Pai (Part II)

I’d heard rumors from other travelers that certain bars in Thailand sell mushroom smoothies, or as they’re colloquially known, “happy shakes”. Because they were freely given out to tourists, I expected them to be only mildly hallucinogenic. This turned out to be a serious underestimation. The mushrooms in my shake were fresh-picked and thus at the height of their potency, sending me swirling into a night of terror and misery.

Reddit gave me the name of a bar on the edge of town where I might find one of these beverages. My plan was simple. Have a mushroom shake, then walk around Pai’s night market and appreciate the lights and things in a pleasant state of psychedelic euphoria.

I approached the bartender. “Do you have any mushroom shakes?”

“Don’t say mushrooms. Mushrooms illegal,” she scolded.

“Sorry… happy shake? Do you have any?”

“Come back at five,” she told me.

I rode my mini dirt bike around and had some dinner and returned to the bar sometime after five. The bartender handed over the shake and asked for 500 baht (over 15 dollars! A night in a hostel in Thailand might cost you 200 Baht). I handed her the substantial note and took the shake. It was light purple and dangerously sweet. A few sips sent my mind swimming. I could tell it was going to be strong.

I sat by myself on a ground cushion and sipped my shake and looked around at the white tent. It was early in the night and the place was mostly empty. A young Asian American with long hair was also sitting by himself and asked if he could join me. He was a bike courier by trade and lived in New York City.

We chatted until I had to excuse myself. I made it outside the tent and around the corner just out of view of the other patrons, where I proceeded to completely empty the contents of my stomach. Vomit came out in vibrant colors while neon masks swam before my eyes… When I walked back to the table, my brain was saturated with psilocybin. The high was intense and rather than promoting joy as I’d hoped, I felt deeply uneasy. I was high on psychoactive drugs in an unfamiliar country. I had to get somewhere safe. I shared this revelation with my new friend, and he offered to take me to my hostel on his scooter. As we left the bar I pulled my scarf up over my face and felt like an Arabian prince. “You’re in Thailand,” I kept whispering to myself, trying to get a grip.

Breathing expansively, I got on the back of his scooter. The best part of my mushroom trip was the few minutes it took for him to get to my hostel; the wind and the lights streaming by were nothing short of thrilling.

When I entered my 12 bed room in the hostel it was totally dark. I checked my watch: 9pm. I felt my way into my bunk and dragged my daypack up there with me, which contained my passport, wallet, hostel keys, cellphone… objects which I was worried I was too fucked up to keep track of and so kept checking for obsessively.

I pulled the sheet over my head. What now? I was too incapacitated to leave. Interacting with others was a negative… Yep, I was in here for the night, which I spent repeating comforting phrases under my breath like: “It’s just the drugs”, and “use it,” encouraging myself to use the introspective power of these psychedelics to broaden my perspective and work through issues in my (particularly my emotional) life. How curious that I packed a few essentials into a backpack and made a pilgrimage to this strange land, leaving my known world (family, friends, job) behind. Why?

I lay there, pondering with my seething, steaming brain and waited for morning, which wouldn’t come. When would this be over?

To worsen matters, British and Australian voices were bullshitting in the common area just outside my bedroom door. They had a speaker and played lame, predictable popular music until 3am. I couldn’t sleep anyway. If not for the mushrooms, the bed was rock hard. The only thing harder than the bed was the pillow, so I balled up a pair of my linen trousers to rest my head on and eked out a few hours’ rest.

The next day I was up and miraculously feeling ok, almost normal. I drove around looking for this red curry place that was recommended on my hostel’s bulletin board. When I finally found the right street, the restaurant was closed. On a ledge under the restaurant sign sat a small white and black cat situated with its legs hidden and eyes closed. I dismounted my scooter and pet the cat for a few minutes. It got up and stretched at my touch and seemed glad for the attention.

But I had to find food. My stomach had been utterly empty for over 12 hours and I was famished. Back on one of the busier streets I had some traditional Western breakfast food: avocado toast with fried eggs. The yolks of these eggs were orange and creamy and full of integrity.

There was yet another waterfall in the area that I thought I’d spend my time checking out. It took maybe 30 minutes of navigating snaking uphill roads to reach it. At this higher altitude the sun was hidden by clouds and so I decided not to swim.

Pai canyon was next on the list. I zipped south and arrived just before sundown. The top of the canyon looked West, rendering it was a notoriously spectacular sunset spot. The parking area was a spree of scooters. I found a slot at the end of the line and parked and joined a throng of tourists marching up the hill to the viewpoint. Hundreds of them were seated in happy groups watching the sun go down. I descended into the canyon until the crowd thinned to no one. I sat alone in a patch of trees, occasionally looking up at the mass of bodies gathered, snacking and chatting, taking in the sunset. Sure, the view was cool, the canyon was unique, but something didn’t feel right. My expensive epic jaunt through Asia was rendered unoriginal and pointless when it so many chumps were out here doing the same thing. I had to cast off on my own. I had to betray the lonely planet book and go off the grid if I wanted to have an experience wholly my own, one to tell my grandchildren or blog about and have be remotely interesting.

I decided this canyon wasn’t the place for me to be so I left before the sun went down and ventured further south to take an alternate route back to Pai. I crossed a bridge over the river and took a gorgeous road which passed banana tree groves and elephants tied up in wooden stables. I stopped to get a closer look at one of the beasts. It looked old; its grey coloration fading away like old paint, revealing patches of light brown. It was confined to the barn by a length rope tied around its neck. I’d heard rumors of the mistreatment of elephants. That seemed to be what I was witnessing.

But so stunning was this road and its mountain views that my improving mood couldn’t be spoiled by the misfortune of the poor creature. Riding that road that evening was a much better way to take in the sunset than assembling with all those sheep at Pai Canyon.

I got my stuff from the hostel and checked into a nice hotel outside of town that had an outdoor pool. I was asleep by 10.

Typing “hot springs” into Google Maps brought up a few options. I chose the spring that was free and had reviews claiming it was “off the beaten path”. The turns were technical and sharp, and vehicles were seldom. I saw trucks and motorbikes parked to side of the road; their owners sprayed fields with who knows what.

After about an hour of scootering, I arrived at the springs. Long concrete troughs delivered hot water to a large, perfectly round, above-ground tub. Two girls were in there already, speaking German. We introduced ourselves and I learned that one was Swiss, the other German. I eased my way into the tub, which was lukewarm. The girls explained that it’s not hot because it’s morning and the tubs heat up gradually throughout the day. They were very courteous, speaking English for my benefit even when they were just speaking to each other.

Before long another rider appeared on the scene. He stripped to his shorts and joined us. Jason was his name. We learned he is a Korean-American hailing from Los Angeles . Somehow at the tender age of 25 he owns multiple sushi restaurants in Spokane, WA. He was a gregarious fellow committed to his Go-Pro filming. He had ridden from Chiang Mai (a four-hour ride) just that morning.

He and I rode back to Pai together, going the opposite way I came to complete the loop. The roads on this side of the springs were even steeper and windier. I was driving a semi-automatic, the type that all the Thais ride. This took some convincing at the rental place because they don’t like to rent them to tourists. I was still getting used to shifting without a clutch and with my foot; the bike suffered a few mis-shifts which fortunately didn’t cost me the transmission. Resilient machines, these scooters. Having a riding partner was grand. We pushed the pace until he peeled off to check into his hotel and I continued into town to get food.

One restaurant had a cooking school attached which I took as a good sign. I bought a giant bottle of water and sat down to study the menu. The Swiss and German girl from the springs showed up a few minutes later entirely by coincidence, out walking Pai’s few streets and alleyways. They ordered some food at the counter and sat with me. And then, the German girl, with a view of the street, said, “Is that Jason?”

It was. We waved at him and he joined us. He and I ordered Kao Soi, a dish that had been recommended to me by some San Franciscan friends who had recently visited Northern Thailand. It was a noodle and coconut based meal, and it was tremendous.

I returned my scooter and rented another from an agency that allows you to return it in Chiang Mai. I forked over a hefty chunk of my dough for the deposit.  I filled up my empty water bottles with free water from the hostel I had stayed at during my horrific shroom trip.

I fueled my new scooter and rode to meet Jason at a waterfall. It was cold up there and no one was swimming and neither did we. On the ride back we stopped in one of the villages. I bought a papaya from a street vendor and Jason bought us each a sausage. A small black mutt loitered at our feet and watched us eat.

Continuing on our alternate route back to Pai brought us past yaks and more villages. One woman did the prayer bow to me as I rode by. I was touched and tried to do it back to her but I could only do it with one hand because I was piloting the scooter. I lost Jason, who raced to catch the sunset at Pai canyon even though I warned him it wasn’t worth it.

Back at my luxurious guest house, I lay by pool and read a borrowed lonely planet, scoping out my route up to Chiang Rai. “Rai”, I read, means “King” in Thai. It was a multiple-day journey from Pai on a scooter; I didn’t want to be riding for more than four hours a day. Using the book and the internet, I planned a route and booked a hostel. Content with my new plans, I showered and motored up the road into town to meet up with the Swiss and German girls at a bonfire.

I found the place and parked. Walking up the path to the fire, I passed a shirtless bloke who was lying with his feet up a telephone pole, laughing. It was comforting to know I wasn’t the only one whose faculties were devastated by Pai’s happy shakes.

Around the fire a girl with a clear voice was singing, backed up by a guy on acoustic guitar. I located my friends and sat in the loose circle made up of forty or so travelers. There seemed to be no locals there. Most of the people there were blissed out barefoot hippies wearing eccentric scarves and other such excessive layers.  I felt square in my practical down coat and technical trail runners.

On my way home I stopped for some grub and got a generous portion of chicken and rice for about one dollar. Back in my hotel room I ate my meal and watched “Newness” on my iPad for the sake of escapism. This was my final night in Pai. I was glad to leave the tourists behind and cast off on an adventure of my own making. The next day would bring hours astride the scooter, propelling my way across Northern Thailand…