Today we’ll head to Pua to continue our exploration of Tai Lue temples and crafts, and enjoy a bit more time off the beaten track. There’s no highway between Bo Kluea and Pua, so we’ll wind through Doi Phu Kha National Park and take in viewpoints along the way. Get your candied ginger, we’re ready to roll.
Monday, January 13, 2020
Overnight my day-long headache and overall physical discomfort were relieved by ejecting the contents of my stomach a couple times. Now I feel much better. Whatever caused that needs to be avoided in the future. Does this mean I have to give up gluttony? or alcohol? One is so much easier to avoid than the other: we have a lot more to see, do, and eat.
The breakfast buffet at the Boklua View Resort offers rice porridge and other typical local breakfast items, such as fresh fruit, coffee, and terrible tea. (I snuck my own tea bags into the dining room.) There also were slices of bread you could toast over charcoal. I completely forgot that the preserves provided for the toast were delicious, so I missed out on that. Whoops.
The road from Bo Kluea to Pua is suprisingly steep and twisty, so we are giving our vans breaks at numerous rest stops. Unfortunately, the Himalayan Cherry Trees are not blooming in plain sight, so our photo ops mostly feature hilly vistas shrouded by smokey mists — the air quality has deteriorated severely in this drought year — and roadside temples. (2016 photos) A shop somehow moved into the National Park parking lot, so a delicious mulberry-acai berry juice was available for sampling, and of course there were plenty of souvenirs for sale.
Near Pua (pronounced more like Bua) we paused in the midst of fields of marshy grasses at the retail store of a weaving co-operative. I bought a couple of less expensive woven items here, but spent more time chasing photos of the easily spooked egrets and pond herons along the road.
For lunch, we had planned to hit a spot next to a shopping area for a one-dish meal, but even after an extended shopping/laptop break, they were too busy. This turned out to be very fortunate, because we stopped at a huge Northeastern-Style restaurant for a small feast of Isaan specialties. I’m not sure of the best transliteration of ร่มไม้ By ยกครก ปัว น่าน, but the key thing to know is that it was delicious, if slightly sweetened and toned down from the best places. We enjoyed the green papaya salad (som tam Thai), pork neck larb, green chilli dip with crispy pork rinds, spicy shrimp salad, fried chicken joints, and sour sausage steamed with egg in a banana leaf. The slices of Nothern sausage were a bit plain; they would have benefited from a quick crisping in the fryer.
We checked in at Oopkaew, the same resort I stayed in four years ago. Room 808 on the second floor has more than enough space, with the bonus of an outdoor shower on the porch (why?). At 4:30 we headed to a Wat Phuket, a temple on a hill above the rice fields. After innumerable photos, we headed down a steep staircase to a little tourism village to walk amongst the exhibits and wander into the nearby real village. The local ladies dancing in a circle to Thai music — more for exercise than exhibition — invited us to join them, and some did. I think there was some more fabric shopping before we walked up the hill back to the temple and headed to dinner.
We took an outdoor table at one of the most popular restaurants in town. They were quite busy, which seemed to create some issues with our meal. Their take on mah-kwan chicken wings was interesting: instead of dry-frying the peppercorns with the wings, they used them in a sauce drizzled over the wings. The coconut soup and salad with squid and pork we standard. On our end of the table, diners were unhappy that the fried fish was cold, buried for perhaps too long under a tangy lemongrass salad. However, the surprise was when Kasma stood up in the middle of the meal and instructed us not to eat the rice. In fact, one of the communal bowls did smell like an old sponge, which did not make a good impression. They also had to remove our pork larb because we had ordered (and still wanted) fried pork larb. After a very length delay, we received plates of what appeared to be small pork larb fritters. Not bad!
Our remaining days in Pua will be a similar mixture of temples, shopping, and village encounters.
Tuesday, January 14, 2020
The Oopkaew’s breakfast buffet offers rice porridge, and a few dishes to eat over rice, but it’s light on fruit. Nevertheless, we were able to fuel up sufficiently to get started. Except for one necessity: we had to stop for coffee, and the place was aggravatingly understaffed. Our our orders are unusually complicated; I’m not in a position to judge.
Our four temples this morning share some similarities, such as Shan-style (Burmese style) Buddha images and Tae Lue banners hanging in the main chapel. But there were plenty of differences. Our first stop was at Wat Ratchasima, where murals showing scenes from daily life are one of the main draws. I admit I was a bit distracted by the birds nesting in the light fixtures. Our second stop was Wat Pa Hat, which appears to have received a significant donation. Between photos of older buildings stuffed with antiques, we watched workers decorating a new building. Our third stop was Wat Ban Ton Laeng, a modest community temple. Our fourth temple of the morning was Wat Rong Nae. There is a large elephant statue, with two warriors in a chair on its back, down a path in an adjacent field. Lots of bees to photograph in the flowers.
I think there might have been some shopping before lunch; it’s difficult to keep track because our group often gravitated to nearby shops even if a stop was not planned.
Our one-plate lunch stops often feel improvised. We stopped at a shop with a large braised pork knuckle at the entrance and this, in fact, was the menu: tender, fatty braised pork over rice or pork noodle soup with a choice of wide, narrow, or vermicelli rice noodles. The pork was decadent and delicious, with a thick layer of fat. At our table, the four of us who ordered the rice plate were given a bowl of garlic cloves and little green Thai chillies to chew alongside our pork and rice for heat. Of course, one also could elect instead (or in addition) the usual ground dried chillies, vinegar infused with fresh chilli slices, or a good sized jar of garlicky hot and sour dressing. I described this as transforming the dish from Chinese to Thai.
After lunch our attention again turned to fabrics, and a shop with expensive antique weavings for those who can imagine a place for such things in their lives. Our final stop was at Doi Silver, a hill tribe-run silver shop with a factory on the premises. Excellent air conditioning, but I’m not in the market for jewelry at the moment. Sorry if I forgot to mention you needed to get your order in early!
After resting up at the Oopkaew, we headed out to dinner at the Northeastern restaurant we discovered the other day. A popular dish at our end of the table was the BBQ ribs; this dish easily translates internationally. The som tam ponlamai — spicy pounded fruit salad in the same kind of dressing as som tam Thai (green papaya salad) — seemed a bit heavy on the apples and grapes; we can eat those at home. A fried fish larb and spicy chicken soup are recognizable from the photos, but I’m not sure what else we had.
Wednesday, January 15, 2020
After breakfast, we tried a different coffee place in hopes it would be faster than yesterday’s. Not really.
We drove South to Wat Nong Bua, with murals believed to be painted by the same artist or team of artists that painted the murals at Wat Phumin in Nan. The temple grounds are beautifully maintained as befits an established part of the Thai tourist trail. While we could expect to have some competition for ideal photo positioning, in fact it was very quiet, and the weaving demonstration area was not staffed. Apparently there was a funeral in town, so many people who might normally be found at the temple were otherwise occupied.
We wandered through the village, past a closed weaving place, and spent a bit of time snacking and/or shopping before loading into our vans and heading out.
We stopped for lunch at a roadside restaurant specializing in beef and pork balls (fine textured, springy meatballs, not those other ones). These were available with noodles in various combinations, or one could have kanom jin nam ngio with lots of blood cubes. Whatever your preference, there was grilled chicken on the side to ensure adequate protein for the afternoon’s explorations.
We headed up, up, up toward a hill tribe village. But along the way, we visited two coffee operations to gain insight into how the locally grown coffee is processed after harvesting. Despite being in the hills, the sun is quite hot here. Recently picked coffee beans are soaked in water for a day or so before their outer husks are removed (these apparently have a sweet flavor and are dried for tea). The beans need to be further soaked/rinsed for a few days to remove a slimy coating before the green (off-white, really) coffee beans can be dried in the sun. Men rake the beans frequently to facilitate the process. This is the point where we left the first place and drove to the second. They were raking green coffee beans, too, but also had some freshly roasted beans they could brew up for us. After a warning that they were not ready and their flavor would mature in a day or two, we sampled them anyway. I don’t drink coffee, but it wasn’t like anything I had tasted before; very multidimensional. Many bags of beans were purchased, but I did not partake: I know from past experience that coffee drinkers are quite particular about their brew, so mystery beans do not make a good gift for most people.
We stopped by a Mien village to drop off photos to an elusive grandma, and explore purchasing opportunities. The Mien are a distinct ethnic group with their own embroidery patterns, and we were shown everything from finished skirts and pants to work in progress. We didn’t spend as much as they might have hoped; I suspect they do not get many tourists up here. After as much hot sun and shopping as I could handle (and probably more), we headed back to the resort.
For dinner we returned to the first place we had dinner in Pua, taking a deep sniff of the rice to ensure it was okay before piling on the fried foods. Those included pieces of fried fish buried by a green papaya salad (a bit too cold), pieces of extra dry fried fish coated with a savory curry, and a fried pork leg (just a bit too dry). Other dishes included spicy mixed seafood soup, a banana blossom salad, and stir-fried greens. They have room for improvement.
Tomorrow we leave the relatively small and peaceful town Pua for busy Chiang Rai, part of the infamous “golden triangle.” From Chiang Rai, we will explore nearby projects associated with the royal family, including our tea tasting stop where for once coffee doesn’t come first. The town also serves great Chinese food. I can’t wait.