The former monk told us that there were four ways to get to the place we needed to go. East, West, North, or South. I came to volunteer on his organic farm for the holidays because I was hoping for some sense of mindfulness education and exposure to farming life. But as I was departing the farm early and about to take his suggestion on hitchhiking, I needed something more concrete than his enigmatic, airy, advice. He caught my friend and I heading down the road with our backpacks and pulled over on his motorbike for one last addition. Ok, let me draw you a map, he said. From there, the day took an exciting turn full of trust, hope, and exhilaration.
He knew that my friend and I were looking to head to Pai for the holiday season- a small town in the mountains of Northern Thailand. Looking on a map from the farm, this wasn’t meant to be a long journey. But we’d later learn that the road to Pai was more problematic than any app could show me. The former monk apparently always recommended hitchhiking from his rural mountainous farm to all his volunteers. But without a map, we were at a loss. Fortunately when he found us walking and drew us the map, he gave us much more to work with. He taught us some phrases about how to ask locals to let us sleep in their homes (in case it got dark while we were hitchhiking). Hopefully it wouldn’t come to that.
So the two of us said goodbye to him and walked down the beautiful long road with mountains and greenery surrounding us. The time was just after noon, and we knew it would take some effort to get a car to pick us up (since barely any drove down this road). On the walk we talked about how we shouldn’t get frustrated if we ended up somewhere different or if the journey took unexpected turns. That’s what comes with hitchhiking for free rides anyway.
We listened to the advice of the former monk and walked in a certain direction until we hit a fork in the road. He didn’t mention that part. So we waited there for a car to pass.
Within 15 minutes an old man on his motorbike pulled over. We tried our best to name the city we needed to get to, and he pulled out his reading glasses to check our loosely drawn map. He shook his head knowingly, laughed a bit, then started talking fast-paced Thai to us, pointing in all directions. We smiled back, having no idea what he was saying, until we thanked him and he left.
Soon a pickup truck came rolling by, and we threw our thumbs in the air from the side of the road. A mid-aged Thai couple smiled to us and we named a few cities on our map. Ahh! they said. And then we were in the back of their truck sitting next to a few bags of lettuce. Our first successful ride.
We had no idea where these two people were taking us. We thought we knew which city we might end up in, but as I checked my GPS on my phone I realized we were heading backwards in the direction that we came days ago. But it was so nice to be in motion (without paying) on such a beautiful mountain trail. The sunlight hit us as we rolled around the bed of the pickup truck with lettuce swaying side to side. We laughed and smiled the entire time. About 30 minutes later the truck pulled over. The woman got out of the car, gestured at us to stay still, grabbed some of the lettuce and ran into a house. It seemed to be her first delivery. She sprinted back to the car and apologized to us (as though she was taking up our time), and then we moved again.
They ended up dropping us off at a bus terminal we recognized from days before. Noticing a sign saying 170km to the city of Pai, we waited by the road again and pointed at our destination to passing cars. Many smiled and sped by; some pulled over just to tell us they couldn’t do it, and then we noticed some directly told us not to go that way. Clearly this was not the right way to Pai. We walked to a market selling berries and asked some young people shopping how to get there. They asked the vendors in Thai, and soon a crowd of 9 people were speaking about our options in Thai. The consensus- go back to Chiang Mai (the city we left days before) and leave with a tourist van. Something was wrong on this particular route to Pai leaving it inaccessible.
It seems our plans had changed. But this is the nature of the journey. Thumbs in the air once again, our new destination was the much larger city of Chiang Mai. This is where the majority of the cars were headed. A pickup truck pulled over, except this time in the back of the truck they weren’t carrying some small bags of lettuce in the back, rather a family of six. This made for a tight squeeze. We threw our backpacks into the truck, climbed over, and sat for one hour with our legs in the most awkward places just to fit in the back with this family. Two of them were younger and asked our names and where we came from. They couldn’t really speak English, and our Thai was even worse, so we simply smiled at each other on the winding, bumpy roads. They noticed my bag looked heavy on my feet and a boy offered to hold it in front of his already limited space. There was so much kindness in the air today.
We had arrived on the outskirts of Chiang Mai at a busy highway. It was exciting to think we were almost there. Though the truck pulled over and told us we’d have to get out. The family wasn’t headed into the city center, so the ride ended here.
The rest was no problem at all. Thumbs back in the air, a French expat and his pregnant wife pulled over almost instantly as we were unloading from the previous ride. He told us they could take us close to the city, but not all the way. My friend offered them strawberries, and the wife graciously took one. We got out, ran across a few lanes, and waved back to our courteous drivers who waved back at us.
Back on the side of the road we needed one final ride to get into the city center. At this point we could have hired a cab, but it was almost too easy to get there for free. A young Thai teenager in his little Ford car pulled over and told us he’d get us within the old city’s walls. And within ten minutes, we reached our destination.
The day was fast-paced on the drives, slow in between rides, and hectic only for moments of not knowing how we’d get ‘there’. Ultimately we got to Chiang Mai instead of Pai, but this was a city we loved and had no issue spending a night in once again (after spending two weeks relaxing there). The lesson I learned is one that has continuously come up on my travels- it’s about the journey, not the destination. This gets said time and time again, but its days like these when I really see the sentiment. Today started out as us wanting to get to Pai, and then instantly changing our minds. We just wanted to have a day of enjoyable hitchhiking, meeting locals as we went along.
Pai would come eventually (and it’s where I am writing this from right now). But if I got stressed and frustrated on that day about wanting to be in Pai right away, then I would have missed out on this incredibly exciting afternoon. My mind wouldn’t have observed the vast mountains around me from the bed of the truck, or smelled the mountain air and the open sense of freedom. If I am always looking ahead to the next destination then I’ll never appreciate where I am. The destination is important because it gives us something to look forward to. But we can’t spend our lives only looking forward to things. Life needs to be appreciated as it is, in the moment.
Life is like that. Quit worrying about where you’ll be down the road and look where you are now. If you can do something to make it more exciting today, then go for it. Just don’t lose sight of the fact that you’re always on a journey in the present moment. No matter how fast or slow you go, always realize that you are in control of today.
I guess the monk’s original cryptic advice was mostly right after all. It didn’t matter if we went East, West, North, or South. It was all about the journey, as it always is.
The holidays are here, and I made it to Pai, the mountainous city of warm days, cold nights, and thriving with a Western traveller culture. I’ll spend the holidays with a friend and whomever we meet here along the way- a different way of spending the holidays than ever before. My journey has brought me here, and I remain grateful for all those in my life who show such support and kindness from back in Canada and elsewhere in the world. So many different people shape my journey, and the greatest gift I’ve been given is the support from all of you. Happy holidays from Thailand!