Jan 062008

Mae Hong Son

A 6:30 AM start is never easy, and especially not after so much Sang Som. But being left behind was not an acceptable alternative, so I arrived in the lobby with moments to spare. We arrived at the market with many stalls still covered with tarps, but Royal Congee was busy; we had to wait a bit for enough tables to open up. As the name implies, the restaurant specializes in rice porridge. We chose between plain porridge and porridge served over a raw egg, and added our choice of the usual seasonings (vinegar infused with chillies, crushed dried red chillies, and so on). The porridge was a bit thin, but nicely peppery and gingery. As we slurped, Kasma arrived every few moments with treats from around the market: khanom krok coconut milk pancakes, crushed peanuts in a small tapioca flour ball with thin sprigs of cilantro, and my favorite, the red banana sweets. Soon we were quite full, and we browsed the market for a while before returning to our vans.

This was our temple day here in Mae Hong Son, where the majority Shan (Burmese) population builds its temples (translated here as pagodas) in the style brought over from across the border. Our first stop was Wat Chong Khum, partially visible through the mist across a lake.

For lunch, we stopped at Kruathip Restaurant (an inside sign says “Tip Restaurant”), across the pond from a now dazzling Wat Chong Khum. We started mild with a sweet panang chicken curry, and slightly hot with a battered-and-fried leafy vegetable accompanied by a dipping sauce. Soured pieces of spare rib were accompanied by chopped ginger, garlic and shallots, peanuts, and chopped chillies; these were juicy and fatty, and as hot as you dared to make them. A fish larb and a thin chicken soup with a subtle but robust base of smoked fish were the fiery ones. We also had cauliflower in Thai Oyster sauce as a cooler. Kasma circulated apple bananas, and also dished up an egg custard baked in a squash from the morning market.

Thus fortified, we split into the tailor shop group, the Internet group, and random others. I wandered for a while and ended up at a liquor store where I picked up a bottle of rum. Back at the Fern Resort, we did some serious damage to the rum, and to a bag of delicious crunchy snacks I had picked up at the coconut sugar place near the floating market. By the time I sat down for Kasma’s first of two talks on the life and teachings of the Buddha, I was struggling a bit. But at least I took away an understanding that depictions of the Buddha as well fed (even rotund), on the one hand, and nearly starved to death (with pronounced ribs), on the other, represent not a contradiction or difference in interpretation, but different phases of his journey toward enlightenment.

For dinner, we returned for another fine meal at the Fern Restaurant.

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