Jan 112016

Like Phrae, Nan was a latecomer to the Lanna Kingdom, the predecessor to Siam, and its isolation from other regions led to unique styles of art and architecture that we will explore for several days.

Having spent too much time online this morning, I could only grab a couple yogurts from the breakfast buffet before we left the hotel. Fortunately, our first stop was the local morning market, where we loaded up on tiny mandarin oranges, steamed savory and sweet coconut snacks, and crunchy pork rinds. It’s hard to go hungry when you travel with Kasma.

Map of the Road from Phrae to NanOn the outskirts of town, we visited two more temples. Wat Phra That Cho Hae is centered on people born in the year of the Tiger, such as Kasma and me, and a couple others on this trip. Tiger images ranged from cute to fierce. There also is a very dramatic image of the Buddha protected by a seven-headed Naga. Unfortunately, the central part of the temple is under renovation, and it was difficult to get a good view of the gilded chedi. In the parking lot, we refreshed ourselves with roasted young coconuts: The vendor cracks a large circle in the shell, peels the shell, and pokes a straw through the coconut meat to the water inside. Roasting enhances the sweetness of the natural sugars, and also makes it easy to pull the meat from the shell for a compact, high energy (high calorie) snack.

Wat Phra That Cho Chaeng felt like less of a pilgrimage destination and more of a neighborhood temple. More modest in scale and more in need of cleaning, it nonetheless felt very sacred. Across the street, a large reclining Buddha laid amongst the trees, and there were little statues of the Buddha and a semicircle of followers. Larger statues inside the temple depicted a wide range of mythical creatures and monsters, and there was a multi-panel mural depicting the terrible conditions of “Buddhist hell,” if such a translation makes any sense. Certainly there are a lot of similarities among temples in Thailand, but especially among the older ones, there are many idiosyncracies.

A short time later, we left the highway and wended our way through the hills to a temple built by members of the Tai Lue ethnic group. Unfortunately, the main building was locked, so we could only glimpse the gleaming white chedi, through the bars of the gate. Lots of elephant imagery here, and riotous bird song from the trees. It could be a nice place to spend more time, but it’s noon and our stomachs are calling for us to return to the highway.

We pulled over at a curry noodle shop whose only English-language sign said “T.C.J. Law & Business.” Hmmm, are they hiring? Actually, rapidly dishing up dozens of bowls of Khao Soi noodles conceals hours of preparation, from cooking huge pots of chicken and pork rib curry to chopping buckets of garnishes (raw shallots, pickled mustard greens, limes for adding a sour zing), not to mention stocking and restocking little jars of spicy vinegar, chilli paste, and other condiments. The pork rib curry was very tasty, and the riblets contained soft cartilage instead of bones, so you could easily chew through them. Since the portion of noodles was a bit small, we broke out the market snacks as a supplement: savory mung bean paste steamed in purple-colored glutinous rice, sweetened roasted coconut steamed in glutinous rice flavored with salted coconut milk, and the crunchiest pork rinds I’ve ever eaten. Okay, now we’re “nap time” full.

It wasn’t until the pavement became surprisingly bumpy that I realized I had dozed off. We were headed down a side road past fields of brown cornstalks, some growing up the sides of hills, toward the local waterfall. As it was the dry season, we weren’t expecting too much from Huai Rong Waterfall, but due to drought conditions, it was even less exciting than hoped. Still, a good opportunity to stretch the legs, test the ability of the new camera to handle slow shutter speeds, and munch a little ginger to handle the road. Soon enough, we would be in Nan.

The Khum Muang Min Boutique Hotel was welcoming and friendly, but there’s no elevator to assist in getting your bags to the second floor, so we hiked them up ourselves. My room was located directly over the font desk and lobby, but I didn’t notice any extra noise as a result. The initial problem was a powerful menthol aroma which was difficult to blow out, even with the door to the narrow balcony open. Did someone have a foot massage accident in here? At least the view from the narrow balcony overlooked the entry path rather than the prison next door.

For our daily happy hour, we met in a public area of the second floor where we brought together a number of chairs around a coffee table. Or whiskey table, as the case may be. The staff first invited us down to the bar (thinking perhaps that we lacked alcohol?), but since we stayed put, they turned on the lights and brought up a tray of glasses. Very thoughtful, but as experienced travelers, we had improvised with our room water glasses, so we were all set. After managing to pair my phone to a Bluetooth speaker, we even had Michael Jackson to entertain us.

For dinner, we took our vans around a few corners to Huen Horm Restaurant (it might also be spelled Huen Hom). Kasma had pre-ordered, so we were greeted by bowls of Hunglay Curry made with rich pork belly and a good dose of ginger. It was not as intensely flavored as the one we make in cooking class, but for a restaurant version it was good. Our hot and sour soup featured fish balls, oyster mushrooms, and crab legs; the crab legs were delicious, although the spiky shells did require care in nibbling. A whole fried fish with a dipping sauce on the side was less elegant than last night’s version, but the addition of deep fried shreds of banana blossom made it more fun to eat. Fried chicken wings were flavored with makwen pepper, a cousin of the Sichuan peppercorn (pricky ash). I couldn’t pick up on any numbing sensation, but the wings were very tasty. As a mild vegetable choice, we had ferns stir-fried with Thai oyster sauce. Our last fish dish was a bit unusual. Catfish was first grilled, then the meat was finely shredded (for example, with a pair of forks) and deep fried into fluffy rafts. At that point, I’ve usually seen the fish served with a spicy green mango dressing that you pour over the pile of crispy fish at the table. Here, the catfish was stir-fried pad cha style, seasoned with a lot of krachai (lesser ginger). I really enjoyed the first helping, and the second, but by the third, it had all become a bit soggy and this was the plate we didn’t finish.

Huen Horm has a very limited dessert menu, so we headed around another corner to a place that specializes in desserts. Most involve warm salty-sweet coconut milk with stuff, ranging from job’s tears and young coconut, to tiny rice flour dumplings (balls) flavored with taro, pandan, or pumpkin, known as floating lotus. They also have various flavors of ice cream, and a topping bar for creating Thai “sundaes.” Here we moved the needle well past the full mark. And I suspect we’ll be back to try a different creation soon.

Tonight we should sleep well, and tomorrow we will walk to the most famous and important temples in town. And there’s a very good chance we’ll have curry noodles again.

  2 Responses to “The Road to Nan”

Comments (2)
  1. What is job’s tears?

    • Job’s Tears are a cereal grain. They can be puffed as a crunchy snack, or stewed, in which case the texture is a bit like hominy. Another common name is “pearl barley” even though Wikipedia says it isn’t related to barley.

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