Remembering a little piece of Thailand where heaven was around 762 bends
It took some getting to, this village in the northwest corner of Thailand that we'd heard rave reviews of. A very noisy, bumpy and smelly overnight train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, followed by a half-day journey in a clapped-out minivan that T-shirts touted at our destination would proclaim takes in "762 bends".
Its name in English is spelled with a "P" but Thais say it "Bai", and it has long been known as a romantic weekend getaway for Thai lovebirds, and more lately as a favourite for farangs looking beyond the usual beer-drenched backpacker haunts – at least, by the time we hurtled in a rusty box down the mountain into town.
We'd become hitched several months prior; we leapt into it with a minimal-fuss approach after my dad died suddenly and unexpectedly at the end of summer. I got the phone call while I was at my work desk, and had to navigate my way down in the lift and out on to the street to slump against the building in shock and that particular, ear-crackling sense of being both empty and bursting. I was, at 27, an orphan.
Soon I was pregnant with our first child, my belly just starting to swell on our belated honeymoon – a month spent travelling around Thailand, a country we'd already fallen in love with on a previous visit, a very good place for blowing away cobwebs woven from sadness, anger, confusion.
The first few weeks we spent in the south, on the coast and islands of the Andaman Sea, where monsoon rains meant hours stranded in our bungalow, watching the two channels the television could receive. BBC World was abuzz – the GFC had just hit, while channel two taught us to count in Thai as infomercials repeated numbers to call Now to deal to the flab with a "weight reducing weight belt".
In Pai, much farther north, in the mountainous Mae Hong Son province close to the Burmese border, the skies were clear and the ambient temperature much cooler; morning mists crept up from the river that runs through the heart of the small town. Laid out in a neat grid, main street Pai – officially and aptly known as Pai Walking Street – ran down to the riverbank.
Quiet by day, with folks off hiking, chasing waterfalls and rafting, when dusk arrived the unpaved road came alive as stallholders settled in for the evening. Most of the world's surviving 1960s VW Kombis seemed to have wound up in this wee town, all neatly re-decorated in cutesy pastel colours to operate as a clothing stall or mobile art gallery or -filled to the brim with colourful sugary creations - a candy store.
There were no bars pumping out bassy house or trance, no touts handing out flyers – "Fire pois and 2-4-1 vodka buckets!" Instead, open-late art galleries hosted mellow jazz bands to nod along to, sipping on a Singha or, in my case, a coconut shake – a blend of fresh coconut milk and sweetened condensed milk that I'd become a little obsessed with. Loose cotton clothing for yogis, artwork and crafts by hill tribespeople were all infused with the aroma of street food: flash-fried noodles, and grilled meat on skewers, steaming vats of broth to be ladled over noodles and fish balls.
One of my favourite things about Thailand is that you never walk more than a few steps without encountering some delicious morsel to scoff. In Pai, we had quickly settled on a favourite to frequent: a one-woman operation selling that Isaan holy trio of khao niew (sticky rice), gai yang (marinated chicken grilled over charcoal), and som tam (green papaya salad flecked with as much bird's eye chilli as you can take). She was always there when we needed her for a late breakfast, then took a break for the afternoon before returning at nightfall to fan the charcoal fire back to life.
Trip Notes: Clarke Gayford reveals hidden gem of the Pacific
Uluru: Why tourist numbers climbing the rock are on the up
To finish each evening on a sweet note, I made for the food cart painted green and with the Islamic crescent moon and star, where a tiny woman in a hijab turned out a continuous flow of sweet, filled roti, made by stretching and spinning an oily dough until incredibly thin, cooking till bubbling and golden on a wide, convex griddle, and topping –as was always my request - with local banana (quite different to your supermarket Dole) and sweetened condensed milk, that ubiquitous dessert-ifier throughout Southeast Asia (Nestle must have done a thorough marketing job).
We booked a class at the Red Orchid Cooking School, around the corner from our guesthouse. Owner Dao and her assistant tutor Dai spoke very little English, and neither we nor our two Hebrew-speaking classmates spoke Thai, but that didn't matter; we learned about each ingredient via pantomime and followed each step of the seven recipes printed in our take-home recipe books with our always-grinning tutors beside us to demonstrate.
In the days before Google Translate, the recipes read well and were mostly consistent, but I'd spot Dao adding this or that here and there, so this sauce-splattered booklet which I still pull from the bookshelf frequently to use in my kitchen is peppered with my annotations – "Add stock to ingredients list and add ladlefuls of it often, stirring in", "Taste and add another glug of fish sauce if needed", "First heat the coconut milk till bubbling and set aside", and "Lemon – lime".
I learned that most Thai recipes lend themselves to doing all the prep at the outset–chopping, peeling, crushing, pounding, followed by a quick, simple cook – no sauteeing onion until caramelised, or adding stock ladle-by-ladle for an hour. While we're used to standing at a bench, Thais like to prep sitting down, and in company, which makes it a social thing. And they have the clever idea of doing the actual cooking bit outdoors, over portable gas burners and charcoal-fired clay stoves. You don't feel so nervous about flames big enough to leap into the wok when there are no walls to hem you in. And the cooking smells are deftly carried away by the wind.
As we were busy cooking and eating, another operation was carrying on in the living area of Dao's home: several women sat on the raised platform weaving dozens of small krathong–rafts, which would all end up floating down the river the following night for the festival of Loi Krathong. Dao explained they were making them both for their family and to sell to locals who didn't have time to make their own. As she bundled us up with copious packaged leftovers, Dao told us to come back the following morning; she wanted to give us a krathong so we could take part in the tradition.
As dusk fell the next evening, the main street of Pai came alive as villagers paraded in floats. Along with a succession of music blasting from speaker-stacked utes came towering floral arrangements, fan-flicking girls, sword-dancing boys, and serene-looking ruby-cheeked beauty queens. Later, following Dao's instructions, we took our krathong–woven with banana leaves and decorated with orchids and candles, down to the river.
As Dao had carefully instructed us to, we had clipped our fingernails and placed the clippings into the krathong. In doing so, Dao was able to explain, we would cast off bad luck, and welcome in better. Borrowing a match from one of the villagers I lit the candles and squatted to touch the krathong to the water, letting the current pull it from my hands to join dozens of others in a silent parade floating downriver.
Back at our bungalow, we climbed the bamboo ladder to the mezzanine and pushed open the rattan shutters. Until sleep took hold, we lay gazing out at the indigo sky over the river, which was peppered with rice paper lanterns. Fired and lit-up with tealight candles, they rose one by one, quietly swaying upwards out of our earthly sight, into the atmosphere.
It's been more than 10 years since that trip to Pai. I'm sure tourism will have changed the place a great deal since then - it now has an airport, so taking 762 bends isn't always necessary. Pai Walking Street might have pavements and some of the very oldest ladies with their betel-stained teeth will have disappeared from the night market. But I'm sure there's still magic; the steady flow of mountain spring water carrying life along with it, and depositing thousands of nail clippings in the inky riverbed.