The tiny minivan careened around another blind curve. The road to Pai from Chiang Mai contains 762 hairpin turns as you go up a mountain- this ride is not for those who get motion sickness easily. I thought I'd be fine but a third of the way up the mountain my stomach started to get upset. The view, while pretty was doing nothing for my motion sickness, there was no horizon for me to focus on. Just steep valleys filled with trees quickly replaced by tall rock faces and shacks build precariously on the edge. A tiny Korean woman behind me looked like she was ready to blow. Next, to me, the Chinese man was massaging his girlfriend's hand in between her thumb and index finger. I repeated the same act on my hand and I could feel my stomach start to calm. I asked if he had any more tips for fighting motion sickness when we stopped for a break halfway up the mountain. He gave me some tiger balm to rub under my nostrils. The remedies kept my stomach under control for the second half of our journey until at last hilly mountainous jungle gave way to a small town filled with people, motorcycles, and dogs.
My friends from Bangkok and Chiang Mai had checked into the Pai Circus hostel the day before. I stood at the bus terminal waiting for my shuttle to arrive. While I waited I looked around the dusty street taking in my new surroundings. The air up here was very cool even though it was the middle of the day. Tourists wandered around in front of storefronts that boasted vegan foods and rasta sensibilities. When the cart arrived to pick me up I got to see the rest of the tiny town of Pai. All the buildings were short and squat made mostly out of wood tons of shops advertised handmade trinkets and yoga sessions. Pai was truly a hippy paradise nestled in the mountains.
Upon arrival at the hostel, I was taken aback by the gorgeous views of the surrounding area. The hostel itself consisted of a large open air lobby. All of the rooms were scattered around the edges of the perimeter. In the middle was a couple hammocks, a pool with a sign saying it would be fixed in one day, that was up the whole 3 nights I was there, and a covered area for the bar. While everyone else reserved a nice bungalow I tried to be cheap by staying in the shared room for one dollar less. But when I walked in and heard the floors creak underneath me I knew I had made the wrong decision. This was, however, the cheapest accommodation I had found so far so I shouldn't be surprised that I could see through the wood slats to the ground underneath. Each bed came with its own mosquito net and a solitary fan hung in the corner incapable of cooling the entire room due to its angle. I laid my belongings under my mosquito net praying to god I'd be able to sleep come nightfall.
I found my friends at the bar and we exchanged hugs before getting a quick bite to eat. We went to go eat at one of the shops across the road from the hostel. There was a rooster making noise in a cage below us, tiny ants crawled across the table, and an unreliable Wi-fi password was scribbled onto the menu. As we waited for the food to arrive I learned that the previous day someone in their van had vomited all over my friends Noah's stuff during the ride. And my friend Walt got into an accident on his motorcycle as he navigated the unforgiving terrain, getting his very own Pai tattoo.
The next day we congregated in bungalow D17 discussing our plans. The group had decided to rent motorcycles to go explore the countryside. Rooted in my fear of bikes I decided to stay back not wanting a Pai tattoo of my own. However, due to some unforeseen circumstances, I got a second chance to go with them and I decided to take it. Travel is about facing fears so I decided to not let this one stop me from having my nature adventure. I got on back of Noah's bike despite this being his first time driving a motorcycle and dug my nails into his side. The wind whipped around us as we gained speed, threatening to knock me into traffic. The town flew by us as we made our way to our first destination the Mor Paeng Waterfall.
The paved streets soon gave way to gravel which then gave way to dirt littered with rocks. As you can imagine the suspension on the motorcycle was shit so Noah and I bounced so hard I thought we were on a mechanical bull. Fields of rice grazed my peropheral vision as cows wandered in their pastures. When we arrived at Mor Paeng my legs were a little wobbly but I was alive. We had to climb down a trail from the road and then climb up the slippery rock face of Mor Paeng. For a second I thought I had come for nothing but I found a way to climb up the mountain without ripping my pants or dropping my camera.
Once I reached the top I saw local Thai men doing trick jumps into the pool of water that formed at the top of the waterfall. People took turns swimming as different travel groups came and went. We chilled there for about an hour before heading off to our next destination. I climbed on the back of Noah's bike with more confidence then I had previously.
During my second ride I no longer had to hold on for dear life. I was content with my hands hovering near his waist. Ebony was taking video while sitting on the back of Kieran's bike but I wasn't that bold. We passed by a huge Pai sign and advertisements for strawberries as we headed towards the Pai Canyon. We pulled up on the side of the road next to a collection of other motorcycles and a roadside food stall. After walking up what seemed like an endless set of stairs- a large plateau greeted us with steep cliffs and bright greens contrasting against the dusty yellows and reds of the rock.
Past the trees, the mountains rose up to reach the sky on the horizon it was a beautiful view that would be great during sunset. I sat down and looked out into the vastness of nature. Looking back this was when the seed of my love for nature was planted.
That night we sat on mats at a local bar- it was our last. We marveled at how we went from strangers to close friends in a matter of weeks. I couldn't imagine traveling the rest of Thailand without their humor and support. I thought about the nature of friendships in general, how can I bring this level of openness to the "real world?" Yes backpacking and the isolation of being in a foreign country created a bond that is highly situational. But that doesn't mean that we can't carry this openness with us in our every day lives.
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