While under the magical spell of Pai during a trip to Thailand last year, a discovery, a reflection showed something glimmering. In the middle of a conversation in Don’t Cry reggae bar, I asked someone, “So do you think you know the formula for happiness?” He easily answered a yes and elaborated that amidst uncertainties in life, mostly when we feel sad or incomplete or yearning, we must always reenter the liberating state of doing whatever we love to do. He was the same soul who asked me what my priority in life was during that same night. My answer was love.
And love I felt for Pai. It is one of the most hippie destinations I’ve been and all travel stories I’ve heard of revealed sentiments of nothing but delight and love for the place. Such a haven, my eyes opened up, and after the winding five-hour journey from Chiang Mai, I entered into a candid trance, and the whole of me pulsed with excitement upon glimpsing all the quirky cafes and quaint bookstores in such a small slice of land. Vibrant accessories and clothes adorn the streets and the people, most of whom are backpackers. Creativity flows everywhere – in tattoo and souvenir shops, street food carts and restaurants, bar interiors and live music.
The day consistently begins at 7AM, however shaky and tired the night before was. The quiet and the cold seeps into the bones. The common area of Spicy Pai hostel is a large wooden sanctuary in front of the whole compound of dorm huts, pathways, kitchen, and bathrooms. I take off my slippers and climb up the ladder, head to the table of freshly filled jars of coffee, sugar, creamer, bags of tea, and loaves of bread. Breakfast becomes a sacred routine of stirring, pouring, toasting, slathering. Before the majority wakes up and stumbles into the common area, I secure a good position in the hammock in front of the hut, overlooking the vast field and a bit far out the mountains. The cold embraces the skin and the morning air refreshes the mind.
The late morning continues at the back of the scooter while I ride with my friend, in the hopes of scoring a cheap but decent place to eat lunch, which I believe is an easy task wherever you are in Thailand. Pad Thai will always be the favorite.
The sun is up and alive and baking the town with its heat and daylight.
We stroll around the streets, we cross paths with a friend from the hostel, we stop and say hi. Then we resume the strolling, decide on a restaurant, eat, pause for a while. The minutes hum with the serenity of Pai. We go out again, move into establishments, explore, then go out again. We then head back to the hostel to chill.
The common area, as usual, invites. Stories, games, debates, names, backgrounds, beers – everything is mutually shared among the group. We beat the heat by various activities. Some play cards, some are deep in conversation, some put the Alt-J/Passenger music on. Others snatch a book and read away from the crowd or take an afternoon nap. Some watch hilarious videos on their laptop or load up on massive amounts of sugar. Or some beat the heat by simply observing the movement and the stillness at the same time. Possibility lies at our hands.
Then the late afternoon approaches. Nature calls. Arms stretch, bodies rise. The kids are ready to explore once more. Ride the scooter, drink iced coffee, rise from the seats, visit temples nearby, stop, eat pancakes, walk, stop, drink watermelon shake, sit, walk, buy books, experience the Thai massage, go.
When the air got more spontaneous, the group decides to drive to the canyon in time for the sunset. Ride the motorbikes and drive fast, feel infinite in the adrenaline, hike a bit, turn strangers into friends, ask more names, as well as travels both past and future, sit, walk, take photos, talk, sit again, watch the sunset quietly, watch people walking, watch people watching the sunset. It was the day I must have glimpsed of my own formula for happiness.
The slow spirit of Pai lets you soak in the beauty of life. You can do the small things, the unacknowledged rewards of nothingness but feel joy. There lies meaning in scarcity, more so in emptiness. In doing nothing, I felt like I have achieved everything.
Close your eyes, let your hands and nerve-ends drop, stop breathing for 3 seconds, listen to the silence inside the illusion of the world, and you will remember the lesson you forgot, which was taught in immense milky way soft cloud innumerable worlds long ago and not even at all. It is all one vast awakened thing. I call it the golden eternity. It is perfect. -Jack Kerouac
The afternoon sunset elapsed and gave way for the night to remember. Ride the scooters again, go back to the town, stroll, bump into hostelmates and say hi, help a stranger turned friend buy accessories for his sister, eat, talk, ask questions, walk, watch a local dancing to Thai music, return to the hostel. The night wants to share something. It doesn’t end yet. Take a bath, rest a bit, get to know, ask, answer. Then ride the scooters again, squeeze into each other’s warmth against the biting cold, explore more, talk, walk, drink beers, watch a band playing, talk, look into each other’s eyes, laugh. Ride the scooters again, move into the only bar that is open after midnight, sit, drink beers, watch Poi performances, talk. Play a game, get to know, ask a question. A discovery, a reflection showed me something glimmering.
In the coming days, life continued to begin at 7AM and the rest of the slow life followed.
It is in this particular trip that I’ve come to realize how I truly love the backpacking way of traveling because it teaches me to simplify my life and focus on the things that truly matter. I learned how 9 days were never enough, however its charm will consume your being and the purest of its lessons will materialize intangibly the day you go back home.
I returned to Manila and recaptured memories of the early morning I arrived at the airport, of the vast and vague awe while walking the street where I reside and the avenue where I work. Physical elements are of the utmost familiarity yet something is inexplicably new inside. I can’t translate it into sentences but fittingly it must be that the world radiates wonder and l felt wonderful. More than all the sweet and splendid things Pai brought to my eyes, I felt like my soul had found its home on my own formula for happiness.
I will forget details but I will always feel that flow, that feeling, that lullaby movement of hammock with a book propped open against my stomach and of light from the setting sun peacefully diffusing over the rice fields.
The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,
and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you
all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,
the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.
-Derek Walcott, Love After Love
And then in one place, I am alive in the entirety of the Universe.