When we careened over the last crest just as the sun was setting, the glow of distant fires, strings of lanterns, and music glistening alongside a lazy river pulsated in the distance. I thought buses with no doors, no A/C, and chickens strapped to the roof only existed in movies, but here we were, several hours of sweltering winding mountain road with no guardrails after another, bouncing, sweating, and clucking our way to this Bohemian Utopia of Pai in the heart of Thailand.
It seems impossible for Pai to be anything other than a town that was pasted onto the wrong place on a map, imagining itself into existence when some hippy smoked something from one of the hill tribes that envelop the hills of this idyllic valley. Road-weary crews of travelers and backpackers ooze from every roadside tienda, every cafe, and every stand selling stones, artwork, and little golden fish filled with your choice of chocolate, blueberry, strawberry, or banana, rather than the usual set of trinkets and souvenirs. In fact, here we were in the middle of Thailand, but this small Bohemian town tucked in a lush valley between tree-topped, mist-covered mountains, feeling as if it were all just a dream.
Days sleepily wind their way through the heat of the tropical sun, but once it starts to dip below the tallest peaks, the town comes alive. Strings of lights, unique freeform lanterns/art pieces, glowing signs of all kinds silently start to fill the night air with shimmer and sparkle. Open air restaurants looking far more like theme camps crackle alive with campfires and fire pits. People pour into the streets, scoffing at any scooters that happen to be wasting space and fuel with these mechanized monstrosities. VW buses, converted to pink cafÃ©’s ice cream trucks converted to roving bars, live music echoing through the hillsides and fire spinners create a reality that feels like home.
And the people populating this shimmering and crackling landscape come from all over the world, but since this place is so far from the states, America is nothing more than a place they may someday want to visit. Ahh”¦true freedom.
No matter how feverishly I took photos, though, desperately trying to capture moments that were almost tripping over themselves, I realized it’s the people we’d meet and the experiences we’d have that would be the only way to etch this in my brain the way I hoped. This became vividly clear when, after tromping across a prickly field that filled my calves with hundreds of tiny burrs to get a perfect shot of the extraordinary landscape that touched me deep inside, the entire lower half of my body ignited on fire ten minutes later. With that, I put down my camera and did my best to simply be in each moment as it arrived.
If only that realization brought relief to the fire burning on the lower half of my body, though. All we had were tissues and Gatorade, so I did the best to wash the blood that was oozing from hundreds of tiny pricks on my legs with some sugar water, but to no avail. We hopped back on our scooter and hoped for relief at the hot springs hidden somewhere in these incredible mountains surrounding us.
And within fifteen minutes, we arrived to one of the most picturesque places I’ve ever known; the hot spring was in a long, winding stream, separated by sandbags hidden with countless rocks into separate little pools of crystal clear water. We found our favorite, and I sank my legs into the warm, richly mineralized water, scrubbing away the countless burrs and coagulated blood, finding relief, peace, and a babbling stream of relief.
And this is the veneer that overlays my world. I’m in a place that inspires such awe, providing moments that should be enough for a lifetime of peace and contentment. But the fear, the churning, the feeling of caffeine in my veins housed inside this aching frame steals every one of these moments from me. And the best I can do is smile, experience, and pray that the joy I so desperately seek, the joy I couldn’t know any more vividly needs to come from within, will somehow find its way to me before it kills me. Literally.
The sun started its nightly descent into its mountain home and we had one last stop for the day; a hill tribe in the mountains north of Pai. These tribes know no borders, nor do they have a use for the heavily-patrolled main roads. As a result, they have bustling, interconnected trade routes between the many bordering countries of China, Burma, and Cambodia, consisting of an intricate web of paths that penetrate deep into the jungles.
As we approached the village, a group of women were waiting, moving two of their craggy, outstretched fingers to and from their lips, and there was no mistaking what they were offering. Strangely enough, we also happened to be the second set of potential customers, as there was a couple pulling in just in front of us.
The day before, we engaged in an odd dance of staring at the cackling group of weather-worn women as they stared back at us, motioning us deeper into their village, while we debated whether or not to creep forward on our scooter or to chicken out and forget the whole thing. They’d uneasily approach us, we’d inch forward, and the dance continued. One of the women had a homemade scabbard made out of pale blue vinyl sheathing what was most-assuredly a rusty chunk of old hand-hammered metal doing its best to be a knife. Somehow this comforted me because it meant that their trepidation was as genuine as ours, so we drove into the village, keeping the scooter running, just in case.
So, this time around, we were far less sheepish. The ladies waved for us to move our scooters behind some trees, and then waved for us all to stand against a cement wall. I couldn’t shake the sensation that this is how executions happen in these parts of the world as we waited, nervously looking out from behind the shack we were ushered behind whenever a scooter drove past as the women to gather their wares and returned.
Negotiations ensued, we agreed on prices, and then decided to split our purchase with the couple that was there with us. We nervously rode off as the ladies nervously looked on behind us, although they were far wealthier than they were a minute ago. To split the booty, we all decided to go to a treehouse on the opposite end of the valley with our new friends. The treehouse temporarily belonged to Kahzu; he took a bus from China every year to spend three months at a time in a 1-room shack in the middle of the mountains of Pai.
The strange thing about these moments is that the demons that hound me relentlessly and unremittingly simply disappear. I spend so many of my quiet moments fighting them off in any way I know how, often exhausting me to a point of implanting a deep desire to escape this consciousness wholly, completely, and indefinitely. Over the years, my toolbox or fighting them has grown quite large, with many precision tools for dealing with them, but recently, they come more frequently, they stay much longer, and even when I find a way to hold them at bay, it is an extremely tenuous truce.
And this is why it’s the quiet moments that take the most energy to simply breathe in and to breathe back out. It’s there that the demons have free run of my mind, taking every opportunity, every psychological trick locked away in far corners of my brain, in an attempt to destroy me. I’ve tried everything I could think of to make them disappear; pills, quiet meditation, teaching plants, retreats, meetings with Shamans, Witch Doctors, and Curanderos, self-help books, yoga, Buddhism, and anything else I thought giving serious time and study to might bring me the relief that has been so elusive. But nothing has worked, and much seems almost detrimental to finding the peace I so desperately seek.
So, none of this is from a lack of trying, of sheer determination and indefatigable effort for extended periods of time, with great lucidity, with all the intelligence and insight I have been gifted with. But it’s only in these moments that demand my full attention where the demons have no room to terrorize me. It is typically so exhausting that it can feel so futile, leaving me with nothing more than trying to find a way to comfortably obliterate my consciousness in a way that is efficient but will not leave me uncomfortable, or contemplating the ways in which I can simply leave this frame to find my way back to the energy I know I was before I entered this frame.
I have tasted those moments of complete, utter, unshakeable tranquility, I’m sure of it. But it’s been so long now that I don’t know if I could know for sure. What I do know is if this sensation were this intense all the time, I don’t think I’d be here writing this now. In virtually every moment I know, whether awake or asleep, the demons are banging on the walls, the doors, the windows, taunting me, telling me that no matter how much peace I can force into my space, it will only be temporary, and that they will continue banging until something breaks and they find a way to come rushing back in.
And this sensation is what feeds upon itself; even a passing thought about how I might stop breathing, or if, when I get winded, even slightly, that it’s a heart attack about to happen”¦I can know that none of these things are rational, I can try to enjoy the sensation of being winded and slightly dizzy, but no matter what, the only thing that underlies it all is the intense fear of an unknown future moment. And, watching others when the demons are so loudly ringing through me make the moments even more difficult to navigate. Both Mahru and Kahzu were weaving their scooters in and out as we careened down one steep winding hill after another, laughing, enjoying the scenery and the ride as we weaved our way out of the mountains.
And the Chinaman’s treehouse wasn’t just a single treehouse in the middle of a mountainside; it was an entire intertwined network of one-room, thatched huts with tiny little porches out the front door. As we arrived, the orange and red display of the sun gave way to a few campfires uttering their first crackles and stretching into the night air with their flames. Once perched on our crude wooden stools next to the equally rustic wooden table, our prizes were split with our new friends. The energy of this one-room hut, the spectacular view of the mountains, the bouts of laughter and connection with our new friends resulted in many hours slipping past without the slightest whisper.
All the while, clouds of smoke started to curl around the person who first breathed life into them, taking their brief moments of existence to gently tap a shoulder and whisper a thank you before dissipating into the night air. In this space and this place, the demons have no quarter, but I can sense their presence, their desire for my obliteration, and their promise that this bliss will not last.
In fact, some have speculated that there is some part of me that WANTS this energy, that I wouldn’t know what to do if it weren’t there, that it’s some sort of self-defense mechanism that shields me from the truth by keeping me in a perpetual state of fear, giving me an excuse to be miserable. But, if any of these speculators (some of whom have been deemed ‘professionals’) were to step inside my shoes for even the briefest of seconds, all speculation would stop, and they would surely jump out as quickly as they jumped in.
I dream of release, and in as many forms as my imagination will allow. I dream of being able to stare at the city of Machu Picchu with nothing but awe and wonder, or of sitting by the ocean as the sun sets, drinking in the perfect moment. But those are the exact moments I want to smash my head into concrete, to scream at the top of my lungs, to hack off my arms and my legs to relieve the sensation that someone injected my veins with caffeine, or to plunge from that mountain into the stream below, for no other reason than to make the movement from one moment to the next less agonizing, and just the slightest bit more tolerable.
I truly feel as though I have touched the Hand of the Divine; I often know, without question, who I was before I entered this frame as well as who I will be after this rickety frame falls away. That, to me, should be enough to sustain me, to keep the demons at bay, to fill me with the power of peace and contentment, knowing that this life and this world is all a dream, and in reality, will soon be nothing more than a memory of something I once was. (See XXXXXX or XXXXXX for more.)
I miss that peaceful place and often wonder if I was warned, before I took this body, that the present instance of flight I find myself in, wasn’t clearly explained to me in advance. Maybe there simply is no escaping the demons that my particular lucidity has brought me. But if this is true, then what is my reward for trudging through each day? My patience wears thin, time is passing at an increasingly alarming pace, and one of the only things that keeps me hanging on is the ever-dimming hope that whatever I was destined to become, will reveal itself to me, making all of this suffering not only worth it, but necessary for whatever that something might be.
The O clouds started to retreat, and sitting in this treehouse next to several crackling campfires deliciously damp tropical air and flickering candles, I realized once again that these moments and these places are my true home. The future falls away, Mother Nature crackles in harmony with the chatter of our bones, and peace sits alongside me like a guardian angel for the demons that are surely lurking, although in these moments, I almost forget that they even exist. And these are the very moments I wish I could somehow make last forever. Fuck the “you wouldn’t appreciate joy if it were here all the time” adages; whoever came up with that surely didn’t know this kind of joy.
It was getting late, so we hopped onto our scooter and made our way into the Burning Man spectacle that comes out in full force as sculptures, campfires, fire spinners, balloons dangling glowing embers released into the night sky, offering themselves to this perfect night. As colorful as I could describe this surreal place, it wouldn’t do it justice. My only comparison to anything remotely similar is Burning Man, but that place is only temporary; it only exists for a short time and is sponsored by a corporation. Pai is a real place in nestled in an idyllic valley in Thailand, whirring and crackling day after day, amidst massages, awesome food, endless theme camps, campfires, and the most unique group of travelers that I have ever known.