“Are you Ting Tong?” Whatever it was, I hoped not. The words were silly, like “tinkle” or “twaddle,” and every time I saw the question scrawled on a sign, a telephone pole, or a mirror, I was vaguely annoyed. Whoever the Ting Tong enthusiast was, he or she was graffiti-prolific in Pai.
During a night-on-the-town-without-parents, Casey and Karis discovered Ting Tong’s definition - crazy beautiful - and the marketing motive behind its ubiquitous expression. It was the name of a bar, a funky hangout where the girls settled in for some Singha beers and communion with the locals. They met Thanwa-Thayahan, a bearded fire staff dancer who went by the name “Bank,” and Maxie, a tall “model-gorgeous” New Yorker who came as a tourist and never left. Tutu, Ting Tong’s bell-bottomed owner, served up the Singhas and told the girls Pai needed pilates instructors. It was a tempting proposal as our two travelers loved the laid-back life in this tiny, soon-to-boom, mountain village, and had already decided they’d return for a longer stay.
Karis also met a guy who said he’d come to Pai to learn to love himself. Over breakfast, she mentioned the conversation, and I wondered if this was a self-conscious line to throw at a cute blond American girl in order to sound introspective. But upon reflection, I mused that for many, for me, it is easier to see one’s own flaws and failings than to recognize one’s worth. Had he achieved it? Did he love himself? How did one learn such a thing?
On our last night, we were finishing a tasty dinner of curry, fresh vegetables, and pasta at The Witching Well when Karis gave a hoot; she’d spotted Marcel, our young Brazilian friend from the jungle trek, passing by in the street. It is a surprisingly frequent aspect of travel to meet up with those encountered before. To see a familiar face and be hailed as an old friend in the mountains of Thailand made the world seem a kind and comfortable place.
Marcel pulled up a chair, ordered a Singha, and told us of the sights he’d seen. He whipped out his camera and thumbed through some pictures.
“Whoa, hold on,” I said. “Where is that?”
“About fifteen minutes away by motorbike,” he replied.
In the photograph, Marcel was a speck with his arms thrown wide, standing on a narrow precipice against a back drop of scrubby trees and red earth that dropped dead away. A canyon. A canyon! How had we not heard of this?
Well, we hadn’t. Nothing to be done. We had walked through rice paddies past thatched huts, a newly-constructed spa, and several hostels offering sheltered hammocks as accommodations. We had darted beneath a spectacular web strung across the road, the girls laughing anxiously as they photographed the impressive spider splayed in waiting. And we had climbed 375 steps to watch the sunset from a lofty temple, its entrance flanked by snarling blue-faced guardians armed with scimitars. But no one had mentioned the canyon.
So I awakened this morning wishing for one more day. Longing to see the canyon. Filled with regret that we would miss this Pai marvel. And then I thought, wait. The van leaves at noon. We’d strolled past the bike rental shop several times – it was maybe a five-minute walk. And rentals were cheap - $3.00 a day.
We could do this!
At home, I am a calendar queen, more at ease with plans made well in advance, but Thailand-Lea, traveler-Lea, is flexible, and oh, how I prefer her! It was 7:30 am when I woke my husband and made my suggestion. Dave is spontaneous by nature and needed no urging. Within an hour, we were showered, dressed, and motorbike-mounted, my arms tight around Dave’s waist, our helmets clunking together with each stop or turn.
Dave on a motorbike is a happy man. He called over his shoulder as we zipped along, “We’re on the opposite side of the world, Lea!” Yes! On the opposite side of the world!
We chugged past mountains wreathed in filmy mist, the scent of wood smoke in the air. Cameras poised, we captured a farmer herding goats, workers repairing an exotic red phone booth, a man in flowing robes, coolie hat, and staff, strolling serenely, alone. We stopped and started for shot after shot, for as is true in life, this jaunt was not just about the canyon, but also about doing it, about paying attention, about getting there.
The canyon was hidden from the road. We thought we’d missed it, doubled back, and asked directions of some road workers who spoke no English and had no idea what we wanted. They turned my tattered map of Pai round and round, scratched their heads and pointed. *Sigh* We allowed ourselves a little more time, but Connecticut-Lea was re-surfacing, tapping her watch, worried about hotel check-out, bike return and the van’s departure. We drove a mile further... and found the parking area.
A paved path wound uphill and opened to blue sky, pines and the erratic twists and cuts of the canyon as it snaked about the land. Sandy slender trails padded by daring feet led to the edge of promontories carved by some primeval rush of water, some cosmic slide of earth, or some giant hand slicing the red soils away like a potter at his craft. In his picture, Marcel stood on a spot, almost a pedestal, with space only for his feet. We found the location, but were not brave enough for the balancing act required to cross the tiny land bridge over.
And it was time to go.
Once on the bike, I hugged Dave’s waist as we steered onto the road back to Pai. I imagined myself, like Marcel, fearless, arms wide, so different, so different from me. What does it take to loosen, to lighten up, in a lasting way?
Letting go has many meanings, and at times the literal and figurative merge. I sat back in the seat, released my hold, flung my hands out, batting the breeze. Emboldened, I can do this, I circled my shoulders, let my arms flow, laughed, and performed a swaying, sinuous Thai dance. Matronly and bulbous in my clumsy blue helmet on a motorbike on the opposite side of the world, I felt Ting Tong, crazy beautiful.