Song of the day: Kill All Hippies by Primal Scream
Today we hired a scooter again and took it for a spin in the hills that overlook Pai. First we stopped at a temple called Wat Hua Na. This was an unremarkable visit other than the fact that I was blessed by a Monk (I think). He was an old chap sat in the lotus position in the corner and I asked him if I could take a photo. I gave him twenty baht from his troubles and he asked me to kneel before him. He removed the lid from an ornamental jar and took out a stick of bamboo containing water. He began to utter various incantations before pouring water over my head and tapping me over each shoulder with the stick, as if I was being knighted. I didn’t really know how to thank him so I put my hands together and bowed to him as I’ve seen Thais do. As I walked off he began laughing heartily – the deep, contented laugh of a man on the path to enlightenment. Either that, or he was thinking “I’ve just poured water over this cretin’s head and he thinks it’s a special ceremony”.
We continued a little further up the road and stopped at Santichon – known also as the Chinese village. Santichon is yet another example of the vast array of cultures and ethnicities that call Northern Thailand home. Initially, it looked just like a pretty collection of huts and koi carp ponds, built thriftily out of mud and straw, before being adorned with the usual golden effigies of dragons and Chinese animals that are so prevalent in oriental culture. It was puzzling because there was a much more modern-looking town built on the hillside, and we assumed that we had walked into some kind of touristy village. We had, but there’s more of a story to it than that.
This village was built by Chinese refugees that escaped here through Myanmar after the communist revolution in 1949. It sounds like this community had lived up here on the hillside since then. In the nineties, the place developed a serious drug problem. The Thai army came in and raided the place several times, before placing restrictions on the movement of the people who live there. Just like the hilltribes, it seems as if the people here are struggling to be recognised as Thai citizens. Because the people of the town were not allowed to travel around and find work, they had to look inwards to earn their keep. They built the more oriental-looking village to celebrate Chinese culture and earn money from tourism. Hollie and me had a crack at some proper archery – an old lady handed us a lethal-looking bow and arrows to fire at targets. Not for the first time, Hollie showed me up by hitting the target whilst my arrows flirted all over the shop. The old lady was directly behind me knitting some children’s clothes, but I heard her shift uncomfortably in her seat every time I got ready to let one of my arrows fly.
We got back on the bike and motored further up the mountain road. We whizzed past rural villages where skeletal cows and goats chewed at isolated cuds of dry grass. Past a shack advertising petrol for sale where an old man sat outside drinking from a grubby plastic container, leading us to speculate whether he was drinking his product. Cockerels, hens, chicks and ducks scuttled out into the road and tested our balance as we negotiated a path through them. We stopped for a short while at Mae Paeng waterfalls, but after finding it overun by hippies we cleared off back to Pai for dinner.
We’ve had mixed feelings on Pai. Everything that you see and hear about the place implies that it is some kind of hippy wonderland where the young and the groovy go to hang out with like-minded people. In a way it is – but that’s part of the problem – at least for us. Walking round the main streets of Pai you see people who seem to genuinely believe they’re at the Dawning of the Age of Aquarius. People who talk about organic lentils whilst wearing brightly-coloured, glorified potato sacks as clothes and farting out aromas of pure, unadulterated vegetable. I’ve never seen so many Jesus lookalikes wandering around the main streets with their tops off, digging chicks with braided hair and Thai dye t-shirts. It’s not that we don’t dig the whole hippy ideal – peace and love and all that, that’s right up my street – but you can’t help feeling that the whole thing feels a bit contrived. When we arrived on the Khao San road we knew immediately that what we were witnessing was cool and different to what we were used to, but still a bit naf. People that hang around Pai don’t seem to have that same self-awareness. What’s been created here isn’t authentically Thai, or in my opinion authentically anything. It’s a place of congregation for people who were too young to be at Woodstock, or people who were at Woodstock and still can’t let go of that dream.
The valley in which Pai is situated is beautiful, and I can see how it became such a popular place for backpackers. I won’t deny that there’s amazing food available here, and it’s not unheard of to stumble upon a real gem of an acoustic troubadour playing for beer in some bamboo hut.
I wouldn’t advise people against coming, but if you ever find yourself in this part of the world, all I’d say is don’t take it too seriously. Up in the mountains road workers are widening the 1095 highway from Chiang Mai so that it can accomodate the larger tourist buses. You have to fancy that when the work is complete the levee will break and wash away any remnants of Pai as an “unspoilt” destination – all those hippies riding the crest of the current wave will have to choose whether to cling to the wreckage, or move on to the next valley in search of a new “Pairadise.”
Tomorrow we head back to Chiang Mai for a few nights before we move on towards Cambodia.
Have a niiiiice day!
Tommy and Hollie x