Peace, Love, and Sanuk: Cultural reflections in Pai, Thailand

Religion rules every aspect of Thai culture. The daily life of locals is greatly influenced by the Buddhism, although this is less apparent when you’re right smack in the frenetic pace of Bangkok. Despite the presence of several temples, culture in the chaotic metropolis is overshadowed by tall skyscrapers, traffic, busy streets, people rushing to and from work, and vendors selling food and wares almost everywhere you look.

Another influential figure is the late king, Bhumibol Adulyadej’s. His image is prevalent all over the country; from billboards on condominiums to gas stations in the far provinces. King Bhumibol is viewed as the father of modern Thailand, and he was loved by the people – so much so that every household has a photo of him. His death in October 2016 sent the country into a state of mourning; thousands took to the streets of Bangkok in an outpouring of grief. While not a religious figure, King Bhumibol is a demi-god of sorts to Thais; locals continue to pay respect to him through wai each time they come across his image.

In Thailand’s quieter regions, the dedication to religion is more evident in the everyday way of life. This is especially true in Pai, a small rural village framed by picturesque farmlands and mountains over 800 kilometers away from the chaos of Bangkok.

Here, more than religion, spirituality is king.

A Place To Slow Down

As soon as visitors arrive into town, a massive white statue of Buddha is seen, perched on the lush green mountainside. Known as the Temple on the Hill or the Wat Phra That Mae Yen, the image of Thailand’s most revered religious figure seems to watch over the village.

A few minutes into Pai, and it’s easy to understand why many refer to it as a “hippie paradise”. Visitors come to Pai for many reasons; to strip themselves completely of modern life, commune with nature, and be in touch with the divine. One must come with an open mind when visiting Pai; to some, it may seem like a place where religion and spirituality have undergone commodification; for others, the peaceful and quiet nature of the place makes it the perfect location to pray.

Prayer can come in many forms, and Pai is welcoming of all kinds of worship including Buddhism and Rastafarian to the more esoteric. The contrast is evident: from monks in saffron robes strolling the streets at the crack of dawn, to Western Buddhists practicing meditation at a retreat overlooking the mountains. At night, Walking Street comes alive with vendors selling art, colorful healing gemstones and crystals, Thai street food, vegan fare, specialty tea, elephant-print everything, organic skin care, jewelry, and refreshments.  Pai is void of large buildings, malls, highways, fancy restaurants, and everything else you would typically associate with urban life. Cars are few and far in between; most get around by driving a motorbike or bicycle. It’s not uncommon to see barefoot travelers walking around town. Many establishments still use hand-painted signs. Food is good, abundant, and cheap; from the best Thai curry to vegetarian cafes, Pai has something for everyone.

Not everyone travels to Pai to get in touch with their inner selves. Some merely come for the nightlife. While most establishments in other parts of Thailand shut down early, in Pai the party continues until the small hours of the morning. Bars with black light paintings dot the streets, but there are also the more laid-back reggae bars and cafes to choose from. Dreadlocks are common, and so are tie-dyed clothing and beautiful art everywhere.

If I could use one word to sum up the culture of Pai, it’s sanuk; the Thai word for fun and happiness; the ability to derive pleasure in satisfaction in your activities. People may travel to Pai for many reasons, but it’s clear that sanuk is the ethos; the way of life for the community. Time feels a lot slower than it does in the city; it seems like nobody is ever in a hurry. People seem to be more present and mindful: from the servers at the restaurant to the man singing on the street. Happiness, or rather sanuk, can be found everywhere: the relaxed pace of life, food, art, prayer, nature, the mountains, yoga, meditation.

In this corner of Thailand, it seems that everything is done with religion or spirituality in mind. You’d be hard pressed to find frivolous things and activities. This place is so incredibly peaceful. If Buddhists strive to eliminate suffering, the only time you would encounter such pain is the day you have to leave Pai.

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