Although Mae Hong Son lacks many of the conveniences of a major city, the relaxed pace of life (not including our itinerary) and fresh mountain air will be much missed in coming days. Still, it’s time to return to the hustle and bustle of modern Thailand.
Today I buy my favorite green tea. And eat Yunnan-style fresh “bacon” with fermented greens. In a village of Chinese refugees given Thai citizenship in exchange for turning over their weapons. One kilometer from the border with Burma. Can you get any more Thai than that?
One reason to visit Mae Hong Son is its ready access to the wilderness. From scenic rivers to more temperate jungles, you need only step off the main road to experience nature. With tiny subsistence farms mixed in. Just remember your insect repellent.
Misty turned to cool and then cold as we lay in our unheated wooden bungalows at the Fern Resort. Still, having grown up in the Bay Area, the combination of sunny days and chilly nights feels very survivable. I’m not breaking out the long underwear just yet. On the contrary, with several temples to visit, I’m wearing sandals to town.
Our brief taste of nature in Mae Sa Valley is coming to an end, but we are moving further into the wild. Not only will our next resort not have 3G data service; it won’t have any cell phone service at all. So there will be no excuse for failing to look up from the screen and notice nature, the Thai people, and of course the food all around us. Let’s go.
Mae Hong Son (January 13, 2010)
Departing the Fern Resort is always a bit of a production. Kasma has been staying here since the “hill tribe girls” were teenagers, and these long-time employees wanted to look sharp for their photos (some coming in much earlier than their usual shifts). After a lot of smiling for the cameras in different configurations, we piled into our vans and headed out. We will miss the nicely designed bungalows and well landscaped grounds. And the smiles.
Mae Hong Son (January 12, 2010)
We returned to the noodle shop for breakfast, and today’s options were chow fun with a little Chinese broccoli and chicken (my pick), a pork soup with penne-like rolls of rice noodle, or a “Vietnamese breakfast” of egg over easy with many different kinds of pork sausage. On the side we had khanom krok with either spring onions or corn kernels sprinkled on top; steamed buns filled with BBQ pork (savory) and custard-like “cream” (sweet); pork siu mai with a little pile of fried garlic to roll them in; and decadently sweet roti oozing with granulated sugar, sweetened condensed milk, and too much margarine. (I even got a cup of tea to help keep me awake after my 4:30 attempt to call the credit union was thwarted by a lack of signal.)
Mae Hong Son (January 11, 2010)
The breakfast buffet featured a mix of Thai and Western items. The papaya was nice, and the fried rice wasn’t bad, but the noodles were a mess. With scrambled eggs and three cups of tea on board, I was ready to head out. On a previous trip, the rafting had been canceled due to poor quality construction, so we opted for a double-length elephant ride. This turns out to be a very long time to look at the same jungle scenery over and over, so I hope they get those rafts fixed next time.
Mae Hong Son (January 10, 2010)
We departed under cover of darkness for the market, but our intended breakfast spot, Royal Congee was closed; apparently the owners were taking a break after the New Years frenzy. We headed over to the nearby noodle shop for its congee: rice porridge with pork meatballs, ginger threads, chopped scallions, and a choice of an egg, organ meats, or plain (I chose the egg). Doctored up with chilli-infused vinegars, powdered chillies, white pepper, and a little fish sauce, it was quite tasty. To completely fill our stomachs, we had some treats from the market, including fried bread, sour pork ribs, a glutinous rice confection filled with smoked coconut, and another glutinous rice confection with coconut shreds on the outside. We were ready to shop.
Mae Sa Valley (January 9, 2010)
After another pleasant evening, we checked out of our beautiful rooms and met for a breakfast of sour sausage fried rice and a fruit plate. The resort staff let me recharge my phone in the dining room, and reminded me to take it with me when I started leaving without it. They seemed very appreciative of our visit. We headed down the winding driveway and back toward Chiang Mai.
Every year, Kasma Loha-Unchit leads groups of her cooking students and other fans of Thai cuisine on trips to Northern Thailand. Highlights include exploration of UNESCO World Heritage sites; cultural exchange in “hill tribe” villages; shopping in vast markets featuring fresh fruit, vegetables and prepared foods; riding an elephant; and eating lots of delicious Thai food. For a general overview of the experience of traveling with Kasma, see Visiting Thailand with Kasma Loha-Unchit.
What to Expect on the Northern Trip (Trip “B”)
The 19-day Northern trip typically starts in late December. The Fall trip combines the Northern trip with a brief visit to the South. Here are a few notes about the Northern trip from one visitor’s perspective, based on taking the trip in January 2008 (and updated after a second trip taken in January 2010).
Mae Hong Son
We arose early and headed to our next destination, the mountain town of Pai, often the chilliest of the three spots we visit. First, though, according to a long tradition, the young women from the hill tribes who work at the Fern resort posed with the group for photos. Smiling in their make-up and bright clothing, they then posed with Kasma and her husband. And then posed with the single men in the group (all two of us). We knew we would miss the comforts of this resort, but we gamely loaded into our vans and returned to the congee/noodle shop for our final breakfast in Mae Hong Son. Along with our soups or fried noodles (I had the noodles this time; very filling), we had rather unsweet mangoes from the market, custard with sticky rice, and smoky shredded coconut in small glutinous rice balls. A little fresh squeezed tangerine juice, some caffeine, and we were ready for the next leg of our journey, through the twistiest mountain roads.
Mae Hong Son
This morning we would breakfast in town on noodles and congee before heading up into the hills. The Vietnamese style soup noodles were generous on the pork products, but the broth was not as fully developed as one might like. We turned the corner into the market and picked up some spices and miscellaneous ingredients before piling into the vans to head up, up, up the road North. Our first stop was an Agro-Tourism center featuring experimental projects and a variety of instructional displays regarding, for example, how to grow coffee and avocados, two introduced crops, in the area. Nice flowers, but it was getting hot in the sun.
Mae Hong Son
The day’s schedule was full: floating down a river on a bamboo raft, riding an elephant in a seat made for two, a bit of shopping, lunch in town, then a three hour jungle hike near the resort, the second Buddha talk, and dinner back in town. When would there be time to process photos or lounge on the Internet?
Mae Hong Son
A 6:30 AM start is never easy, and especially not after so much Sang Som. But being left behind was not an acceptable alternative, so I arrived in the lobby with moments to spare. We arrived at the market with many stalls still covered with tarps, but Royal Congee was busy; we had to wait a bit for enough tables to open up. As the name implies, the restaurant specializes in rice porridge. We chose between plain porridge and porridge served over a raw egg, and added our choice of the usual seasonings (vinegar infused with chillies, crushed dried red chillies, and so on). The porridge was a bit thin, but nicely peppery and gingery. As we slurped, Kasma arrived every few moments with treats from around the market: khanom krok coconut milk pancakes, crushed peanuts in a small tapioca flour ball with thin sprigs of cilantro, and my favorite, the red banana sweets. Soon we were quite full, and we browsed the market for a while before returning to our vans.