Mae Hong Son (January 12, 2010)
We returned to the noodle shop for breakfast, and today’s options were chow fun with a little Chinese broccoli and chicken (my pick), a pork soup with penne-like rolls of rice noodle, or a “Vietnamese breakfast” of egg over easy with many different kinds of pork sausage. On the side we had khanom krok with either spring onions or corn kernels sprinkled on top; steamed buns filled with BBQ pork (savory) and custard-like “cream” (sweet); pork siu mai with a little pile of fried garlic to roll them in; and decadently sweet roti oozing with granulated sugar, sweetened condensed milk, and too much margarine. (I even got a cup of tea to help keep me awake after my 4:30 attempt to call the credit union was thwarted by a lack of signal.)
We reallocated van riders, and I joined Kasma and Sun in the more powerful Lexus. As the lead vehicle, we set a blistering pace up the mountain toward our first destination, an Agrotourism research facility. The varieties in the gardens and greenhouses here are unpredictable, and we saw some really nice flowers and banana plants, but we were soon on our way to a more personal stop. The Hmong village here has paved roads and more houses and generally appears to be more prosperous than the village in Mae Sa Mai. This could be related to the thriving market for hill tribe goods in Mae Hong Son, but it also could be a better climate for agriculture or livestock. Either way, we visited many vendors at an improvised stand near the school, at their homes, and in a couple of shops. Kasma handed out pictures from earlier trips, and children ran to pose for new ones. Meanwhile, we purchased items we mostly didn’t need, just to help out the village. I think they could use a little marketing advice on new products that people would purchase more readily, but there is a risk in trying to adapt cultural products for Western lifestyles…
Northward we pushed, through the burgeoning refugee village of Ban Rak Thai, to the Gee Lee tea shop and restaurant. Here we tasted four different teas: a floral green tea dubbed “morning dew,” which appears to be the successor to the impressive “savour dewiness” green tea I purchased in 2008; a locally grown oolong tea; a green tea with roasted rice, similar in concept to but different in flavor than genmai-cha (I should have bought a bag, but I forgot); and a tea with ginseng, which wasn’t too bad. The shop also carries nice tea sets, but considering the weight and bulk, this is something that I just can’t buy here.
More importantly, shopping had to stop for a lunch of Yunnanese specialties. First out was an appetizer platter of delicious pork riblets (all the flavor inside, no sauce required), pork sausage with green chilli bits, translucent and black “thousand year old” duck eggs, roasted cashews, and cool cucumber slices. There was little time to dally over this course because the rest of the food arrived very quickly thereafter. There were two stand-out presentations of pork: a stewed pork leg with a generous tender layer of skin and fat, accompanied by a steamed bun, and thinly sliced fatty pork belly (uncured bacon, basically) flavored with stewed preserved vegetables. While these two could be a meal in themselves, we also had a fried fish, served in a spicy-sweet sauce with green onions and a little red dried fruit; a salad of bitter tea leaves rendered palatable by an acidic dressing with shallots, chillies, and the flesh of some small fish (mackerel?); a pork sausage filling spread thickly on and then rolled up in an omelet, and fried; sauteed snow pea greens with garlic; and a bony chicken soup flavored with Chinese herbs believed to promote good health. Certainly they promoted a healthy appetite: we managed to finish almost everything, and did some damage to desserts of banana-stuffed sticky rice and coconut custard confections as well.
After a bit more shopping, we headed down the hill. We stopped at Pha Suea Falls, which during the dry season simply is more a trickle than a stream. The carp are still hungry, though, so you can be mildly entertained by tossing small bits of leftover dim sum and watching them fight for them. Actually, the main point of this stop was to cool the van brakes, so we were soon on the road again. We stopped in town to pick up some tailoring orders and laundry and then headed to the dock.
Our speedboat was not a model of boat-making skill. Riding low in the water due to the size of our party, and riddled with leaks, some group members were the target of good sized splashes of river water. Still, we enjoyed the sun and the occasional shade as we observed the scenery on our way down to the border checkpoint about a quarter mile from where the Mae Pai river crosses into Myanmar. Late in the day, locals come down to the river to bathe, and children play in the rapids. It was a happy scene, but we also were happy to haul our backside up off the hard planks and head back to the resort for a quick change before dinner.
Believe it or not, we went to Fern Restaurant for a fourth time for dinner. The only overlap with previous meals was ferns. An appetizer of fried chicken morsels was generously sprinkled with fried garlic bits. Unlike the U.S. version of this appetizer, the meat was left on the bone and the sauce was somehow stuck on to the chicken. A soup tureen (with the usual flames shooting up through the center) arrived, filled with another soupy curry of chicken, Thai eggplants, and hot chillies; a red curry with pieces of fried river fish also featured Thai eggplants as well as bitter pea eggplants.
My favorite dish of the evening was a tangy and garlicky salad of snowy white slices of lightly cooked pork loin. The meat was sliced into thin strips and cooked in a similar manner to squid for the same salad: dunked in boiling water just long enough to proceed past the translucent stage. As in a ceviche, we trust the lime juice (fish sauce, sugar, garlic, hot chillies, and cilantro) to do the rest of the work. This salad was even better with some of the fried garlic left over from the chicken. Why have I never seen this on a U.S. Thai restaurant menu?!
Tomorrow we depart on the twistiest leg of our journey, heading from Mae Hong Son toward Chiang Mai, staying over one night in the little town of Pai.