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.

A street food vendor in Pai, which had some of the best little street snacks I've had in Thailand: pan-fried chicken dumplings, miniature omelets with sausage and tomato, custard- and rum-raisin-filled waffles, and what appeared to be fried wedges of something potato-y with a delicious spicy dipping sauce. It was pretty easy to eat dinner walking from one end of this tiny town to the other, snacking along the way.

The lazy Pai river, straddled by thatched cottages and a couple of restaurants, and navigated solely by the occasional bamboo raft. The water was clear, cool and inviting, though I stayed away from anything more adventurous than a couple of head dunks and one or two full immersions – and always the closed mouth.

Another prime example of the quiet majesty of a Pai morning.

Standing below a waterfall outside of Pai. It was the dry season, otherwise this waterfall would have been a bit more impressive. Still, it was a beautiful spot and cool way to pass part of the hot day.

Morning on the Pai river. It takes a little bit for the sun to burn through the chilly morning mist that covers the valley surrounding Pai. The few mornings I spent in Pai were among the most beautiful I had seen in Thailand.
A lotus flower in a small clay water basin at a place call the Treehouse Resort in Pai, where a giant treehouse with several rooms for rent had been constructed overlooking the Pai river. In the background, the mountains surrounding Pai.

My cottage just outside of the town of Pai. The bathrooms were outside, but I had lights and a hammock and a warm quilt for the cold nights. What else does one need, really? Unfortunately, I came down with a small stomach bug in Pai and was laid out in the cottage for a day, sweating and retching through what I imagined to be malaria-induced dreams. The next day I was fine. Lesson lerned? Don't eat the tuna fish salad.
The sleepy, hippy town of Pai, which is like the Boulder of Thailand, with its share of young dredlocked locals and Westerners, reggae and dance clubs, and people just generally doing nothing.
A child strikes a pondering pose at the Sunday night market in Chiang Mai.
A hill tribe woman pauses during pushing her trinkets at the Sunday night market to pose for a picture. At first I thought these women were nice enough and interesting, but after a while their pushy tactics become obnoxious. If you show any interest at all, it is nearly impossible to shake their insistent pleading and bargaining.
A bookstore in Chiang Mai packed with Thai-language novels, magazines and comic books. Nothing for me to read here, but Chiang Mai had plenty of English-language bookstores to peruse. An interesting aside: Thais apparently don't read much – at least not like Western book junkies – and there is no lengthy history of Thai literature – perhaps, as was speculated one night with some expatriates, because Thailand was never colonized. Lately, a few Thai writers have begun to make a name for themselves, but they are not really known outside of Thailand.
A blind musician plays for baht at the Sunday night market along the main road in the old city. A nearby school specializes in teaching blind people how to play different instruments.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The mountains above Pai reflected in a mirror at an outdoor roadside bathroom.
A man on his way out of town walked past my cottage and paused after lighting a cigarette to pose for a picture.
A lone walker crosses the footbridge over the river Pai in the early morning. For three days I woke up in Pai with mist surrounding my cottage and the nearby buildings of the town and hovering over the river. Set in a low valley, Pai doesn't see the sun until well after nine, and even then it doesn't really get hot until noon. But when the sun is high, Pai temperatures – even in January – can push above 100 degrees.
A lotus flower in a small pond in Pai. These small vibrant flowers are everywhere in Thailand, but this is my favorite captured image so far.
A cow in a field outside of Pai, a small hippy enclave three hours north of Chiang Mai. Every morning a local farmer would walk his three cows down from the hill above town, past my thatched roof cottage, and deposit them in the enjoining field to graze. Pai was quiet and hot during the day, and quiet and cold at night.
Two hens battle fiercely in a dirt yard next to the bus station in Pai. A few minutes later, a rooster appears in the background, above the fray but no doubt the object of the hens' dispute. Roosters in Thailand are beautiful, bold, strutting creatures who crow and cockle, not just in the morning, but often throughout the night.

Goodbye Chiang Mai

Where to begin? My time in this old imperial city has been amazing: I've met great people, devoured great food, absorbed sights and smells, gotten crash courses in Thai culture and taken in travel suggestions for moving on.

I had the pleasure of spending a few hours at a local restaurant where Obama's inauguration was live on the television. I was the only one in the place – save a local girl behind the bar – who seemed interested in the event, and the sound was been turned off. But still I managed to absorb the gravity of the moment and shed a couple of tears, hoping with all my might that a silent shot wouldn't ring out across the National Mall. Heavy thoughts, I know, but an eerie premonition has been weighing on me since the election, and I was relieved that the oath faux pas was the only disaster of the day.

In general, many Thais are excited about Obama – though, as with politics the world over, there is a fair amount of ambivalence as well. I saw a tuk-tuk driver with an Obama bumper sticker, and I gave my Obama T-shirt to a local barber, who was quite excited. But others looked at me blankly when I mentioned anything about it.

But politics has far from defined my time in Chiang Mai.

Another night, after wandering in and out of wats before dusk settled, I stumbled into a local club, P.S. Snooker, where I met Bob and Alan, a couple of media-minded British expats who eventually warmed up to my intrusion and were kind enough to show me the game. As the three of us discussed local events, recent movies and the subtleties and difficulties of the Thai language, a thick girl wearing all pink and a big smile racked the balls, kept score and brought soda waters with lime.

It turned out that Bob owned a local spot called The Writers Club & Wine Bar, a hangout for local wordsmiths and a meeting spot for likeminded souls. Bob invited me to an informal gathering that Friday where I met a fellow journalist, Tom, who gave me the skinny on Cambodia, and a filmmaker, Neville, who joined me a rousing discussion of conspiracy theories involving the economy, Sept. 11 and the powers that be. Throughout my time in Chiang Mai, The Writer's Club was a great resource and I stopped by occasionally to ask questions about local customs and glean information about destinations beyond. If I ever make it back to CM, I know where to find my people.

The day after meeting Bob and Alan, I rented a scooter, picked up a bag of oranges from a small street market and took off with only a vague idea of where I'm going or how to get there ("Sometime getting lost beautiful way to go," the woman who runs my guesthouse tells me).

The scooter was pretty zippy for an automatic, and (Mom, stop reading) I get it up to 80 km/hr on the highway north of town. Eventually, I turn off the highway onto the road to Prem International School, a sprawling luxurious complex of clean buildings and tended fields, set in the quiet lush countryside a half hour north of Chiang Mai proper. My contact, one of the school's directors, is away in Bangkok, so I leave a note and share a couple of oranges with the guards at the gate, who are pleasant and thankful for the snack.

Back on the small paved lane that runs past the school, I race further into the beckoning landscape, enjoying the wind in my face and the rising and falling, twisting and turning of the road. I ride through small villages and past empty temples until I come to the end of the road – literally. The asphalt came to an abrupt conclusion and I turned around and headed back toward civilization.

At a roadside string of stalls, I purchase a bottle of water from a woman who marvels at my scooter and my camera – she is shy and giggly, but reluctantly lets me take her picture – and the other villagers at the their stalls titter something about the farang – Thai for foreigner – before I jump back on the scooter and back to Chiang Mai.

I get a little lost – for real this time – on my way back, and make two consecutive loops past and through a large intersection (at red lights I am surrounded by dozens of other scooters filled with locals on their way home) trying to hit the right exit headed back south.

I finally pull into Chiang Mai just before sundown, and cap the day on a small restaurant patio across the street from the Chiang Mai's imperial moat of green water that surrounds the old city, the warm night breeze carrying sounds of traffic, smells of street vendors and the night shops buzzing to life.
One of the many temple buildings found within the old city of Chiang Mai. The grounds of this wat were quiet and dense with low overhanging trees and shadowed walkways. I approached the front of a shrine – a golden glowing Buddha visible from the entrance – but didn't feel right about entering, as people were praying and I have yet to feel comfortable investigating the intimacies of a religion not mine and far older than the whole of European history.
A view of Chiang Mai from the hills above the city. I took a scooter out one day trying to find the wat at Doi Suthep, but wound up at a quiet resort overlooking this old, quiet and lovely northern town. The vista I found to take this photo was populated by high school kids sitting in the grass, playing games and enjoying the last vestigages of light.

Sour, sweet, salty, spicy

It takes me a while – and I must have walked by it at least twice – but I finally found Sailomyoy, a recommended hole-in-the-wall just inside the old city and the first of many food spots I frequented in Chiang Mai. On my first visit, I ordered the Chiang Mai noodles (how could I not?) and a spicy papaya salad, which was rumored to be the best in town.

The noodles came with a small tray of garnishes: pickled vegetables, chopped fresh shallots, a thick wedge of lime and a healthy pinch of crushed roasted red chilies – at last, I thought, the spice I've been looking for!

Indeed. Ramen-like, the noodles came swimming in a spicy rust-colored broth with hints of curry and coconut topped by a nest of crispy fried noodles. I sprinkled the garnishes over everything, got generous with the lime wedge and dug in. I devoured half the bowl, ignoring the pedestrian traffic less than five feet from my table, and my nose was beginning to run by the time my papaya salad – cool, crunchy, spicy and refreshing – arrived.

The salad was the perfect blend of not-to-sweet young papaya and fresh green hot peppers. Crushed peanuts, green beans and dried miniature shrimp rounded out the vinegar tang of the salad's dressing. And I couldn't help adding another sprinkle of the roasted chili flake, which may have proved to be a little over the top. As I stepped satiated into the street, my nose was in a full run and I was visibly sweating – all in all, one of my most successful lunches.

On my second and third returns to Sailomyoy, I again enjoyed the Chiang Mai noodles and also partook of the classic Pad Thai. The local version, which beats anything I've had back home, came with a handful of large shrimp and another tray of garnish: the ubiquitous roasted chilies, pickled hot peppers, spicy oil, brown sugar and the ever-present lime wedge. Sprinkled over the simple wok-fried noodles tossed with a bit of egg, the garnishes result in a blend of flavors that is intriguing and addictive (see title of this posting).

Among the other culinary delights I uncover in Chiang Mai?

At Aroon Rai Р"The best curry in town" Рa traditional northern Thai restaurant Р"only one anywhere" Рslow-cooked pork saut̩ed with tomatoes and chili paste served over simple sticky rice was perhaps my favorite meal in town. The dish was rich, tangy and slightly bitter, and reminded me more of a Moroccan stew than any concept I had of Thai food. Only composure and a regard for etiquette kept me from licking the bowl clean.

At Huang Luan Inn, a quiet two-story intimate spot with a slew of clocks hanging on the walls, a semi-spicy rich red Panaeng curry with shrimp, hearts of palm, sweet basil and wild lime leaves was well worth the scooter ride out of the old city. It was simple, but lived up to my every expectation of a thick Thai curry dish.

The Wok is a cooking school in the old city that doubles as a restaurant, its outside patio perfect for whiling away the afternoon. I started with a dish called Galloping Horses – minced prawns, pork and sausage cooked down with herb paste and smeared on slices of pineapple and orange – which was interesting but a bit too sweet for a starter (and too rich for desert). Then on to a spicy beef salad (more beef than salad), where strips of medium rare steak competed with thin slices of cucumber, strips of tomato, diced shallots, a salty vinegar dressing, a fistful of chopped mint and a chopped handful of these little green hot peppers I'm quickly falling in love with. It was easily the spiciest dish I've had in Thailand, and I leave with tears welling in my eyes.

At the Sunday night market, a sprawling affair that runs the length of the old city, I marveled at the food offerings on hand – tossed pan-fried noodles, fruit sorbets, more grilled somethings-on-a-stick, fresh fruits and vegetable – but full from dinner I finally settle on a slice of lemon cheese cake, which was more cake than cheese, more pudding than cake. Rich, light and lemony the cake – eaten on the patio of my guesthouse – disappeared in five grinning bites.