When the songthaew finally pulled into the village, I eagerly hopped out the back of the truck and threw my backpack over my shoulder, happy to have my feet back on solid, unmoving ground. The driver came around back to collect the small amount of cash I owed him and kindly asked which hostel I was staying in so he could point me left or right.
I had gotten into the habit of spontaneously catching a ride and worrying about where I’d sleep once I arrived wherever I was going. “Oh, I don’t really know yet. I’ll figure it out,” I told him.
Either he didn’t understand my too-quick way of speaking or he thought I was totally nuts because he just laughed and shook his head as I ran across the street to a shop displaying handmade guitars in the window.
I took my time, admiring them for a while. I pet the soft, gray cat that was fast asleep on the register for longer than the man who owned the shop seemed comfortable with and then I continued on. I walked down a street that looked like it might have been the main drag and then down another and another until I found myself on a quiet road with a sign for a guest house. I walked down the long driveway to find that, hidden in the back, was a colorful little wonderland. I gasped in excitement. A strip of white houses with bright blue roofs. Vibrant pink flowers and luscious green vines surrounded them all. Unicorn figurines were placed on the front yards and there was beautiful wooden swing outside one of the front doors that I was quite sure would turn me into a forest-fairy if I swung on it for long enough.
I found an older couple sitting on a couch in a small hut across from the homes. They greeted me with customary Thai kindness and then I asked, “How much!?” Quite sure the most magical place I had ever seen would not fit into my very limited budget.
“300 Baht a night,” she told me with a smile.
About 6 USD. It says a lot about how little money I was traveling with that I actually had to take moment to consider…
But three minutes later the old man was walking me to the front door of my own little purple house. The one with the fairy swing out front.
It had a soft, king size bed, a vanity, a TV with lots of Thai channels I couldn’t understand but watched anyway, and a shower with hot water. And best of all, I was alone! I took off my traveled in clothes and danced around in my underwear. After three weeks of budget travel and crowded dorm hostels, I felt like a queen.
After a long, hot shower I put on makeup (at my fancy vanity *eh hem*) for the first time in three weeks. Clean and lovely, I headed out to do explore the hippie town everyone speaks so highly of.
Once I hit that main drag I saw that to my wonderment, the majority of the village had turned itself into a walking night market. For just the second time in my life I felt instantly at home in a brand new city. It sent goosebumps across my whole body. Delicious smelling food and eccentric handmade goods were gloriously displayed along both sides of every road. I stopped to look all of it. Touching the soft scarves and small hand-carved trinkets. The vendors were kind. We exchanged names and stories and sometimes cash for goods.
Once it occurred to me that I hadn’t eaten in 14 hours, I set out to find the perfect Pai meal. I saw beautiful dish after beautiful dish but I kept searching. Then, at the very end of the main road, I found a small man with gorgeous dreadlocks that slapped playfully at the back of his knees. He stood beneath a sign that said PAD THAI – TOFU & CASHEW NUT. He cooked quickly, his arms whipping out with intention. The woman waiting in front of me leaned back to say quietly, as if letting me in on a well-kept secret, that he was cooking up the best pad thai I’d ever taste.
“Sold!” I told her.
I waited until she was served and walked up the man grinning at me behind his lovely, home-made booth.
“ I’ll take one, please!”
“You got it!” he said with a friendly wink.
He started cooking right away, telling me about each ingredient as he threw it on the stovetop. Before long we were shooting the shit. I told a couple of jokes that made him throw his head back with laughter and his dreads dance behind him. When he finished cooking he offered me the chair beside him so we could continue on that way while I ate. I sat, feasted on the best pad thai I had ever tasted and laughed with my new friend.
When I was finished we said our goodbyes and I set off to find beer. I wound up placing myself at a big table in an outdoor bar. As a man crooned into a ratty looking mic, I ordered a large, cheap beer. I settled in and took out my phone and began sending messages to all the friends I missed at home, and before long, a group of four came in looking for a seat. I quickly offered them my table as it was meant for four and not one, telling them I was cool with heading to the bar.
“No! You’ll sit with us!” one man exclaimed, plopping down in the chair across from me. The rest shouted in agreement, pulled out their chairs and offered their hands. Three men and a woman. All of them met within the month, traveling around Southeast Asia. A couple of them met just an hour ago. They were loud and crazy and on a mission to get drunk, buying shots and buckets of liquor over and over.
The men were fun, but the woman and I clicked. We spoke openly and familiarly. We quickly found that, although the things that pushed us out the door of our last homes were different, we were seeking the same things from solo travel. Of things we agreed on that night, the final one was that we would have an adventure together the following afternoon.
And so in the morning, my kindred spirit and I found a place to rent a motorbike. I elected her to drive, as I had never done it before and she was well practiced. 100 Baht and a couple of silly selfies later, we set off in search of a waterfall. Along the way we found abandoned temples, massive shrines to Buddha and Pai Canyon — a plateau of red rock looking over a vast green, canyon. We stopped often and easily, enjoying all the strangeness of the little mountain village; the colorful theme-cafes and the odd robot statues that were strewn along the side of the road.
But eventually, we found our way to the elusive waterfall.
I had never seen one in person before… I stared in awe at the rush of dark blue pounding down on white-washed rocks. A juxtaposingly soft mist sparkled above the place where the falling water brutalized the pool.
We stepped into the ankle deep water and I began stripping off my shorts and tank top.
“No way I’m going swimming in there! It’s much too cold!” shouted my friend who was raised in a much warmer climate than my icey Boston. I laughed, running towards the water. Nothing was stopping me.
I’d dreamt of bathing in a waterfall since I was a child. There seemed to be something enchanted about it. Magical even. I dove in and did a lazy backstroke until I reached the waterfall. I held tight to a broken tree trunk and tossed my head back so that water hit the top of my head, my neck, my shoulders. It hurt a little but I laughed. I stayed that way for almost 20 minutes, my friend smoking cigarettes at the edge of the pool, smiling and shaking her head at me all the while.
That night she and I got together again for drinks. We met a bunch of men from Argentina and partied with them until the clubs closed.
She asked if I was hungry on the way out of the last bar, nodding towards a food truck across the street.
“No,” I said. I was still full from dinner. She asked what I had eaten…
“Pad Thai with tofu and cashew nuts.”
I had gone back for seconds of the best Pad Thai I had ever tasted.