I booked a bus ticket to Chiang Mai after leaving the elementary school. I was eager to get a taste of the backpacker culture and meet other travelers.
It’s interesting how when you’re traveling people are more open and willing to connect with you. Nobody cares what you did at home. They’re just curious about where you come from, how long you’ve been traveling for, and why you’re “on the road,” as they call it. A lot of people at my hostel were at the beginning of their trips which makes sense. Like me, they waited till after the holidays to take off. I made friends with some Germans, Brits, Australians, a Kiwi, Canadians, and a couple Americans.
My first night I went out with a group to the night market which is basically a bunch of vendors set up on a few streets at night. Night markets can be very crowded, but they’re a great place to taste amazing street food and buy cheap clothes. After we walked around, we left the market and walked by a group of locals who were drinking beer and playing music outside their apartment. They invited us to join, and we ended up spending the rest of our night with them.
The next day I made the terrible mistake of renting a motorbike and trying to drive two hours outside the city with people from my hostel, Claudia and Evan. The plan was to go to a temple we heard about that was tucked away in a cave. Since Claudia had never driven a scooter before, and I have, we put her on the back of Evan’s and me on my own. Not sure what crazy pills I took that morning, but driving a motorbike on Thai streets is not for me.
First off, I’m driving on the left side of the road — something I’ve never done before. Second, the drivers here don’t pay attention to traffic lights. It also might be important to mention that I don’t have a driver’s license, hence my driving skills are overall a little rusty. After about 20 minutes on the highway, with many motorbikes and cars honking at me because I was barely pushing 40 mph, I decided to call it quits. I pulled over, turned around, went back to the city and returned my bike. Never. Again.
After another day of chilling in Chiang Mai, going on a lovely hike to Doi Suthep temple in the mountains — and avoiding motorbikes like the plague — some of my new hostel friends and I booked tickets to Pai. Pai, we heard, was a very small and chill town three hours north where backpackers are at risk of getting sucked into its alluring vortex. We were told it was worth a visit.
My friend Victoria, a New Zealander, had friends that went last year who stayed at a hostel called Pai Circus School. Good recommendations are a valuable commodity on the road, so we booked a couple nights there. For some reason it didn’t occur to me that it could actually be a real circus school though. I just thought it was some weird hostel name.
After arriving at the bus station in Pai, we asked someone for directions to the circus hostel. “Just follow the road and you’ll see the circus people,” he told us. Victoria and I asked him: “What do circus people look like?” The guy just said: “You’ll know.”
Within fifteen minutes of walking, we saw a crooked wooden sign pointing right that said “Pai Circus School.” And then a guy wearing red parachute pants and a joker hat. We knew he was coming from circus school, and that we were almost there. Sweaty and with our backpacks strapped on, we walked up a little hill where we finally reached our destination.
The lawn of Pai Circus School is as entertaining as you’d imagine it to be. People are randomly sprinkled around juggling, baton twirling, and hula hooping. There’s a pool where the non-circus people hang out. Some might say they’re too cool for school. There’s also an area for slack liners to refine their balance. The actual circus school only happens for a couple hours in the evening though. It’s pretty casual, and not a very structured event.
Participants have the option to choose their own toys from the toy box. Once you’ve decided what you’re going to work on, one of the instructors will teach you a few basic tricks. Then you have time to practice. I chose the sock poi with balls. I thought it was going to be easy, but it actually was very hard to twirl the sock balls around. At the end of my time there, I did manage to master a circle move that will help me out the next time I find myself at a rave though. It’s all about those life skills, am I right?
Here’s Victoria and I practicing our tricks.
I spent the rest of my time in Pai reading in a hammock, hanging out with new friends, and going out with them at night. I didn’t leave cirque du soleil-ready — nor did I leave with dreadlocks like my fellow classmates — but I did leave with a hair wrap that some guy gave me for 20 baht (less than $1).
If you ever find yourself in Chiang Mai, traveling up to Pai is definitely worth the three-hour ride on the narrow and winding mountain roads.