Jan 112010

Mae Hong Son (January 11, 2010)

The breakfast buffet featured a mix of Thai and Western items. The papaya was nice, and the fried rice wasn’t bad, but the noodles were a mess. With scrambled eggs and three cups of tea on board, I was ready to head out. On a previous trip, the rafting had been canceled due to poor quality construction, so we opted for a double-length elephant ride. This turns out to be a very long time to look at the same jungle scenery over and over, so I hope they get those rafts fixed next time.

I shared the first elephant out of the gate with a fellow traveler, and it was immediately apparent that our animal was just not in the mood. The mahout (elephant handler) started out sitting in the standard position at the top of the neck with his feet behind the ears, but soon moved up and, dangling his legs over the front of the elephant, urged the beast by rocking his hips and making sounds ranging from grunts to frustrated commands. After we crossed the river, he jumped off and began almost literally pushing the elephant from behind. As our group moved slowly through trees and grasslands, and past the occasional tiny farm, the elephants nibbled nearby foliage. One was particularly voracious and snapped 2″ trunks in its quest for the best greens. Our animal, by contrast, was eating dusty dried grass; perhaps this accounts for the lower energy level? Much later, after our elephant relieved itself, it began to be a bit more motivated. Large segments of sugar cane probably didn’t hurt, either.

The first part of the ride is the scariest, when the elephant is pointed down a fairly steep slope toward the river and your chair seem to lurch forward, filling your mind with images of ending up under foot. Our elephant gave some good head fakes to even steeper side paths before following instructions. A photographer waited in the river to capture our fake smiles. Later, he located us at lunch and delivered the photos in frames whose rough-hewn “paper” actually is fashioned from elephant dung. Nothing is wasted. I’m keeping the whole thing sealed in a plastic bag just in case it develops a bouquet.

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Speaking of lunch, we returned to Kai Mook, where they were ready with some of the house specialties they had run out of yesterday. First and most impressive was a fish sausage fried inside the skin of a snakehead fish. This was delicious with its accompanying garlicky dipping sauce. A salad of thinly sliced rounds of lemongrass, shallots, cilantro and a few shrimp provided a puckery contrast to a river fish larb salad served with the usual raw vegetables. The only detraction in the larb was the rubbery pieces of skin: if only they had been deep fried. A mild plate of mixed vegetables (including baby corn that tastes like actual corn) and crystal noodles would be a useful foil to a searing jungle curry of fish, jungle eggplants, and more baby corn. For dessert, Kasma passed around some cookies from an earlier market visit while we arranged our schedule for the afternoon.

At 2:30, we gathered for a “moderately strenuous” hike on the Mae Sakut Nature Trail in the neighboring Nam Tok Mae Surin National Park. Getting from the resort’s dining room to the park entrance had my heart pounding in the mid-afternoon heat, but we slowed down a bit in the park and made our way on the mostly shaded trail to two different small waterfalls for photos. Along the way, we paused to study the few educational exhibits and puzzle over some of the less illuminating signs. In addition to its signage, this trail could use an upgrade to its bridges (which crackled and shifted under foot) and handrails (having in some places fallen off their posts). Upon our return, there was plenty of time for re-hydration and judicious use of the A/C.

For dinner, we once again dined at Fern Restaurant. Reaching deeper into the menu, we started with an unusual tasty curry of fish and scrambled eggs. Our soup tonight was coconut milk hot and sour soup with chicken, known to Thai restaurant goers everywhere as Tom Kha Gai. Here, the coconut milk adds a touch of richness, but doesn’t tone down the essential hot and sour nature of the soup. We had a full plate of items to fill little folded leaf packets with fried fish cubes and bits of lemongrass, shallots, lime, chillies, peanuts, ginger and pickled garlic: miang plah. Our vegetable was chayote greens with garlic. Last but not least, we got strips of soured pork, deep fried with garlic and accompanied by the usual crunchy vegetables. That should carry us through the night.

Tomorrow is a full day, with a drive well up into the mountains to visit to Ban Rak Thai, the refugee village founded by retreating nationalists during the last days of the Communist revolution in China. Now it is a fantastic place to get tea and lunch. We also will visit a hill tribe village for more shopping, and catch a speedboat ride on the Mae Pai river.

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