Jan 102016

Phrae is a little difficult to pronounce, but image you stopped saying the word pretzel before you got to the t, pre-tzel, without the tzel. Got it? Phrae province was once known for its central role in teak production, and throughout the old city you can find well preserved examples of classic teak homes and mansions. Now that the forests are largely protected, Phrae may be better known for indigo-dyed cloth and other textiles, and the visitor cannot miss the large number of temples. During the next two days, we may be removing our shoes more than any other town on this trip.

January 9, 2016

The Poomthai Garden Hotel has traditional Thai hotel plumbing, meaning only cold water is piped to the rooms. There is an electric heater in the shower through which all water passes. It is set on MAX, but it can only heat so much water, so the more you turn up the volume, the colder it gets. With some careful adjusting, you can find a balance of temperature and pressure that will get you “clean enough” while staying “warm enough.” Besides, they say a cooler shower is healthier for you.

The hotel’s breakfast buffet was served along an outdoor walkway, and dining tables were perched on the lawn next to the pool. In addition to the Western table, with eggs, ham, and sausage (actually hot dogs), there were stir fried items and, most interestingly, khao soi, a common Northern dish of a saucy chicken curry served like a soup over soft noodles and spiced up with bits of shallot, pickled greens, crunchy fried noodles, and extra chillies (if desired). It’s a big effort to prepare these multi-condiment noodle dishes from scratch, so I really appreciate every opportunity to have them here in Thailand.

Once on the road, our first stop was a forest park with unusual rock formations. Pae Muang Phi (or Phae Mueang Phi) means something like trees or shrubs in a ghost city. Sometimes likened to the Grand Canyon, this section of the park was eroded over a long period of time leaving the ground mostly barren except for towers of sandstone. This is the first place that I really wish I could fly a drone for aerial photography, since the marked trails do not get you very close in to some interesting spots. It was an easy walk with only a few uneven areas, however, it was tempting to creep up the edges of the cliffs and they did not look completely stable. Having slipped down an abrasive hill in the desert in Baja California, I wasn’t eager to repeat the experience, so I stood well back and let the camera do the zooming.


Kasma always likes to highlight the local crafts, and for Phrae that means indigo-dyed fabric. Traditionally, these were work clothes for farmers; I also remember our guide on hikes from the Fern Resort in Mae Hong Song always wore indigo-dyed clothes. But in the village of Thung Hong, we saw all kinds of shirts, blouses, skirts, pants, scarves, even slippers in dark blue hues (and some lighter ones). We visited one outdoor workshop where fabric was being prepared using wood blocks to apply wax, and other fabric was being dyed. (You can read more about the place in this blog post from about three years ago: Teak and Indigo – it’s got to be Phrae.) We spread our baht around to several shops, finding a few things for ourselves and others. I suggest washing them separately as they definitely look as though they will bleed a little color.

We took a break from shopping at Bomb March Coffee, a cafe featuring a tree house and other relaxing outdoor seating, and a painting studio where the proprietor told us a bit about his painting technique. I tried an iced tea of kaffir lime and lime juice which stained my tongue green. In honor of Children’s Day, I Instagrammed a selfie with my green tongue out. Hopefully I won’t have to grow up tomorrow, either. (The cafe has a page here: https://www.facebook.com/bombmarchcoffee/.)

The “Bomb March” of “Bomb March Coffee” refers to a legendary parade through the town of the casings of three unexploded U.S. bombs recovered from a nearby river. Each was ultimately used as a temple bell, and before heading back to our hotel, we visited one of those temples to bang the bomb with a mallet. But I’m getting ahead of the story.

Refreshed by our tea and coffee, we needed lunch. After a couple of other spots did not work out, Kasma pulled our vans over at a small shophouse with their last three chickens grilling on a charcoal fire. To this we added a green papaya salad bolstered with Vietnamese bologna, and bags of fried pork rinds. On the side, we had individual baskets of steamed sticky rice. The chicken was excellent, and the pork rinds were addictive. Thus fortified, we were ready to move on.

A nearby textile museum in the town of “Long” showcases traditional weaving used to make elegant dresses. And the tour ends in the shop where the wrap-around fabric runs from $35 to $700. Very nice, but I have one just like it from a previous trip sitting in a box. I felt the same way at a second shop, although they did have nice scarves that one of you, dear readers, may find yourself wearing later this year.

Before dinner, several of us walked over to the “Big C Super Center” for bottled water, whiskey, and other essentials, and then joined our drivers in the vans for “happy hour.” More crickets, anyone? For dinner, we made our way to another fish-centric restaurant, Bunlong Krua Pla Sod. While we waiting forever for our food, a young girl slid a large container of linens (tablecloths?) into the room. She proceeded to run around, stand on chairs, stand on the linens, and generally enjoy herself and entertain us. It was a helpful distraction from a conversation that otherwise had turned to deep questions such as how to minimize one’s luggage.

The first dish to arrive was a deep clay vessel on top of a clay bowl filled with hot charcoal. Upon opening the lid, we discovered a sour tamarind curry with shrimp and vegetables, topped with squares of cha om (an herb) and eggs. This blood red curry was already spicy, and boiling it down seemed to concentrate its heat, and also its sweetness. Very tasty. Next was a steamed fish, perhaps a large tilapia, covered with chopped herbs, and bathed in a garlicky lime juice dressing that was simultaneously hot, sour, and sweet. One of my favorite tastes of the evening. Next up was a somewhat less successful seafood dish because it combined squid and what appeared to be surimi, the fake “crab legs” used in cheaper California rolls. Our vegetable course combined shrimp, snow peas and button-sized shiitake mushrooms in a mild sauce. Finally, we got a tasty dish of century eggs (preserved salted duck eggs with black yolks and translucent amber whites) that had been quartered, lightly battered, and then deep fried, and then tossed in a wok with garlic, chopped meat (probably pork), chillies, and seasonings, and topped with crispy fried holy basil. I recently had this dish for the first time in one of Kasma’s cooking classes, and the restaurant version was even tastier, far less salty than I remembered. Thankfully, there was no sixth course; five was plenty tonight.

Tomorrow we venture into the old city to appreciate the temples and teak buildings. Can we really find appreciable differences among seven different temples? We shall see.

January 10, 2016

The breakfast buffet was busy this morning as the wedding guests were departing today. I ate heavy, having red curry chicken and stir-fried cabbage over rice; a bowl of rice porridge with pork meatballs, fried garlic, and other seasonings; a bowl of Khao Soi; and a yogurt flavored with nata de coco, also known as coconut sport, an unusual type of coconut that develops a translucent flesh. Hopefully this will give me strength throughout the morning.

Our first stop was Wat Chom Sawan, a Shan-style temple built about a hundred years ago. The centerpiece is a beautiful two-story teak building, and we photographed it from all angles in the soft morning light. Inside, there is a small Shan-style Buddha image. The main difference I notice between Shan-style, or Burmese-style, Buddha images and others in this region is the top of the head: the Buddha has more of a “bun” on top of the head compared with the flame-like projection popularized in the Sukhothai era.

From here we headed into the heart of town for an intensive tour of local temples and teak mansions. It’s a bit of a blur, so forgive me for the lack of details:

  • Wat Luang — the oldest temple in Phrae, and a museum
  • Wat Phong Sunan — temple of the Vongburi family with a large reclining Buddha and significant new construction
  • Vongburi Mansion — teak home built and decorated in “Gingerbread” colonial style by the Vongburi (Wongburi) family and exhibiting artifacts from the heyday of their power
  • Wat Phra Non — temple featuring a large reclining Buddha, supposedly discovered in the forest, restored and now filling almost an entire building

For lunch, we stopped in at a restaurant known for its curry noodles, Punjai (https://www.facebook.com/PunjaiPhrae). Each table received a set of five baskets with numerous little skeins of thin rice noodles, accompanied by six bowls of different dishes for serving over noodles, vegetables and herbs to accompany the soups/sauces, a plate of grilled chicken, and an order of pork satays. The soups/sauces ranged from green curry chicken (with a few cubes of blood here and there) and a mild brothy sweet peanut sauce, to ground fish curry, which is more of an acquired taste. Tasting various of these sequentially in the same bowl led to some rather chaotic flavor combinations, but it was mostly good. For dessert, I sought out bananas in warm coconut milk. They ran out of bananas and substituted little cubes of tender taro that had been coated in tapioca, so they had a glutinous transparent layer all around. They may not have a lot of flavor, but it’s a fun texture to eat.

We hadn’t worked our way through many of the famous spots yet, but we pushed through a couple more before the heat got to us:

  • Wat Phra Bat Ming Mueang Worawihan — historic temple and museum with friendly hosts and a monk’s school in the back
  • Khum Chao Luang — palace of the former Prince of Phrae, now a museum

We returned to the hotel to cool down and met up for a final Phrae happy hour before heading out to dinner. Since our preferred spot had been taken over by a wedding party, we tried out a fancy place named Rommaiyai Restaurant. With live music on a stage surrounded by a pool in which “booths” had been sunk, it was a slightly bizarre spectacle. We ate indoors where we could hear ourselves think and converse. And some of the food was quite good.

The fried dishes worked out best. Smoky deep fried pork leg was the star. The meat was tender, the skin crisp, and the fat meltingly delicious. Of the many sides, the garlicky green hot sauce paired the best. (Why this was served with small side dishes of mashed potatoes and a black peppercorn sauerkraut is a mystery.) Crispy chunks of fish piled on top of its own skeleton were served with a spicy lime-based dressing with green mango shreds and peanuts. (The fillets are cut off the fish, with the head, spine, and tail left intact. The fillets are cubed, dredged in tapioca starch, then deep fried, and the rest of the fish follows, making an attractive presentation — assuming you don’t mind seeing the fish’s face.) This was good, although the fish wasn’t as crispy as it could have been and they were a bit stingy with the dressing. A crispy-fried soft shelled crab was buried in a black pepper sauce with baby corn and other veggies. We could have used a larger portion of this dish.

The stir fried morning glories and a hot-and-sour soup of tender fish fillets were largely on point, if undistinguished. A red curry mousse with crab meat was much too salty. Not a bad place to eat, but probably best for parties since the price includes the atmosphere.

Tomorrow morning we will complete our tour of Phrae temples and head Northeast to Nan where we will continue our immersion in the culture of this region and, of course, eat heavily.

  One Response to “Two Days in Phrae: Indigo Clothing and Temples”

Comments (1)
  1. That’s a full day in more ways than one!

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