Bongs fashioned out of bananas. Mountainside hammocks. Swiss punk-rockers with Italian accents. Motorbike rides punctuated by elephants swiping at passersby with their trunks. Giant $1 beers. Fried ice cream.
Sometimes the best Thanksgivings just . . . happen.
I certainly hadn’t planned anything around the holiday. It was the fall of 2012; at the time, I wasn't planning, well, anything. I was a fresh-faced solo traveler, a month into an open-ended backpacking trip throughout Southeast Asia. And because time passes regardless of the hemisphere you're in, the holiday had just . . . rolled around.
Freed from the oppressive squareness of my DC life, I'd burst into my travels in mid-October by making a beeline from my Bangkok landing pad to Thailand’s southern islands. I saw monkeys. I read on beaches. I was shat on by an exotic bird. Twice. I learned to SCUBA dive. Migrating with the backpacking masses, I raged on a beach with 15,000 fellow party-goers, drinking alcohol out of a bucket, the reflections of lithe Thai fire dancers flickering on my body-paint-covered face and torso.
My existence was fun—its direction something I gave blissfully little thought to. It was only the arrival of a former roommate visiting from DC that ultimately enticed me away from the salty southern shores to Thailand’s northern city of Chiang Mai. I have no idea what my trajectory would have been otherwise. But because she graced Asia with her presence, I was delighted to join her in cooking authentic local food, “couple’s massages,” zip-lining, the petting of tigers, the riding of elephants. Sadly, after a few days, real life beckoned her back to the states. So there I was again, left to my own devices.
Given my pathetic (read: nonexistent) ability to plan, I had no idea about my next move. So I waited, as is my wont, for what opportunity might crop up. As it shook out, the next leg of my journey was informed by my meeting a fellow American—Max. Max had a heart of gold and a tattoo of New York City on his ass. I know this because he showed it to a group of us at our first meeting in our hostel in Chiang Mai. He was a persuasive and endearing fellow, this Max, so when he suggested we all go out to a club that night, we did. The following morning, Max suggested we drag our hungover asses to the tiny town of Pai north of Chiang Mai. So that night, we did.
I promptly got separated from Max and our group upon my arrival in the sleepy, hippie village. And as happens more often than not—no matter the continent—I found myself woefully lost, with absolutely no sense of the town’s center or where to find a place to sleep. After some wandering, a kindly Brit on the street pointed me toward a hostel called Darling View Point Bungalows. I thanked him, shrugged my trusty backpack on, and trudged toward my new destination, hoping a room would be available.
Within 30 seconds of showing up, the genesis of the name of the hostel revealed itself. “Darling!” a middle-aged German beckoned in a thick accent to his apparent Thai wife. “Yes darling?” she replied. “Darling, there’s a line of darlings looking to check in. Where can we put all the darlings?”
And so began my check-in process, the twelfth darling in a line of fellow travel-weary darlings seeking shelter for the evening. After 20 minutes and approximately 84 ambiguous cries to and about “darlings,” I found myself shuffling along a rocky, hillside path to a bungalow, in a line with three dudes I’d never met before. Darling opened the door and showed us to our digs. The tiny cabin contained two double mattresses and two single ones. On the floor. The room was essentially a giant bed. The bathroom, of course, was the Southeast Asian specialty: It contained a sink, a toilet, and a shower, with no curtains or separations of any kind between its component parts.
Per traveler decorum, I dove into the standard getting-acquainted-with-the-strangers-you’re-about-to-sleep-next-to conversation and was surprised to find I was with two other Americans—Mike from New York who was traveling post an English teaching stint in Korea, and Nate from Minnesota, who boasted an impressive handlebar mustache and the dreamy lifestyle of helping to manage the Minnesota Twins during baseball season and traveling all over the world in the off-season. Then there was Luigi. Technically Swiss, his parents were Italian so the man spoke German, French, Italian, and English. Luigi was huge, covered in tattoos—a punk rocker who towered over everyone. He had an innocent glint in his eye, a shy, endearing smile, and a demeanor that inspired the desire to squeeze him like a teddy bear. In other words, he was a gem.
Though it was a week out from Thanksgiving when this band of darlings first nested together in a shabby bungalow lacking toilet paper and warm water, my floor mattress mates proved to be the cornerstones of my holiday. So were the three hammocks on our bungalow's porch—they were the kind you disappear into, that align you with the divine forces of the universe. We spent hours in these hammocks, trading tales of our journeys, reading, staring off into the mountains. In tranquil Pai, there was little reason not to lay around, the ambient noise of roosters stalking about and squawking often lulling us into restful midday slumber.
Having spent the previous segment of my trip either bouncing around night after night to new places or intermittently vanishing into the depths of the ocean with an air tank strapped to my back, Pai came to feel like an actual home. I stayed for a week—some linger for months on end. Others never leave.
The idea of staying, of settling into life in this peaceful village forever, was certainly tempting—especially as it was where I discovered one of my purest joys: driving a motorbike. Called a scooter by some, I dubbed my ride a “hog.” I learned to master it under the careful tutelage of the local instructor, “Allen Cool.” He’d built quite the a business, offering $5 driving lessons to hapless foreigners nervous about their fates on the twisty mountain roads. With Allen Cool's careful guidance, I soon developed enough driving prowess so as not to present an extreme threat to either my own livelihood or that of other road warriors. And holy shit I loved it—the wind against my face, the feel of my thumb on the accelerator, the way my hog would hug the curves of the hilly roadways.
When we could pry ourselves from our heavenly hammocks, my little bungalow gang—with a swath of international friends we’d pick up here and there—would voyage to waterfalls as a rag-tag biker posse, Luigi our fearless, leaden-thumbed leader.
Days took on a comfortable routine, driving into town for breakfast, followed by some lounging about in hammocks, exploring mountainside waterfalls and canyons, coaxing Luigi to charm us with his affected Mario voice: "It's a me!" Life was peaceful, home-like. There was no pressing need to leave. So I didn’t. And one morning, coaxed into consciousness by the snores of my roommates, I realized it was Thanksgiving.
Mike, having done his morning business in our muddy bathroom and announced it to me per his established custom, joined me on my hog. Together—my motorbike skills having evolved such that I could successfully maneuver with two bodies on the bike—we rode into town for breakfast: bacon cheeseburgers. We devoured them as we read the graffiti-laced walls of the restaurant, taking note of all the ways people had left record of their getting high in Pai.
Filled up with burger-y goodness—what could be more American on our most food-oriented holiday!?—Mike departed to catch a boat to Laos. I went for a drive on the windy mountain roads I could almost navigate without getting totally lost on, the sun warming my skin, a roadside pachyderm swiping at my passing form.
That afternoon, I whiled away the holiday at the hostel’s “pool”—a generous term for the two-foot deep, aquatic mosquito breeding ground. Luigi and his friend from Switzerland, who just happened to be in town learning the Thai boxing sport of Muay Thai, sat in the pool, the water barely coming up to their chests. Uninterested in wallowing in a swirling insect spawn center, I sprawled in a lawn chair, making discrete glances at the South African I had a crush on lounging nearby.
I don’t know how long we stayed like that, the Swiss occasionally assuming headstands in the insect-infested water, chatting in German as my mind contentedly wandered. The buzzing, the bites we all accumulated, they didn’t matter. Tranquility reigned.
When we grew hungry and the Swiss weary of their pruny hands, we mounted our trusty hogs to head into town. I grinned as I looked at the Thai cuisine offerings—no Tryptophan to be found, but I settled on some pumpkin stir fry. And then, in probably my biggest nod to the American tradition of Thanksgiving overindulgence, I took some fried ice cream to the face.
As daylight waned, we made our standard evening pilgrimage to the local 7/11 to collect beer and processed foods—the required supplies for the night. Convening with Nate back at our bungalow, Luigi began his nightly practice of fashioning a bong out of a new material. The previous night it had been bamboo. Thanksgiving, however—even though it was not his country's holiday—called for a special material: a banana. I watched, totally rapt, as the craftsmen hollowed out a hole with a straw, building a perfectly sized bowl in the fruit’s belly.
Per a cursory glance at Facebook, I noticed a former classmate had just gotten engaged. I giggled, partly because of the potassium-rich contraption I'd just utilized, but also partly because the closest thing I had to a love life was watching the South African I’d had a crush on for three days make out with a pig-tailed Californian with mediocre fire twirling skills from my bungalow's porch.
Regrouping, I nibbled on sweet, ambiguously flavored Thai cakes nestled under a blanket shielding me from the cool mountain air. I chatted with Nate and Luigi—about all the kinds of fruit you could smoke out of (even a strawberry is possible!), the eggs we'd boiled in a hot spring a few days prior, what life was like for an Italian Swiss rocker, the transience of people in our day-to-day lives as we traveled, how we'd be unlikely to ever see each other again. The next morning we'd all disperse, all reconfigure ourselves in new groups, only now armed with motorbike skills and a nostalgic attachment to the term "darling."
I'd done no planning but Pai—appropriately enough pronounced like the seasonal dessert—had proven a perfect Thanksgiving locale.