The remainder of our time in Pai slips by under a warm haze of Tramadol and weed. The weather is stunning, and we laze by the pool, reading and napping the days away.
We scooter out to some underwhelming hot springs and laugh at the signs forbidding you from cooking eggs in them. Later we discover the pool where you CAN cook your eggs, and it is a curious scene indeed. You emerge from forest into a small clearing and are confronted with half a dozen Thai tourists. They crowd around the steaming pool, cooking eggs suspended in plastic bags that swing from the end of bamboo rods. We laugh some more, and photo bomb the chefs standing proudly with their cooked lunch.
Brother Fox and I go for an excellent walk into the mountain jungle and follow a river upstream for several hours. The forest is lush, and different enough from the nature back home that we constantly find ourselves pausing to admire a different mushroom or strange plant. Our lazy pace fits perfectly with our mental space and we yarn contentedly, reaching the rewarding depth of conversation that comes easily to kindred souls.
The bus slowly winds up the hill, breaking, as the driver prepares for yet another hairpin turn. The road from Chang Mai to Pai is known for its huge number of corners, and we are not disappointed. Our ride climbs higher and higher, and the verdant jungle of Chiang Mai gives way to sparser mountain vistas.
Pai is the very definition of laid-back, a small hippy town where life meanders by for the relaxed locals and backpackers that stroll the main drag. At night the street turns into a food and clothes market that offers a wealth of tasty snacks and tie-die, the samosas and banana pancakes winning particular favour amongst our number.
Our hostel hosts, the eccentric German, Peter, and his Thai wife, Darling, are hilarious and almost certainly on opium. Their response to our query for board is extraordinarily laconic and at odds with the tourist trail’s usual hard sell. We are eventually provided for: VIP accommodation no less, one room complete with four thin swabs spaced out on the floor. We are given a “special price” by a manically grinning Darling, who explains that it is because “you are tall, like my son, veery tall.”
Spirits were considerably lower in the days that followed the events at Vang Vieng. We struggle our way from the bus station into town in a dusty red songthaew, and I remember just enough to get us to a former hostel, which of course we can’t check-in to until lunchtime.
We wander while we wait for the promised respite of a room, and play some frisbee in the park. An old Thai man enthusiastically joins Fox and I, but he isn’t much chop and soon gives up. He heads on his merry way, unfazed by the complete language barrier that prevented us from explaining how to play.
Our serotonin slowly recuperates and we venture an excursion to the night markets. There is nothing unexpected: just more fake Rolexes, ray bans and vans; Thai-themed t-shirts and hippie pants – accoutrements for the travelling glitterati.
The following morning we decide to hire scooters and set off to explore Chang Mai from the road. The scooters are 110cc and fully automatic, and in no time we are blasting along, zipping in and out of traffic, speeding towards Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep. We have no trouble pulling ahead of the locals as red lights turn green, their burdened 50cc steeds no match for our enthusiastic acceleration.
Our Thai New Year’s Eve itself is typically anti-climatic. Fortified on ephedrine we down enough Chang to make an elephant tipsy, and lurch around on the sand with the rest of the singleted, shifting to the pulsing music. It is hectic, and we are soon divided.
Brother Fox and I dig a hole just back off the beach and bury our jandels with a small bottle of rum before heading into the mêlée in search of our brethren. We tell some Australian girls that the fireworks above are just a warm-up, and that the countdown will be soon. Obviously we are wrong.
We continue on, the sharp smell of gunpowder signalling the arbitrary switchover that we have gathered to celebrate. Finally, we find Brother Tijo. He is unapologetically hammered, caught up on a nihilistic bender. His stamina betters that of Fox, and we return to our sand cairn to reclaim our treasure.
Towards the end of Haadrin a number of bars straddle the rock face that rises out of the sea. The psychedelic art that covers the rock is bleached of much of its colour by the sun and sea, but hints at the magic of this modern temple. We begin our climb up Mushroom Mountain, and stop at the first bar. A gloriously fat Thai lady sits behind a basic wooden bar with a blender. She smiles toothlessly and for 500 baht doles out plastic cups of mushroom shake, strangely blatant in a country known for its intolerance towards the illicit.
We sit on the low cushions with the other backpackers, and look down the beach at the drunken crowds. The shake is a strange mix of sweet and sour, the psilocybin laced mushrooms producing a tart earthy flavour that washes your tastebuds from front to back. Naturally, Redbeard has two.
The New Year’s holiday is usually a fairly loose time, and the days we spent on Koh Pha-ngan were no exception.
The island itself fulfils any expectation you might have had of the verdant beauty said to reside on the outcrops scattered amongst the gulf of Thailand, but sustained tourist trade has stripped it of much of its charm. The winding roads that hug the coast are lined with resort after resort, and the main beaches are crowded with a miscellany of revellers and ravers. You’re more likely to find Singapore slings and g-strings than you are a quiet place from which to appreciate the beauty; but therein lies the attraction. For the backpackers that come to experience the hedonism of the legendary full moon parties the island is paradise, and they are not often disappointed.
The days in Bangkok blur into a stream of memories. The final assembly of the gang was completed late on Christmas Day, and was followed by a swift yet prolonged dose of beer and banter, the heat and infamous strength of Chang nearly my undoing as we roamed the late night wasteland of Khao San.
For the uninitiated, Khao San road is a short strip of concrete pavement in Central Bangkok that bustles with the trade of a thousand backpackers and the hawkers who cater to them. It is a monument to the success of the banana pancake trail, and a temple to the potent buckets of red bull and vodka that fuel its worshipers. Crowded with stalls of fake Ray Bans and tourist t-shirts in the day, it later transforms into a motley collection of bars and clubs that continue on to the wee small hours. The street hums with the raking noise of the frog toys pushed by a tireless coven of Thai women and a roadside wok sizzles as another order of pad thai is fried up for the masses.
My first taste of the metaphorical open road was to be Oriental in origin, with a long planned sejour in South East Asia the perfect segway into Europe. Of course, it wasn’t to be anything intrepid, with a greater emphasis on hedonism over hardship. Still the trip promised much, and with the brothers I planned to meet there already three weeks hardened I was anxious to arrive.
My final night in New Zealand coincided with the last day of the corporate year and it was with little surprise that I found myself still in town at the witching hour, wobbling back to the familiar Freemans Bay villa I had called home for the last two years. An early alarm, some last minute checking and I was off, my hangover momentarily placated by the remaining buds of nature’s panadol.
Then the first of what would be many queues, impatient proles shifting restlessly behind me while the line slowly snakes forward. A greasy dose of chicken to ward off looming nausea and some painkillers, then customs, safety announcements and settling into my budget sized seat –finally I was in the air, but it wasn’t without some sorrow that I bid my beautiful nation good-bye.