Misty turned to cool and then cold as we lay in our unheated wooden bungalows at the Fern Resort. Still, having grown up in the Bay Area, the combination of sunny days and chilly nights feels very survivable. I’m not breaking out the long underwear just yet. On the contrary, with several temples to visit, I’m wearing sandals to town.
Mae Hong Son originally was settled by members of the Shan ethnic group who felt persecuted in Burma. The area was so remote that few Thais were interested in moving here, and the government enlisted the Shan people to help defend the border and raise the elephants used by the royal court. Today, the Burmese influence is most visible in the design of the temples and the appearance of the Buddha images (e.g., extremely long ear lobes, hair piled up in a bun). We’ll also enjoy Shan-style dishes at dinner.
Next to the main market are several shops, including the one where we stopped in for breakfast. At the front, a woman prepares bowls of five-spice pork noodles in a deeply flavored broth (innards optional). This sounded like just the thing to remove a chill, and rice noodles are easy on the stomach. In addition to sliced lean pork, there were batons of crispy pork (cut from the fried skin through the fat and meat, all the way down to the cartilage) and cubes of blood. It was a modest portion so I could enjoy all the snacks Kasma gathered from the market. These were mostly on the sweet side, including: glutinous rice balls stuffed with shredded coconut infused with the aroma and smoky flavor of herbal incense; translucent tapioca balls stuffed with sweetened pork; cubes of apple banana smoothly combined with something chewy (probably sticky rice); and banana leaf packets containing thin slices of coconut milk-based custard on a bed of sweetened sticky rice. To wash it all down we had fresh squeezed tangerine juice and a choice of coffees (or in my case, a tiny shot glass of overbrewed and wickedly tannic tea; yikes, pucker up).
The other breakfast options were congee with pork (egg optional, innards optional), fried noodles, and “Vietnamese Breakfast.” The latter features two eggs sunny side up in a small pan with various kinds of pork sausage, with a small elongated bun on the side featuring yet more pork. I think I’ll try that one the day after tomorrow. Or maybe the stir-fried noodles? It all looks good.
To work off our breakfast, fourteen of us clogged the aisles at the market, which will be closing for renovation in about a month. This provided an opportunity to try to get discounts from the vendor selling traditional wood carvings (mostly imported, since teak logging is illegal in Thailand), as he wanted to clear his inventory rather than move it to storage. Several of these pieces looked good to me, but they are large and heavy, and I have a bad track record of not displaying what I buy, so I decided not to acquire anything here. The local ATM did dispense some cash to me, so I could repay my debts and be prepared for the next shopping opportunity.
We started by walking to two temples that “merged”: Wat Chong Khum and Wat Chong Klang. Their buildings gleamed white on this overcast morning, as mists rose from a large pond across the street (tricky to photograph, even for a boy who grew up in the foggy East Bay). In addition to the usual chapels and Buddha images, there is a museum showing very old bells and numerous statues in Shan/Burmese style. Cats and dogs, inattentive to the teaching of the Buddha, bickered over territory on the temple grounds. Out front, shopping opportunities abounded, particularly brightly colored handbags and hats in the styles sold by members of the Lisu tribe.
Our next stop lay about 1000 steps up a steep staircase, so it was more convenient to drive. Wat Phra That Doi Kong Mu offers a commanding view of Mae Hong Son and, in the distance, the hills of Thailand give way to the hills of Burma. Another blindingly white chedi (stupa) and an incredibly tall standing Buddha sparkled in the morning sun. I wonder how they clean these things?
Lunch at Kai Mook
When we walked into the popular Kai Mook restaurant, I was concerned that each place setting had a one-dish meal of what looked like basil pork and rice just sitting there, getting cold. Fortunately, our table was not set and we could order the best of what the house has to offer. (At some point, an enormous group of 50 or more people roared in, ate the one dish meal, and then departed, all well before we were finished with our feast.)
On previous visits here, I marveled at their ability to strip the contents out of a pig’s foot and replace them with seasoned meat, Chinese sausage, duck egg, and juicy pork fat, all deep fried and then sliced like forcemeat “sausage.” I was very pleased to taste this again. The crowd favorite had to be ivy gourd leaves (dtam leung) very lightly battered tempura-style and served with a side sauce that looked like ground pork in red curry. So much fun to eat. We had a salad of fluffy fried fish: the fish first is cooked conventionally, then the meat is flaked with a fork and deep fried. With the traditional hot and sour dressing but substituting sour pineapple for green mango, and snake-head fish for catfish, it was a delicious variation on a dish that is hard to find in the U.S. We had a Shan-style chicken (possibly “oop gai”), a larb (possibly with fish?) and chayote greens with small shitake mushrooms in a light Thai oyster sauce. Since we were only 110% full, we followed this with sliced mango and various treats from the market.
Shopping, One More Temple, and Golden Hour
At the corner is a shop where I can reliably find comfortable and inexpensive shirts with elephants on them. I added a black shirt to my collection. Also — surprise — I found a nice hill tribe headband here. Not sure I’ll retire my “special” headband just yet, however. Change can be slow.
Although there are many more temples in town, we decided to visit just one more, Wat Hua Wiang. There were few people here in the mid-afternoon heat, and because it is less visited, they keep their large Budda image in a huge locked cage. Photos are possible if you stick your lens between the bars, and many people felt that this Shan-style Buddha was particularly attractive. You’ll have to judge for yourself.
When we returned to the resort, I broke out the tequila and crunchy fish snacks, and met Michael and our drivers for a brief happy hour before heading down to the Rice Terrace bar for Kasma’s brief talk on the life of the historical Buddha. After all color had faded from the sky, it was time once again to eat.
Dinner at Fern Restaurant (#2)
Even though we eat at this restaurant four nights in a row, the menu is sufficiently extensive that we have few repeats. The first to arrive was a nice green curry with chicken, followed by a strongly flavored “sour curry” (gaeng som) featuring shrimp and frittata-like squares of cha om cooked with egg. This curry was thicker and milder than the brothy sour curries we had in the South, perhaps due to the omission of fermented bamboo shoots. We tried Fern’s version of the dtam leung dish we had at lunch: they fried the leaves without breading, and upped the ante on the side sauce by adding bits of Chinese sausage. Rich and delicious. A whole snake-head fish, butterflied and deep fried, was topped with a hot and sour green mango salad. Stir-fried morning glories played the role of green vegetables. Plates of fatty grilled pork neck arrived last, but we managed to polish it off. I usually do not gain weight on these trips, but I might be making an exception this year…
After dinner we strolled the nearby night market, which extends over several blocks all the way back to the temple we visited this morning.
Tomorrow we mount elephants and catch a boat to the border with Myanmar. Not at the same time. Then there’s another delicious lunch followed by an afternoon hike followed by another delicious dinner. I’m not sure how much more of this I can take.