Monk chat, cooking class, change of pace

Trip Start Nov 06, 2006
Trip End Jun 15, 2007

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Flag of Thailand  ,
Friday, December 1, 2006

Crowds of dread-coiffed hippies, western-infused restaurants and coffee shops, streetside bars rocking to i-pod playlists of American rock's Greatest Hits, midnight raves and primal drumming - Pai has it all for the visitor who wants to be transported as far from Thai culture as possible. Many are seduced by the Burmuda Triangle of cheap drinks, culturally familiar backpacker scene, and easy-to-score dope, and weeks after arriving find themselves surprised to still be here. We lasted all of 21 hours before we were ready to get the heck out, since we came to Asia to see Asia and not Boulder. Maybe we just need to rough it a few weeks in Cambodia (or Antarctica, or Mars...) before we're ready for overpriced Thai Mexican food, Jack Johnson, and acid-induced midnight bongo bonding. Buh-bye Pai, hello Chiang Mai!

During our bus ride from Pai, Jessie, a gregarious, well-tanned, stubbly theater guy from America, mesmerizes us with an unselfconscious monologue about his last three months of travel bliss. His eyes sparkle as he recalls three weeks on a southern Thai island learning how to climb limestone cliffs in the morning then chilling on a hammock with a book until the sun disappeared each day. His hand, encircled by an earthy silver and leather bracelet, traces sloping shapes in the air as he describes the recliner he crafted out of nothing but a single stalk of bamboo, a sharp machete, and his own two hands. His pace quickens with anticipation as he talks about an upcoming monthlong visit - his third - to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival next August. His ocean blue loosely flowing pants, picked up from a local market, his carefree shoulder-exposing tank top, guiltlessly flaunting un-Thai sensibilities, the brown wavy ringlets of his overgrown hair, all a testament to a Traveler with a capital T, the man who's given up any semblance of a plan, the happy soul freed from any self-imposed structure. Unlike us, the tourist-vampires, trying to see and do it all, devour it all, thirsty for some blood-warm essence of travel, he's joyfully bathing in a luxurious private hot springs and unknowingly beckoning us to join in.

When Todd and I retreat to the solitude of our dank grungy hobbit-hole of a guesthouse in Chiang Mai, I have a minor monologue-induced freak-out. A lot had been percolating over the past month and it was time to crack open Pandora's box to see what unspoken secrets it had been keeping. I declare an end to schedule slavery, abolish all agendas, slam the brake on our eternal hampster-wheel pace. I confide to Todd, who's been a bit detached and overwhelmed of late, that from this point on I don't care if I spend the next year within a one-block radius as long as I'm living by the callings and whispers of my heart. No more photo-crazed mania. No more careful predictability. No more moisture-wicking, synthetic tourist trap crap. As if from a far-off place, he mumbles agreement. We have a real heart to heart about what we're doing and what has brought us to the opposite side of the globe.

Something shifts. The next morning Thailand looks different. In the days ahead, when people ask what we've been doing we can't say, but it's been fun. We both fall in love with the tasty food cooked by the warmly engaging Kenjana at her little open air restaurant across the street. I take fewer pictures. We go to a "Monk Chat" and for three hours get the real skinny on the state of Buddhist practice in Thailand from three skinny young Laotian monks who "chat" with us primarily to improve their English while I bombard them with questions about meditation practice, chants, lineage, holidays, home. They ask for help with pronouncing "How's it going?" which they've just learned in class.

Todd and I camp out for a few hours on a rooftop bar, vodka pineapple bucket in hand, and a fun group of drunk Australians adopts us for the evening.

We explore our inner chef by taking a cooking class at a farm in the quiet countryside outside of town. Using a mortar and pestle, we grind together fresh garlic, spicy peppers, galangal root, and other fresh ingredients into fiery hot curry paste, whip together crunchy sweet and spicy green papaya salad, laugh at the chewy juiciness of raw uncooked sugar cane hacked down and stripped by machete moments before we're popping it in our mouths.

This little taste of newfound freedom makes the whole "blog" idea feel self-conscious, overbearing, tired. Writing about my travel experience encapsulates it, restrains it from moving along its natural progression of one event changing into the next. Too much checking in and commenting and analyzing. Not sure what this means for the blog.

Tomorrow we leave for Chiang Kong, and the following morning we enter the rugged forests and mountains of northern Laos.
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