Chapter 5: Sweet Pai for New Years

It was almost an awakening being in Pai. Not because of the drugs, that’s not my scene, but because of the mountains. Being in the mountains certainly was, I was realising, my happy place.

At the end of December, I made the trek north to Pai. I decided it was the place to see in the new year. It was strange though, I felt like my year had actually begun at the beginning of the month, not the end. I guess in reality it’s not that strange, given the huge shift in lifestyle, quitting my job, and leaving home at the beginning of December. Nevertheless, I found myself in this small, mountainous, hippie town, in the far northwestern corner of Thailand, to see out the calendar year.

It was almost an awakening being in Pai. Not because of the drugs, but because of the mountains. Being in the mountains certainly was, I was realising, my happy place.

There isn’t much going on in the town of Pai. There’s a couple of main streets with many restaurants, cafes, and bars. The town itself is set on the side of a small river where a few hacked together bamboo bridges connect the town centre with some of the accommodation options on the other side.

It is said that you don’t really need to contact anyone to make plans here, you’ll just run into them in the streets. Shortly after my arrival in town, I was sitting in a cafe sipping on a mango smoothie and mindlessly scrolling through social media when a girl I had met back in Khao Yai wandered by, saw me, and stopped to say, “Hi.”

Michelle and I had met a couple of other times throughout Thailand. Once in Sukhothai, a couple of times in Chiang Mai and we had kept in regular contact since meeting at Khao Yai. We hadn’t planned to be in Pai together, but it just so happened that we were.

I suggested that we dedicate a day to doing a couple of motorbike adventures to some of the nearby sights. I had introduced Michelle to the joys of riding motorbikes in South East Asia back in Sukhothai. The freedom it gives you to be able to go where you want, when you want, plus the joy of just being on a bike is one of the simple pleasures of life. She was quickly hooked.

Michelle asked if I wanted to join her on a sunset mission that evening and a sunrise mission the next morning. Unexpectedly, we ended up spending 4 days together exploring the area, hanging out, getting to know each other, and learning that we have an almost disturbing number of commonalities.

By motorbike, we saw the Pai Canyon, the Historical Bridge, and sat on top of the Mo Paeng Waterfall. We got up early for sunrise at the Yun Lai look out, only just making the summit on our underpowered scooter with an intermittently working headlight. We also made the long ride north to Lod caves.

The ride was a lot of fun on twisty, well-paved roads, with a couple of great lookouts to stop at. The caves, however, were truly impressive. We paid for a guide who rushed us through all the different areas of the caves. Stopping only briefly to take a few photos and taking us on a bamboo-raft race down to the other end. Despite the swift nature of that guided tour, it was still a really cool place to visit.

As the sun was going down on new years eve, we still didn’t know what to do for the evening. We were enjoying each others company and without saying so, had mutually decided that we would see in the new year together. We found some delicious food, which is not hard to do in Thailand, wandered the streets, and people watched. I saw a girl light a roman candle and tried to hold it as it fired. She was unprepared for the force, freaked out, and threw it off the bridge as it fired again mid-drop and ended up in a bush.

2018 was a year of actively trying to make a dream come true. It was one of the first times in my life where I set an ambitious goal and achieved it. In a way, it was proof to myself that in fact, I could achieve whatever I wanted to do if I just put my mind to it (Thanks Doc). To end the year in this small town in the north of Thailand was something special. I was living my dream.

As the hours began to disappear for its last hoorah in Pai, the locals and tourists were coming together along the side of the river and throughout the town too. There certainly was no lack of excitement as commercial grade fireworks were readily available every few meters as well as lanterns and sparklers. The local kids were constantly lighting bang snaps and throwing them near unsuspecting tourists.

Michelle had never let off a Chinese lantern before. What better time and place to try that for the first time. We found one of the many local vendors selling all the things that burn and explode, debated whether we should get one or two, then headed down to the river to set it free.

It was chaotic. The bamboo bridges which certainly had not been certified by any engineer, were overrun and most likely over capacity. We waited for a while at one end to see if anyone would keep walking or get off so that we could cross. Impatience got the better of us and we speedily got over without catastrophe.

We wandered up and down the river, watching the many tourists play with fireworks that would be illegal to even touch in a western country. I was highly alert and overly anxious that we were going to walk into a potentially explosive situation. Eventually, we found a small clearing in which we could let off our lantern.

Opening up the lantern I asked Michelle if she’d like to do the honours of lighting the fuel cell. To which I got a quick and absolute, “No.” So I set the four corners alight and together, we held the lantern as it began to fill with heat. We had a couple of attempts letting it go but it wasn’t time, you had to be patient, something I’m admittedly not so good at.

We let the lantern fly and watched it disappear high into the sky. I made a wish, a promise to myself. In some ways, It was the next big goal for my life. I stood there, calm in amongst the chaos, content, happy to be here with a new friend.

Time was quickly running out on 2018. We walked down the river again, watching all the chaos unfold around us as people were getting hit with fireworks, lanterns were crashing into the bamboo bridges, and people who had a little too much to drink were falling down the edge of the river. We luckily found a swing that was unoccupied and sat next to each other, looking around, unaware of what the time was.

As the countdown began, a friend of Michelle’s had called her. She wandered off to take it while I sat on the swing and watched the show. It was like a warzone. I had never seen anything so unorganised but so beautiful. The elaborate and expensive fireworks shows of Sydney, New York, or Dubai, don’t even compare to how crazy and beautiful the show in Pai was that night. I think the best explanation would be if you put all the top fireworks shows in the world together and instead of choreographing it into a show, you let it rip all at once from all around town.

I felt like my entire year of 2018 happened in one month. The rest of the year was a blur. The madness of trying to prepare for the trip was now but a distant memory. Instead, I was focused on what was to come. The many more adventures and many more people I would encounter. The unknown wasn’t scary anymore, it was now something I embraced and longed for.

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