We happened to be at a farm just outside of Lansing, MI last summer when we met a couple who heard our desire to visit SE Asia and India. They told us of a friend in India, whom we reached out to but found that our routing would not get us to India this time around. That friend in India, then suggested that we connect with her friends in Northern Thailand. When we heard about the kinfolk in Northern Thailand we wrote them a message and began a dialog about a potential visit. It was going to be some effort to get up to them as most of our contacts in Thailand were in the south. However, after our first conversation, learning about their community and meditation center, Shekina Gardens, for backpackers on the “Hippie Trail”, we felt deeply compelled to make every effort to visit them.
How we get where we go, and who we share in community with around a table never ceases to amazes us. And, so it was that we made our way 16 hours from Bangkok to Northern Thailand. We arrived in Pai, which sits three hours northwest of Chiang Mai, on Dec 31 just in time for a gathering at the Ford home. It’s a surreal thing to walk into a stranger’s home. There is a feeling of anticipation and a little bit of anxiety but time after time we find that it only takes the “hello’s” for us to feel at home.
We met many new friends that night, shared a meal and song and began to learn about this committed and creative bunch. The host of the NYE gathering was Rachel, a brilliant author and fantastic cook, her husband, Chinua, a fantastic musician, and their five amazing children, all of whom were an absolute delightful. We met a gentle soul named Naomi and her husband Josh, a self-described traveling monk and photographer and their darling children. We met Rowan, whom Banjo named my twin, and her husband Neil, both live performance artists in the circusy vain and our finally our initial hosts who we had been communicating with prior to our visit, the ever discerning Leaf, her husband, Brendan, a fantastic teacher, and their two beautiful children. There were many others there as well, and as the music flowed and we sunk gently into the night we knew that our time in Pai was surely going to be a refuge and delight.
Pai attracts people from all over the world both young and old who are looking for a chill environment to catch their breath and make deeper connections. The little town boasts about 2000 for it’s local population and on any given day can accommodate just the right amount of backpackers to still feel homey. As you stroll around Pai, there are signs out in front of businesses that lay claim to being the “Heart of Pai.” But, we reckon this committed group of four families and a few extra’s that have come together to create the sacred space/Christ centered ashram, Shekina Gardens, are the genuine “Heart of Pai.” These families have come from Australia, Canada and the US, via India, finding each other along the way. They have all exchanged their western cultural norms to live in community with one another, sharing resources, time and creative talents with each other and with those that cross their paths. Practically, the garden offers a sacred space for gatherings, meditations and meals which allows for breath and time for those who join them to genuinely connect with the Creator of the Universe.
Because of their tone of vulnerability and authentic faith we found freedom to let our hair down, so to speak, and feel things that we had been carrying since our first stop in the Philippines. We found solace and friendship in this safe haven and opportunities to belly laugh as well as cry our hearts out.
When we think of the experience we had with the Shekina Community, a beautiful letter written by the Apostle John to his friend Gaius comes to mind. In the letter he commends his friend and community for demonstrating a generous portion of hospitality towards others. The letter reads, “even when they are strangers to you, you treat them as family. These friends tell the entire church how you have extended your hand to them in love. It’s good work you’re doing, helping these travelers on their way, hospitality worthy of God himself!”
If there is one place that we think of going back to, it’s Shekina Gardens both for the serene canvas that Pai offers and mostly for the sincere friendship we found there with both the Saints and the Savior.