The town of Pua, pronounced more like Bua, has a population of only about 10,000, but it is surrounded by other little villages with a similarly rural flavor. Unlike the typical Thai tour which rushes through as many attractions as possible in one day, we will be taking our time, lingering over the details of temple murals, ruminating over possible purchases, and enjoying our meals. At least until our schedule dictates otherwise.
January 17, 2016
The Oopkaew’s breakfast buffet was severely depleted by 7:40, but the rice porridge, stir-fried green beans, and fried eggs made for a satisfactory start to the day. Our first temple stop was at Wat Ratchasima, which is known locally by a different name that I didn’t catch. Located amidst fields of corn, it is of recent construction but classic Thai Lue design. Inside the main building are a variety of murals featuring scenes of daily life. Nearby, there is a shrine to the ancestors featuring a small statue of a matriarch important to the community.
The atmosphere at our second temple stop was completely different because local residents were assembling for a funeral. I was dressed completely inappropriately in a brilliant turquoise shirt and white pants; whoops. We tried to maintain a low profile as we prowled the grounds of Wat Ban Ton Lang taking photos. One of the funeral attendees stopped to take a photo of a member of our group on his smartphone, so we did not go unnoticed. Our third and final temple for the day was Wat Rong Ngae, also featuring Tai Lue architecture and decor.
On our way back to Pua town, we stopped at a fabric store for a little shopping. Then on to lunch at an Isan-style (Northeastern) restaurant, where we splurged on a feast of several courses. First up was a salad of slices of pork liver; this was not my favorite. The hot and sour pork ribs soup, a young bamboo shoot salad, a stir fry of pork meat and thick slices of tender pig skin, and a green papaya salad were all successful.
It’s a bit of a blur, but I think we spent the rest of the afternoon shopping. At a silver shop, another trip member and I examined some beautiful nielloware bracelets. Decorated with intricately carved gold on black lacquer, these ranged between $1100 and $1550. I didn’t buy anything at the next shop, either, a fabric specialist with stunning antique silk weavings. My mother once told me I would never regret money spent on art. But too often my purchases end up in a box, so with that fate in mind, I just could not justify it. Maybe next time.
Back at the resort, several of us met in the dining room for happy hour. We sampled a locally produced Shiraz and it was not very good. We’ll have to stick with scotch for the time being.
For dinner, we tried one of the town’s better known restaurants. Inside, local musicians sang Thai tunes accompanied on guitar, while outside we had a table near a pair of pools. Those with jackets, sweatshirts or fleeces fared best in the chilly breeze. Our first dish was squid with a roasted chilli paste sauce, which was the first of many dishes I found to be surprisingly sweet. I’m not sure whether this was to suit the taste of Westerners, or was their normal recipe. Next, we had a salad of bean threads (crystal noodles) with ground pork, shrimp, and white fungus (a kind of tree ear mushroom); fun to eat. Atop a sterno burner, in a fish-shaped vessel, chunks of fried fish simmered with various vegetables in a deep red sauce/soup flavored with tamarind (considered a sour curry, but rather sweet overall). New to me was the shrimp larb, with the shrimp bodies chopped and fried to a crisp with larb seasonings, and the whole heads served on the side. This was surprisingly mild. Sliced pork served cold in a tangy, lime-based, green chilli dressing was deliciously citrusy, while the ferns stir-fried with mushrooms provided the greens.
With the expectation of a long day ahead, we turned in for a good night’s sleep.
January 18, 2016
After another buffet breakfast, we headed out to a coffee shop located over an extensive garden for some caffeine and photo opportunities. The guinea hens made easy subjects, but the swallows, wheeling and diving opportunistically for their breakfasts, were impossible to follow.
We headed to the village of Ban Nong Bua for our first temple stop of the day. Wat Nong Bua has murals of a similar vintage as Wat Phumin in Nan, and they often are discussed together, but these are more faded and possibly candidates for restoration. Elsewhere on the temple grounds, we toured a teak house and considered the merchandise offered for sale in its shade. This included local weavings and an unusual “freshwater seaweed” snack. A few blocks away, we visited with another group of weavers and checked the offerings in their shop. So far, I haven’t been tempted to buy fabric without a specific person or purpose in mind, even though some of it was very beautiful.
We stopped in town for a quick lunch of soup noodles. Unusually, the “pork” and “beef” took the form of slightly spongy white and brown dumpling balls. Not my favorite way to eat these animals. The fried chicken served on the side was impossibly tender beneath its crispy skin; I could barely believe it was cooked through (but I’m pretty sure it was, barely).
Our next destination was in the hills where formerly opium was grown. The rough road would around and up and down hills, challenging our stomachs, but as far as I know, no lunches were lost. We finally arrived in a small hill tribe village of Mien (or Yao) people, and began by touring the temple, which is still under construction. Nearby, a monk pointed us toward an enormous building with numerous toilets; more than I’ve seen at any other temple. Perhaps they are expecting a lot of visitors or overnight guests; they do offer accommodations.
One of the principal reasons for visiting was to explore the locally grown coffee. As we drove back from the temple, we saw a large concrete lot with patches covered in coffee beans. We stopped and Kasma spoke with the man raking the beans into different pile. He had been working here for about 5 days and was already exhausted by the heavy bags and relentless sun, so he didn’t seem to mind taking a break to give us a tour of the facility, such as it was. The coffee beans first need to be dried enough that a machine can mechanically crack their hulls. Then the interior beans, which are off-white in color, are themselves laid out and dried in the sun. It definitely looked like back-breaking work. We made our way to a business selling already-roasted coffee, which was more our speed. I didn’t taste it myself, but did pick up a bag for others back home to sample.
We drove back through the winding roads and after our stomachs settled, we returned to the same restaurant we had enjoyed the night before. The specialty fish dish we tried tonight was named something like the fish that lost its way, which doesn’t mean anything to me. But it consisted of deep fried strips of white fish bathed in a tangy dressing with lots of thinly sliced lemongrass, shallots, and roasted peanuts, and bits of lime, ginger, and Thai chillies. You could put this dressing on anything and make it good. Chunks of fried chicken were served in an edible taro basket. (The basket is assembled in a mesh scoop from long shreds of taro, secured with a second scoop, and fried to a dark brown crisp. It tastes more of oil than anything else, so best to skip and fill up on other things.) There was a fish stir-fry, mixed vegetables with Thai oyster sauce, and on the sterno burner tonight we had squid in a sour lime-based soup. With the large portions here, this was all we needed to go home more than full.
Tomorrow we leave Pua for the big(ger) city of Chiang Rai, and the most Northerly points on our itinerary. We’ll miss this resort, and the convenience of not repacking every morning, but there is so much to see and so little time left.