Today we descend from the mountaintop to the city for our last two nights in the North before returning to Bangkok and our home faraway. I’m pleased that tea will take precedence over coffee for at least a few hours, but clearly I’m in the minority in Thailand (and California), so I’ll try not to bore my fellow travelers too much.
January 22, 2016
We gathered in the parking lot at 6:30 AM, intending to visit Mae Salong’s local market, which runs from 5:30 to about 7:00, and the sunrise from the hilltop temple, but there was time for only one. Our van drivers had been told it was impossible to get two vans heavily laden with tourists to the temple and we should instead hire local transportation. Being men who rise to a challenge, they wanted to try anyway and after much groaning of engines and a little squealing of tires, we arrived at top of the hill to find the main chedi surrounded by scaffolding and unattractive fiberglass sheeting. Oh well, we’re here for the view mostly. (Actually, this is not an ordinary temple, it is more of a memorial to the Princess Mother.)
Watching the sun light up the clouds as it rose over the hillside was beautiful, although the lighting posed severe challenges to photography. Maybe one or two will be worth posting. Eventually the buildings around us started to open as monks stirred and groundskeepers started sweeping up. Outside the temple gates, Akha vendors set up improvised stalls to sell locally made crafts. From what we could tell, these were delivered not by pickup truck but by carrying them up an incredibly long staircase from the town. Wow.
We drove back down to the fresh market, which had closed and was in the process of being replaced by hill tribe vendors with their crafts. I picked up a couple items here at their asking prices; the vendors are superstitious about the first sales of the day so it’s not nice to be too stingy first thing in the morning. On the other hand, it’s annoying that they follow you around with more things to buy once you’ve completed your transaction. Please, everyone, it’s time for breakfast.
We raced back to the Mae Salong Villa for a classic Chinese-Thai breakfast congee with strongly flavored side dishes. The rice porridge itself smelled burned, but there was little visual evidence other than the occasional black fleck, and you couldn’t taste any off flavor if you added a section of salted duck egg, a small piece of fermented fish, or a spoonful of pickled mustard greens and onions in a sour dressing. The fried bread, scrambled eggs with green onion, and sauteed spinach were better suited to Western tastes and helped calm a troubled palate.
At the back of the dining room, we assembled for our first local tea tasting. This follows a Chinese style of heaping a huge amount of leaves into a small pot for multiple infusions of varying lengths, depending on the type of tea, desired strength, and number of previous infusions. Because she was pouring several cups, she didn’t have us try multiple “washings” of the same tea. Instead, we tried several different teas. We started with a fragrant oolong locally known as #17, a variety introduced from Taiwan. She indicated this was their best seller, and it also was well priced at about $10 for 200 grams. It did remind me of some nice high mountain oolongs from Taiwan, perfect for sipping on its own, and I picked up a couple bags to experiment with back home (Emerald brand; @emeraldthaitea on Facebook).
We also tasted their Tung Ting style oolong (#19), which was quite tannic and good for serving with fatty meals, and a style known as Ruby Oolong which she indicated was popular in China. The Ruby Oolong was reminiscent of Tie Guan Yin, a very robust flavored oolong, and sold for the highest price. I didn’t really need those two. Finally, we tasted a Pu-erh tea which had aged for almost ten years. This kind of compressed tea keeps indefinitely and improves with age, or so they say. It depends on what you’re looking for: the light floral fragrance and flavor of youth has given way to earthier notes. This one was pleasant, and didn’t remind me of dirt like some others I have tried.
After packing up, we started down the mountain in the other direction, headed back to Chiang Rai. We stopped at a huge operation called 101 Tea Plantation to ogle their neatly manicured tea gardens — this is off season for picking, so there was no activity to see — and sip a few more cups. Here we started with their green tea, or what they call green oolong. It was pleasant, but not on my shopping list. Their #17 seemed like a pale imitation of Emerald, but there was a significant difference in infusion time, about two minutes versus about 30-45 seconds. This makes a big difference in the body of the tea, but we’re not going to try to give instructions to the seller here. Meanwhile, at another counter, a salesperson whisked matcha powder into a Japanese-style green tea. After a few more photos, it was time to return to the world of coffee.
For a quick lunch we stopped along the highway somewhere (most of these little restaurants do not appear to have an English name) for various one-dish meals. Today I chose the Khao Man Kai, also known as “chicken fat rice” because sliced chicken is served over a mound of rice enriched with the fat of the chicken. In addition to these goodies, we got a few manicured slices of cucumber and a couple trapezoidal slices of cooked chicken blood. A bowl of chicken broth is served on the side. Have we missed any parts? On the table is a covered bowl with a sauce designed for this dish. I’m not quite sure what’s in it, but garlic, something sour, something sweet, and something a bit spicy. The more you add, the better it gets. Next door we grabbed some ice cream bars (coconut for some, Magnum bars for others), and got back on the road.
When we reached the Black House museum (Baan Dam), the former residence of a famous artist that now is run by the Tourism Authority, it was jammed with visitors. They got in nearly every photo, and probably I’m in several of theirs. Thawan Duchanee liked to use animal skins, skulls, and particularly water buffalo horns in his art. Everywhere there are chairs with backs constructed with horns, often in elaborate arrangements. While most buildings are locked and can be viewed only through windows, one shouldn’t be surprised to find an alligator/crocodile skin on a table or a bear skin on a bed, both with heads still attached. It would have been nice to have a little more narrative material, but possibly the point was to provoke and too much explanation would conflict with that goal. It was quite hot here, and I had to take a break for a young coconut; others chose ice cream. Either way, after two hours on the grounds, we were tired and ready to rest our feet.
We returned to the Tanya Inn, this time to rooms in a different building. Other than needing to have the staff replace the batteries in the remote control for my air conditioner, everything appeared to be in working order. We once again commandeered the lobby of the adjacent building for a brief happy hour. We have a lot of scotch and roasted peanuts to use up before leaving town, and we made a strong start on the project.
Our dinner spot, LuLum Restaurant, is situated on the river and the sky was coloring beautifully as we arrived. Conveniently, there was a ramp next to our table from which to get a better view. It seemed to be designed for boats as I didn’t see anything to prevent one from driving or stepping into the river. We positioned ourselves as close to the water as possible without getting wet, stretching for the best angle. Meanwhile, our appetizers were served. First, there were “rafts” of fried shrimp with a sweet chilli dipping sauce. The rafts hadn’t held together very well, but even if they were not finger food, they were fun to eat. A green chilli dip was served with crispy fried pork rinds, a small sampling of two different kinds of Northern Thai sausage, fried a bit to crisp up the individual pieces, and a selection of vegetables, and something I can’t recognize in the photo, possibly battered and fried sausage slices? Main courses included a mild stir-fry of chayote greens; a steamed whole fish served with an unusual sauce of ground pork; and grilled pork neck, which unfortunately was not as good as other versions we’ve had.
Our vans returned to the hotel, and some of us opted to check out the town’s night bazaar. This is not nearly as extensive as the night market in Chiang Mai, but is along the same lines. There are food carts, tables heavily laden with hill tribe goods, every imaginable t-shirt, live music, and more. I was looking for a larger fiberglass bag because I had run out of extra space, but didn’t find one in my roaming. Back at the hotel, a few of us continued the arduous work of finishing up the scotch and were surprised to hear a series of explosions nearby. We assumed they were fireworks, but waited until well after they stopped before venturing out, just in case.
January 23, 2016
This morning, our drivers will be leaving for Bangkok with a goodly portion of our luggage. We will be checking a bag or two aboard a Thai Smile flight (seemingly a budget-oriented cousin of Thai Airways) back to Bangkok, but with the overall weight limit at 44 pounds, a lot was not going to fit. As always, I was packing and repacking until the last possible second.
The shower in my new room was much better than the previous one, but the Tanya Inn’s breakfast buffet seemed even more limited than before. I don’t hesitate to use the word slop, but I was hungry and admit to greedily inhaling my slop so I could get back to my packing. Snacks in the van will need to supply the other food groups (the tasty ones).
We had a brief time to explore the Mae Fah Luang Art & Cultural Park, which showcases historical temple artwork donated by temples that were closed or remodeled, as well as the many and varied uses of teak. The grounds also are beautiful, but it wasn’t clear whether you were allowed to wander off the path for the best shots; we tried to restrain ourselves. Back at the hotel we bid our drivers farewell, and took a break before meeting for a quick one-dish lunch of sour sausage fried rice (or another thing, if you preferred).
Under the oppressive mid-day sun, I then set off with four other trip members toward the center of town where shops and massage parlors beckoned. Two of our group split off at the first nice massage place we saw, and we later learned they spent over three hours there. That’s relaxation. The rest of us explored various shops for kitchenwares, t-shirts, tea, fiberglass bags, and other temptations. I got a crazy bag decorated with teddy bears that looked as though it might be able to swallow all my purchases, and added one last t-shirt to the haul. (Although it is marked XL, it is cut for a smaller body than mine, so I hope to shrink into it.) When we returned to the nice massage place, they served us glasses of cold water and gave us an extensive menu to review. But… they were fully booked for the next couple hours. The man at the counter suggested “walking street” but we hoped to find something closer.
After backtracking several blocks, we found a stylish-looking place whose lobby featured dark floors, high ceilings, and glass all around. We stepped around the man on a ladder installing a lightbulb, although perhaps that should have been a signal to us that the place wasn’t ready. Still, we persisted, waiting while they called in masseuses from somewhere and brought tea from a neighboring store. Then we moved upstairs. They seated a fellow traveler and I side-by-side on marginally comfortable, non-reclining chairs (they had the correct chairs in the lobby, but didn’t bring them up). Our two masseuses were visibly skeptical about the arrangement, as well as the tiny towels and shared bowl of massage oil they had been given to work with. But here their agreement seemed to end. My compatriot’s masseuse kept her earbuds in and vigorously pressed, poked and slapped his legs and feet as though he had wronged her in some way. My masseuse gave her disapproving looks, preferring to work in a gentler, more playful manner: she even resorted to tickling me (perhaps more for her amusement than mine). Definitely not our best massages. After changing back into real pants and heading downstairs, we found the two women impatiently awaiting their tips, clearly wanting out of there ASAP. Us too!
We scrambled to make it back in time for happy hour and to finish up all the good stuff. Then it was across the street to SalungKham, a restaurant famous for its smoked foods, for our last dinner in town. We had slices of smoked duck (breast?), each with the skin and a thick layer of subcutaneous fat, all strongly infused with the flavor of wood smoke. I can see why this is popular, but from the Thai food perspective, it was not the most intriguing. We had sour sausage with egg served in an unusual log shape, and an “odds and ends” curry of green beans, tree ear mushrooms, bean threads, and other harder-to-identify items, all strongly flavored with “lesser ginger” (krachai). The sauce had been absorbed by the noodles, so it didn’t really need rice. Quite unusual, although Kasma reminded me this is also served once on the regular Northern trip. It’s hard to remember every course on these trips. Shiitake mushrooms with shrimp and hunglay pork curry rounded out the menu.
There was a brief cloudburst as we were leaving the restaurant. I ducked into the 7-Eleven for an extra bottle of water and by the time I emerged, the rain had stopped. A storm is predicted for tomorrow, but we still expect to make it to Bangkok for our final feast.