We arrived in the northern mountain city of Pai, Thailand, on NYE just in time to join our kinfolk from Shekina Community at their NYE party.
As we pulled into town, after our 3 hour winding and rolling van ride from Chiang Mai, we made our way, backpacks and instruments in tow, towards our little Thai hut, at Family House Riverside. We immediately felt a festive, laid back vibe and most everyone smiled at us as we wandered the city streets. We noticed backpackers from all corners of the world and the Thai people we met, obviously impacted by these visitors, sported a mix of traditional and world markings in both fashion, tattoos, dreadlocks and speech. It was foreign enough in Pai but there was also a familiarity in this unique place, a feeling of home.
The breeze was cool but the sun warm on our faces as we crossed over a bamboo bridge finally arriving at our little grass hut. We were greeted warmly by the owner, an Italian man named Johnathan, and his Thai friends/family. We settled our things into our huts and were soon greeted by our friend Leaf, from the Shekina Community. She welcomed us to Pai and shared a little bit about her family and community as we made our way back across the river towards a gathering at the Ford home. At the same time, a young lady, whom we had met at a backpacker hostel in Chiang Mai, happened to be in Pai at the same time, so we invited her along to the gathering.
After sharing a lovely dinner and music, a group of about 30 of us began to walk into town, towards the river where the NYE celebration was in full swing. It was late and dark and we were excited about what NYE might look like in this part of the world. As we strolled through the city, the streets were filled with vendors selling all sorts of beautiful creations. The many colors, streamers, balloons, music and food elated our senses, building our anticipation.
When we finally reached the water, the city lights faded, we found a sky full of thousands of fire lanterns floating peacefully in the air. Soon though, the lights of sparklers came out and eventually a choir of fireworks began to pop and crackle, dancing around the docile lanterns. There really was no officiate shooting the fireworks, but rather a vendor set up with a table full of every sort of cracker you could desire and it was every group for themselves. Parties within parties, lighting their crackers at random intervals, some shooting straight to the sky, some actually launching lopsided, a little to close to the crowds, evoking a sense of excitement and panic. All of our senses were heightened and we were filled with amazement at the prospect of the sort of organized chaos echoing around us! We found a moment of solace within our group and gathering in a circle together with a number of the peaceful lanterns in hand, we released them all in a grand ceremonial launch, wishing for peace on earth and good will towards all. Needless to say, the night ended in sheer delight!
The next day we began to explore Pai, nestled by the surrounding mountain side, the little town boast about 2000 for it’s local population and on any given day can accommodate just the right amount of backpackers to still feel homey. We explored a few restaurants and found a healthy dose of vegan and veggie options. One of our favorite was Art in Chai, which we ended up frequenting daily for their delicious chai and near the end of the week, we ended up doing a little spontaneous concert at the venue. After the concert we met a few fellows from Argentina and Spain, we spent some time getting to know them and were delighted by their invitation to join them the next evening at their guesthouse for a BBQ.
The next morning we rose and spent the day riding mopeds up into the beautiful mountains, to the hot springs for a soak. We passed some of the crude elephant farms, which actually caught us off guard and elicited a sense of sadness, but finally wound our way up into the springs. There was a guard at the gate who stopped us to look over our gear and then charged us 20Baht each to get into the grounds. We rode another 5K deepening into the forest, finally coming to the springs. There were about 40 people there, mostly backpackers but a few local families taking a relaxing bath and an older, long-haired hippie, from France, who spent most of his time trying to recruit people to his Yoga class later that evening. After our swim, we decided to head back and get ready for the gathering with our new backpacker friends. On our final stretch home, we passed an open field, where a boxing ring was set up, just sitting there, out in the middle of the field. It was so hilariously out of place that the unusual spectacle drew us in and we couldn’t help but to crawl into the ring and have a go.
Then later that evening we joined our new Spanish-speaking friends at their guesthouse. Their party was already underway and we met folks from all over South America including Chile, Columbia, Mexico, and Argentina, we also met folks from Canada, Australia, Spain, the US, Cambodia, and Finland. I wish I had more pictures from that evening because it was really quite special. We swapped songs, we told stories and encouraged these kinfolk to see life a little differently.
One thing that really struck me as we sat there swapping songs and story, was the openness that all of these young minds had towards each other, their desire to know and be known. They came from all corners of the earth, all different beliefs and struggles and probably in many of their homelands those, that they now sat with, would be considered less than or the enemy. And, yet, here in this place, there was an understanding and the deeper connectivity of humanity could be felt. As we all moved in unity, further into that connectivity, the “us and them” became “we” and for a still small moment, all felt right with the world.
As the night progressed, we began to break into smaller groups for more intimate conversation. I was encouraged to sit with a young woman from Cambodia, who was raised in California but travels back periodically to visit her homeland and people. She said her greatest struggle in going back is balancing the complexities of womanhood. I shared with her the stories of some of the strong and courageous young women whom I had met them in Phnom Penh at Alongsiders, women who were doing wonderful things to reshape the canvas of human rights, especially for young women in Cambodia. She was encouraged to hear about them and hoped to one day met them. At the same time, Banjo was showing his Cajon to a few mates, teaching them some of the basics. Graciana was strumming along on her guitar, making music with a few of the friends who still wanted to sing and Craig was sitting with a group of about 7 young people from the US and Australia. I could hear him sharing intently with them, but couldn’t hear what they were talking about. When my conversation finished, I walked over to Craig and found out that the young people he was engaged with were from a religious organization called YWAM, and this was their first stop on their trek across SE Asia. It was a delight to hear their hearts desire for their generation to experience an awaking spiritually, to know the God of all gods. It was also an honor offer them encouragement by sharing stories from many our years on the road.
Around midnight, we felt it time to head home but Graciana wanted to stay out longer. We contemplated what “staying out later” might entail. So far, the group had been perfectly delightful, but they were all young loving, adventure seeking, and probably pleasure-seeking young adults and so with reluctance we obliged her. However, before we left her, we did make quite the speech, calling for all of those well chiseled and dynamic young men to gather around us and listen closely. Graciana cringed with embarrassment. None the less, with Craig and his manly mustache backing me, I instructed the young men to escort and protect Graciana through the rest of the evening. They all stood a little taller and Manuel who had taken charge for the group, concurred whole heartedly to honor her, with Jonatan, Ignacio and Dieguito nodding behind in agreement. I made it clear that no one was to touch her… including them, and that was when Manuel’s eyes went wide and he declared in his booming voice, all of their allegiance, proclaiming her virtue would be secure. Whew!
We walked away, took a deep breath, went back to our little bungalow, crawled in bed and waited until we heard their jovial voices whispering through the air, finally settling into a deep sleep about 4am.
The next day at breakfast, Graciana shared a pleasant review of the evening and we all had a fine laugh about the dramatic speech, some of the jockeying that took place with a few of the fellas the night before but ultimately, she attested to the good clean fun that was had, sitting around campfires, the light-hearted laughter and sharing music, including some old timey, hymns. Honestly, I am proud of my girl and these young people we met along the way, specially the young men who cared for and respected this mothers wishes. Well done young men! Your mother’s and father’s would be proud!
We only spent five days in Pai but fusing our fantastic time with all of the backpackers we met and the amazing sense of solace that came from being with all the kinfolk from Shekina Gardens, we’d have to say that Pai, Thailand was one of our favorite stops in SE Asia. The sense of community and connectivity we experienced in Pai during those five days are a true treasure and we do not take them for granted. Excited to see if more times will come, where we can meet our new companions from around the globe, out on the open road, or maybe even in their hometowns. We long to see them again, share a meal, story and song and be encouraged by the tie that binds us all in love.