Jan 142010

Pai (January 14, 2010)

Many of us awoke to the sounds of men partying in the dining room until 1:15am and cats yowling at 1:30am, but we managed to get through the night on the resort’s hard beds, survived the showers of variable warmth, and made it to the breakfast buffet for a choice of chicken fried rice, chicken fried noodles, pork meatball porridge, and Western items. The fruit still wasn’t very good, but one light meal probably is a good idea. After all, we have plenty of snacks in the vans.

The road from Pai to Chiang Mai seems even twistier (in three dimensions) than the road from Mae Hong Son to Pai. After about 90 minutes we stopped at a small storefront labeled Mae Sa Tea Factory for another tasting. The proprietor poured a locally grown Chinese style black tea, similar to oolong in character; remarkably, the green tea was completely sold out. There was no production work to view today, so we made our small purchases and got right back on the road.

Mae Rim (January 14, 2010)

On the outskirts of Bangkok, near the Mae Sa Valley, lies the town of Mae Rim where Kasma’s groups traditionally stop for a lunch of spicy Northeastern specialties. Unfortunately the restaurant was closed today, but we stopped here anyway to visit the Bai Orchid Farm (and Butterfly Garden). After photographing ever imaginable angle, it was time for an alternate lunch plan. We hit up a local noodle shop for our choice of hot and sour soup noodles with pork or fish, or hot and sour noodles dry style with pork or fish. The dry style pork noodles featured thin slices of Chinese-style BBQ pork, thin slices of a minimally flavored pate, a tender joint with a little meat on it (from the soup pot perhaps), ground pork, and a variety of toppings, including crushed peanuts, crushed red chillies, a little cilantro, and a little turbinado sugar. Half a lime was supplied for squeezing over, and the effect was somewhat reminiscent of Sukhothai style noodles, but with the noodles tangled together and without the complex flavor of palm sugar. A little chilli-infused vinegar helped.

Chiang Mai (January 14, 2010)

Thailand’s “Northern capital” was sufficiently isolated from the rest of the country to have developed its own culture, with a particular emphasis on handicrafts. In addition to the multi-block night bazaar, we will visit a number of “factories” for demonstrations and shopping. In fact, we wasted no time getting out our wallets.

The showroom at Mengrai Kilns was emblazoned with sale signs. Excellent timing. Beautiful crackle-glazed celadon ceramics ran the range from vases and serving platters to teacups and figurines. I bought ten mostly small items which, when bubble-wrapped, weigh about 5kg. Yet another packing challenge.

We checked into the Diamond RiverSide hotel early, and I settled into a room with a mountain view: it faces West toward the night bazaar, but other buildings block any actual view of the street. Still, it’s hard to sacrifice the location for a better view. I dropped off my laundry at the convenient place across the street. Without even looking in the bag, she said “ready tomorrow evening.” No ticket was offered. Odd system. I roamed the nearby streets as vendors were just setting up for the night bazaar. Nice to be able to take a peek with very little sales pressure, but where is the 7-11? I’m going to need some cold water really soon.

For dinner, we drove to Comedara, a nearby restaurant on the river with live entertainment and an extensive drink menu. The musicians were a male guitarist-singer and a female singer, and they were accompanied by a laptop. Two years ago, I sang with them, following the lyrics on the laptop, but this year they said if I was allowed to sing, everyone would want to sing, and they are not a karaoke club. This news didn’t come until after an hour of being nervous about singing, so it was a bit of a let-down. I will need to find another venue to annoy listeners.

The first course to arrive was roast duck, cooked tender and sliced thin, with a substantial layer of fat on each slice (and a soy-chilli dipping sauce). A Northern-style pomelo salad, seasoned with dried shrimp and thin rings that seemed to be a medium-hot green chilli, was served with large leaves for wrapping and two-inch lengths of a very airy vegetable the color of cucumber, perhaps loufa squash. A very delicious curry of mushrooms and pork contained a number of very hard mushrooms: perhaps they are a tree fungus and not a mushroom in the familiar sense? Chunks of fried fish were dressed with a spicy-sweet red sauce containing tiny yellow chunks that could have been mango and tiny green chunks that tasted like bell pepper (very unusual in Thailand). Finally, a salad of pennywort with fried shallots and a lime-based dressing was topped with ground pork and chopped shrimp. This salad did not taste quite right; perhaps the flavor of the pennywort overwhelmed the seasonings. For dessert, I tried the lotus flower dessert: taro and sticky rice dumplings in warmed coconut milk. One of my travel companions described the texture of the dumplings as “cookie dough” and perhaps that’s why I found it a little too strange to order again, ‘though I did manage to eat it up just this once.

Upon our return to the hotel, we strolled to the night bazaar for the first of several nights of shopping. I returned to certain parts of the building that I had enjoyed browsing before, and revisited a vendor whose attractive hand-painted shirts I had bought two years ago. There do seem to be pockets of creativity here, among the stalls peddling the same old same old. I fear much money might yet be spent.

Tomorrow we will be continuing our shopping spree with our tour of factory stores.

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