Today is the official first day of the Northern Frontiers trip. After only one meal together in Bangkok, we are taking two vans up the highway to Phitsulanok, where we will visit an art museum and a couple of temples on our way to towns where Western tourists are rare. We are bound to encounter some delays and disappointments, since we are the first to test out this itinerary, but since we have all traveled with Kasma before we have faith that even if an attraction is closed or the schedule requires us to miss something, we will never, ever, go hungry.
Speaking of disappointments: I misunderstood the schedule — I thought we were checking out at 8:30 and then having breakfast, but to the surprise of my growling stomach, we actually were hitting the road at 8:30. Fortunately, the vans were already well stocked with snacks. Fish-flavored chips, pieces of sour tamarind with salt-sugar-chilli seasoning, black sesame and honey bars, and crunchy pearl barley snacks held me over to the first truck stop where I picked up two curry puffs, one containing shredded pork and other seemingly filled with diced potatoes. But I’m getting slightly ahead in the story.
Phitsanulok is a central city in the “lower North,” which played an important role in defending the sovereignty of Siam against neighboring kingdoms, particularly Burma. There are many more monuments to this proud history in this region than we have seen in our travels in the North, Central, and Southern regions. In some cases, statues of soldiers even appear in temples.
After escaping the terrible Bangkok traffic, we headed North on the main highway. It wasn’t until we switched to a smaller highway that the scenery changed from storefronts and truck stops to forests and fields. The greenery was a nice change of pace, and we passed farm stands along the roadside. For sustenance, we stopped for a quick stir fry of basil pork over rice. Nothing special.
We pulled into Naresuan University and roamed through the campus until we reached an art exhibit. There were some amazing paintings, sculptures, and fabric collages, but many of the works required explanation and it was difficult to have the patience for that when there was so much to explore. I missed a lot of details, but will upload some photos when time permits.
We are staying at the Pailyn Hotel Phitsanulok for the night. Mine is a basic “one towel” room with a bed that has seen better days, but being on the corner of the building, I have balconies in two directions, which allowed for a hastily constructed panorama. Also took a couple interesting shots along the street as I explored around the neighborhood.
For dinner, we headed to the riverside restaurant NanNum (the menu says New Nannum, in case there are two locations), which features outdoor seating on a large deck and live music. It was very dark, and therefore a bit difficult to see and especially to photograph our food. But if you are a fan of everything fried, you would have enjoyed this meal. Our appetizer consisted of a plate of lightly battered morning glories (not the garden vine, but the water-based plant also known as ong choy), similar to tempura, accompanied by a spicy dressing featuring shreds of green mango to be poured on just before eating. Totally fun. The fryer also produced our two larb dishes: fried pork larb, and whole fried fish larb. The most common form of larb is a Northeastern “salad” of chopped meat or seafood seasoned with herbs and hot chillies, and served with raw vegetables (such as cabbage and string beans) on the side to cool the palate. Unlike the traditional preparation featuring stir-fried ground meat, the deep fried pork larb arrives as a huge mound of crunchy pork bits (chopped pork lightly dredged in tapioca starch before frying to ensure crispiness), with deep fried holy basil leaves and deep fried whole dried chillies mixed in for extra flavor and (optional) extra heat. If you like spicy, it is truly addictive. A whole snake-head fish was pre-sliced along the central bone and deep fried, then slathered in larb seasonings, to offer a similar crunchy, tongue burning sensation to pescatarians.
Our heat tolerance also was challenged by a stir-fry of ostrich slices with krachai (a rhizome sometimes called lesser ginger) and sprigs of green peppercorns, and a truly hot and sour mushroom soup. Our vegetable dish of chayote greens stir-fried with a mild sauce was the only relief, besides steamed rice and cold drinks, until the dessert course. We shared bowls of roasted baby bananas stewed in sweetened coconut milk and tapioca pudding, which helped douse the flames.
Tomorrow we will visit two local temples, and then head North to Phrae as we depart further from the tourist trail.