Thailand’s current boundaries are the results of numerous wars and treaties dating back more than half a century. Today we are heading to the heartland of the first Thai kingdom, Sukhothai. Unlike Kasma’s original Northern trip, we’ll pass to the East of the famous sites along the road less traveled (at least by Westerners).
Saturday, January 4, 2020
I hit the Salin’s breakfast buffet and packed up as much as possible before heading out to search for street snacks. I found the khanom krok cart on a side street just opposite the Marriott Hotel, but surprisingly it was not busy at 7:30. Perhaps the hotel guests don’t know about this treat? On the way back, I couldn’t resist a pair of banana leaf-wrapped sticky rice treats. These had banana and black beans, and were steamed to a delicious tenderness. They must have been generous with the coconut cream, as the oil was leaking heavily and made the little packages quite slippery. I inhaled the khanom krok and the first sticky rice treat, saving the second for the road.
Traffic heading North was holiday light, and we made good time to our lunch spot, one of many small restaurants located along the highway. Unusually, though, it’s buildings were painted purple, as befits its name, Ruen Cha Muang (เรือนช่อม่วง) or Purple House. Here we had our choice of one-dish meals, from Pad Thai with pork or Pad See Ew with pork to Pad Kee Mao with pork or Basil Chicken over Rice. Pad Kee Mao noodles, also known as drunkard’s noodles, are supposed to be extremely spicy, and the Purple House did not disappoint. They had a case of ice cream treats to remedy distressed tongues, but we somehow forgot about that and got back on the road.
We arrived at Naresuan University with hopes of visiting a textile museum and a special art exhibit, but unfortunately they were unexpectedly closed. Perhaps the staff was taking off a few days to recover from New Year’s celebrations? Oh well, a bit more time to relax at the hotel. The Imperial Hotel and Convention Center, as its name suggests, is an enormous place. The large rooms have ample air conditioning, but my mattress was surprisingly springy, suggesting it was well past its replace-by date.
For dinner, we headed to a restaurant famed for its deep-fried dishes. On our menu, this began with our appetizer, which was something like a tempura of dtam leung (ivy gourd vine) leaves with a rich, savory drizzling sauce. A whole serpent fish (commonly called snake-head fish) was butterflied, deep fried, and bathed with finely chopped larb seasonings (commonly garlic, lemongrass, shallots, toasted galanga, toasted chillies, ground toasted rice, green onions, and mint leaves). Stir-fried morning glories, a hot and sour shrimp soup, and chicken stir-fried with cumin leaves followed. Our most unusual dish arrived last: a deep fried pork larb, with innumerable crunchy bits combining meat and seasonings. This is a fun party trick, but the oil gets to me after a while. I may have to cut back on the fried foods.
Tomorrow we’ll visit the town’s most important temple and head further off the beaten track to Phrae for more temples and whole lot of fabric shopping.
Sunday, January 5, 2020
The Imperial Hotel’s immense dining room hosted an impressive breakfast spread, from fried eggs and omelets to rice porridge and warm soy milk. After eating our fill, we headed to Wat Phra Si Rattana Mahathat, known locally as Wat Yai or “large temple.” The famed Buddha image here, called Phra Phuttha Chinnarat (or Chinnaraj), is considered one of the most beautiful in Thailand, and the original Sukhothai-style Buddha. A image of an important disciple is not so beautiful, but is described as “always smiling, good nature and mercy to all people.” We took many photos here, and also checked out the offerings at a large indoor market adjacent to the temple parking lot.
I briefly snuck away to the currency exchange for a bit more baht. Coincidentally, someone arrived with the money about a minute after me, otherwise they wouldn’t have been of much help. Today’s rate of 2,980 baht per $100 was pretty close to the rates in Bangkok, so that worked out fine. We dropped into the more modest temple across the street, Wat Nang Phaya, and enjoyed one more snack, a coconut milk ice cream with peanuts and a drizzle of sweetened condensed milk, before getting on the road North.
We reached Lom Yen Restaurant, which I fondly remembered as the Nut Tree of this stretch of highway. With tasty Thai cuisine served fast, a coffee shop, a snack shop, and a clothing shop, it filled all our needs for food and entertainment. The fried fish topped with fried lemongrass, and the tender stewed pork leg were the stand-outs yet again. (More discussion of this spot in my 2016 blog: Lom Yen.)
Our third temple of the day was Wat Suthon Monkhon Khiri, known for giant statuary, and particularly feminine Buddha figures. One scene from a mural reminded me of the hit song Dance Monkey.
When we drove up to the Poom Thai Garden Hotel, it looked just as I remembered it. This year my room is much further down the hall and has a more secluded feel, but we would spend considerable time at a picnic table by the pool for “happy hour” before dinner. Tonight we were sharing a bottle of Regency brandy that was a gift to one of our drivers. Not bad with a good amount of ice and soda water. I brought crunchy fish snacks and the shattered remains of my crispy pork sheets. There also were peanuts and perhaps other goodies.
We had dinner at the suggestively named New MenuPla, or “new fish menu.” Seafood did indeed figure prominently, as the photos reveal.
Monday, January 6, 2020
Poom Thai’s breakfast buffet runs a wide range from omelets made to your order, toast, and yogurt, to rice porridge with various salty side dishes. My favorite offering is the Khao Soi, a curry-flavored chicken broth served over egg noodles, and topped with your choice of crunchy fried noodles, sliced shallots, pickled mustard greens, toasted chilli flakes, and a squeeze of lime. Sometimes called Chiang Mai noodles, Khao Soi is pretty easy to find in Northern Thailand, but its so fun to start your day with them.
Our first temple of the morning, Wat Phra That Cho Hae, is dedicated to people born in the year of the Tiger. A significant number of trip members (certainly more than the 1/12 one might expect by chance) are tigers, so this works for us. Tiger statues of varying sizes are placed throughout the temple, but of course not next to the most important Buddha images. The most striking is a Buddha protected by a seven-headed naga. Around the grounds, there are little shops (we couldn’t resist a look), and I observed the antics of the local roosters.
We headed into the forest to visit a temple that was locked up when we tried to visit in 2016. Despite its remote location, it is an actual working temple for nearby residents. Today, the monk not only let us in, he brought out a tooth relic of the Buddha and various ancient parchments that we normally would only see on special days. They requested our names and birthdays so they could pray for us, and we bought a couple bottles of the monk’s homemade honey to take back with us. I think you really need to be with someone like Kasma to get this kind of access.
On the drive back, we turned into a village with a sign indicating it was open for tourism. There didn’t seem to be too many shops open, but the gleaming white spires of a temple caught our eye. A few photos first, and then some chit chat with the locals led to a few purchases of the local weaving. We will hardly miss an opportunity to find nice work at a reasonable price.
For lunch, we headed off on a dirt road to a restaurant built next to a lake. Some customers were fishing with the hope of catching something for the kitchen to cook for them. We took the shortcut of ordering from their existing inventory. Fried fish cakes (tod mun) would be familiar from any Thai restaurant in the U.S., but were surprisingly soft and supple. Fried fish topped with lemongrass salad, spicy grilled pork neck salad, shrimp and vegetables, and soft shelled crabs were tasty. I wasn’t as big a fan of the “popcorn shrimp” with a green eggplant salad; I might have exceeded my oily food limit.
Finally, we visited the neighborhood temple Wat Phra That Cho Chaeng. What I remember from my previous trip was a difficult-to-photograph reclining Buddha amidst the trees, and an odd section in the back dedicated to gruesome torture images sometimes called “Buddhist Hell.”
Back at the Poom Thai, we continued our “Happy Hour” tradition, and this time I broke out the Tequila I’ve been carefully toting in my suitcase (Olmeca Altos Reposado if you are keeping track). Today’s snacks included tom yum (hot and sour) cashews as well as wasabi peas. Fortunately, we did not have far to stumble for dinner as we were eating about 20 yards away at the hotel restaurant. Although advised that we could eat spicy, they took it easy on us.
My mind wasn’t on the food, so much, as the show, performed as it was on a bilingual karaoke machine. Soon I was laying down the hits: Take it Easy, Handy Man, Love Potion No. 9, You May Be Right, Neon Moon, and Hotel California probably were most of them. Kasma’s husband Michael wowed the Thais in the audience with his bilingual rendition of the Prik Kee Noo song, an ode to tiny but spicy Thai chillies. We’ll eat here again tomorrow, and presumably sing again.
Tuesday, January 7, 2020
I awoke early with a terrible headache, and thought perhaps I should take it a bit easier on the happy hours going forward. After a brief run through the breakfast buffet, we headed over to the local wet market for some snacking and shopping. One of the more interesting local products is mah-kwan or mah-kwen pepper, a relative of the szechuan peppercorn (pricky ash) with a similar “numbing” effect but more of a orange flavor. It is commonly used on fried chicken in these parts and further North where we’re headed. One vendor let us chew a seed husk and it was much more powerful in its raw form. I’m not sure how to use this knowledge; I’ll have to experiment.
Our first stop for the day is Phae Mueang Phi Forest Park, an eroded landscape featuring towering sandstone pillars that somehow persisted. On the way, we walked past some “ticklish” trees that sway when you lightly rub their trunks, so we had to try it. So strange! It’s genuinely difficult to explain all the movement.
On our way back, we stopped in the village of Thung Hong at a shop which demonstrates how indigo dying is done in this area. Indigo starts as a green leaf yielding a . Pa Leung (Aunty Leung) gave us the overview in Thai — Kasma kindly translating — behind her shop, นางเหลือง ทองสุข. She directly a co-worker to bathe a fabric stamped with a pattern (in wax resist) into the dye, and it emerged greenish-blue, but after only a few minutes drying over a basket, the cloth turned the familiar deep blue color characteristic of indigo dyes. We also watched one of the patterns being applied to cloth in preparation for dying. But enough education, we need to go shopping now. And many purchases were made.
We headed across the province to the Long District where we had a one-dish lunch of curry noodles at Bomb March Coffee. Then we visited the museum and shop of Acharn Komol Panichpun — or simply, Komol — a collector of antique fashion and designer of his own. He invited those who tired of shopping to join him for tea, and although he did not have much English, he was more than cordial. Don’t miss his collection of Barbie dolls dressed in fashionable Thai outfits.
Before leaving Long we dropped in on Wat Phra That Si Don Kham, one of the many temples with a bell made from an unexploded WW II bomb. On my previous trip, the bell hung from a wooden beam like other bells, but it now is suspended from a bridge, which apparently commemorates another war event. Anyway, the more interesting artifact at the temple is a wooden Buddha image carved with a primitive knife from a single piece of wood.
Back at the Poomthai, we had one more cycle of happy hour, dinner at the hotel, and karaoke. A Thai man requested that I sing San Francisco (flowers in your hair), which seemed an unusual song for someone in Thailand to know, and after I sang Have You Ever Seen the Rain, the KJ kept the CCR going with Lodi and Proud Mary, our group’s apparent favorite for dancing.
Tomorrow we depart from Phrae and head toward Nan, a province increasingly popular for weekend travel by Thais, but still litttle known in the West. We’ll do our part to spread the word.