Today we return to Bangkok for a final feast and lots of farewells, and tomorrow morning I have a few bonus hours for shopping and, of course, frantic packing. But first, we must pick over the Tanya Inn’s breakfast buffet one last time and dash to the Chiang Rai airport where, true to form, a delay will have us cooling our heels. Same same.
Today we descend from the mountaintop to the city for our last two nights in the North before returning to Bangkok and our home faraway. I’m pleased that tea will take precedence over coffee for at least a few hours, but clearly I’m in the minority in Thailand (and California), so I’ll try not to bore my fellow travelers too much.
The “Golden Triangle” calls to mind the opium trade which, for many years, was this region’s most notorious product. Thailand has worked hard to replace opium farming with other productive and profitable trades, not least of which is agrotourism. Doi Tung and Mae Salong are known for coffee and tea, respectively, and it is these areas we will now visit in search of intellectual and caffeinated stimulation.
Pua has been relaxing, but it’s time to move on. Since our vans are so heavily laden, we’ll take the lower of two mountain routes, which nevertheless will be a strain on the engines as well as our stomachs. On our way to Chiang Rai, we will detour to the little town of Chiang Kham to visit a picturesque temple before settling in at our big city lodging for a night.
The town of Pua, pronounced more like Bua, has a population of only about 10,000, but it is surrounded by other little villages with a similarly rural flavor. Unlike the typical Thai tour which rushes through as many attractions as possible in one day, we will be taking our time, lingering over the details of temple murals, ruminating over possible purchases, and enjoying our meals. At least until our schedule dictates otherwise.
We awoke to a foggy morning at the Boklua View resort. Donning our light jackets, we grazed the breakfast buffet, where you could sample the local jams on large pieces of homemade bread you toast over a charcoal fire. And of course, eat rice porridge and other common breakfast fare. We soon found ourselves headed into the forest on the winding road to our next stop in Nan province, the small town of Pua.
From Nan town we would be venturing East into the mountains to more remote reaches of Nan province. We stopped at the local coffee shops for one last dose before hitting the highway. Candied ginger was in order as the road became more winding and we reached the first of several viewpoints, some with formal parking spaces, and some improvised to rest the van engines. Watching the fog evaporating in the valleys was beautiful — and an omen about tonight’s weather.
For a small town, Nan has a surprising number of temples, markets, fabric stores, and souvenir shops. Or maybe we’re getting a skewed sample because these are the things that interest Kasma the most? There are plenty of nature photo-ops, but it’s definitely not the kind of trip where you’ll find yourself ziplining through a teak forest. You’ll have to get your kicks in some other way, such as the spicy food.
Like Phrae, Nan was a latecomer to the Lanna Kingdom, the predecessor to Siam, and its isolation from other regions led to unique styles of art and architecture that we will explore for several days.
Having spent too much time online this morning, I could only grab a couple yogurts from the breakfast buffet before we left the hotel. Fortunately, our first stop was the local morning market, where we loaded up on tiny mandarin oranges, steamed savory and sweet coconut snacks, and crunchy pork rinds. It’s hard to go hungry when you travel with Kasma.
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.
Our journey North continues, but first, we had breakfast at the Pailyn Hotel Phitsanulok breakfast buffet. This time, I resolved not to be late, so I would not go hungry as we explore the local temples. But perhaps it would have been better to miss: the rice porridge had cooled, so when I poured it over the fried egg with still wiggly whites, it failed to finish the job of cooking the egg. Oh well, what’s the worst thing that could happen?
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.
Everyone on this new Northern Frontiers trip (Online Itinerary) has traveled with Kasma at least twice before. I look forward to seeing a few old friends and making several new ones. But first, since I’ve arrived in Bangkok a bit early, I need to successfully navigate between hotels and manage to feed myself once or twice more.
Today I will devote myself to eating excellent Thai food around Bangkok. And it must also be an amazing value, so I’m continuing to work my way through “Thailand’s Best Street Food.” Diversions happen, but I will not go to bed hungry. (Not that I remember the last time that happened…)
After five trips to Southern Thailand and three trips to Northern Thailand, it turns out I have barely scratched the surface of the Land of Smiles. This year, our Thai cooking teacher and friend Kasma Loha-Unchit will guide us through a part of the country seldom visited by Western tourists, where the the Buddhist temples, museums, parks, fresh food and craft markets, hill tribe villages, and Thai cuisine have a distinctive local flavor. Off the well-trodden tourist trail, we can expect to have our limited knowledge of the Thai language, and our facility with squat toilets, tested in new ways. We’ll miss the beach, but look forward to new adventures.