I wasn’t around for most of it but there was a bit of a stir in the hostel my first night in Pai when a group of Brits trashed their room, left used condoms lying around and fled without paying. The room was left in a filthy state and the Thai woman who owned the hostel, Annie, was understandably upset.
In many ways, this incident felt like the beginning of a very odd chain of events. As I mentioned before, the town quickly cleared out during Songkran; it was a time of year that locals travelled home to be with their families and most foreigners chose to spend the festival in Chiang Mai.
A little town in the mountains, Pai was very peaceful, as long as you avoided the main street during the day, which was where most of the water festivities occurred. My hostel was located just out of town and had a great view of the paddy fields. If it hadn’t been for some eccentric people at the hostel, my stay would have been very tranquil.
Apart from me, there were four Brits, a Dane and an elderly Dutch hippie at the hostel for the duration of Songkran. I spent most of my time with Clara and Harry, both from England, and a couple of days into the festival, we were joined by an American guy, JJ.
As soon as he arrived, I felt sorry for Clara, who was sharing a dorm with him. Although he was in his late thirties, JJ was incredibly immature and boastful. We didn’t realise it at the time but he was already drunk when he met us and most of the things he told us were completely false.
Accepting our polite invitation to come out with us for some drinks, JJ was quick to exchange some angry words with the Dutch hippie on our way out of the hostel. To be fair, the Dutch guy’s anti-Americanism was obvious the moment he started talking to JJ and it was pretty funny listening to the two men insult one another.
I’d pegged JJ as your typical obnoxious older male traveller but it was soon clear that he was a very odd person. I’d never seen anyone get so drunk in such a short period of time. Not caring whether he was insulted, I told him he was the spitting image of Pablo Escobar and his nonchalant response to this was that this had been his nickname when he was younger because he used to deal cocaine.
Convinced his story about being a self-funded retiree was a cover up, we then found out that he had come to Pai after being arrested in Chiang Mai. By now he could barely form coherent words and was increasingly lewd with Clara. I got a great deal of amusement when I successfully convinced him to approach a group of young girls and attempt to pick them up but watching him stumble around the bar, we had to agree that the kindest thing would be to take him back to the hostel.
It was a long walk back and when we were finally there, JJ seemed barely aware of what was happening around him. Clara moved her things to my bungalow and Harry walked him up to his room.
Meeting us at the foot of the hill, Harry said he was confident JJ would go to bed. At this precise moment, JJ began screaming at the top of his voice, “Where did everyone go? … Where is everyone? …. WHERE AMMMMM I?” There was no way everyone in the immediate vicinity couldn’t have heard.
Crouching behind some bushes, I did feel bad for him. He genuinely sounded anguished. But after spending a good portion of the night trying to get rid of him, we didn’t want to risk him latching onto us again and quietly slunk away.
Having decided that I would ignore him from then on, I thought it would be easy enough to have nothing more to do with him. Our hostel was a huge sprawling jumble of buildings and bungalows so it wasn’t like we were living on top of one another.
However, this resolve was short lived. I was in the middle of chatting to Annie the following evening while she was making beds and at first, it seemed to be a normal conversation. She was complaining about how her husband seldom helped her but by now I was used to it as this was something she often did.
She was particularly aggravated by JJ’s dorm; in his drunken stupor he must have rolled around in a few of the beds because most of them were unmade. Upon entering, she resumed expressing her grievances with renewed vigour which escalated into a hysterical fit. Startled, I realised she was screaming that she’d had enough and JJ had to leave. After the trouble she’d had with the Brits trashing their room, I figured this relatively minor nuisance had tipped her over the edge and tried to console her.
Although it wasn’t my natural instinct to do so, I hugged her which calmed her down somewhat for a few moments. But she continued crying and pulling away, she forged downstairs, shouting that JJ had to get out.
I ran after her and found JJ sitting in the downstairs common area drinking beer and wearing a very puzzled look on his face. I blurted out that he had to leave. I had no idea how he would react and wasn’t sure where Annie had gone but I figured she was in no state to talk to deal with him and that the sooner he left, the better.
Looking bewildered, JJ said he wasn’t leaving and asked what was going on. For some reason this only made me more furious and I told him he should leave now because he was about to be kicked out anyway. When he asked what he had done to upset everyone, I realised he was genuinely clueless about the previous night’s events and was at a loss for words.
I looked at Clara and Harry who were also in the room, hoping they would jump in but they were silent and I could tell the last thing they wanted was to get involved. JJ continued to press me so I told him he made everyone uncomfortable and told him he should stop drinking before it got out of hand again.
Although I’d assumed the Italian guy who was married to Annie would promptly kick him out, I wasn’t too surprised that JJ was allowed to stay. The Italian guy barely did anything to help out and I suppose he figured they couldn’t afford to lose JJ when there were already so few people staying at the hostel.
I was apprehensive for the rest of the evening and was glad to discover that night that my bungalow had a lock on the door. Even for a bungalow, it was a pretty basic structure so I’d assumed the door wouldn’t lock and hadn’t bothered to check when I’d first arrived.
In the days that followed, I began to realise that JJ was rather harmless. He was simply lonely and didn’t know how to properly interact with people. He drank heavily every day; one night he had to be carried home by some guys who’d found him passed out in a bar. Despite our tense exchange, he still tried to hang with us and after a few days had passed, we felt sorry for him and began to include him in our plans again.
I spent the last day of Songkran in Mae Hong Son, a town close to the Myanmar border. Harry decided to come so we got the bus together and arrived early in the afternoon.
There was a distinct Myanmar influence about the town and it felt different to the rest of Thailand. Walking around after lunch, we stumbled upon a group of long necked Karen girls throwing water in the street. Although we’d decided against going on a tour of a nearby Karen village, feeling it was exploitative, I was glad to see that the girls appeared normal and in high spirits.
We discovered that there was a huge festival on the waterfront; there was a parade, performances, row boat races and kids boxing on stilts suspended over the lake. I’m not sure how it is most of the year but there were very few tourists in Mae Hong Son. There were hundreds of people at the festival but I only saw ten other foreigners.
Harry and I spent the day on the waterfront, had street food for dinner, and only left once the festival had ended. On our way back to our guesthouse, we passed lots of drunk people celebrating in the streets. The highlight was watching a group of Thai men dance around a barrel; it was almost like a cheesy overchoreographed music video. All they had was a boom box, some beer, a hose and a barrel but I’d never seen anyone so happy before.
Being a small town, we felt that one day there was enough and got a local bus back to Pai the next day. But we had a brilliant time and agreed that it was definitely the best day of our respective trips.