One reason to visit Mae Hong Son is its ready access to the wilderness. From scenic rivers to more temperate jungles, you need only step off the main road to experience nature. With tiny subsistence farms mixed in. Just remember your insect repellent.
After a quick (in my case, very quick) visit to the Fern Resort’s breakfast buffet, we gathered in the lobby. After dropping our laundry bags in town, we drove toward Mae Pai, the Pai river, for the first of our adventures.
Beasts of Burden
Kasma prefers to ride elephants here in Mae Hong Son where they live in a more natural environment and walk on paved roads as little as possible. I would be sharing an elephant with Kasma’s husband Michael, and since we are larger gentlemen (Michael in height, me in girth) we were assigned the tallest elephant. With our commanding view, we tried to take photos of everything from our moving, shifting, tilting, crazy seat. Fortunately, at this slow pace, motion sickness is never a problem.
I’ve done this twice before, but this would be the first year I got down off the chair and sat on the elephant’s neck. (The mahout, who trains the elephant and urges it along the trail using vocal and physical means, often sits on the top of the elephant’s head with his legs dangling in front, but this looks absurdly dangerous, so I’m not going to try that.) I found it difficult to find a comfortable perch. Too far forward, and your behind rests on 3 loops of chain. A few inches further back and it’s like an exercise machine that requires constant adjustment of the hamstrings and glutes to avoid falling off. While the short hairs on the elephants head are less wiry than they appear, they offer no handhold whatsoever. Also, it’s a lot of work to keep your knees up like a jockey. After 15 minutes, my leg muscles were trembling, so I carefully climbed up backwards into the chair. (I think it might also cure constipation, if one were to have that problem.)
At the end of the ride, we tipped our mahout in cash and our elephant in sugar cane. I don’t know how elephants digest 8-inch lengths of whole sugar cane, but you can see that it makes them very happy.
We approached the border from another angle by boat, cruising North on the Mae Pai to a border checkpoint which has become crowded with little shacks selling cheap goods from Myanmar (e.g., fifths of whiskey for less than $2; brain cells beware). Previously I had been down this stretch of river in the afternoon when local residents came down to the river for a swim or to do laundry. At this early hour, we saw mostly scenery. A little less interesting methinks.
Lunch at Kai Mook
We’re back! We saved one of the restaurant’s specialties for today: fish sausage inside a fish. They scoop all the “meat” out of a snake-head fish, season it, stuff it back in, then cook the entire fish, then slice it into rounds and deep fry them crispy on all sides. Quite ingenious and delicious. Other dishes included: lightly cooked vegetables and crispy pork rinds served with an “oop” sauce for spooning over (tasting amazingly similar to my mother’s pork rib spaghetti sauce); a Chinese appetizer of crab and pork rolls, also sliced and deep fried, with a hot sweet and sour dipping sauce; ferns with shrimp and pork; a curry with fish slices, coconut shoots, and lots of fresh green peppercorns; and a somewhat disappointing panang curry chicken (not as decadently rich as I like). We refreshed our palates with fruit from market and rose slowly from our chairs. Many people eat their biggest meal of the day at lunch, and we might have done just that.
A “Moderately Strenous” Hike
Back at the Fern Resort, I changed into a lighter shirt and lightened my pack for a 2 hour hike on the nearby Mae Sakut Nature Trail. We would be taking only the first leg, to the waterfalls, rather than the full 4 hour loop. Wouldn’t want to be late for dinner. Our group of 11 plus a guide who doesn’t appear to speak any English, was accompanied for a while by two of the resort dogs. In fact, the directional signs pointing to the hiking trail feature a guide dog. Ultimately, they turned back before we entered the park, and it was just us humans against the trail.
I recall several rickety bamboo-slat bridges, but this time there was only one. There were several water crossings on smooth wet rocks, and I managed to get both feet in on the first one. Fortunately, the camera and backpack remained dry, but these sandals are going to need some cleaning and drying before I wear them again. Otherwise, we made it up and down the slippery trail to the waterfall and got our photos without incident. But I think the exercise and fresh air might have reduced my appetite. We shall see.
Dinner at Fern Restaurant (#3)
After part two of Kasma’s brief orientation to Buddhism, we returned to town for a third night at Fern Restaurant. You must be bored with food descriptions by now, but here goes. Our first dish was a Northern style beef larb seasoned with Indian long pepper. This delicious salad is much moister than the more common Northeastern style larb (with ground rice powder) and seemed milder and more floral in flavor. Kasma teaches this dish in a very advanced course, so unless I find a recipe somewhere else, it will be a long time before I learn its secrets. Tender steamed pork with a hot and sour dressing was accompanied by Chinese broccoli greens in a tray of ice cubes to ensure crispiness. While the slightly bitter leaves and stems provided some balance to the sweet and sour dressing, the pork was delicious even after we ran out of greens. A prik khing curry was served in two piles — chopped green beans stir fried in roasted chilli paste, and slices of deep fried fish — meant to be combined on your plate. This maintained the crispiness of the fish, a highly prized characteristic in Thai cooking. And in Thai eating. The garlic pepper fried chicken was delicious, as was the hot and sour fish soup. Finally, there was a fish curry with a texture reminiscent of scrambled egg. It was pleasant, but not as distinctive as the rest of the meal.
There was no ice cream tonight, as we had another birthday cake. This time with a fruit plate on the side! Once in a while it’s a nice break to have a spongy imitation of a Western dessert rather than another gooey or custardy thing.
Tomorrow is one of the most important days on the trip for me: we return to Ban Rak Thai to taste and purchase delicious fragrant green tea. Oh, and feast on Yunnanese pork specialties.