A Postcard from Northern Thailand Part 1: Ride or Pai

Whats in this story

I had spent six days in total silence.

Nestled in a hut high up in the mountains and deep in the forest, where the temperature drops more than 25 degrees once the sun goes down, each night I would wrap myself in a small thin, blanket and curl up on a hard, wooden bed.

With just two small meals of rice and vegetables consumed before high noon, I practiced staving off hunger the rest of the day by sipping warm, yellow tea.

It was unfamiliar in the most fascinating ways. A version of consciousness I had never experienced before.A conceptual adventure.

Believe me when I say, it was great and all…

But I wanted to drive fast and jump off a cliff into an icey cold waterfall.

And so, after just six days in solitude, I found myself waiting on a bench on the edge of the road for a car that I was told would take me to Pai, a small, thriving, hippie town three hours north of Chiang Mai.

My ride arrived an hour and a half late, a common complication in Thailand that I never minded a bit. It was a songthaew packed from wall to wall with used kitchen appliances. Nestled beside heaps of metal, there was one small space left on the bench, dangerously close to the open back of the truck. The driver smiled and gestured to the seat. I looked at him suspiciously and then gestured to my ass, quite sure it wouldn’t fit.

“It’s okay,” he assured me, before taking my backpack and shoving it forcefully between a fridge and a washing machine. “Fuck it,” I thought, “I wanted some excitement. Here it is.” I hopped in the back and held on tight.

We wove for an hour and a half up winding mountain roads at a speed I’m quite sure Evel Knievel wouldn’t have been comfortable with. Twenty minutes in I gave up trying to save the brooms and plastic trash bins from flying out the back and applied all of my focus towards not vomiting.

After what felt like ages in my state of unwellness, we stopped on the side of the road. I exhaled deeply. “Thank god,” I thought, luxuriating in the momentary stillness of the vehicle. The driver hopped out and came around to the back of the truck. He started gesturing down a long side street, trying to find words to explain something I wasn’t quite understanding. I pushed my brows together and shook my head apologetically to express my unfortunate lack of comprehension.

He graciously found a couple of words in English that he thought best explained what was a about to happen. “Twenty minutes,” he said before running back to his place in the driver seat. We turned down the side street and I knew right away we were no longer in route to Pai. This was most certainly a detour, one that probably would have held a lot more intrigue had I not been on the cusp of violent illness.

After twenty minutes of speeding down the dirt road, we turned into a space between the two sides of a tall, wooden fence. There at the end of a driveway sat a hut, long and thin as if it were made of a play doh snake that had been stretched between two greedy hands.  It was topped with a messy straw roof and had a large, cluttered porch; the floor of it covered with damp looking cardboard. A group of women and children sat upon it, fanning themselves in the late afternoon heat. Once we parked, a younger man, about my age, who had been riding as the passenger in the cab of the truck came to the back and with a reassuring smile, gestured for me to get out. I did, with a hint of uncharacteristic skepticism. He took out my backpack and placed it gently in the uncut, dead grass and smiled once more before turning and running into the house. As if looking for reassurance, I offered my own smile to the women on the porch and it wasn’t returned. I waved to a little girl, about four years old, who had hopped off of her perch to stare at me curiously. She too, ignored my friendliness.

I slowly and awkwardly lowered myself down until I was sitting on my backpack and began watching a cluck of chicks follow their mother around the yard. One of the many dogs scattered about the property walked by and I called to him with the love and automatic kinship I extend toward all members of his species. He seemed ready to accept my offered affections until one of the women on the porch made a small hissing sound, and he quickly scampered away.

Just then, the driver and the younger boy bounded out of the hut, followed by two more men. The boy looked at me warmly once more before hopping into the songthaew. He began passing the appliances out through the back with more ease than I expected. The other three men received them laboriously. I began to push myself up, prepared to offer my assistance. But as if reading my mind, the boy shot me a look from the back of the truck; the unmistakable, universal look for ‘don’t even think about it.’

Just happy to have understood something, anything, I complied, flopping back down onto my pack. Sure, we would be there a while, I settled in and pulled out my headphones. I picked an album I thought would nicely accompany the scene of hopping chicks and watched them intently as I tried to ignore the feeling of being watched.  However, my compulsive politeness prevailed and over and over, I glanced up towards the porch, just to have my desperate but warm smiles cooled with unresponsive stares.

After a half hour, my young friend pulled the sweater off that was tied around his waist and kindly used it to wipe down the now empty seats of the songthaew for me. He waved gingerly to get my attention and then offered his hand to help me into the back of the truck.  In a couple more minutes we were backing down the driveway. In one last, ditch effort, I gave what my best friend calls my “winning movie star smile” and waved exaggeratedly, like a pageant queen, towards my could-have-been friends on the porch.

They remained stoney as ever, but I laughed the whole way to Pai.