The road to Mae Hong Son

wat and street market at maehongson
Night market in front of wat at Maehongson

The road to Mae Hong Son in Northwest Thailand is dream trip for motorcyclists. A road of endless switchbacks, freshly paved, glides you through hidden valleys filled with stepped rice paddies, small farms, streams revealing waterfalls, hidden caves and palaces abandoned until the next warm season drives royalty into the highlands. Bamboo arches over the road in the lower reaches of the hills to be replaced by stark pine forest as you snake your way up the summits.

The road runs close enough to Burma for bored Thai military police to be stationed every few kilometres checking for contraband or smuggled people but unconcerned with Westerners on motorbikes. Lookout points stare over the mountain ranges. By all rights there should be no great reward at the end so as to prove a cliché about the intrinsic nature of journeys and destinations. But there is and it’s Baan Phleng Restaurant.

Baan Phleng

If there is one thing that I’ve learnt about dining in Southeast Asia, it is to avoid any restaurant with the words “authentic”, “local”, or “traditional” plastered out the front in English. It is the sign that the restaurant embodies none of those things and most often personifies the opposite. In this case, I was wrong. Contained within the ornate temple-cabinet were five or six dishes, only one of which was entirely familiar, the rest were surprises.

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The great thing about an average firm tofu is that it carries fat and meat flavours so well and thus is wasted on vegetarians. Fatty and chilli-hot carnivore tofu.

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I’d spotted bundled, spiralling fronds of ferns at the northern Thai markets in Pai, Chiang Mai and Mae Hong Son itself, but resigned myself to not being able to find it on a restaurant menu because I couldn’t find the Thai word for it and was too embarrassed to phone a friend for translation help. I’d mentally consigned it to that group of foods that I believe, rightly or otherwise, only get cooked at home and never see the light of day on a restaurant menu in one of the languages that I can read. Despite the large amount of sesame seeds and deep fried garlic mixed through, the above fronds had a nutty flavour all of their own.

namprik

Nam prik, a tub of ground pork as hot as freshly-dropped napalm, accompanied by eggplant and flowers. Any botanical help on the steamed flowers served alongside the pork would be much appreciated. I snapped what I think is the flower on the plant from which it came, but can’t be sure.

flower

As an ingredient, they might make for a workable local substitute for zucchini or pumpkin flowers, although much more fragile and slightly bitter.

chickencurry

Gaeng Kai Mae Hong Son – Chicken curry with lime leaves aplenty and a few local herbs that I can’t readily identify.

Location: Baan Phleng Restaurant, on Khunlumpraphat St, Mae Hong Son

Getting there: Hire a motorbike from Chiang Mai, ride at a leisurely pace out to Pai on day one, Soppong on day two and then onto Mae Hong Son on day three. Repeat in reverse, or complete the “Mae Hong Son loop” through Mae Chaem and then back to Chiang Mai. GT-riders.com sells an excellent map.

Or just catch the bus.

Note: Map link points to Baan Phleng restaurant.

15 Comments The road to Mae Hong Son

  1. Austin

    The steamed flower is called ‘dawk khae’. I think the pic of the other flower might be another kind that is eaten raw with laap khua and is very, very bitter. Not sure of the name. By the way, the naam phrik is called ‘nam phrik awng’ and is a Shan dish that has become popular all over the north. The chicken dish looks like another Shan dish called ‘oop kai’.

    Reply
  2. a

    Great trip that one. Did it and then some on my bicycle.

    You were certainly channeling Anthony Bourdain in your comment about tofu being “wasted on vegetarians.” One bourdain is enough for me. Even though I eat a rather meat rich diet here in Thailand, I really think it is dismissive and short sighted to simply write off vegetarians’ food choices. I see picking on vegetarians as a rather pusilanimous venture. You are the majority, you are the status quo, it is easy and not particulalry enlightening to be dismissive of the minority. Whether you agree with peoples’ reasons for being vegetarian is another issue entirely. One I have a lot to say about in fact. That said, many local food specialties are based upon pork, chicken, etc. Also, there are some really great tofu dishes in this region that would be incomplete without their meat ingredient.

    a

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  3. Jam-ez

    a, if you are going to try and impress us with big words as part of your self righteous and tiresome blather in defence of vegetarians, you should spell them correctly. Pusillanimous has two ‘l’s.

    Reply
  4. a

    Jam-ez
    I don’t see how the blather was self righteous as I was defending another group, not myself. I am not a vegetarian. I eat meat. Also I didn’t realize pusillanimous was a big word. Sorry. Do you disagree with my ideas or can you only find fault with my spelling?

    Reply
  5. Robyn

    More than you ever wanted to know about Sesbania grandiflora, the flower eaten with the nam prik:

    In Malaysia, ‘the flowers are cut into short pieces, blanched …and eaten as ulam with some sambal…The young leaves are cooked as a vegetable with coconut milk or with tamarind and anchovies.’ (Samy et al., Herbs of Malaysia)
    The local name is ‘geti’ or ‘turi’. They’re also eaten in the Philippines, where they’re called ‘katuray’.

    Without getting into the middle of the whole veg squabble, I’d like to say yes, you’re right, that tofu is an excellent carrier of meat flavors — but that if you don’t also applaud its deliciousness on its own, then you probably haven’t eaten really good-quality, fresh tofu.

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  6. Jam-ez

    a, your comments were “self righteous” because their tone was one of certainty that you were totally correct and morally superior, which you’ll find is the definition of the term. The fact that you were being so on behalf of others is beside the point. But, hey I’m happy to drop the self and stick with righteous if you like.

    The comments were “tiresome” because you are so humourless and sensitive on behalf of this supposedly oppressed minority that you picked up one throw-away, jocular line in a light hearted blog and analysed it to death.

    They were “blather” because of the above and because you said nothing meaningful or interesting about vegetarian food. Plus, one of your main points was “many local food specialties are based upon pork, chicken, etc” – wow, really?

    Do I disagree? I don’t care much either way, I just want the 45 seconds it took me to read your comments back.

    And you rode a bicycle? Not only do you defend the downtrodden, but man you’re hardcore too!

    Reply
  7. a

    Please do keep mentioning tofu. It’s an interesting and delicious food with a long history. There are some really great tofu dishes out there worth trying.

    Jam-ez
    I never suggested that I was certain of anything. I never mentioned morality. I never spoke of an “oppressed” minority or the downtrodden. These were all of your interpretations of what I initially said. I didn’t write the post in question to say anything about vegetarian food. I only brought up the point to question the way people talk about vegetarians and vegetarianism. I thought a passing reference of Anthony Bourdain would help make that connection. Maybe I failed in that attempt.

    Perhaps I did pick apart one small point of what I considered to be a good post, about good food, and a great part of the country. It is in fact worth seeing by motorcycle and by bicycle as well. Sorry for sharing.

    Also: I hope I spelled everything correctly.

    Reply
  8. Viet

    the pinky flower in one of pictures is from a tree called so ddua? , in VN, the flower has a white, a bit of yellow shade, it can be used to cook shrimp Canh Chua (shrimp tammarine sour soup), yes it can be a bit bitter if eaten cold. The wood is used for building house, but not very good it doesn’t last long, the wood texture is rather soft , mainly, it’s used for fire wood or grow mushroom (cat ear mushroom = ma^m’ meo`).

    Reply
  9. Xander

    Wow, that first photograph of the wat in Mae Hong Son looks so different than when I was there in June- it was so quiet then; the only other person I saw there was an old man earning merit by shuffling around the chedi in a circuit.

    The Mae Hong Son loop is an amazing trip on a bike- I did it in the rainy season, and had an awesome time even though I got soaked every day. Your photos of the food look great- makes me want to head up north and do that trip again. -X

    Reply
  10. Jo

    The name of the flower in Khmer is Pka Angkia Dei or West India Pea Flower. It is used in soup in Cambodia (sour soup with baby fishes) and not so much as a crudity as it is always cooked. I got the latin name at home. Let me check.

    Reply

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