“All right,” my mom asked me the other night, moments after I’d signed onto Skype, “what’s going on?”
“What do you mean?” I replied.
She bluntly observed, with a turn of phrase that makes my mother awesomely different from other moms, that the grin on my face suggested I’d been eating something one should never eat.
I glanced down at the tiny box in the bottom corner of my computer screen, where I could see what my mom was watching on her own screen back in California. It was true — my cheeks were extra chubby, and both my molars and my dimples were clearly visible, even in the half-light of 10:00 p.m. “Oh, that!” I smiled a little wider. “It’s just this town I’m in! It’s just — I’m in the hippie capital of Thailand!”
“Of course. Of course you are,” she chuckled.
Three days later, I’m still thrilled to be in Pai. About a three-hour, nauseatingly curvy drive north of Chiang Mai, Pai used to be a sleepy little mountain town in northern Thailand until a few visiting hippies discovered how scenic, laid-back, and friendly it was. It quickly morphed into a haven for everyone from dreadlocked Thais to farang (read: white) backpackers like yours truly, and anyone else looking to chill out for a few days (which can quickly turn into a few weeks or more). There are locals here, yes (about 3,000 of them), and there are also a lot of backpackers.
As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not one to overlook the inherent qualities of any place just because there may be a lot of white people there, and Pai’s got enough going for it besides popularity to make a high-strung hippie like me wonder how it took me so long to find this place. Mix in Pai’s breathtaking mountain views, laid-back pace of life, and general “love is the answer” vibe, and it’s no wonder I’ve fallen so quickly and so hard for this town.
So here, in no particular order, is a list of reasons why I love Pai, why I feel at ease here, and why I’ll be sad to leave tonight when we begin our literal slow-boat journey into Laos.
1. Because as I write at this very moment, I’m sipping an iced coffee and eating a vegan chocolate cookie while organic wheat grass grows in trays behind my chair. Which, for the record, is a wooden swing.
2. Because this is a town that can’t resist putting a smiley face in every O, a heart on every road sign, an uplifting plea for peace and love in front of every cafe. I don’t generally like being told how to feel. But I defy you to look at these street signs and not smile:
3. Because the bridge over the river and into town is a precariously lashed-together bamboo affair that creaks and bounces as you walk across. Because there’s a hand-written sign at the end of the bridge asking people not to ride their motorbikes across the poor, dilapidated thing. And, most of all, because people actually respect that instruction.
4. Because there is a local guy who dresses up like Jack Sparrow, takes pictures of himself in ridiculous scenarios all over the region, and sells them as postcards out of the back of his VW bug.
5. Because this is the bank:
6. Because just when you start to think you could be in Sebastopol, or Portland, or Mendocino County, you turn the corner and get a giant, gilded reminder that you’re actually in Thailand.
7. Because the cows grazing down by the river wear little bells around their necks.
8. Because we’re currently staying in a private bungalow in the center of town for a grand total of US $9.50 per night.
9. Because the community notice board in town lists everything from mountain treks, to reiki workshops, to river rafting, aromatherapy, massage, and elephant rides.
10. Because in New York, my favorite yoga class cost $15 for 60 minutes in a room cramped with 30 other people. It was taught by an (excellent) instructor who frequently appears in the pages of People magazine on the arm of a very famous actor. But yesterday I paid $6 for a two-hour course with four other people in a teak-wood hut. I peered between gaps in the uneven floorboards in downward dog, and gazed out the un-screened windows at upside-down hillsides in full wheel. Our 67-year-old teacher went by the name of Mama, and fed us home-cooked curry and rice sitting cross-legged on the floor after we’d finished our inversions.
11. Because seemingly every ten minutes, I find myself humming my favorite Bob Dylan song and thinking about how tailor-made it seems for Pai: “Flowers on a hillside bloomin’ crazy/crickets talking back and forth in rhyme/ blue river running slow and lazy/ I could stay with you forever and never realize the time.”
12. Because every cafe menu has an extensive vegetarian section, every little outdoor bar has live music, and every street has nighttime vendors selling hand-crafted jewelry and made-to-order spring rolls.
13. Because, most of all, it’s made me just relax and forget about planning the next step. Hey, I’ll have plenty of time to read about Laos on the boat.