Friday, February 6, 2009

Do nothing in Pai

This is Benny. Benny is Swedish and, I swear, has two lazy eyes. Benny is also drunk on indigenous rice wine at 7 a.m., married to a local hill tribe woman and has lived in Pai proper for the last six years.

Benny is emphatic about the loyalty and passion of his hill tribe people, and he points to an older woman across the street who gave him the rice wine – pale pink liquid in a resealable plastic bag – producing a gesture of gratitude.

"She's a sweetheart," he says. "Rock and fuckin' roll, that woman. Hardcore clan people."

He says he lived in the hills for several years before coming down into Pai, where he doesn't work, occasionally gathers glass bottles and aluminum cans for less than 1 baht a piece and collects a pension from the Swedish government.

What brought Benny to Thailand from Helen, Sweden, he tells me, is "pure fucking desperation" – a phrase he doesn't seem interested in expounding upon, but which I gathered had to do with drugs or the law. He strikes me as a rough and cantankerous person, but his love for the local culture – and particularly his tribe people, who I gather have taken him in – is apparent.

It is my last day in Pai, and I have woken up early to wander and take pictures of the town – a small hippy enclave several hours from the Burmese border, full of farang, local hipsters and quiet families. I end up talking to Benny in the street, his story proves fascinating, and he embodies the anti-Thai-ness of Pai.

"You've got to start your morning anyway," Benny tells me. "Might as well start it with me."

I ask him if he is concerned that too many people will find out about this pleasant little place and ruin its rustic charm. But he says he is not one of these farangs who try to hoard Pai and the surrounding area for themselves.

"Open the door bigger," he tells me. "Let all the farangs come with their families."

Benny is unshaven, wearing a grungy yellow sweatshirt, a black knit cap with a skull and crossbones stitched in, a pair of blue fishing pants and a black leather jacket covered in biker patches: Hell's Angels, a Viking, the yellow and blue geometry of the Swedish flag and another patch that he tells me means something about skinheads against Nazis.

"I hate fucking hippies," Benny says, which was a strange statement coming from a man who has holed himself up in potentially the biggest hippy den in all of Thailand. "Politically, I'm a hardcore punk anarchist – old school anarchist." He also tells me he is friendly with all the bikers in Thailand, who he says are "the best." "Everyone is a sweetheart. We don't run around shooting anybody," he says.

Benny, in all of his boisterous glory, is a perfect example of what another farang, Mac, told me is the official town motto: Do nothing in Pai.

Mac is from England and "owns" a bar in town (foreigners are not technically allowed to own businesses in Thailand, so they typically have to go into partnerships with willing locals). He lost his right arm in his twenties in a motorcycle accident, and has a snaggled smile, a greasy ponytail and a lopsided gait. After twenty years in the casino business, he tells me, it's easier to ask him where he hasn't worked. He came to Pai two years ago planning to stay only a couple of nights, and has been in Pai ever since. Like most farang in Thailand, he makes regular border runs to Burma or Laos to avoid any troubles with the Thai government.

One night in front of a shisha shack, Mac tells me about all the "Bangkok money" that has been pouring into Pai since he arrived, and the commercialism and development it has engendered. A supermarket chain has bought land in town, but hasn't started building yet because of local opposition. No one in town wants the supermarket around because it would hurt local business. Mac sympathizes with this point of view, but admits it would be nice to be able to buy creature comforts – like Campbell's soup – that simply aren't available in this town of less than 5,000 people.

He estimates that there are about 500 farang living in Pai, 200 of which are influential – Mac being one of them. He has opened three bars since his arrival two years ago; his latest cost him around $30,000, and he estimates its worth at $1 million. He figures he could open up another bar in Pai – completely stocked and furnished – in less than seven days.

He regales me with small tales of Mae Sot, a Thai town on the Burmese border, seven hours from Pai, which serves as a major conduit for guns, drugs, people and gold. It also houses a refugee camp populated by some 50,000 Burmese refugees. The Thai side of the town is rich with big houses and SUVs, while the Burmese side is burdened with a population that can't find enough to eat.

Later that night Mac introduces me to his friend Paul, an Irishman who also "owns" a bar in town. We sit on Paul's bar's patio with a small group of other farang, who appear to be well indoctrinated to the Pai lifestyle.

Paul quit his job in finance making six figures a year, and took a job "farming" (pot, I assumed) in California where the owners of the farm turned out to be crack heads and guns freaks and often left their employees with no food. He appeared quite happy to be out of California and living in Thailand. I mention to Paul that I do a bit of graphic design and could maybe help spruce up the look of his menu and signage, as his place appeared lagging for business.

"But that would mean more customers," Paul sighed. "The point in Pai is not to be busy. Running a bar is hard work, mate. If I had more customers, we couldn't hang out. I'd be working."

Do nothing in Pai, indeed.

1 comment:

  1. I'm ready to throw caution to the wind and start collecting cans with Benny in Pai. No. Really. One more day in a cubicle and I'm on my way. Pai sounds amazing.