Pai New Favourite Place in SE Asia

Finn and I boarded a minibus from Chiang Mai in the morning. The driver handed each passenger a bag as we got in and I wondered why, but it was a short lived mystery. The 762 curves along mountain roads made me more ill than any other ride on this trip. At least the scenery was nice, and after a few hours of testing my intestinal fortitude we arrived in the centre of Pai, nothern Thailand.

We had a reservation at Pai Circus School Resort, so we walked along the main road and out of the town centre to find it. Along the way I was excited to see restaurants were selling avocado, brown rice and creative smoothies. We stopped to get some delicious ice cream in waffle cones and after following signs and walking along a path for about 10 minutes found the circus school across the river on a hill.
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The view from the circus school was spectacular. Beyond the infinity pool you could see the hilly landscape far into the distance. There was a pool table and a gazebo with hammocks and a wide open space for playing with hula hoops, poi, or whatever toy you prefer. Young people were lounging everywhere, soaking up the sun. Our $15 triangular hut was tiny and contained only the minimum furnishings: a mattress on the ground, a lamp and a mosquito net. The blankets were flimsy and thin so we were freezing at night. There were big holes in the floor, which made be worry I would clumsily fall through one or accidentally drop my valuables out. We wanted to stay there anyway because the circus school and pool were fantastic.
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Most of the people who stayed at the circus school weren’t interested in circus, but stayed at the school because of the beautiful view and chilled out atmosphere. Most days there was a beginner poi lesson from 3pm – 6pm for $20, but I didn’t take one because I’m not particularly interested in poi. The best thing about the circus school was making friends over the course of the week. A small group of us who were passionate about hula hooping, poi, other hippy props and circus found each other and become good friends quickly. Three new Americans friends told me about a flow toy festival called Pacific Fire that happens in Oregon in September. I definitely want to go to that. It was great to be around passionate people because it reawakened my and Finn’s interest in hula hooping. I also learned to juggle a bit and Finn learned some contact staff.
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Every morning in Pai I went for a run and then to breakfast with Finn and our new circus friends. A place called The Good Life served delicious, healthy, natural foods, so we ate there every morning until we found a place that was even better called Om Café. All the food was healthy, affordable and unbelievably delicious. They had lots of vegetarian options like quesadillas, hummus, poached eggs, avocado and grain salad. They had a smoothie that was nothing but blended avocado and coconut milk for $2. It was hard to choose between getting a cappuccino or a smoothie, so sometimes I got both. It felt indulgent, but necessary, to top the meal off with fresh carrot cake with perfect cream cheese icing.

In the evenings we usually walked into town and strolled through the night market. The stores stayed open after dark and stands selling food, jewellery or clothing popped up. A stand called Juice Queen had fantastic healthy smoothies with generous helpings of fresh fruits and vegetables, real cocoa, avocado, homemade peanut butter and no added sugar. I was floored by the healthy deliciousness. All of it was amazingly cheap too. A high protein vegetable smoothie cost $2 and a strawberry banana smoothie cost $1.

After a few days we forgot to extend our room reservation at the circus school so it was sold to someone else. Initially we were disappointed to move out, but then we found a place called Family Huts that was nearby, which was half the price of circus school and the bungalows were a lot nicer, so it turned out that our eviction from the circus school was actually a good thing. We still spent a lot of time hanging out at the circus school and they were happy to have us because we contributed to the circus atmosphere.

Pai is surrounded by lovely wilderness, but aside from my morning runs I only went out to visit it once. Finn, our new friend Melissa and I rented motorbikes for a few dollars for the day and went to relax by a waterfall. The water was cold but refreshing when I jumped in for a short swim. We met a few people at the waterfall and chatted a while before moving on to another tourist attraction called the Land Split, which is exactly what it sounds like. It’s a tourist attraction created around a split in the ground that I would barely have noted if I walked by it on a nature hike. I was glad we went anyway because at the entrance is a little stand with snacks and drinks by donation. We sat down on hammocks and juice, wine, peanuts, chips and fruit, all made on the property, were brought over to us. We relaxed and then dropped a few dollars in the donation bin on our way out.

After that we rode the windy road up to a huge canyon. I walked and climbed along the dusty, narrow path that would never be open to people walking in Canada. It was extremely high and looked dangerous, but it provided a beautiful view and fun negotiating the way along the uneven terrain. I ventured out on my own and met some lovely Americans who invited me to hang out with them along the path. It was the perfect way to end the day.

Another afternoon Finn and I went to a fermentation and kombucha making workshop that was advertised all over town by the Good Life restaurant, which is also the primary kombucha producer and distributer in Pai. The workshop was a short walk out of town on a small farm. We were offered bottles of kombucha to drink as soon as we got there and were told to help ourselves to more whenever we wanted. I wasn’t the biggest fan of kombucha but I wanted to give it a chance because it supposedly has wonderful health benefits. Also, I can’t resist things that are free. I drank a bottle and didn’t mind it. Throughout the workshop I drank more and more of it, largely because it was something to entertain myself with.
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A man named Lance, a large aging hippy from northern Saskatchewan, ran the first part of the workshop about fermentation. “The only things that don’t ferment are our spirits, our souls,” he said. He went on about the magic of fermentation for over half an hour before getting into the process of it. He talked about people’s misguided fear of bacteria, “If you step into the flow of nature at the appropriate point, you have nothing to fear. Fermentation is observing that part of nature.” Lance told us that processed food is ‘dead’ because all the bacteria is killed, so it doesn’t give our digestive systems necessary bacteria, which is why we should eat fermented foods, yoghurts and foods with active bacteria.
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Lance pickles and ferments anything and everything. He showed us the freezer bags of random vegetables that he threw together to ferment the night before. He had also packed a bag of kimchi vegetables and fermented it for a day for our class to work with. We wrapped the freshly fermented, spiced kimchi in bok choi and into freezer bags to ferment further and kept some fresh for our class to eat at the end of the day.

Konstantin, who goes by Kay or Mr K, a small, good-natured Ukrainian man with a goatee, ran the second part of the workshop. Before getting into kombucha, he showed us that you can put certain little mushrooms in milk, soy milk, almond milk, coconut milk or any kind of milk-like product and turn it into yoghurt or kefir overnight. He told us about bacteria with a long winded metaphor about good people stopping bad people in human communities. I was amazed to learn that the process of making yoghurt is so simple. I found the prospect of making my own granola and yoghurt once I have a stable living situation again exciting.

Kay taught us about the history, health benefits and process of kombucha in long-winded, if passionate, explanations. I could hardly believe these men ran this workshop daily with this much enthusiasm. I was drinking bottle after bottle of kombucha the whole time and developing a taste for it.

Kay brought us into the cellar and showed us big jars of kombucha at various stages of fermentation and had us taste some. Along the wall were shelves of mysterious looking-jars with liquids of different dark colours. We were told that one jar contacted a pickled tiger penis. Kay passed around a bottle for us to smell, but Finn and I weren’t listening when he told us what it was. I thought it was for tasting, but I didn’t want any. Finn put a little in his glass and drank it, but it tasted terrible. He asked what it was and Kay said it was fermented beaver kidney. We weren’t supposed to drink it.

I was getting really hungry by 430, but the workshop was supposed to end at 5 with a communal meal. Kay wasn’t finished at 5 and kept up the tangential ramblings and silly jokes for what felt to my rumbling stomach like forever. I had enjoyed the workshop, but had completely lost my ability to concentrate. Kay slowly handed out starter mushrooms to participants who wanted to make kombucha at home or on the road and made them name each one. “I’ll call mine Clementine,” said one participant. When it was my turn to receive my mushroom I almost wanted to refuse to name the silly little thing, but I didn’t want to ruin the mood with my hunger-induced grumpiness, so I said it’s name was Comet. I don’t know why I would name it Comet, but it’s all that came to mind.

At 5:30 Kay asked if we had discussed everything and I couldn’t resist but answer, “yep!” which I hoped didn’t come off as rude. Still he talked for another fifteen minutes and then we were free to go to the table where a spread of kimchi, bagels, cream cheese and pickled vegetables, all produced on the property, was laid out for us. I impatiently waited for others to sit down at the table before I started hungrily shovelling lots of food in my mouth.

After the workshop, Finn and I went to the circus school where we could watch and participate in a fire show most nights. Finn had tried the fire hoop for the first time that week and was hooked on it. The circus school had already asked him to perform for one of their parties.

That night after the workshop I was trying to have fun, but my stomach started to turn and I was nauseated. That afternoon I had drank about five bottles of fermented tea and then ate a huge spread of pickled vegetables for dinner. It was far too much for my bacteria-unaccustomed stomach to handle, so it suddenly emptied itself onto the grass of the circus school before I could make it to the toilet. I read later that you’re supposed to introduce kombucha to your diet slowly, starting with half a bottle. It was unfortunate, because I had finally developed a taste for the healthy, hippy drink, but now just the thought of it makes my stomach turn.

Elsewhere in Southeast Asia Finn and hadn’t met many people who we really connected with. The party scene in most tourist areas attracts a lot of superficial people, but in Pai there was a community of people who were into having fun, but not only getting wasted and shopping. Pai isn’t very exotic since it’s built for tourism and full of westerners, but it was great to be around open-minded people who enjoy the same things as us.

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Chiang Mai Favourite Place in Southeast Asia So Far

The trip from Luang Probang, Laos to Chiang Mai, Thailand took a lot longer than it should have. When Finn and I crossed the border into Thailand our connecting bus had already left without us, so we had to spend the day in a tiny border town. I was pretty annoyed at first, but couldn’t complain too much because the travel company that sold us the bus tickets took us to a little resort to spend the day by the pool to wait for the next bus in the evening. We ate lunch in town at a little vegetarian restaurant that had fantastic Thai curry.
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We arrived in Chiang Mai at 11pm and since it was high season for tourism in Thailand most of the hotels were completely full. We walked all around the centre of town and eventually found a little guesthouse called Baan Na Na in the old city which had a single dorm bed available. Thankfully they let Finn and I share it for $8 and I fell asleep right away. It had been days since I’d slept in a bed and I was still recovering from being sick, so that tiny dorm bed felt like the most comfortable place in the world.

The best thing about Chiang Mai was the food. I had been craving healthy food for months so it was fantastic to find delicious fresh food, brown rice, avocados, all kinds of tasty, nutritious meals. There were vegetarian restaurants everywhere. The food in Laos was really oily and bland so the Thai food tasted spectacular in comparison. Finn and I spent hours sampling different food. The night market was cheap and offered dozens of stalls selling fresh fruit, pad thai, curries and a variety of other food.
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We decided to splurge on a Thai cooking class, which cost about $40 each. There were lots of cooking classes offered in Chiang Mai and they all look similar so it was hard to choose. I looked through the half a dozen brochures at our guesthouse and picked one called The Best Thai Cooking Class. I sent them an email to sign up and they and responded right away that they would pick us up for the class in the morning.

At 9am the next morning we clambered into a 15-seater van full of other tourists. The man running the cooking class, named Permpoon, was gregarious, middle aged and Thai. He spoke great English and was always smiling. The first stop was the fresh food market, where we each chose 6 dishes that we wanted to make from 20 options. I felt silly standing around in a big group of tourists while Thai people did their shopping. Cooking class helpers bought the ingredients for all the food we would make while Permpoon walked us around the market and taught us about the food. I learned that morning glory is called that because the flowers only bloom in the morning.

After the market visit we went to the a farm outside of town where the cooking class was held. We picked a few hot peppers and eggplants from the garden and walked through the picturesque grounds to the instruction area. The large building had high ceilings and no walls and twelve cooking stations with stoves, cutting areas, pots and woks for each of us were set up in a semi circle around Permpoon’s station. We helped ourselves to coffee, tea and water before getting started.

The other people in the class were from all over the world and most of them were under 30 years old. Everyone was in a great mood, which helped Permpoon’s jokes land exceptionally well, even when repeated. He asked someone to help him cook, but give him a massage first. Everyone laughed, even me. He asked someone to keep their eye on the time and let him know when the food is ready in 10 minutes. If the food burns it’s their fault! The crowd was in hysterics. The laughs were just as big or maybe even bigger the second time.

Permpoon led us through how to make curries, pad thai, coconut milk soup, tom yam soup and stir fried vegetables and we made papaya salad, mango sticky rice and spring rolls as a group.

At the end of the class we ate the food together and everything tasted amazing. We were given the ingredients measured out in advance and told precisely when and how to cook everything, so making the food didn’t give me a huge sense of accomplishment, but we were all given a certification for having completed the course.
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Other than the cooking course, Finn and I spent lots of time walking around the city. There were cute little shops, great cafés and art spaces everywhere. We had foot and Thai massages for $6 per hour and they were fantastic. Chiang Mai was great because it’s a real city, not like the phoney tourist towns we had been visiting. There were lots of tourists, but the place wasn’t built only to service tourism like Vang Vieng and 4,000 Islands in Laos seemed to be. Many people told me before this trip that I would love Chiang Mai and they were right.
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Cambodia Island Life

After a few days in Sihanoukville, Finn and I bought tickets for the speed boat to a little nearby island called Koh Rong that many people recommended we check out. The speed boat is $15 both ways and should take about 45 minutes. Of course, there was a problem with the boat so the boat company asked half of us to volunteer to take a slower boat that would take about 2 hours and they would give us each a couple of beers on the boat to compensate. The other half would wait on land about 20 minutes for another smaller speed boat. We decided to take the slow boat and it was a great ride. The free beer created a fun, social atmosphere. About an hour and a half into the trip, however, the boat broke down. We were waiting for a while when someone jumped off the boat for a swim in the sea and half the passengers followed his lead. It was fun to dive into the water from the second level of the boat, about 4 meters from the water. Eventually a speed boat came and we all boarded it for the last leg of the trip.

Koh Rong was spectacular. The boat dropped us off at the pier in the middle of the more developed beach that was lined with restaurants, fruit stands, guesthouses and bungalows. It had a relaxed vibe and people were not aggressive with selling things like they were in Sihanoukville. It looked more natural and less developed. We walked up and down the beach and found a cute guesthouse called Vana’s down a little ally for $5 per night. There was a little common area with a table and chairs and free coffee and water. It was owned by a local family and everyone in the family helped run it. A little girl, about 9 years old, brought up the coffee, changed sheets and watered plants. A boy who we thought was 12 years old, but turned out to be 16, showed guests to the rooms and checked how we were enjoying our stay. It was quiet except that sometimes people came back to the common area at about 2am and talked loudly right outside our room, the wall of which didn’t quite reach the ceiling.

Life on Koh Rong was slow and relaxed. Finn and I woke up early to catch more sunlight. It got dark at about 630pm so if we slept in we would miss the day. We would hang out with people having coffee at the guesthouse, go eat some food, go to the beach, read, play with hula hoops, eat more, and then it was dark out already. After dark I would sometimes do an hour of yoga on my own, have some dinner, hang out with people some more and then it was pretty much bed time. I liked going to bed early on Koh Rong.

All the electricity on Koh Rong comes from gas generators or solar electricity. There is some fresh water on the island but some of it has to be brought over from the mainland. An Australian man in his late 20s named Dave, who is part owner of three businesses on Koh Rong, said he was one of the first few westerners to come to Koh Rong about 3 years ago. Back then, there were only 3 guesthouses and a few bungalows. Now there are (I’m estimating) more than 20 guesthouses, 5 collections of bungalows and there is construction everywhere. According to Dave, the land was sold years ago by the Cambodian government to Hilton, but the local people are fighting in court to have the land granted to them, which they have claim to as a local village. He says that business owners, both foreign and local, could be wiped out by Hilton any time.

The national bread of Cambodia is the baguette, thanks to French colonialism. For breakfast Finn and I often went to this little place owned by local people where a 9 year old kid or one of his parents may take our order of a baguette with vegetables and an egg or meat for $1 that I loved to slather with a copious amount of hoi sin and chilli sauce. Another of my favourite places to eat was called Nice Food, also run by local people, where they had an amazing red curry for $2.50. Finally, White Rose, a western-run place, had a tasty veggie burger with fries and salad for $2.50. Most of the rest of the food on the island was similar but more expensive.

Koh Rong seemed quite clean, but there wasn’t a great system for waste removal. Some sewage went straight into the ocean and most of the garbage was taken on boats to the mainland, but a portion of it went in the ocean too. That’s another awkward thing about being here, we’re obviously contributing to the pollution of this beautiful place. The drains for the shower and sink at the guesthouse led to a pipe on the side of the building that emptied into the ditch behind. On the other hand, Tourism Cambodia came here recently and ordered a bunch of things be changed so that the place would be cleaner and better organized and that probably wouldn’t have happened if so many people weren’t coming here for tourism.

At night, you can see bioluminescence in the water if there isn’t light pollution. One night I stayed up to do some yoga after Finn had went to sleep and then was inspired to go for a walk. I decided to take my flashlight and walk through the forest for 5 or 10 minutes to a more secluded beach called Police Beach and go for a swim alone. I was kind of nervous on the way there, because there is wildlife in the forest, but my flashlight was adequate protection. It was midnight when I got to the beach and it was deserted. I got in the water and it glittered and glowed. When I splashed it looked like there were flecks of sparkling confetti in the water. The people here called this the “plankton” but I’m not sure if it’s plankton that glows. It was beautiful, in any case. It was so peaceful out there all alone. I easily floated on the salt water, looking up at the stars. I could hear muffled partying way down on the other side of the beach.

After 15 minutes of swimming in the dark I saw a flash of lightning that startled me as it lit up the palm tree covered hills, the beach and the whole landscape. I watched the distant lightning storm for a little while before going to shore and heading back. After my walk back through the forest I re-entered the town area feeling safe and happily snakebite-free when I accidentally roused 4 little dogs who got up, growled and ran over to me. I was scared that they would bite me but tried not to show fear by standing tall and yelling as authoritatively as I could. They swarmed me as I shouted “No, dogs!” and shuffled backwards into a table. Now I was cornered and I started kicking. One of them bit me on the back of the ankle and I yelped and yelled “don’t bite me, dogs!” And then I ran away, the loser of the altercation, towards the guesthouse and the dogs didn’t follow for long. The bite hurt, but barely broke skin.