Today we leave Nan province and cross Phayao province to Chiang Rai, which was previously part of Phayao province. This region, best known as part of the “Golden Triangle” has a troubled history with production and trafficking of opium. However, over the course of several decades communities have been rehabilitated and put on a solid economic footing due in no small part to the efforts of one woman, Her Royal Highness the Princess Mother, the mother of Thailand’s beloved and recently passed King Rama IX. Through visits to Doi Tung and Mae Salong, we will experience her work, and we also will visit a Cultural Center that occupies the site of a school she founded for hill tribe women.
Thursday, January 16, 2020
The Oopkaew has been a friendly host, but the breakfast buffet was again disappointing. Seeing only very green bananas, a trip member asked Kasma to inquire about some ripe bananas, which brought forth two huge hands of apple bananas ready to eat. How exactly do they manage their pantry here?
There isn’t a highway between Pua and Chiang Rai, so we did have to twist through the mountains a bit. Eventually we came to Yuan, in the Chiang Kham District for lunch and a very special temple. Our lunch spot didn’t have an English name posted as far as I can tell; according to Google Maps, in Thai it’s ข้าวมันไก่ครัวอิ่มอร่อย. The first part is Khao Man Gai, which refers to the famous dish also known as Hainanese Chicken Rice, where a mound of rice cooked in rich chicken broth is served with several slices of poached chicken and a spicy sauce on the side. Despite the name, I ordered the braised pork leg over regular rice, which turned out to be a truly delicious choice.
We walked just a few paces to the driveway leading to the temple, which is concealed until the last moment by a tall wall. Then you get your “Wow!” moment when you see a teak building of intricate design. A Shan-style Buddha takes center stage, so many visitors could be seen with their cameras and phones there. The squeaky floorboards called attention to our movements through the museum-like space as we photographed various old artifacts in the dim light. The other buildings were interesting, too. Unfortunately, the shops toward the rear of the temple were closed, so we didn’t get a chance to see the local crafts here.
From Chiang Kham, we drove to the Rasa Boutique Hotel in Chiang Rai, not far from the hotel where I stayed four years ago. I didn’t notice the hotel’s exterior design immediately, but one couldn’t miss the huge teddy bears on the couches in the lobby, and other bric-a-brac. Our rooms were more modern, but the scale was a bit odd. The bathroom door was quite short; I suggest the bath mat in front of it that proclaims WELCOME might be changed to say DUCK! Once inside, if you lean forward while sitting on the toilet, you might hit your forehead on the sink. Definitely more manageable for the single traveler than the couple.
Before dinner, in anticipation of future purchases, I thought I had better change some more money. There are numerous exchange windows around the area of the night bazaar, about a 20 minute walk. Clearly, the phrase “best rate in town” is not to be trusted. Eventually, I got 3,010 baht per $100 at Superrich. That was less than the 3,027 their website says I could receive at their headquarters in Bangkok, but I suspect it’s better than what I could get during the next couple of days.
For dinner, we repeated a choice from four years ago. SalungKham (ร้านสลุงคำ) is known for its smoked meats, and perhaps our group favorite was their smoked duck (leg or breast? it was more of a roll, so we couldn’t tell). Other selections included a Hunglay curry of rich pork belly, crispy fried sole, a salad of small shiitake mushrooms, a spicy chicken soup, and a stir-fry of a type of chewy clam that could be mistaken for a large snail.
Tomorrow we’ll depart Chiang Mai for the mountains, so it’s time to think about digging our cold weather gear out of our bags. Fortunately, the forecast looks pretty nice.
Friday, January 17, 2020
The Rasa’s breakfast buffet has a number of savory dishes more associated with lunch than breakfast, which is nice if you are tired of rice porridge and sunny side up eggs. Interestingly, they have you order your tea and coffee at a counter rather than serving yourself. The tea is ordinary, but you can order a capuccino, a latte, or a mocha, all of which reportedly taste essentially the same with very small variations. Perhaps the barista is away?
It was about a 75 minute drive to our initial stop, Viewpoint #12. Numerous tourists stopped for a snapshot of the hazy view back toward Chiang Rai, or to use the bathroom. The parking lot is surrounded by vendor shops full of trinkets, and of course there are snacks. We dawdled here for a bit before heading up to Doi Tung.
On the advice of the ticket counter, we postponed visiting the coffee shop and headed up to the Royal Villa, which was the residence of the Princess Mother Srinagarindra when she stayed on Doi Tung. The Villa consists of four teak homes joined together, which allows a separate wing for the Crown Princess when she visits Doi Tung. As described in detail on an English-language audio tour the public spaces showcase significant artifacts of the work and hobbies of the Princess Mother, while some areas closed to the public are visible through windows. (Photos are not allowed inside, unfortunately.) The tour mentions the helipad, but we didn’t catch a glimpse of it. It is significant because the name by which she is known here — “Mae Fah Luang” — refers to the Princess Mother descending from the sky. Oh well, maybe next time.
After completing our tour, we ambled down to Doi Tung coffee where they serve the local brew and numerous macadamia products. We sampled natural and chocolate versions of their macadamia butter, and various cookies. Some trip members were surprised to find crushed macadamia nuts in their coffees; I guess a syrup would be more customary? Once we were fully caffeinated and sugared up, it was time for the next attraction.
The Mae Fah Luang Garden is a photogenic space built on a hillside that previously was an opium trafficking route. Now trees, flowers, ponds, statues and sculptures fill the space, providing numerous opportunities to accidentally photo-bomb the compositions of other visitors. By now the sun was becoming quite fierce, so shaded spaces were at a premium.
Doi Tung offers two dining options, a cafeteria and a sit-down restaurant with various set menus. Neither of these is idea for choosy diners, but our set menu wasn’t bad. For appetizers, we had a green chilli dip accompanied by crispy pork rinds and steamed vegetables, and something like a charcuterie platter with slices of various northern sausages accompanied by chunks of raw garlic, raw chillies, crispy shallots, macadamia nuts, lettuce leaves and herbs. A more substantial “finger food” was a miang plah, chunks of fried fish accompanied by chunks of ginger, garlic, and shallot, thin rings of lemongrass and Thai chilli, peanuts, and little bits of lime, all for wrapping in more leaves with a dab of a sweet sauce. Fried pork, a Northern larb, chayote greens, and a soupy curry (or soup) with chicken rounded out the menu. We did not leave hungry.
Doi Tung’s well-planned tourist village is only a part of the story. Coffee, textiles, and other locally made products are sold throughout Thailand and to major retailers like Ikea. The impact of the Doi Tung Development Project has been considerable: according to a story in the New York Times, the Mae Fah Luang Foundation reported in 2017 that “per capita income in the region had increased sixfold from 1988 to 2016.” Astonishing.
To aid our appreciation, our main stop for the afternoon would be the Hall of Inspiration, a detailed pictorial explanation of the initiatives spearheaded by the royal family in this area over the years, arranged in a contemplative space. King Rama IX deserves a lot of the credit alongside his mother. The stories of drug abuse and deprivation addressed in recent decades are heartbreaking, and probably more so if you can read Thai, as there isn’t a translation of everything. It’s surprising there isn’t a gift shop here with a book or other further information, but back on the main strip, there was all the shopping we could handle. From fine clothing to fancy teapots, and edibles to kitsch, there’s something for everyone.
Eventually we were shopped out and ready for a break. Four years ago, we stayed in the Doi Tung Lodge, which is just an easy walk down a hill and has a wonderful view. This time, the Lodge was needed for official visitors, so we stayed about 20 minutes down the hill at Poonyamantra Resort Chiang Mai, which features two-unit bungalows set around a lake. Too bad we don’t have time for a porch party, although mosquitoes could be an issue.
The hotel restaurant served us at two large round tables poolside. We shared plates of Northern sausage, whole steamed fish with a spicy-sweet-sour dressing, stir-fried pork belly, a glass noodle salad with mixed seafood, a green curry, broccoli with local mushrooms, and somewhat underripe fruit for dessert.
Our last task for the evening is to pack a single bag, to make our lives easier at the hotel tomorrow night, which can have a serious hike up to your rooms.
Saturday, January 18, 2020
The Poonyamantra’s breakfast buffet was a bit of a scrum, with food and beverage stations packed too closely together for the number of guests. While the Poonyamantra is only a few minutes’ walk from a morning market, I didn’t allow enough time to explore it. At least I was able to secure some basic nutrition from the buffet, and of course, snacks are always within reach when you travel with Kasma.
Before we leave Doi Tung, we have one more major attraction to visit, and on the way, we’ll stop at Doi Tung Coffee for one last shot at having crushed macadamias in your morning cup. The Mae Fah Luang Arboretum, like the Garden, features temperate zone plants, but it has more wild places to observe birds and insects (and maybe a few squirrels), and hilltop views of Laos and Myanmar. Although it wasn’t possible to make out the border through the haze and thick forest, a few butterflies posed for photos. Oh, and many flowers as well.
We have to descend this mountain (Doi Tung) to reach the next one (Doi Mae Salong), which provides an opportunity to stop by a roadside Yunnanese restaurant on highway 1149, in the last block before the intersection with highway 1; mysteriously, it’s not listed on Google Maps, but one part of their sign seemed to translate to Yunnan Xiaoyi. They offered more than lunch: in what would become a bit of a theme in this most Chinese corner of Thailand, we also sampled various dried fruits and nuts they sold along the sides of the place. One of our lunch choices, in addition to the Thai lunch staple of spicy basil pork over rice, was a variation with pieces of “century egg” mixed in. The whites in these preserved duck eggs turn a dark amber and have a chewy texture, while bits of yolk might be discovered here and there as little salt bombs. It’s fun for a change.
Perhaps the most important stop on the way to Mae Salong village (also known as Santikhiri village) is the Memorial Hall remembering the contributions of former Kuomintang (KMT) soldiers. After fleeing the Communist revolution in China, some KMT soldiers from Yunnan continued fighting from bases in Burma before entering Thailand and settling as refugees. Thailand enlisted the soldiers of Division 93 in fighting its own Communist insurgency in Northern Thailand. The material in English is limited, but you still can find a lengthy catalog of battles, wins and losses over decades. The buildings themselves are striking as well.
The parking area of the Memorial Hall hosts numerous shops selling tea, dried fruit, trinkets, and so on. We tasted some delicious dehydrated tomatoes and salty plums, and some even bought multiple jars of fermented tofu (not something I would want in my luggage!), before we loaded into our vans to head further up the mountain.
We passed numerous shops and lodgings perched along the winding road before reaching Mae Salong Villa, where we’ll spend the night. Before dinner, I headed up the road with two errands in mind: one was to try to find a “tea monument” described in a German blog post I ran across last year, and the other was to check out any unique items at the local 7-Eleven. From a nearby campground (people in parked vans were setting up tents), I could see the enormous teapot sculpture down the hill at the Wang Put Tan tea plantation, but it definitely was too far to walk. In fact, the undulating hills had me winded halfway to 7-Eleven. Can I blame the altitude? I definitely need to get into better shape. Anyway, I later heard there was a hill tribe market next to the store with fantastic hats and photo ops. Sorry to miss it, but we’ll have more shopping opportunities tomorrow.
Because the weather was mild — a light fleece was sufficient — we dined on the deck outside of the hotel’s restaurant. The braised pork leg was tender and succulent, unlike four years ago when the kitchen kept the fat for themselves. Strips of “bacon cut” pork belly crowned a good-sized mound of preserved vegetables. Roast (possibly lightly smoked) duck, a whole fish, a soup with black chicken and goji berries, stir-fried local mushrooms, and stir-fried green rounded out the menu.
Although I’ve been waking at 5:00am every day here, tomorrow morning we’ll be up even earlier. Conveniently, the Villa provides a stainless steel kettle in our rooms so we can caffeinate without our tea having the bouquet of plastic or nylon often found with cheaper in-room kettles.
Sunday, January 19, 2020
Well before dawn, we assembled in the parking lot to catch the sunrise from a hilltop pagoda built to honor the Princess Mother (Sinakarintra Stit Mahasantikhiri Pagoda), said to contain some of her ashes. Surprisingly, the main building (Phra Boromathat Chedi) was closed until well after sunrise, so we weren’t able to make as much use of the pre-dawn time as expected. After watching a red sun rise behind the layer of smoke, we rushed to catch a few photos from inside the pagoda and then headed back down the hill. We stopped at a market selling various crafts and tchotchkes and I picked up a zippered bag and a Mae Salong t-shirt to put into it. My major purchases would come later.
We returned to the outdoor deck of the Mae Salong Villa’s dining room for a classic Chinese-style breakfast of plain congee with strongly flavored side dishes. Those included salted duck eggs, fried pork with garlic, stir-fried pickled mustard greens, stir-fried ong choy, and the crowd favorite, fluffy scrambled eggs. We also had pleasant tea on the side, but since we were heading indoors for a tea tasting, we didn’t fill up.
The Villa is the home outlet of Emerald Thai Tea (also known as Thai Morakot Tea), so everything we tried was from their range, all certified USDA Organic and 5-star OTOP. Based on previous experience with Kasma’s groups, we mostly skipped the cheaper stuff. We started with Bai Hao Ching Ching, their special grade of “Oriental Beauty” tea (Dong Fang Mei Ren), which uses leaves bitten by insects that prompt the plant to produce a defensive chemical that should give the tea honey-like flavor notes and a stone fruit aroma. It was pretty good, but quite expensive at 1000 baht per 100 grams (about $151/pound). I don’t remember Emerald making this tea four years ago; are they really up to the standard of high-grade Oriental Beauty tea from Taiwan? I picked up a smaller canister to compare back home.
The comparison to Taiwan is natural, because the teas grown in this area were selected from cultivars that had proven commercially successful at similar altitudes in Taiwan. I’m a fan of Taiwanese-style high mountain “green” oolongs, which are lightly oxidized, low in astringency (less puckery), very fragrant, and have some body to them. Such teas can be very pricey by the time they’re imported to the U.S., so it’s nice to have Thailand in the market with (for the most part) moderately priced teas produced in the same styles. Of course, teas connoisseurs will point out that the tea bushes in Taiwan are much older, and therefore their leaves have developed more character, but for my dollar, a young upstart might be just what I need to fill my suitcase.
We sampled two special oolong teas they said were only possible to pick one day per year, when the winds blow from the North. The “Golden Oolong” (in a gold bag or cannister) features a bud and one to two leaves picked from the cultivar known here by its Taiwan Tea Experiment Station moniker, No. 17, and also called 軟枝 (Ruan Zhi or “Soft Stem”). The “Dew Drop Oolong” (in a silver bag or cannister) is picked from Jin Xuan (TTES No. 12), known for its creamy or milky mouth feel and flavor notes. All the tasters loved the Jin Xuan, which is a wonderful sipping tea, and I picked up several bags. I also picked up some of the golden oolong for its wonderful fragrance and sweetness. Here at the hotel, these teas sold for 20-30% off the price listed on their Facebook shop page.
Finally, they poured their version of Jiaogulan tea, sometimes called Southern Ginseng, which is thought to promote longevity and ease various medical conditions. Despite looking like a bag of sticks, this herbal tonic is clean-tasting and mildly sweet. Nevertheless, I don’t think I would end up drinking it, so I didn’t pick up any on this trip. For more information on this herb, check out the Wikipedia article on Gynostemma Pentaphyllum.
Leaving Mae Hong Son, we stopped at a viewpoint with a coffee shop, but maybe because it’s Sunday, there was no barista. Instead, they sold clothing. Our next stop was at Tea 101, a huge operation that lets visitors wander among its tea bushes. I misjudged the behavior of the sprinklers and got a good soaking on my front side. Changing my shirt was easy, but due to packing only a light bag, I didn’t have any dry pants handy and the hill tribe vendors didn’t seem to have anything for me, either. Oh well, I’ll dry eventually.
After winding our way down the hill, we stopped at another roadside noodle shop for lunch (ร้านก๊วยเตี๋ยวเป็ด ครัวยายรูญ; on highway 1 near highway 1130; a photo of a menu on Google Maps mentions Krua Yay Roon). Since their specialty is duck, the most obvious choices were stewed duck noodle soup and sliced roasted duck over egg noodles without broth (“dry style”). The roasted duck certainly looked prettier, but I always opt for the soup in this situation, since the long simmered flavor of star anise is one of my favorites. For dessert, we tried their combination of pumpkin, taro, and grass jelly cubes in a sweetened coconut sauce. Not bad.
We headed to the Mae Fah Luang Art and Cultural Park. Once used to host a school for hill tribe children, the grounds feature buildings in a number of traditional Northern Thai styles set around a large pond among leafy trees. It is an indoor/outdoor museum, but also a place for a meditative walk, and of course there’s a gift shop. In addition to antiques and contemporary art, numerous butterflies and a lizard attracted my camera.
We returned to the Rasa Boutique Hotel, where my room on the second floor could not be closer to the patio bar. For dinner we headed to Thanam PhuLae, a large restaurant with a small stage set in the middle of a pond with a couple performing Thai pop music. Contrary to the recent trend, tonight we would eschew the outdoor seating and eat indoors. First order of business was to pop on a fleece while the staff reset the air conditioners from refrigerator temperature to something more suitable for live humans.
Fried fish appeared in two tasty dishes: a stir fry with basil, green peppercorns, and red chillies; and slathered with a tangy lemongrass salad. Squid bodies (tubes) stuffed with squid eggs were simmered in a lime-based broth, quite similar to the dressing on the lemongrass salad; and sliced duck featured in a rich red curry. Our greens were (sunflower?) sprouts, cooked in manner similar to red-flamed morning glories. Perhaps the least successful dish was a beef salad, since the meat was rather tough.
Tomorrow our drivers will be leaving us for Bangkok, so we need to sort our luggage again (out with the cold weather gear!) so we can travel light on our flight Tuesday.
Monday, January 20, 2020
Breakfast against offered everything from yogurts to a soupy curry with cubes of blood. Before our drivers left for Bangkok, we would have about 90 minutes to explore Baan Dam, the Black House Museum, the former home and workshop of the National Artist Thawan Duchanee. What I remember most from my visit four years ago were the water buffalo horns: the curved elements were used to form elaborate chairs (thrones?) as well as a playful toilet roll dispenser (which was visible through a window, not for use by visitors). The artist exhibits his own work, including self-portraits, but also antiques and artworks he collected from around Thailand. Most of the 40 or so buildings are closed, with views of their interiors available through windows. Those that are open range in feel from a temple-like space to a depiction of “Buddhist hell.” And, of course, a gift shop.
This place is much cooler in the morning than it was in the afternoon, so lingering in the sun to try to frame photos was easier this time. That said, trying to shoot through windows or capture huge objects presented a challenge. Maybe something came out?
Back at the Rasa we make sure we sent the correct bags in the vans; my mistake of being separated from my passport in 2005 serves as a lesson to other travelers on Kasma’s trips. We also said farewell to two of our group as they headed to Chiang Mai and Mae Hong Son for a few days of relaxation. Although our calendar is now free for the day, it was convenient to join Kasma for a casual six-course lunch in the hotel dining room before heading out for the afternoon. They did a good job on coconut soup with chicken, mixed seafood larb, grilled pork with a spicy dipping sauce, stir fried pork belly, fried fish larb (I think), and deep fried pork larb. Certainly more interesting than a quick plate of noodles.
I thought I might head to a local massage shop for a one hour foot massage, and I was joined by a fellow traveler. We received a friendly welcome at Naza Massage, a couple of blocks from the hotel, and decided to get a two hour traditional Thai massage, which works the entire body. Fortunately, the first hour is mostly focused on your feet and legs, so there was enough time to digest our huge lunch before our upper bodies were twisted into pretzel-like shapes. The room with the massage beds was serene and comfortable, with the occasional intrusion of street noise. If not for the objections from my tight muscles, I might have dozed off.
I probably did nap a bit before dinner, when three of us joined Kasma on a repeat visit to SalungKham. Considering the size of our group, we limited ourselves to five dishes. The sour sausage and egg steamed in a banana leaf and smoked pork ribs were delicious starters. A “city larb” with pork innards was tasty enough that I didn’t notice the unusual nature of the meat until my second helping. Huge prawns with crystal noodles and a mild stir-fry of ferns rounded out the menu. For something sweet, we stopped outside the restaurant at a cart where two women were furiously preparing a large order of roti’s. When we finally got our order of banana roti drizzled with sweetened condensed milk and sprinkled with granulated sugar, it was sweet enough to feed four.
Chiang Rai, Doi Tung, and Mae Salong have treated us well. We’ll miss the pleasant weather and laid back vibe, but it’s time to return to sweltering Bangkok to celebrate our journey and make our last-minute purchases before heading home.