After being on the train all day watching the scenery pass before my eyes from the dirty streets and makeshift shacks in Bangkok through the countryside and all the way to Chiang Mai. A group of local people were already calling out to offer me rides and to take me to the best hostel in town before I even had both feet on the platform.
Apparently, my face screamed the sad confused songs of being new to a foreign country. I attempted to scurry around the eager drivers to the first map that I saw to see if I could find the hostel I had a reservation for. But the locals just followed and covered the map pointing to their own recommendations of places to go.
I felt myself begin to sweat and panic at the looks of determination in these peoples eyes and eventually I decided to just start walking. I had a clue of what direction to head in so I took a chance and eventually the crowd stopped following to go harass someone else with a backpack and blank look on their face.
The feeling of being in a foreign place was really setting in. The strange lettering that I had only really seen on a computer screen or in books before. Push carts with Thai ladies making dishes with such confidence and precision throwing in a dash of this spice or that sauce and tossing the creation carefully into the air to ensure it was mixed well and that the aroma would reach out to touch the noses of passers by.
The panic was still present but slowly it was transforming into something more familiar. The muscles in my face had started to relax and I felt my expression soften into something of bewilderment. I felt excited to be in a new place again and that excitement for unfamiliarity gave me comfort.
A couple days later I continued North on to my more permanent destination. I didn’t know it at the time but I was about to discover a place that I would still consider home.
It had been in my intentions to visit three countries during my winter in Southeast Asia: Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia. But deep down I had this feeling like I was visiting a dear friend as I rode the very windy road by bus to Pai and that I wouldn’t be leaving quite as soon as I had planned.
I found a little coffee stand run by a very pretty, modest looking woman with a kind smile. For just around a dollar and in the matter of minutes I had a sweet coffee and a seat looking out at the main walking road. There were locals, travelers, bicyclists, farmers, people in bohemian dress, and up walked a beautifully confident American woman with long grey and black dreadlocks.
She ordered her coffee from the Thai woman, making it obvious that she visited the stand regularly and appreciated the artisanship of the woman’s baked goods. Without much hesitation, she introduced herself as Nancy with an inviting expression that said to me that she’d like to talk story and enjoy our morning coffees together.
Nancy was from New York which was only evident to me through the confidence in which she spoke. Years ago, she had just been a traveler in Pai and had decided to make it her home for a longer time. The Pai vortex, she explained, was very real. A good amount of expats made Pai their home mostly due to the creative stimulation that was at the heart of the community. I heard so many stories of, ‘I planned to come for a week and that was ten months ago…’
And that became so very evident to me as I would visit coffee shops, open mic nights, and scheduled performances throughout the little town. Artists of all nationalities were represented making for one of the most inspiring and free artistic hubs I’ve ever observed.
I’m so glad this is one of the first places I visited because it evoked in me a desire to move very slowly. I’d get to my next destination when I got around to it. There was literally no rush. And rush, I did not. I stayed in Pai for a little over a month and never actually made it to Laos or Cambodia.
I met many backpackers who told their stories of all the places they’d been and how soon they’d be moving on to the next place. It was exciting to hear about these places I also hoped to visit but I was very happy sitting still and wandering that countryside for a bit.
When I think about traveling, I can’t imagine going somewhere for less than a couple months. Recently I made a last minute trip to California when a very cheap flight popped up but it was just for a week and I felt like I didn’t really have any time at all.
To me, slow, immersive travel is something to consider for everyone. If you have the time, throw out the itinerary and just move with the coming and going of each day. Go spend two hours reading a book at a coffee shop before sight seeing or find a way to take part in the community. Don’t just look at the place you’re visiting, feel it.