Happiness is like a butterfly which when pursued is always beyond our grasp but if you will sit down quietly it may alight upon you – Nathaniel Hawthorne
Day 1, Monday:
After a week in Bangkok I was ready to explore the north, I kept my expectations low, I was open to new adventures. Unlike what my Thai friend had told me about Thai trains, my overnight ride went so smoothly, I slept better than I did on some hostels. A lady with a breakfast menu woke me up mentioning that Chiang Mai was an hour away. The fields were green and wide. When the train stopped I follow the flow to the exit where taxi drivers were scattered in this hall shouting names of streets and hostels, behind them I could see the red taxis parked outside, a dozen of small pickup trucks, the same I read about on my Hostel instructions on getting there. I showed one taxi driver the screenshotted Hostel name and the address, he was leaning back on a wall not facing any traveler, not eager to snatch any fresh tourist off that train. It was midday when I reached Aoi garden, a different looking hostel from my past ones, It is unfair to even compare it to other hostels because it was more like a home, a green retreat to enjoy some alone time, I would imagine drug addicts having their rehab time here. Though the city was small and only had few places to explore, I could see myself spending weeks here. My room didn’t have any double bunker beds, only four simple ones, a goodnight sleep was ahead. I set my luggage down beside my bed, my phone getting charged and I am off to the beautiful front garden, now drinking a watermelon juice I browse through a binder with different tours. A Thai guy who works there sat beside me to answer my questions. I didn’t want to rush booking anything so I walked out to explore the city. First I had to find a place to have my late lunch, I found a travel agency instead, the prices were a bit lower here so I booked a day trip for the next day. Back at the hostel, rooms didn’t have Wifi which forced guests to go the common garden and socialize, I sat at a table working on my blog, I could see myself doing this for life. I fantasized about backpacking my way through the world. I fantasized about having a thousand dollars put in my bank account each month and never stop this adventure, but rather follow my goosebumps and intuition to get me to a new destination. I knew I was bitten by the bug, the mere thinking about going being back home in a few months settles a heavy feeling in my chest. Too many pathways I would have to choose from, leading to one goal, a life on the road written by me.
Day 2, Tuesday:
At 8am , a van picked me up from my hostel, the first stop was an orchid flower garden, not my type of hype, but it allowed me to practice my macro mode on my Canon. Half an hour later, the tour guide shouted : “Bob come on”. I was the last one to get back to the van, from there I was Bob for the day, and I didn’t mind. I like bob Marley and wearing this T-shirt was like asking for it. The group had two girls from Norway, a couple from France a guy from Chicago, and what seemed to be another couple from Brazil. Unlike the group I did a tour with in Bangkok, people here easily talked to each other. The Brazilian girl caught my eye. Hours later, I saw an elephant, then more elephants, then a baby elephant, the car stopped and we excitingly jumped off the back, looking in every direction, I approached one to study him closely, for some reason it was a him to me, he seemed calm, old and wise, I looked over my left shoulder and saw the French guy already feeding and stroking the baby elephant while the guide was yelling to stay away from it. She recommended buying bananas to feed them while on top, it was sold by branches, “do we really need that much bananas” I asked myself. A local waved at us, an elephant sitting, ready to lift us, a mini roller-coaster going up then a beautiful scenic bumpy ride. The guy from Chicago was doing most of the feeding while my hands were firmly wrapping my camera. It felt surreal, it took me a long time to realize I was taking the same pictures. The branch quickly ran out of bananas, this time our elephant held his trunk asking for more until he’s guide shouted something. Upset, the elephant slowed down its steps then stopped to eat of trees leaves. Maybe we should have bought two branches. The trainer then started smacking the elephant’s side with a metal stick. “It’s OK you don’t have to hit him” my friend shouts but no answer back.
For an extra charge only me and the two Brazilian accepted, we saw a village where women with long necks lived, families escaped eastern Burma for a better place to live. Amazed at how basic their homes were I thought about what we take for granted back home. Before we rejoined our group to hike up to a waterfall where we could swim, I spotted a baby elephant tied to a tree, covered with dirt, I asked my guide why was he behaving like that, the guide said he was stubborn and he wouldn’t listen. After the trip I did some research on the subject and I found out that as babies, elephants instinctively refuse to have people on them, they would be tamed, tortured before their fighting spirit dies.
By the waterfalls, some stayed away from freezing water, others got right under the falls, I was among the latter group, I wouldn’t get a chance to do this back home I thought. On our way back to the van. Carol, the French couple and I, got way behind, we almost lost the way, facing paths that divides to more paths. We followed the majority’s vote and moments later we made it to the rest of the group, we drove for a couple of hours to reach the rafting rivers , the water was low which made it less fun going through rocks. One particular scene would stick in my mind, a village by the river, where kids spotted us and started splashing water on us, the happiest little faces I’ve seen since I started this trip.
The river calm now, we switched to bamboo rafting, no need to paddle anymore. Relieved shoulders made steadier shots, the views were green and beautiful. sometimes It matched the image I have of amazon in mind.
On our way back to my guesthouse we all agreed to meet again that same night, “Zoe in yellow”, the two Norwegian girls suggested. I wrote the name down on my phone thinking no one would probably make it, everyone seemed excited though. At 8pm I was there, solo wandering. The place was different, it wasn’t one street filled with bars on each side like most cities, this looked like an open cube with bars on every side and then “Zoe in yellow” in the center. Most bars had reggae music on, beautiful sounds. As time passed and approached midnight the music changed. We had only swapped Facebook contacts, for the first hour I sat on a table looking at the drunk crowd dancing, then almost miraculously I spotted the guy from Chicago wobbling his way to catch my shoulder, he was a different person, drunk, A while later we saw the two Norwegians. The atmosphere was unique, it seemed like fancy dresses weren’t allowed here, partying with shorts and flip-flops was liberating, I was naturally pulled to the dance floor, after seeing free souls dancing like no one is watching. The crowd was young, beautiful and diverse. My heart skipped a beat when Carol smiled at me from afar, a hug that hit home followed, Behind her was her Brazilian friend who confused me. Earlier in the day, Carol had told me nothing was between them, still, a part of me felt like I would steal her from him, the other part of was just afraid of any rejection. I moved on to dance with cute locals. Way past midnight, the French couple finally arrived. Ben couldn’t be any happier to see us all. His fiance was less excited. He said they almost didn’t make it because of their tired legs.
Day, 3 Wednesday,
I rented a bike, I had to sign a paper and show the guy I was able to drive it, this brought me back in time, back when I owned a similar scooter in high school, 5 years later now I was using my skills, driving on the left side of the road wasn’t as scary as I thought, after the French couple recommendation I rode it to the tiger kingdom, it was a couple of kilometers outside the city, another little adventure of its own. About half an hour later I parked my Yamaha locked it then moved to the ticket counter, I chose the babies and the huge tigers package. Right when I stepped in the cage, I thought, OK I guess I am hanging out with tigers now. the same thing happened to me when I went skydiving, or even when I had a snake around my neck. I started taking close up shots of these cubs when a worker told me to touch it but stay away from its face. This was way more than I could ever ask for, only one hour earlier I wouldn’t have ever imagined myself stroking tigers. Moving on to the bigger cats. While I was petting the first, I was told to be firmer when stroking them. Otherwise it will keep slapping your hand with its tail. One slap was enough to my heart cringe. I wonder what power that upped body has.
On my way back to Aoi Gradens. I drove around the city, until it started raining. While speeding, I was stopped by two policemen. They asked for my driver’s license. I showed them my Moroccan one with confidence, they said it was not international, I repeated that I drove with it everywhere. Exchanged weird looks then words, I pulled a good retard face, then they released me. I was so happy I stayed calm and handled the situation well, I would have to be more careful after that I told myself. Later on, I randomly drove past “Zoe in Garden” the nightclub from last night, I barely recognized it because it looked very different in daylight.
It wasn’t long after I got back to my room that I packed my things and hopped in a van I had booked the same morning to go to Pai. A city I heard so much about in my hostel in Bangkok. Before hitting the road we picked up a couple of more people, a group of three Chinese, it took them forever to leave their hotel that the driver almost left them behind.
At 10 pm, we arrived in Pai, after one of the curviest roads I’ve seen, I was impressed that I didn’t vomit getting out of that car unlike some other passengers. 4 hours being fastened to a tight seat not knowing whether I should close my eyes or look in the distance to avoid feeling sick. I went looking for a hostel, I hadn’t booked anything, I only had an address I had noted on my phone back when I had Wifi in Chiang Mai. At Purple Monkey, the front desk lady said with sympathy: “Sorry we’re full”. I asked her for the Wifi password and while calling different hostels I recognized a Japanese girl standing by the bar talking to her friends. we had stayed in the same hostel room in Bangkok, she had slept on the top of me, I always go for the lower bunker bed. Only after meeting her in Pai, we swapped contact information to meet again.
On my way looking for another hostel. I noticed a guesthouse across the street from Purple Monkey. It looked like it was meant for locals since it wasn’t listed in hostelworld.com. In the Dark, I explored the place then I saw a couple watching Tv from their hut. They had free rooms and for only 150 baht I would get my own. A cheaper price than a bed in a dorm room in any other hostel. Having my own room felt so good, it was spacious, it had a bathroom and a shower and even an air conditioner. I felt really lucky, I was glad I trusted my sense of adventure, it made me realize how great not to plan everything. It was the first I would arrive to a new place without booking any accommodation.
Day 1 Thursday,
No alarm clock to make me jump up from my bed, still a feeling I appreciate every morning. My room looked even better in daylight, I opened the door and let the sun come in. I looked around, I was in the countryside, Later on, on my way to have brunch, I randomly met Maho, the Japanese girl, we agreed to meet later at her hostel to make plans for the day. We rented a scooter from the main street and drove outside Pai to see some waterfalls. Clearly, neither of us did any homework because after driving for at least an hour, we learned that they were dry. “At least the views were amazing” I said, I had some beautiful footage riding a bike which I would use on my video about my trip here. We also found something really cool, we saw huge balloon floating on a lake, I slowed down to see if she’s up to find out what it was. It was the closest thing to walking on water, each one got inside his own big balloon then ran like a fool to avoid falling, from the inside it wasn’t as fun as we thought it would, after 5 min I was out of breath, I had 10 more min to go, I was exhausted, dizzy and a little sick. “Now we can say we tried that” I said. Back in the city, we grabbed dinner at buffalo pub together while listening to nice mellow acoustics.
Day 3 friday,
Awaken by soft knocking on my door, Maho, was ready to start her day way before I usually do. Getting ready meant brushing my teeth then putting on a tank top and shorts, 3 minutes max and I was out of the door, we were going to a cave, we took the bike and her map, 2 hours of speeding a wavy road, surrounded by beautiful landscapes, Maho gently wrapping her hands around my waist, firmly whenever I flirt with traffic. At the cave we waited for her american friend Andy, then asked an information desk to have a guide to show us the way inside this enormous mysterious new world, the four of us hopped on a wooden canoe, fish under us ready to be fed. All we could hear was water splashes and scary bat noises. After many attempts I finally touched one fish, sometimes I have the weirdest ideas, with Andy and Maho hitting it off my mind thought about nothing but grabbing a fish like those ninja fishermen. Feet on the ground now, the guide was stopping every once in a to shed light on historical significant spots, my squinting eyes were decoding his lips mispronouncing words. I wasn’t surprised when Maho mentioned this was the largest cave in Asia. Leaving this bat realm, Maho went with Andy to further explore hot springs, and I took the road back to Pai, I saw a gas station but decided to drive past it thinking i had enough gas to get me home, I was also behind my daily spending budget. An hour later, just before sunset my gas right handle died, instinctively twisting it rapidly while shouting no no No No, each no more desperate than the previous. The same thing had happened to me over 5 years ago in morocco, when I stopped to lift a friend walking back home from school on a rainstorm. The wind blew against us and it killed my engine. So we push it, in turns, soaked, exhausted, he was more of faraway neighbour than a friend, still I picked him up. I was in North Thailand now, out of gas in the middle of nowhere.
Day 4, Saturday,
I spent the day home, I had everything I wanted, free coffee and bananas for breakfast, then a salad or chicken fried rice at the guesthouse restaurant for lunch, I liked being excluded from all the other crowded hostels, I usually feel sad when I’m alone, this time was different. I was productive, I wrote more and better, I was in my own world. I fantasized about this lifestyle before I started my trip. Now I was figuring out how to make it last.
Maho and Andy had moved to a room close to mine. At night, they went out to a reggae bar across the street and invited me to join them, it had fire shows performed by travellers, free spirits who looked like they belong there. “Don’t cry’’ was the name of the bar. I was not drinking and too stifled to get out of my shell and meet new people so I just sat watching the intoxicated dancing,, I wanted to feel raw, alcohol and weed would definitely make my night better but I wasn’t here for the short-term, I was experimenting with life, I hated small talk, I hated working hard to keep a girl’s attention, so I didn’t bother even trying. I knew another lonely night was ahead if I don’t get my ass up and socialize. Seeing Maho and Andy together hurt but somehow I liked that pain, a fake smile draws itself every time our eyes meet. They left before I do, they probably wondered why since I was the farthest from a person having fun. I stayed until I felt weak, I hadn’t eaten since lunch. In front of the bar, a foodstand was waiting for me. After ordering a girl asked me who I was with and where I stayed. She was taller than me, bigger too. She noticed I was different from the crowd, to be polite I answered her: I am a solo traveler then I ordered my padthai. -“You know, that is not real local food right?” -“Not really, it is not western too” -“yeah it’s westernized thai food. -“ok” I whispered.
She called her friend to come meet me. Her friend ran to hug me, she asked where I was from and where I was staying, I pointed with my finger to the bamboo huts. To her it seemed like It seemed like I was just pointing to darkness.
Day 5 Sunday,
I was not spending more than 15 dollars per day. I finally found a place where to write, a beach was missing but this place had its own beauty, the peaceful fields, the simple life my hosts were living taught me a lot about happiness. That morning I returned my bike. Back at the guesthouse I found a tree that had a horizontal branch where I did some pull ups and then alternate with push ups, My host had a motocross he never uses, I thought it’s a great opportunity to learn how to ride a bike with gears to shift. Without even checking if it had gaz, and just like a kid with new toy, I excitedly start it. It had speed and power I never experienced before. I had a blast playing with it. Later, I Realized my host could come any time then, so I parked my toy exactly like how and where it was. What a smart kid! Next to it was his bicycle which he gave me permission to take anytime I wanted. I hadn’t exercised my legs in months plus going as fast as I could in this limitless space was nice.
Staying in this Guesthouse changed me a little, I would always call it my happy place.
Day 6, Monday:
A whole day spent in front of my computer. I finished writing my post about Tokyo, I sent it to everyone I know. It was my first Blog post about my backpacking trip and I felt great and accomplished. Like Dorothy Parker said, I don’t like to write but I love to have written.
Right before the sun has set, I talked to my mom, it was our first Skype session after three months since I left home. She was happy to see me in one piece, I told her about where I was staying, and what a typical day looks like for me. “It’s Enough, go back to Canada and start university” she said. Freedom is good, I longed for freedom with every inch of my body when I was at my old job stuck in front of my computer working for something that only impacted my bank account. But after a while I realized freedom has to be hand in hand with a purpose. Something you can enjoy doing, something that feels right. I was still figuring it out. Would it be writing, or acting or photography.
Day 7, Tuesday:
I woke up and walked Maho to her van, she was leaving to Laos. Laos did not interest me, I wished her luck and went back home, I had broken the first bicycle after many attempts of pushing it and letting it go by itself until it fell on its right and its break handle broke. I didn’t say anything to my guest-house owner afraid of getting charged anything. I picked another one, a small bike I barely could sit and push the pedal on. I rode it to a western restaurant, I was tired of fried rice. Waiting for my food I called my twin brother and told him about my little adventures, the fortunate and the unfortunate. He still didn’t understood why I was traveling for so long.
A couple of hours before sunset the owner broke some bad news to me, he was expecting a big family to host and so I had to move from my spacious room to a small hut, seeing my face turn worried, he added that it would cost me 50 baht less and that they booked a long time ago. He called a guy to show me my new room, it didn’t have a bathroom or shower, only a bed under a light bulb and an electricity plug. I thought about it as new experience, sleeping here would be an adventure of its own. I thought about campers and said to myself one night here wouldn’t kill me. I’ve been here for a week already so maybe it was my sign to move on.
Day 8, Wednesday:
After having my usual breakfast with 0 dollars 0 cents. I went to the bus station, it only had white vans, most were new, at 3 pm, I would take the bus and at 9pm I would hop on a bus in Chiangmai to get me to Bangkok. I didn’t think it through, but after a sleepless night I realized that trains are 10 times better. A note I would keep to myself for any future trips and share it with any traveler in Thailand.
Day 9, Thursday :
I arrived at Bangkok at 8 am, the bus terminal was about 10 minutes walking the Chatuchak Park Mrt station. My backpack was very heavy, I had to take a rest in a park, lay down facing the sky and think back about my moments in the north, then imagining how would my next days look like. The islands. I was very close to living dreams. Without realizing I walked past the Aquarium Fish Market where they sell fish in plastics filled with water.
At the train station. I headed to the ticket counter, one ticket got me all the way to koh panghan including a bus to get me from Surat Thani then a boat the island, the train would depart at 5pm, 10 hours to go, I was lucky to find a bookstore in the station, after some hesitation I grabbed a book called the backpacker by John Harris, a book that would turn to be my favorite of all time, a best friend for the next couple of months. The book wasn’t the only new friend I made that day. Tyse, a guy sat on my table, doing a solo backpacking trip as well, he was just coming from India and going to the north of Thailand. I insisted on him to visit Pai.