The Hippy Trail (Pai, Thailand)

Zooooooming on bikes – first signs of Pai – the town itself – the Hippy Trail – conspiracy theories – traveling by bike – an interesting form of hitchhiking

The road snaked through the forests of Northern Thailand, curving up the steep mountain in tight switchbacks.  Jay and I raced through the forest on our motorbikes, our tires spraying pine needles into the crisp morning air.  The canopy shaded most of the road from the sun and a refreshingly cool wind swept across my bare shoulders.  I approached an uphill turn, braked, shifted down to second gear, and leaned into the turn.  My bike arced through the curve and I shifted to third, accelerated through the turn and exploded out of the forest and into a large open valley.

We were getting closer to the Pai, I could sense it.

The signs were a dead-giveaway.  Organic restaurant, 25 km; Yoga retreat, 23 km; Eco-lodge 27 km; Mediation courses 22 km.

Yoga, organic food, mediation and eco-lodges: these were the tell-tale signs of ageing hippies.  We were approaching Pai, one of the most remote outposts of the infamous Hippy Trail of the 1960s and 70s.

What is this Hippy Trail, you ask?  From what I understand, the Hippy Trail is path forged by hippies in the 1960s that stretched from Europe to Asia.  The hippies traveled overland from Europe to the Orient in search of enlightenment and a healthy buzz.  The hardships they endured were legendary – walking everywhere in moccasins, abstaining from showers for years, painfully suffering for days without weed, and in some cases being forced to leave Never-Never Land for extended periods of time.  Some even had to cut their hair and experiment with sobriety.  Though most of the Hippy Trail is to the west of Thailand in Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal and Tibet, apparently a few people underestimated the potency of their ganja and accidently wandered into Northern Thailand.

Today Pai is a quaint bohemian town full of cafés, bookshops, restaurants and the aforementioned yoga studios etc.  It sits in the basin of a large valley surrounded on all sides by hills of forest.  The forest trees range in color from amber to green and are intermixed with banana and coconut trees, giving visitors a strangely disorienting mélange of flora: am I in the jungles of Thailand or the forests of California?  The air was cool and dry for the first time since my arrival in Asia, and at times the ride up the mountainside strangely reminded me of the road to Big Bear.

The town is a clustering of raised bungalows jutting out of the long grass.  The town is bisected by a small brook and a half dozen bamboo bridges connect the lower-rent side to the commercial center across the river.  We rode our bikes through town and selected a moderately-priced bungalow that looked like it would burst into a million pieces should either of us sneeze.

Not all of the town’s accommodation was like ours.  Like many former counter-culture haunts, recently retired hippies are returning with cash to spend and are slowly gentrifying the town.  The river is lined with luxury bungalows decorated à la San Francisco, 1967.

Even the Hippy Trail cannot avoid the reach of 7-11 convenience stores.  7-11s are everywhere in Thailand and their low prices are slowly wiping out the competition – the local Thai inconvenient stores.  The experience is entirely different than patronizing a local store – you are not required to remove your shoes, the AC is always blasting, and very little Thai is spoken.  Many travelers see the 7-11s as examples of how globalization is eroding local cultures.  Ironically, many of these criticisms are made as they purchase their large Chang Beers from the 7-11.

But the 7-11s are not what troubles me.  I think I have stumbled upon a larger conspiracy – the ubiquitous Rasta Bars.

Rasta Bars are everywhere in Thailand: from the beach to the mountains, from small villages to big cities.  Wherever you go you are sure to find a Rasta Bar manned by a dreadlocked Rastafar-Thai blasting Bob Marley CDs and swinging in a hammock, the red, yellow and green flag waiving in the air.  Rasta Bars have more franchises than 7-11, so how has no one has noticed this phenomenon?  Aren’t they all somehow connected in a trans-national secret network?

Some backpackers believe Washington is controlling the world via 7-11s and McDonalds, but I think Kingston is secretly winning the hearts and minds of the world’s youths with Bob Marley and Red Stripe.  How many years does the West have left before all of our youths actually listen to the lyrics and finally chant down Babylon?

These bars are everywhere and I want a piece of the pie.  I have been asking around the local towns, bribing tuk-tuk drivers to drive me to the shady alleys where Rastafarians buy and sell Rasta Bar stocks sub-rosa.   No luck yet, so I’ll have to search for business opportunities elsewhere.

We only spent one night in Pai before returning back to Chiang Mai.  Bus schedules and train times were irrelevant – we were traveling by bike.  We packed up our bags, saddled up the rides, started our engines and rode down the dusty roads out of the sleepy valley and over the hills back to Chiang Mai.

Traveling by bike is a most liberating experience.  You leave when you want to leave, you stop wherever you want, and you can take as many detours as you like.  We passed through terraced farms, small towns and dense forests.  The tune Born to Be Wild echoed in my mind and for a brief moment it felt like we were true Easyriders…but hopefully our story will end better than the film.

Despite all the bugs smashed into my Ray-Bans and teeth, I actually looked pretty damn cool on my bike…until I couldn’t get it started and had to ask a 70-year old Thai woman to start it for me. Yet another humbling experience.

But we were not without inconveniences.  Both of our bikes broke down at separate times and twice we had to hitchhike to the nearest mechanic.  A gentle Thai man picked me up and helped me hoist by bike into the back of his truck, but the bike could only fit upright so he insisted that I ride the remaining 20 km in the back of the truck…on the bike.

So there I was, sitting on my upright motorcycle and riding in the back of a truck.  I watched Jay trail behind me on his bike and we smiled at each other.  I have hitchhiked in India, I have motorcycled in San Diego, and I have ridden through Georgia in the back of a pickup.  But I had never done all three things at once until I came to Thailand.  Priceless.

Times are good.  More stories soon to come.

Next stop: a brief sojourn in Chiang Mai.

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