CSCT2k8: Pai, Thailand

2:55am 3rd March 2008

So it's been a while since I last updated my blog. Apologies to all. I will try to summarise the last month as best I can.

I arrived in Thailand on the 10th Feb to work with the admin/tech team of CouchSurfing.com. Having landed in Bangkok, I took a domestic flight up to Chiang Mai. As luck would have it, I arrived on a Sunday, just in time for the Sunday Night market. I decided to delay a night here to sample the sights and sounds of this town that I have never been to. Chiang Mai is an ancient city that used to be the capital of one of the northern Siamese kingdoms. Founded around 1296 by King Mengrai, it was originally named Nopphaburi Si Nakhonping Chiangmai. After being captured by the Burmese, it was finally incorporated into Thailand in 1774 when King Thaksin recaptured the area that is now Chiang Mai province. Since then Chaing Mai has become an important local economic hub in northern Thailand, where locals come to engage in trade and work. It is also an important destination in the Thai tourism industry. It is a fascinating city, and I highly recommend that any visitor to Thailand make the effort to visit it.

I arrived in Pai on the 10th Feb. Weston and John met me at the bus stop after a long, stomach churning minibus ride down a windy road driven by a maniacal driver. I immediaely hired a motorbike to get around town, as there are no taxis or other forms of public transport. I spent the first day exploring the area in and around Pai, and taking lots of photos. I haven't uploaded them yet, but if you check the gallery soon they'll be there, as soon as I get to a fast internet connection. It is an incredibly serene piece of countryside, lush with vegetation. I have taken many photos of this trip, all of which are available in my Twerl gallery.

There are many rural villages nearby where the tribes people live very traditional lives, more or less untouched by the dramatic social changes modernity brings. Pai, on the other hand, is a whole different story. It was clearly conquered long ago by armies of backpackers searching for authentic foreign experiences. While not westernised in the almost tasteless manner that Phuket or Koh Samui have been, Pai has been transformed by the many people travelling through it. All the foreigners there say how they prefer the authentic experience that Pai represents, which has taught me something fundamental about how societies interact; they cannot see reflections of themselves in others, they only see the differences. This may seem obvious, but in Pai, this property of human behaviour was demonstrated to me from the reverse angle; Instead of looking at another society and searching for something familiar as most people do, the travellers to Pai are looking for something different, they want the "authentic Thai experience". Over the years, Pai changed. Its society re-modelled itself to suit the backpackers flowing through it. The economy changed from selling farming tools and produce to selling handicrafts and souvenirs, the primary wealth generating activity changed from producing goods and trading them in nearby Chiang Mai to service based endeavours catering for their guests. The fact that the ex-pats living there did not recognise this and insisted that Pai represented "Thainess" as opposed to the regular tourist traps illustrates to me that they were unable to see those parts of themselves that were being imbibed by the locals, they only saw the differences that remained, which kept them believing that Pai was still truly authentically Thai. In my view, nothing could be further from the truth.

Don't get me wrong, this is not a bad thing, Pai has retained a very pleasant, highly social community spirit, with local townspeople, foreigners and nearby Lesu tribe members mixing together in as close to perfect harmony as one will see on 21st century Earth. I merely make the point that this demonstrates the truism that observation without intervention is impossible. Backpackers are famous for their low-impact travel nature, they strive to leave as few footprints as they can and assimilate into the places that they go as invisibly as possible. However, Pai is an example of the ultimate impossibility of this effort. It is a macroscopic societal manifestation of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. The backpackers' money is the metaphorical photon to the the momentum of the local economy's particle, and I feel that this very interaction, this cross osmosis of human experience, ultimately enriches the lives of everybody it touches. Economically, fair trade always results in net gains to both sides. So too in societies; respectful trade in ideas, experiences and knowledge allows all who engage in it to gain from their expanded pool of wisdom.

The CouchSurfing collective was for me quite productive. While I did not get as much real coding done as I would have liked, interacting with the rest of the ream and meeting the other people who up until then I had only known by reputation or by email was great. The CouchSurfing team are great people, with a wonderful sense of common purpose and a genuine desire to have a positive impact upon the world. If only more groups could look past their implementational disagreements and concentrate on a shared vision, then there would be far more positive results from human interaction. Great work guys, I look forward to working with you in the future.

One story worth telling was the tale of The Nameless Cat. While on one of my exploration trips, I came across a cat starving and near death. Given its distance from any livable area and the fact that it was obviously highly domesticated, I could only conclude that it had been dumped as a nuisance cat by an annoyed ex-owner. Being the animal lover that I am, I bundled it up in my shirt and took it back into town. I must have looked a little odd, being topless with a half-dead cat wrapped up in the bike's basket. We got back to the Mango Tree (the main guest house where we all worked) and gave her some water. It seemed, however, that she was unable to drink. I went back into town to fetch some chloromycetin drops, syringes and latex gloves. John helped me wash her up, put some drops in her eyes which were caked over with dry sticky secretions and syringed some water down her throat. We attempted to feed her, but she wasn't interested. We decided to let her rest, and give her fluids every few hours until she got her strength back. She responded very well to handling, purring very strongly and seemed to welcome the syringed water. Unfortunately however, she just wouldn't eat. More disturbingly, maggots appeared at her nostrils and mouth. We spoke to a local vet, who suggested killing it with a shovel. I decided to get a second opinion. I took some photos and called an emergency centre in Australia who gave me some care advice. After assessing the photos, it was decided that the most likely result would unfortunately be euthanasia. I had neither the time nor the resources to give the cat the several weeks of intensive care that would be required to give it a chance, and even that would be a slim chance. The only other option was to put the cat back where I found it, which would only prolong her misery. We decided to wait and see what happened. 24 hours later, she was still unable or unwilling to eat, which, along with the ever-present maggots, was an indication that her condition was unlikely to improve. We euthanised her that day, using carbon monoxide asphyxiation, as it was the only non-violent means available to us. We buried her under a tree.

CouchSurfing was nice enough to pay for a collective outing to go bamboo rafting and elephant riding. It was great fun, we all got to float down the river on bamboo rafts, and then ride elephants. I really enjoyed the rafting, but the elephant riding was a bit boring. I enjoyed it for about 15 minutes, and then I realised just how slow the things moved, and just how hard their backbones were. I had a sore butt by the time we had to get off. Afterwards I sat in a hot spring that smelled of sulphur, which was great, as I was starting to get bad gas due to stomach problems.

Now I have not vomited since I was in primary school. However, during the course of the collective, I got such a bad bout of food poisoning that I vomited every hour one night. I was much better the morning after though, the whole episode lasted about 12 hours only, thankfully, with only minor belching issues for a few days thereafter.

After about 3 weeks I decided that it was time to leave the collective. I left with a friend of mine named Diamond from London, and headed down south for some sun and sand. We stayed in Koh Lanta for 3 days, which was absolutely stunning. The Thai south is beautiful, and I'm just sad I didn't spend a few more days there, as I didn't manage to get any scuba diving in. After that, I jumped on a plane for home, which brings us to the present. I hope you're not all too upset with me for keeping you in the dark, I'll do my best to update more often. Until the next time folks!