Mae Hong Son (January 10, 2010)
We departed under cover of darkness for the market, but our intended breakfast spot, Royal Congee was closed; apparently the owners were taking a break after the New Years frenzy. We headed over to the nearby noodle shop for its congee: rice porridge with pork meatballs, ginger threads, chopped scallions, and a choice of an egg, organ meats, or plain (I chose the egg). Doctored up with chilli-infused vinegars, powdered chillies, white pepper, and a little fish sauce, it was quite tasty. To completely fill our stomachs, we had some treats from the market, including fried bread, sour pork ribs, a glutinous rice confection filled with smoked coconut, and another glutinous rice confection with coconut shreds on the outside. We were ready to shop.
The market contains primarily food stands, from fruit and vegetables to dried noodles and spices. In a centrally located windowed room, vendors butchered fish, chickens, parts of pigs, and what looked like a 30 pound liver. It was intriguingly low tech and a bit gruesome. Toward the back of the market souvenir stands abound. Nothing stood out as a “must have,” although I did pick up a snack of custard with sweetened sticky rice.
Today was our temple day, and we began downtown at Wat Chong Khum. Located on a large pond, the unusually abundant set of buildings resulted from the union of two adjacent temples. Like all the temples we would see in Mae Hong Son, there are strong Shan (Burmese) influences in the design of the buildings and in the appearance of the Buddha images. We visited the various buildings, and of course we then shopped the street market in front, featuring hill tribe fashions and accessories (especially bags).
Our next stop was at the top of a nearby hill. Wat Phra That Doi Kong Mu has panoramic (but partially tree-obscured) views of the city and of the nearby mountains. If you strain your eyes, apparently you can also see Burma through the mist. Aside from photo opportunities, there also are numerous shops, with a greater emphasis on wood carvings and toys, among other souvenirs.
Three more modest temples completed our tour. Wat Phra Non sits at the foot of a tall staircase, where two immense Singha (mythical lion like creatures) stand guard. Inside, you can make a donation for a blanket for a local person in need. You write your name and where you’re from on a slip of paper to be affixed to the blanket, but I suspect it won’t be legible to most people. Across the street, Wat Kam Ko displays wood carvings of scenes from the Buddha’s life. Up the road, Wat Hua Wiang keeps a valuable large bronze Buddha in a cage, with openings just large enough to take photos.
For lunch, we headed back toward the center of town to Kai Mook, a busy restaurant just a few blocks from the morning market. Our first dish was a panang curry chicken, featuring ground peanuts in the sauce. It was hotter than the same dish prepared Stateside, but had a light and lively flavor that could not be recreated from a jar. Snow peas and thin slices of tomato were stir-fried with a few shrimp and seemed to be in a tomato-flavored sauce. A red curry with coconut shoots (similar to bamboo shoots), Thai eggplants, and shrimp was nicely crunchy but unexpectedly hot. The most fun dish was a leafy green vegetable, deep fried tempura style with a light batter, and then eaten with a dollop or two of a light red curry sauce flavored with ground meat, lemongrass, and shrimp paste. It was suggested that the sauce might be good on spaghetti. Finally, one of the house specialties arrived: a pig’s foot is boned out down to the toes and filled with pork and a duck egg yolk, then deep fried and sliced into a sort of crispy sausage. Drizzled with a bit of sweet black soy sauce, it’s a rich treat. Afterwards, we nibbled some fruit and more confections from the market, including more sticky rice, a coconut pudding (similar to haupia), and something like a bread pudding.
We headed across the street to a tailor shop where some bought off the rack and others agonized over fabrics and patterns. Our custom order should be ready in a couple days. Meanwhile, back at the resort, I caught a nap and then met a few members of the group at the sunset bar to chat and entertain some of the resort dogs. Before long, we were in the vans and heading back to town.
For dinner, we returned to the Fern Restaurant. Our first course was a spicy, bony chicken dish whose name is phonetically similar to “Oop Guy.” Gai is Thai for chicken, but the derivation of the rest of the name is a mystery. Following this was a delicious crispy fried fish with an excellent rendition of the classic shredded green mango dressing. A hot and sour fish soup with long shreds of oyster mushroom was very hot and very sour; morning glories stir-fried with garlic provided some relief from the heat. Last, but perhaps my favorite, was a salad composed of a cooked and chilled leafy green (similar to but milder than spinach) dressed with a slightly sweet dressing, and topped with tiny shreds of toasted coconut and little chunks of Chinese sausage. A coconut ice cream sundae with slices of jelly-like palm fruit and occasional bits of jackfruit provided gratuitous calories.
Before heading back, we strolled the night market, which consists of one vendor after another up and down one side of the main street, and on both sides of two nearby blocks. Between the vendors selling hill tribe bags and clothes, and the vendors selling wood carvings and toys, were a few interesting additions to the mix, including some zany t-shirts and shorts, and good quality jewelry. We may have to return tomorrow.
Speaking of tomorrow, we will be riding elephants in the morning and hiking in the jungle in the afternoon. And of course, there will have to be excellent meals before, during, and after each adventure.