Started the day by visiting a famous mountain-top Buddhist temple in the morning – Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep, some 15km out of Chiang Mai, and considered a sacred site to the Thais. At the base of the holy grounds we were given two choices to reach the temple – climb 309 steps for free, or take a tram. It was early, our legs were still waking up, we were lazy. The tram ride up was nice, and the views on either side pretty.
We took off our shoes as is the rule when entering such sacred places. It was a lovely place, littered with pagodas, bells, shrines, statues, including one of an emerald Buddha and also one of Ganesh, for this place draws on both buddhist and hindu influences. At one pagoda a large group of Thais were walking around to the ring of a bell, eyes closed as though in a blissful trance. We enjoyed a pleasant morning, then, and after this we jumped in our hired taxi again (we’d ditched Aun, our previous driver that morning as I was fed up of him and his general uselessness) and headed for the bus station, where we caught a minivan to Pai.
I was looking forward to Pai – a small town 80km away from Chiang Mai set amidst lush rice terraces, set beside a river, and close to the longneck hill tribes like Karen and Hmong. The surrounding valley brings all kinds of tribespeople to Pai, and they offer an excellent night market. Small guesthouses dot the town, and fancy spa resorts are set in the lush green hills around. To get there takes a bit of effort – and is not for those who get car sick easily. The road from Chiang Mai to Pai is well-paved but has hundreds of dangerous curves that throw you around in like a rag doll if you don’t hold on tight. It took over 3 hours to get there.
We arrived in the town at dusk. There was a quiet buzz to the place. The main road was flanked by little bars, restaurants, guesthouses and hippy stalls full of identical-looking farang (foreigner) hippies with identical dreadlocks, grubby old clothes and shawls, piercings all over their faces – you know the type, conforming to the hippy life in their trying not to conform. Some had probably been here for years, lost in a cloud of ganja smoke and gorged on magic mushroom omelettes. Because if you’re a hippy, you have to partake – after all, even hippies need to feel the love of belonging to a group. And so here we were, in Pai, quaint and cool, a chill in the wet air. An altogether more buzzing yet more charming place than Chiang Mai. We found a guesthouse after wandering unsuccessfully into a few other places that weren’t what we were looking for, were too expensive, or full. We found Ban Pai Riverside Bungalows. Nice, thatched bungalows, decent-sized hard bed, mosquito net around it. Great balcony. Simple and perfect. We headed out into the darkening streets, soft lights, soft music, the occasional motorbike clucking softly past. We booked a rafting trip with Thai Adventure Rafting. Outside the shop, I saw a Ukranian girl who was speaking Thai with the raft operator. I asked her if, by chance, she know Maxim, a Russian guy who used to be my student and who now trains people at the Kung Fu School in Pai. She knew him, of course. And she knew Dougal too, my mate, colleague and bandmate. Small world.
The girl, Eva, phoned Maxim, who I then spoke with. Maxim seemed very pleased to have visitors, and invited me and Vero over to his house that very evening. Eva told me she’d meet us and lead the way on her motorbike. Great. We paid for the rafting trip – B300, then went to rent a motorbike. We drove to a nice restaurant on a quiet corner for dinner, where a guy with a guitar and a percussion player were performing. We kicked back with a couple of changs and a green curry, then drove back towards the hotel, where we met Eva. We headed to 7-11 to stock up on booze, then headed on to Maxim’s house.
Max lived in a lovely stilt cottage on rice fields in a tranquil little village. Beautiful surrounds. Quiet. He greeted us upon arrival, and invited us to sit on his terrace. He’d lost 10kg since I’d last seen him, and looked lean and fit, but worn at the same time, as though all his early mornings and strict regimes were taking their toll. We met a lady friend of his, a Mexican girl, a student at the Kung Fu school, who sported the same slightly worn look. The demands of paradise were etched on both their faces. Eva was here in Pai because she’d married a Thai man she’d met whilst working as a dancer or a waitress somewhere. She said she fell in love with him, and he asked her to marry him. She refused initially, but accepted his invitation to Pai. Once here, she fell in love with the place, and when he proposed again she accepted, captivated by the magical aura of the town. She’s been here a couple of years now, selling home-made cakes to make ends meet. She hasn’t returned to the Ukraine since she arrived in Pai.
Another Russian joined us, another Kung Fu school member, who’d been here for 3 months and how looked a bit like Spud from Trainspotting. It was his birthday, and at midnight, we toasted his 30th year as we listened to some Russian rap song the birthday boy had produced, which was all about Kung Fu and had ‘Master Tan’ – the guru from Singapore and Dougal’s teacher – as special guest on spoken word at the start. It was as bad as it sounded, especially after Max insisted we listen about 20 more times, in complete silence, as, the other Russian and Ukranian nodded heads seriously in time to the beat.
So the Russians are in Pai in great number, it seems. They are taking over Thailand in the same way the Brits have taken over coastal Spain, with similar consequences. We Brits can hardly complain. We drank and smoked and talked, and Max was clearly relishing his role as leader of this group. He strikes a deadly serious look, but, as with many Russians, he is really funny and a genuinely nice person, grounded not yet carried away. We all drew closer that evening, masquerading as good friends under the illusion of alcohol and wrongly perceived infinity of time, as are most friendships made once school’s out. It was a lovely evening, and even the house cats came to join us. Vero and I made our excuses before the Russian rap song got another airing, and I drove back in the darkness, somehow finding my way back first time to the bungalow. A great start to Pai.