Monday, 25 April 2016

mae hong son side trip: reflections at mae aw / ban rak thai

Mae Aw, also known as Ban Rak Thai, which literally means "Love Thai village" or "Thai-loving village".

We were purchasing drinks in a convenience store in Mae Hong Son town - I think a 7-Eleven - when, to our surprise and delight, we bumped into another couple that we recognised from our stay in our previous destination, Soppong, when we happened to have dinner at the same restaurant. Don't you just love cute coincidences like this?

We got to chatting, and they asked us if we'd been to Mae Aw, otherwise known as Ban Rak Thai. I said not yet, but that we were considering it. They gushed over how beautiful it is, and highly recommended that we check it out. So, we did!

The lakeside scenery at Mae Aw / Ban Rak Thai.

The trip from Mae Hong Son to Mae Aw took over an hour on a scooter, and by the time we got there, we were ready to find a place to eat. There weren't that many choices around, so we quickly decided on a restaurant near the central lake area. Mae Aw has a similar history to Mae Salong - the Chinese influence here is palpable, thanks to the settlement of Kuomintang soldier refugees from Yunnan back in the day. Therefore, the Chinese tea setting on our restaurant table came as no surprise.

Chinese tea on offer at a restaurant in Mae Aw / Ban Rak Thai.

I also had a refreshing mulberry drink.

Mulberry juice drink by a company called Paiberries.

We kept our lunch simple - a whole deep-fried fish, and rice to go with it.

Lunch at a restaurant in Mae Aw / Ban Rak Thai.

After our meal, we took a stroll by the lake. I think we got lucky with the weather that day - it was fairly calm, cloudy yet not gloomy, and the village reflections upon the lake were just so pretty.

Beautiful reflections at the Ban Rak Thai lake.

I think this is some kind of rustic, manually operated Ferris wheel. Now that I look at my pictures, I sort of wish that I had sat on it and asked Simon to push it into motion, and I don't know why I didn't think of it then. Speaking of which, does travel insurance cover for makeshift Ferris wheel escapades gone wrong?

A small wooden Ferris wheel at Mae Aw / Ban Rak Thai.

We also took a ride around the village area on our scooter. We went far enough that we reached the Thailand-Myanmar border, where there were guards hanging around the periphery of the forest. It was a little bit intimidating, but they seemed friendly - we nodded and smiled at each other, and all was fine. There wasn't really much to see, but it was kind of cool to peer over and know that we were right at the edge of the two countries.

Mae Aw village - so much green!

We briefly entertained the idea of staying at one of the guesthouses in Mae Aw, but we decided that we were satisfied with just a day trip. So once we had enough of the exploring and sightseeing, we headed back to Mae Hong Son town.

On our way back, we stopped at a rustic petrol station to fuel up our scooter.

A petrol station of the rustic variety that one might find while travelling in Thailand.

We also stopped by Pha Sua waterfall, since it was somewhat along the way. It was quite lovely.

Pha Sua waterfall.

If you're into quiet places with attractive scenery, and you have a spare morning or afternoon to hang out at Mae Aw, this serene little village is worth a visit. If you've already been to Mae Aw, and especially if you stayed the night, feel free to let me know what you thought of it!

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Thursday, 21 April 2016

mae hong son: laid-back and perfectly balanced

A classic view of the pretty town of Mae Hong Son by the Jong Kham lake.

I think one of the first things we saw upon our arrival in Mae Hong Son was a scene that beautifully summed up the simple, carefree nature of this charming town: a group of kids kicking a pomelo fruit around in a field in a rustic game of football.

Life here is slow, but not too slow.

A dog chilling out on a scooter.

There is so much here to love.

The tourist information cat at our guesthouse, for instance.

The kitty at Johnnie Guesthouse in Mae Hong Son.

And the gorgeous, poetic views. You can see why Mae Hong Son is also known as "the city of three mists".

Sunrise in Mae Hong Son.

This bird's eye view was the reward from our climb up the steps of Kong Mu hill, where a Burmese-style Buddhist temple called Wat Phra That Doi Kong Mu resides.

The snail climbs, just as we did.

We also hung out this dog up there. Isn't it just adorable!

Cute doglet outside the shops near Wat Phra That Doi Kong Mu.

We strolled back into the central town area, where the unpretentious beauty of Mae Hong Son continues to shine through in the early morning light.

Early morning in Mae Hong Son town.

As the golden glow of dawn gave way to to a more assertive brightness, we made our way to the morning market, and as we did so, we stumbled upon this procession of people dressed up in traditional outfits. We had no idea what the special occasion was, but it was interesting to observe.

Some kind of local event happening in Mae Hong Son.

Mae Hong Son's morning market is delightful. Here, limited English is spoken, so we reverted to the trusty method of just checking out what was available, and pointing at what we thought we might like. Our breakfast cost 35 baht. For the two of us. (Yep, we went back the very next day for more!)

We buy delicious noodle dishes at the morning market in Mae Hong Son.

The khanom jeen nam ngiaw - thin rice noodles in a flavourful broth, spicy with chillies and tangy with tomatoes, topped with a scattering of minced pork, pickled mustard greens, and fresh bean sprouts - was only 15 baht.

Khanom jeen nam ngiaw at the Mae Hong Son morning market.

And the thua oon, which I think is a dish with a Burmese influence, was 20 baht. Again, rice noodles are featured here, but this time, they are engulfed in a thick chickpea gravy, and garnished with chopped herbs, crushed peanuts, sesame seeds, and deep-fried chickpea tofu. The texture and appearance of the viscous yellow chickpea sauce had me apprehensive at first, but upon tucking in, I was enthralled by how all the elements in the dish just worked so well together.

Thua oon at the Mae Hong Son morning market.

Lunchtime is when we delve into other cuisines. I don't know if I would describe Mae Hong Son as being cosmopolitan, but for a town its size, it has decent variety. One day we popped by Pizza Primavera to see what the fuss was all about. It was a bit pricey for us as budget travellers (370 baht got us some garlic bread and a pizza), but we did enjoy our meal. If you like thin and crispy crusts, this is the pizza place for you.

Pizza at Pizza Primavera in Mae Hong Son.

We also stopped at Saifon Bakery for drinks. A floral theme in the decor imbues the space with sweetness. I had a smooth Thai iced tea for 50 baht, while Simon indulged in a fancy coffee shake for 80 baht.

Coffee and tea at Saifon Bakery in Mae Hong Son.

The Festival of Mae Hong Son's Ethnic Cultures was on while we were in town. We visited in the late afternoon, and it was quite interesting - basically, like an outdoor exhibition.

We saw people grinding grains in the traditional manner...

Grain-grinding, hey ho!

Weaving...

Making stuff.

And playing traditional musical instruments.

A musical display that includes some nifty footwork.

Our favourite spot for dinner in Mae Hong Son was N&J's Kitchen. As you all know, Simon and I love a good larb gai (chicken and herb salad) - and here, they do a fried chicken larb for 40 baht. We were like, bring it on!

A fried chicken version of larb gai.

We also went for the spicy beef salad at 60 baht, which may possibly be even more delicious than the larb gai - the balance of flavours here made my heart sing. A side story: when we ordered, we were asked how many chillies we wanted in this dish, and we umm'ed and ahh'ed over it, before the also-Australian couple on the other end of the communal table helpfully told us that two chillies is reasonable if you like spicy food without the danger of getting into ridiculously spicy territory. It was astute advice. The following morning, I bumped into this same couple at our guesthouse - we were literally next-door neighbours! We ended up having a great chat - they were also doing a travel sabbatical like us. I only regret that I didn't mention exchanging Facebook details - I would love to have followed updates on their journey, or even potentially meet up later elsewhere during our Thailand trip.

An irresistibly delicious spicy beef salad.

We liked N&J's Kitchen so much that we went back for dinner again the next evening, and we ordered the same two dishes.

But I must say that we also really liked the night market at Mae Hong Son. Aside from fun t-shirts for tourists that you can buy to proclaim that you've survived the 1864 curves to Mae Hong Son, you can also purchase food from the street stalls, and then enjoy them by the lakeside - they have sitting areas specifically set up for this purpose.

Oh, and in case you were wondering why this som tum vendor and her daughter had a look of consternation on their faces - there was some serious lightning and thunder action going on that night, and they were reacting to a loud rumble in the sky.

This woman is making som tum (green papaya salad) for me!

I was happy with the som tum (green papaya salad) I ordered - the strips of green papaya were fresh and crunchy, and the dressing was suitably spicy and tangy.

Som tum (green papaya salad) from Mae Hong Son's night market.

And as if one green papaya dish wasn't enough, I found myself tempted by deep-fried green papaya fritters at another stall - these are known as grabong tod, or khang pong. By this time, it had started to rain, so I brought this back to eat in our room at the guesthouse. Served with a spicy sweet-and-sour dressing, these make an addictive snack.

Gra bong tod, also known as khang pong(deep-fried vegetable fritters) - in this case, deep-fried green papaya fritters.

On our final day in Mae Hong Son, we went out to Salween River Restaurant for breakfast. We met a lovely placid cat along the way.

Here, kitty, kitty!

We both opted for the chicken khao soi at Salween River Restaurant. Their version of khao soi has a very creamy curry soup, and it is so generous with the chicken meat component. For a dish with a price tag of 50 baht, you can't ask for more.

The khao soi at Salween River Restaurant in Mae Hong Son.

The garnish (lime wedge, chopped shallots, chopped spring onions and coriander leaves, pickled mustard greens) is served on the side, and I threw it all in. Go big or go home, right?

Khao soi with all the trimmings!

After polishing off the khao soi, we were well and truly full. As we went off to catch our bus, I felt wistful about saying goodbye to Mae Hong Son - this is truly a place I would be happy to meander for days. However, our next destination, Mae Sariang, awaits!

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Saturday, 16 April 2016

soppong: hills, caves, offal, doughnuts, and chickens

Soppong, a place to discover the simple joys in life.

After Pai, our next stop on the Mae Hong Son loop was Soppong, a quiet village where nothing much seems to happen. Yet it is often in places like this where one has the more unexpected adventures.

It all started innocently enough, when we stopped for lunch at a local joint. A simple jok, i.e. Thai congee (savoury rice porridge) hit the spot.

A big bowl of jok in Soppong.

It is our order of a larb dish (a meat salad) where it started to get more interesting. Simon and I love a good larb, so when we saw the word "larb" on the menu we just went for it. I think this was a larb moo of some sort - that is, a pork larb. But this was a larb like no other we've ever had.

As it turned out, the style of larb that we are accustomed to is the Laos and Isaan version. This, however, is the Northern Thai version, and it is so different that it was almost a shock to our senses. Pungent, in a bloody, intestinal sort of way. Now, don't get me wrong - I like a few blood cubes in my curry laksa, and I absolutely adore intestines in my bak kut teh. But I'm not generally a fan of blood sausage, and this was kind of like stir-fried blood sausage. It was the only dish we had in Thailand that we just couldn't bring ourselves to finish. Yet we didn't want anyone to feel bad. To my delight, I realised that I had a plastic bag (probably the same one that the van driver gave us for the ride from Chiang Mai to Pai, which I thankfully didn't have to use). As stealthily as possible, I tipped the larb into the bag, and then we fed it to a stray dog we found outside, who appreciated it more than we did. Crisis averted!

Northern Thai larb moo.

After lunch, we found a scooter hire place and away we went. The owner of Soppong River Inn, where we were staying, gave us a photocopied hand-drawn map, which included the locations of various hilltribe villages, so that gave us plenty of fodder for exploratory adventures.

We said hello to pigs.

If you've ever wondered why there is the saying, "as happy as a pig in mud"...

And we said hello to chickens. The chickens had no tails, and I found this to be utterly charming. Does anyone know what breed of chicken this is?

A rumpless hen and her chicks.

We took it easy that evening (not that there is much to do at night in Soppong). Soppong River Inn has a restaurant and bar called Seven Elephants Cafe. Here, we cleansed ourselves with our favourite Isaan-style larb (no surprises this time!), a red curry, and Shan meatballs, which were all very tasty. In case you were wondering about the relevance of the Shan meatballs - apparently Soppong is not only home to many hill tribes, but also has a sizable Burmese Shan population.

Shan meatballs at Seven Elephants Cafe, Soppong River Inn.

And oh, hi! The inn's resident dog happens to be adorable.

Soppong River Inn's sweet doglet.

Despite having had a decent time at Soppong River Inn, we switched to a cheaper room at the nearby Lemon Hill Guesthouse the following day in a bid to further stretch our cash reserves. It is more basic, but still perfectly practical for our simple needs.

We continued to explore Soppong. It is quite a hilly region, with not-always-very-well-maintained winding roads, which can be quite steep as well as riddled with potholes in some parts - quite the perilous combination!

Therefore, if you are interested in exploring Soppong on a motorbike or scooter with a passenger, may I suggest that you get a reasonably powerful vehicle? Case in point - our poor little scooter had trouble carrying the both of us up this path. I had to get off and walk, so that Simon can drive it up! This scenario played out several times. The struggle is real. At least I got a pretty cool picture out of this whole debacle, even though we failed to get up to the very top of the hill in this instance - that path just got steeper and steeper, and we had to admit defeat. I still wonder what was up there!

A misty morning in Soppong.

All this rough driving resulted in Simon's thong sandals falling apart - he was constantly putting his foot on the ground to gain balance and control while our scooter floundered going uphill. (Thankfully, this only really happened in the more remote roads with hardly any traffic.)

So off to the shops we went, to buy new sandals for Simon. I didn't bother taking a picture of his new footwear. Why, when I can take pictures of kittens play-fighting instead?

Play-fighting kittens. Such cute little bundles of energy!

After spending quality time with the cats, we cleaned up so we can try the food at the market adjacent to the shops. Top tip: hand sanitizer is a wonderful thing when your travels mostly consist of patting cats and eating street food.

The deep-fried snacks at this stall greatly intrigued us.

Market stall with deep-fried delights.

We purchased what appeared to be deep-fried doughnut balls that are casually dotted with black sesame seeds on the exterior. They were only 1 baht each! They were quite petite, but still awesome value. We bought a dozen. Six from one tray, six from another, to suss out the differences. Language barriers meant that it was often almost impossible to know exactly what we were buying in Soppong - kind of a "don't try, don't know" situation.

Deep-fried balls at Soppong market. Nom noms.

Anyway, this one had what I think is a mung bean filling. It was so delicious.

Deep-fried doughnut with mung bean filling.

While this one had what was clearly a shredded coconut filling. Also very scrumptious.

Deep-fried doughnut with shredded coconut filling.

Then, I got my savoury breakfast fix at another stall - a comforting noodle soup with meatballs, chinese cabbage, coriander leaves and a touch of pepper for 20 baht.

Noodle soup at Soppong market.

We continued to check out the hill tribe villages of Soppong.

A hill tribe market - precariously located by the side of a main road.

One doesn't have to venture too far to observe the nice green scenery in these parts.

Lovely scenery in the hills of Soppong.

I don't think the little hill tribe villages in Soppong get foreign visitors very often. The children, in particular, appeared to be profoundly amused by our presence, with their shouts and giggles.

We also stumbled upon an impromptu cockfight! It was so much fun to watch. Hilariously, a third rooster came along eventually, and broke up the fight. What a hero.

Cockfight! Or rooster fight, if you prefer an alternative term.

In the central area of Soppong, we had lunch at a street stall. The lady here serves simple and affordable noodle soups for 30 baht each.

Noodle soup with chicken in a spicy broth.

Noodle soup with sliced pork and beansprouts in a clear broth.

On our second evening in Soppong, we tried to find the Jungle House restaurant after reading somewhere that it served good food. After stumbling around for what felt like way too long in the dark we got there, only to be told that the restaurant was not open that night. Fortunately, we found a random food shack nearby. It seems that I didn't learn my lesson after the initial larb incident, and I daringly pointed at some mystery meat dish, which looked like an offal stew with rolled rice noodles. It wasn't fabulous (to me, anyway; I'm beginning to think that perhaps I'm fussier about the preparation of offal than I imagined), but at least with this one I managed to finish most of it, albeit somewhat reluctantly.

A rich dark offal soup with curled-up rice noodles.

Simon was smart and played it safe. He ordered a pad thai, and to his delight, he received a pad thai that was artfully encased in an omelette. I had a serious case of food envy.

Pad thai in an omelette!

The  next morning, we visited the main attraction of Soppong - Tham Lod (also spelled Tham Lot). It is often referred to as Tham Lod cave, but that's superfluous, kind of like saying ATM machine when ATM already stands for automated teller machine. "Tham" is Thai for "cave" and "Lot" is Thai for "through", so really it's just Tham Lod, or Lod Cave, or Through Cave, I guess. Oh, and we didn't see any ATMs while we were in Soppong, by the way. Good thing we had cash!

But I digress.

We got to Tham Lod too early, and the guides and boatmen weren't available yet, so we just wandered around and did some very superficial spelunking.

Tham Lod from the outside.

Then we went back to the tourist entrance area again. A shop was open, so we ate!

Khao soi for breakfast is a marvelous thing. Supple egg noodles in a curry sauce, with meat (the ones we got during our North Thailand trip typically came with chicken). It is also often topped with crispy deep-fried egg noodles. I approve of that.

Northern Thai khao soi with crunchy noodles!

Oh, and if khao soi for breakfast is marvelous, then khao soi with Thai iced tea is even better. The two go together so well.

Thai tea with ice: a refreshing pick-me-up!

After our breakfast, we were finally able to score a guide and a boatman. Thus the cave exploration begins.

We were here in late October, right at the cusp of the wet and dry seasons. To get from one walkable section of the cave to another, a raft was compulsory. At some spots, the water levels were too shallow to row, so our boatman had to get off and pull us along. Elsewhere, the waters were adequately deep, and our guide encouraged us to sprinkle fish food into the darkness and watch as the hungry fish swarmed to get their share!

Navigating the waters of Tham Lod.

The cave is home to hundreds of thousands of bats and swifts. Needless to say, some parts of the ground area was covered with droppings, complete with a choking, suffocating smell. It was impossible to avoid walking on it, and you had to be careful not to slip on it! The intrepid side of me accepted this undesirable poo situation as all part of the experience, while the precious side of me just wanted to scuttle back to the raft. The curious side of me did the walk because I wanted to see the ancient teakwood coffins. The coffins turned out to be surprisingly small. I'm not sure about the logistics of it all.

I have to admit, seeing the bats and swifts fly in and out of the cave was pretty nifty. I think we saw more swifts than bats, and that suited me just fine.

Swifts flying in and out of Tham Lod.

After our trip to Tham Lod, we returned to our guesthouse, took a shower, washed our shoes as thoroughly as we could, and then we caught a bus to our next destination, Mae Hong Son town.

Bye bye, Soppong. It's been quite fascinating getting to know you!

Nice hill views in Soppong.

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