon or not at all.
Harriet Van Horne (1920 – 1998)

The Ride

Location: Chiang Mai
Soundtrack: The breeze in the trees

I rode 27.7kms yesterday on a half day bike tour out of Chiang Mai city and into the surrounding towns and suburbs.

It’s amazing how much my view of Chaing Mai is coloured by the experiences we as travellers are forced into, whether we want to be or not.

For example, Chiang Mai has it’s tourist side – the markets, the bars, the restaurants, the tours and treks. All of this occupies our time while we’re in a location, and satisfies our needs – but it doesn’t really open up the city for exploration. When a well-worn path is in front of you, it’s difficult to avoid walking down it.

I took the fervent advice of a friend at Intrepid Travel in Bangkok to take the half-day bicycle tour, and I’m very glad he pushed me into it.

I’m not a cyclist. The last time I rode a bike I was in Melbourne, and it was one of those trendy fixed-gear bikes that all the hipsters love. So I’m not exactly your role model bike rider.

Rit was my guide on the half day bike tour, which was delivered by Click and Travel. He made the trip fun, relaxed, and most of all comfortable – riding at a pace I could handle, and knowing exactly where to go and how to get there.

Rit
Rit came fom a family that couldn’t pay for secondary education, so he voluntarily chose to be a monk and receive his education through temple. He lived and studied as a monk for 7 years.

When the time came to leave the monkhood and return to society, he found it incredilby difficult. As a monk, the only skills you’re taught are how to pray and meditate, so you have no translatable skills. He’s studying now for his tour guide certificate and has been a bicycle guide with the company f or two years.

What really struck me about the bike tour (aside from my incredibly sore butt afterward) was how different Thai life was once you leave the tourist side. It’s a crime to call their life simple. These people’s lives are not simple – they’re as complicated with relationships, dreams, and desires as ours are. We’re all human beings.

The word I’m looking for is solitude. Compared to the hustle and bustle of tuktuks, taxis, songthaews, and utes, this almost felt like a quiet paradise. It’s exactly the same as our own suburbs – they’re the places you live, not the places you work.

We visited Rit’s home temple; a former Leper colony with a rich history about a US missionary doctor in the early 20th century; and Wiang Kum Kam, an original settlement that predates Chiang Mai.

But the point of the ride wasn’t the destinations – it was the ride itself, and being exposed to the other side of life.

I really appreciated the chance to see what life was like outside of Chiang Mai city – it’s not often you get the chance to escape the well-worn path, even if only for a little while.

Plus it helped me burn off some calories that I knew I was going to be gaining the next day, when I went to do my Thai Cooking Class

The Quest

Location: Chiang Mai
Soundtrack: Ke$ha

At the heart of every good journey is a quest.

It may be to see something famous, or to experience a culture or their food, or to see an old friend.

Quests also have goals. I’m on the hunt for something here in Thailand – and it’s not what you might think.

Thailand for me has always been a transition place: a place that I come to when I’m transitioning between one life phase and the next.

On this transition, I’m not looking for enlightment or a rare mystical photo of a hidden city – I’m just looking for a bit of clarity.

So, after travelling for the better part of Boxing Day, I found myself in Chiang Mai at my hotel, the Centara Duangtawan, at sunset.

Even though I  was finally here, it didn’t feel like I was in Thailand. It felt like I was still trying to arrive.

I showered the travel grime off, and went to find some food at the night market. I talk about it in my first video blog: Chiang Mai Night Market, Food Avenue.

After dinner I went a-wanderin’, to try to convince myself that I really was in Thailand. I walked in on a Countdown festival, which is the Thai way of celebrating New Years. Their New Year isn’t until April, believe it or not.

The stage is set, the die is cast!

I happily sought out some famous Thai sausages, full of meaty gingery chilli goodness. And they were everything I’d been dreaming of – so good! You’ve got to have them when you come to Thailand.

I then stumbled into yet another random event: the regular Sunday Walking Market where the city shuts down a few streets and folks just go walking through looking for bargains. Thailand love their markets…

Just keep walking, people.

I still felt displaced, but it was slowly dawning on me that I wasn’t in Kansas anymore, Toto.

When I was here a few years ago, the same friend that features in my vlog and I went and had a beery session at Pirate’s Cove. I realised it was just around the corner from the walking market. I went to find it again in a whim of nostalgia.

I didn’t feel i was in Thailand until I spoke to Lee, the new owner of Pirate’s Cove. Mid-40s, goatee’d and running his bar in a loose shirt, pants and sandals, he’s your typical American ex-pat who left their rat race to settle somewhere foreign and quiet. An intelligent and friendly guy, he reminded me of why I was here: adventure.

And suddenly it clicked: I was in Thailand. I was drinking Chang. A tuk tuk just tore past the bar. The croaking wooden frog ladies were just outside.

I was back.

The Journey, Conclusion

Previously: The Journey, Part One | The Journey, Part Two

I knuckled down one night and did my research.

I decided that I wanted to do another Thai cooking class, so I settled on Thai Cookery School in Chiang Mai. Gorgeous website, and a celebrity chef? Yes please. Booked.

I skimmed Thorn Tree forums and found out about an overnight stay at an Elephant Camp for AUD$120. The first time I saw an elephant in the wild, it was 7am and I was wandering back to my hut in a north Thailand mountain village after visting the loo. I stretched, looked at the top of the hill, and standing right beside a tree silhoutted against the rising sun was an elephant. That moment will stay with me forever. So of course I want to stay overnight with some elephants! Booked.

I was going to be in Thailand for New Years Eve, so I wanted to find somewhere up north to have a bit of a party. Pai came up as the right place – so I’ll be heading there.

But I also heard that Mae Hong Son was pretty awesome for scenery and day treks, and formed part of the Mae Hong Son Loop. Definitely needed to see that. Add to the itinerary.

And then I promised my mum I’d buy her a “blingy watch”. So I needed to go shopping in Bangkok, and what better place than the MBK Centre in Siam Square. So that’s on there.

I fly out of Thailand at midnight on 8th January. It wouldn’t be a trip to Bangkok without a visit to Khao San Road and maybe I will finally, after years of hope, get the chance to eat deep fried grasshoppers. That’s my final stop.

There you go. That’s a trip organised.

Parts of my accommodation are being graciously provided by my hosts, so there’s that taken care of.

I visited a travel doctor – someone who specialises in overseas adventures – to get my jabs and pick up an Emergency Medical Kit. If I eat something that disagrees with me, I’ve now got the medicine to save my dignity and laundry costs.

I dropped into a discount luggage warehouse in West End and picked up an awesome bag under 48cm that I can use for both international and domestic carry on.

Visa? I’m an Australian citizen – under 30 days stay in Thailand, I don’t need a Visa. Tick.

Insurance? I Googled travel insurance and came up with World Nomads. Another quick Google came up with a discount code, so I could save 10%. Easy stuff. Tick.

Money? I’ve been saving more than I need for a trip to the United States. With the bulk of the accommodation covered by my hosts, I had some breathing space. I dipped into my savings. Tick.

So: am I ready?

You’d better believe it.

If you go looking for Adventure, you usually find as much of it as you can manage.  And it often happens that when you think it is ahead, it comes on you unexpectedly from behind.
– Gildor the Elf , J.R.R. Tolkien, early draft of The Lord of the Rings.

The Journey, Part Two

Previously: The Journey, Part One

The offer to travel came out of the blue.

I was just going about another busy day in the office, then:

“Travel for us. Write a tale. We’ll pay for some of the trip.”

I wanted to go – I needed to go – and I could never have afforded the journey on my own right now.

It was as if an unspoken Christmas wish had been heard, and so I found myself with less than a week to plan a trip. I needed insurance, medication, Visas, a new luggage bag (my old one fell apart on my last trip) – and on top of that I needed to actually plan the trip itself.

What would I do in Chiang Mai? Where would I stay? Who would I do it with? Could I travel on my own? Was I even ready to travel on my own?

Of course, I didn’t think about those questions right away. A split second after the offer, I found myself blurting out “Absolutely. I’m there.”

It’s the lizard brain that resists the journey. The part that tells me that I’m not ready, that I haven’t saved enough money, that I haven’t planned this properly, that I’d be stuck in a bad place with no way out.

But then my heart – that loving part of us that gives us courage and creativity and drives us forward – my heart told the lizard brain to GTFO.

Of course I was ready. Honestly, it's the easiest solution. If you don't know the answer, love. See what happens.

Of course I was able.

I’m a capable human being with a rather sizable ability for lateral thinking. I’m like a modern day MacGyver.

Every problem has a solution.

So I set about solving this one.

Concluded in tomorrow’s post: The Journey, Conclusion

“I’ve always wanted to sail to the south seas, but I can’t afford it.”
What these men can’t afford is NOT to go. They are enmeshed in the cancerous discipline of security. And in the worship of security we fling our lives beneath the wheels of routine – and before we know it our lives are gone.
– Sterling Hayden,
Wanderer