Our brief taste of nature in Mae Sa Valley is coming to an end, but we are moving further into the wild. Not only will our next resort not have 3G data service; it won’t have any cell phone service at all. So there will be no excuse for failing to look up from the screen and notice nature, the Thai people, and of course the food all around us. Let’s go.
We packed our bags and turned them over to hill tribe men lingering discreetly outside our cabins. For our last breakfast, the Mae Sa Valley Resort prepared fried rice with Northern-style sour sausage. A touch oily, but not bad. We soon were on the road South past Chiang Mai to our first stop.
The Pa-Da Cotton Textile Museum
During her life, Mrs. Saeng-da Bunsiddhi (also known as Pa-Da or “Auntie Da”) developed a community workshop in her home employing local women as weavers when they were not busy with the harvest. Her innovative methods of using home grown plants for dyes and home grown cotton, combined with traditional hand spinning and weaving, have been preserved by her daughter, who operates her home as a museum and shop.
The leafy grounds sport several annatto trees, and several outdoor work areas for spinning and dyeing, some with a view of an adjacent river. The all-teak house was built with narrow gaps between the wall boards for ventilation; although idyllic in the morning, I image it could it get warm and humid here. Pa-Da’s daughter allowed us to take photos in the museum despite the “no photo” signs because she hopes to spread the work about her mother’s art. Perhaps I need to return for a few months to help her create a website?
It is said that these one-of-a-kind handmade fabrics, and particularly the scarves, are popular with celebrities in Thailand and Japan. They certainly are more expensive than the textiles we saw in Sukhothai, but not so far out of reach that I didn’t pick up a few examples. (On borrowed money; I seem to be spending a bit too much.)
As the highway turned West, it became twisty and our vans slowed. Perhaps this was for the best because when we arrived at Intira restaurant in Mae Sariang, we had it all to ourselves. After a quick detour to the ATM — which refused to dispense cash to me, claiming a “connection failure” — our lunch plates arrived in quick succession. Intira is renowned for its Chicken with Thai Basil, so of course we had to have that. It has an unusually deep, earthy flavor which I couldn’t place. Maybe a bone broth? Thin, nearly translucent, light green slices of bitter melon were mellowed by being stir-fried with eggs. Tender, diminutive shiitake mushrooms were dressed with a light sauce and decorated with a few lengths of garlic chives. Small pieces of crunchy dried fish (bones included for extra calcium) were tossed in a salad of Chinese celery and onions, topped with roasted peanuts, and dressed with a hot and sour lime-based dressing. Fun to eat, and not as fishy or salty as one might fear. We also had garlicky chunks of fish fresh from the deep fryer, and a hot and sour soup with pig knuckle and plentiful oyster mushrooms. We finished with some mandarin oranges from the adjacent fruit stand.
Just up the road we turned onto a side street to visit a Karen women’s collective. The Karen (in Thai, pronounced like gar-ee-eng) are another hill tribe with distinctive, vibrant fashions that look attractive in the shop but completely out of place at home. While the ponchos and vests were out of the question, some of the little zipper cases were irresistible. And the price was right.
Time for candied ginger and ginger candy for the winding three hour drive to Mae Hong Son. The countryside is dotted with lush-looking green fields and banana trees, but the conversation in the van often was so intense that we forgot about nature and thought only about — what else — food.
The Fern Resort, Mae Hong Son
We finally reached the Fern Resort, a few kilometers South of the town of Mae Hong Son. “Brangelina” may have been its most famous visitors, but I’ve certainly spent more nights here over the years. The rustic cabins are spread around a stream that meanders down a gently sloping hill. Bamboo pipes in the stream fill with water, pivot, and dump their contents with a “klonk.” It’s an odd sound, but soon fades into the background.
Dinner at Fern Restaurant
The name is not a coincidence: the Fern Restaurant in the heart of town is affiliated with our resort. And it is an excellent place to dine. We started with the soup all Americans have tried by now: tom kha gai, or coconut soup with chicken. It was an aesthetic disappointment — the typically smooth coconut emulsion had broken, which I’ve had happen to me — but the lime flavor was bright and the galanga (the “kha” in the Thai name) really shone through. Our salad was a larb with small pieces of crispy fish and the traditional vegetable accompaniments. Although I associate turmeric flavored fried chicken with the South, it made a crunchy appearance here. A rich and delicious red curry coated small shrimp and brilliant white coconut shoots (similar texture to bamboo shoots, but with a milder flavor).
The star of the show, however, was pork stewed in hunglay curry sauce. This long-cooked dish combines traditional Thai herbs with a dried spice mix that made its way to Northern Thailand through Burma, and is finished with threads of fresh ginger. If you’re planning a dinner party, double the recipe: it’s impossible to make too much. And go ahead and use fatty pork belly or pork shoulder for extra richness. Mmmmmm… Last but not least, Fern restaurant served tender stir-fried ferns in a light oyster sauce. Since I had so many extra helpings of everything, I passed on the ice cream desserts.
Tomorrow is our “town and temple” day in Mae Hong Son. We will hit the morning market, six temples, and various shops, and be back to the resort by afternoon. Just in time for a much needed nap.