Thursday, November 4, 2010

bigger than my body

While Pai was beautiful and amazing for an endless list of reasons, the best one is you meet wonderful people there. Sure these travelers love a good drink, night out, and a bit of ridiculousness. But in general, they are laid back, fun, and good natured people who share the same sense of humor. Or at least the ones that I met were. And the best part is that those friendships have stayed with me for weeks beyond Pai as backpackers inevitably follow the same path around Southeast Asia.

Accidental run-ins are inevitable and luckily more welcomed than anything. One friend introduces another, then a recommendation given, and then a cool hostel discovery, and then you get an unforgettable experience, new travel partners, and a ton of great stories to take with you. These chain of events can be considered “coincidences”, but they happen far too often and are too interlinked to be left solely up to chance. At least I’d like to believe so. It seems the more you open yourself up to these opportunities and let go of a schedule, the more of these “coincidences” will come your way.

The morning I was meant to leave Pai, I got up early to help with a gardening project someone had convinced me to participate in the night before. But the leader had overslept and after awhile I knew I was better off just leaving. At the same time, a girl with her own bike, whom I never met, was going into town to leave as well and offered me a ride. When we reached Pai I asked if she wanted to have breakfast together and she (luckily) suggested my favorite restaurant, The Good Life. I figured it was fate since I could finally manage to catch the free meditation class I always slept through. But after she left, I became distracted, and even though I was 20 minuets early for the class, I
somehow missed it. Don’t ask how, just trust the Universe knew to distract me.

When I became visibly upset for missing the class (yet again) the owner of the restaurant starting chatting with me and as I said goodbye, she offered a compliment about my purse. I offhandedly replied, “It would look a lot better if it weren’t broken”, as the button snap had been destroyed for well over a month. She told me where to get it taken care of and in fact, Dr. Fix-it was standing right next to me. She explained in Thai, he looked at my purse, and then we hopped on his moto and drove to his shop aka bench on the side of the road. While sitting and waiting for this quick and easy fix, an old Pai friend strolled by. “I thought you left!” I exclaimed and he then explained he had, returned only for a couple of nights, but was leaving again that day.

It turned out we were going to the same place, Chiang Mai, and instead of taking the bus like everyone else, he and his mother had rented a car and offered me a ride. They weren’t leaving until much later than I planned, but then again, I never really have any plans. I had a gut feeling though that if the Universe offered me this ride, and through such a chain of coincidental events, I must take it. (If the gardening guy had woken up in time or if I had made the class for example, I would never have run into this friend on the side of the street.) And thankfully it lead me to one of the best mini road trips ever.

My South African friend and his mother were both laid back hippies who smoked the whole way there and cranked Hendrix nonstop. It was great conversation, beautiful scenery, and a million times better than any bus ride. They offered to take me to the hotel they would be staying at and even though I already had another place in mind, I was sure this ride was meant to take me somewhere specific. It turns out, their hotel was actually a reggae bar with some rooms to rent for cheap. Freedom Bar had Bob Marley and Rasta colors on every wall and I knew this rooftop bar would be my new home.

While my friend and his mother left early the next day, there remained a lingering spirit of Pai as it seemed people I never thought I’d see again all managed to find this sweet spot. There were also new people who were Pai bound without even knowing it. We passed along our recommendations and secrets and if the Universe brought me to Freedom Bar for anything, maybe it was to send certain people in the direction of Pai. Without any effort, I had a group of friends and never worried about spending an evening alone, even if I wanted to. With friends to eat with and shop at the market, I found surprisingly little free time to myself, every second relished nonetheless.

Chiang Mai is surprisingly addictive for such a large city; the food is delectable, the people kind, and the overwhelmingly large night market undeniable. Not surprisingly, I stayed longer than expected. First, it was an entire day’s mission to buy a new camera, as my old one had mysteriously disappeared months ago in South Korea (okay, less mysterious and more drunkenly left it in some bar….I think). That was a surreal and frustrating experience as it was like being in a mall back home, Auntie Anne’s and all. The overwhelming and frustrating day luckily ended with Freedom Bar, my new home away from Pai.

The daily night market in Chiang Mai is particularly large, yet the Sunday night one is disturbingly big. I have never seen anything like this and while I was ready to scream because of all the clusterfuck action, I managed to pull it together and get some shopping done. Part of me wished it was the end of my trip so I could go nuts and get gifts for everyone from there. Alas, the experience of endless stalls filled with beautiful yet cheap art and jewelry was enough to satisfy my consumer driven soul.

While Thailand itself is known for great cuisine, the north is in particular famous for exquisite flavor combinations. With influence from so many Burmese refugees and an inundation of foreigners setting up shop, delicious food is bound to be found on every corner, and everywhere in between. But even with all these unique tastes and local cheap eats, I couldn’t resist El Diablo’s Heavenly Burritos. Normally I balk at Mexican food around the world. After all, I am from California and my standards are unfortunately high. But something about the look of this place drew me in. The irony of the sign alone was intriguing. Then when I saw the sign for ‘free chips and salsa’ I knew something was right. (Californians take this gift for granted as I have never seen such an offer outside the States.) So I held my breath and ordered a burrito smothered in guacamole.

Most may not understand why I take so much time and energy to describe one meal of my life, but if you knew me and my adoration for Mexican food, you’d understand what a huge moment this was for me. This was, by far, the best burrito I’ve found outside of California and, to be honest, if it were home, it I would eat there regularly. Because of lack of supplies, everything had to be made fresh and from scratch, which beats most places from home as tortillas are cheaper and faster store bought. It was so good I had to ask for the owner just to shake his hand. The American born gentleman found my extreme love of burritos hilarious and we had a good chat while I entertained ideas of opening my own burrito shop somewhere in the world.

By this point, it became hard to leave Freedom Bar. Not only had I acquired a gang, but the locals who ran it were super generous and fun. This group of Thai hippie guys had one leader: Mama. The sweetest, tiniest old lady who lived in pajamas and drank and smoked like a champ was always making food and sharing with the guests, free of charge. To say she genuinely cared about people would be an understatement. And when they didn’t have any greens to sell, the “manager” just gave me his stash for free. When I didn’t take it all, he dumped it out on my table and said, “No, I said it’s all for you. Just take it”, as if not taking all of his supplies was rude. It’s hard to imagine staying there longer than a week because I would be straight up family by then.

But unfortunately my time was up. Giving myself not a single extra day on my visa, I had to get to Laos or face horrifying late exit fees. I had heard rumors of a free two month visa one could acquire from the Thai embassy in Laos, and I knew before I even left I had to get this. There was no way two weeks would ever be enough in Thailand.

And so I set out for Laos via an overnight bus to the border and then a slow boat cruise into the first main city. As I mentally prepared myself to be on my own for the first time, the Universe was busy planning something else.

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