Chiang Rai Tour – Doi Mae Salong

I could write a million words trying to describe Doi Mae Salong. In fact, I have. I’ve filled pages and pages with my chicken scrawl, poured over my photos and videos repeatedly. I even lay down with my head hanging off the couch, tipped upside down, trying to shake the right words out of my ears. Truth be told, I still haven’t quite been able to capture the beauty of Doi Mae Salong. I am kicking myself that I didn’t more photos or video, but we were only there a short period and I was busy basking in all Doi Mae Salong had to over.

This is a town with a rich Yunnan Chinese influence, perched high among the hills of northern Thailand, which is surrounded by vast, sloping fields of tea plantations and where it is common to pass small spirit houses beside the main road and ladies picking fresh tea leaves.

The town itself is built all higgledy piggledy – houses of stucco and brick with clay tile roofs, all nearly built on top of each other. Tiny laneways lead away from the main road, winding their way past houses and shops.

Ehk drove slowly into town as small motorbikes zipped past us. I watched pedestrians make their way along the side of the road; one lady, dressed in bright woven clothing, was carrying a large bag on her head and a small child in a sling on her back. Ae explained she had come in from one of the hill tribe villages to sell her wares at the local market. Life seemed to occur at a leisure pace here. Old ladies sat outside shops, smoking and flashing us toothy grins as we drove past. We passed a small house where a group of men were crowded around a motorbike which seemed to be in a hundred pieces on the floor.

Our accommodation for the night, Baan See See guesthouse, had magnificent views of the town and the mountain range, even in the hot season when the crops are ablaze and the smoke is thick in the air. We arrived just before sundown – beer o’clock! – and made a beeline for the small open bar at the guesthouse. The owner was cheery and very friendly, bringing us the coldest beers from his fridge and glasses of ice (we Australians like our beer in the ridiculous cold temperature range and ordering ice with our beers was usual practice on our trip). As the sun disappeared behind us, gentle bamboo flute tune trickled down the hills, followed by a reading of the daily news in Chinese for residents without televisions or radios. It was so serene; if I was any more relaxed, I’d have been lying down.

The view from our room at dusk.
The view from our room at dusk.

It would have been very easy to sink deep into the old lounges on the balcony at the Baan See See Guesthouse bar and let the cool darkness swallow us, but Ae had organised for us to have dinner at a local Chinese restaurant. In Doi Mae Salong, the people rise with the sun and go to bed when it goes down; the local restaurant stayed open especially for us.

The small restaurant we ate at. Doi Mae Salong.
The small restaurant we ate at. Doi Mae Salong.

The restaurant was run by a local family, whose 15 year old daughter waited on our table (the only occupied table in there at that time of night) in her pink and white Hello Kitty slippers. Ae and Ehk ordered the specialty dishes for us to try, including slow cooked leg of pork, stir fried mushrooms, ostrich cooked with black pepper and chilli, steamed buns and umpteen dozen bowls of different chillis and spicy sauces. We ordered enough beer and ice for John, Pat, Ae and I to share (Ehk wasn’t drinking, he was driving) and ate ourselves silly. The food was divine. Ae and Ehk took it in turns to teach us to swear in Thai, and eventually we all were cackling like mad at our own hilarity.

Myself, Patrick and Ae (before we got stuck into the beers, obviously).
Myself, Patrick and Ae (before we got stuck into the beers, obviously).

Sunrise

Ae told us (warned us perhaps?) that we would have the best view of the sun rising from our balcony at Baan See See. Patrick and John are known to be notorious late risers and I’m quite sure they’re both allergic to morning light, so I made the effort to get up and see the sun rise on my own. And I wasn’t disappointed.

The same music that followed the news broadcast the night before trickled back down the mountains as the sun peeked over the mountain ridge, shortly before 5.30am. Who needs an alarm clock when there’s gentle bamboo flutes tunes floating in through your open window? I sat on the balcony and watched a beautiful sunrise, wrapped in my sarong to keep the cool air off my shoulders.

Doi Mae Salong stirs in the early morning light.
Doi Mae Salong stirs in the early morning light.
The smoke haze setting in as the sun rises over the hills.
The smoke haze setting in as the sun rises over the hills.
Those three tiny dots in the street are kids who came out to play.
Those three tiny dots in the street are kids who came out to play.

Doi Mae Salong Nok – 101 Tea Plantation

After a quick breakfast at Baan See See, we went to visit a tea plantation just outside of town. The 101 Tea Plantation spreads across the hills, neatly terraced tea bushes creating neat lines like the ruled pages of a book. From the tea house, we could see hilltribe ladies working a few hills over, small figures dressed in dark clothes, picking tea furiously.

Hilltribe ladies working on the 101 Tea Plantation.
Hilltribe ladies working on the 101 Tea Plantation.

John and I settled in for some tea tasting and a lesson in pouring tea the right way. If I could have taken some of every tea I tried home I would have!

John and I tasting tea.
John and I tasting tea.
Chinese details are found everywhere, this far north.
Chinese details are found everywhere, this far north.

After tea tasting, Patrick and I bought a tiny tea set, and then we set off for the hilltribes we would be visiting that day. But not without a walk through the local markets, which was wonderful to watch the locals go about their daily life. Kids played in the dirt at the side of the road while mum and dad stood in line for the bank. Shop keepers whistled as they opened up their shops for the morning and hilltribes ladies shuffled along to their stalls in their bright headdresses. I could have sat there and people watched for hours.

One of the shop fronts.
One of the shop fronts. If you couldn’t buy it at this shop, it didn’t exist.

Just before we jumped into the car to head off to Ban Lo Cha, I stopped by the stall of two Akha ladies who we selling handmade jewellery and other items to raise money for their village. I bought three different bracelets, even though the ladies were extremely helpful in finding other matching bracelets. They crowded around, chattering excitedly and Ae translated that I was the first sale of the day (which is lucky in Thai superstition). They happily posed for photos too. I’m not a tall person, and both of these ladies would have tucked under my arm with ease!

These are the ladies I bought my bracelets from. They were very funny.
These are the ladies I bought my bracelets from. They were very funny.

Doi Mae Salong is a beautiful, little town that is definitely worth a look. It’s very relaxed and laid back, and if you’re sick of the tourist packed beaches, the quiet mountains of north Thailand might be the solution you’re looking for!

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Garlic and Chilli sauce

Garlic and chilli sauce.
Garlic and chilli sauce.

This sauce was served everywhere, with everything! Some versions came as above, with chunky bits of garlic and chilli floating in soy sauce, while others where a little thicker and the garlic and chilli was ground up. Its fiery, but delicious. I couldn’t eat much of it, however. Too hot!

You need:

1 bottle of Soy Sauce
Chillis (some had green chilli and others had red)
Garlic bulb – chopped.

Combine all ingredients. Allow to soak for a while. The longer the better. Serve with everything.

Be endlessly entertained by foreigners who shovel chillis and garlic into their mouths.

 

 

 

Mandalay Food

You will have worked out by now that I love good food, and I’m partial to a good cocktail.

Mandalay has the former in spades.

Shwe Pyi Moe Cafe

Having arrived in Mandalay half starved (we chose sleep over breakfast that morning), we checked in hurriedly and headed for a noisy eatery we had driven past on our way in from the airport… it was literally right next door to our hotel.

Part cafeteria, part cheap restaurant, Shwe Pyi Moe Cafe is an extremely busy (and delicious smelling) spot, packed to the rafters with locals. In fact we were hard pressed to find a table for three, but managed to squeeze in close to the kitchen, which was an impressive production line of dishes and drinks.

Teenage boys in red shirts worked as dish washers or waited on tables, while older men and some ladies cooked in the kitchen. Very little is in English – take your English to Burmese dictionary – but we were lucky our menu had pictures! However, when we began to order, the boys in red shirts looked at us with wide eyes and confusion, before running off to bring an older man who spoke a little English to translate for them.

The locals chattered loudly over the drone of the generators and lots of people stared at us while we were there, and I got the feeling that foreigners were a rare sight in this cafe.

We ordered palatas, a kind of roti stuffed with your choice of filling. John and I had banana palata, while Patrick ordered an egg palata. They’re served hot, with a pot of sugar for sprinkling over the pastry, and are nothing short of delicious. And filling! Three palatas and a soft drink each cost us 3800 kyats ($AUD4.15).

Shwe Pyi Moe Cafe also serves a variety of traditional Burmese dishes including Mohingha, Shan noodles and Indian Dosal.

Shwe Taung Tan Restaurant

On the opposite side of our hotel was this brilliant little restaurant with tables set out on the balcony, providing perfect people watching spots. This restaurant also had a take away noodle stand at the front, and both the noodle stand and the restaurant were unbelievably popular with locals.

The staff here speak relatively good English, and the menus were in English which made things a bit easier. We settled in with a beer to watch Mandalay life happen around us, and ended up ordering dinner there as well.

Shwe Taung Tan has a large variety of dishes on offer, including Burmese food, Thai and Chinese dishes and even some Western food. After much umming and ahhing over the menu, I order the Kachin chicken, Pat ordered the lemon fish (“a little spicy”) and John went after the grilled Ayerwaddy River prawns again.

Here are the obligatory photos of the amazing food:

Lemon fish.
Lemon fish.
Kachin Chicken
Kachin Chicken
Grilled Ayerwaddy River prawns.
Grilled Ayerwaddy River prawns.

Patrick’s lemon fish had a delicious sweetness that you get from river fish, which mixed well with the odd creamy lemon and chilli sauce that it was covered in. Patrick is a fan of chilli and all things spicy, so it makes it hard to share dishes with him in Asia. He asked for “a little spicy” but it was too spicy for me! I’m a giant wuss when it comes to chillis… proven by my refusal to take part in Pat and John’s chilli dipping sauce game in Yangon!

Many people complain that Burmese food is fatty and oily, but I disagree. While oil is a part of the cooking process, I didn’t find any of our dishes overly oily. I highly recommend trying Kachin chicken if you find it on a menu. It’s a spicy and savoury tasting dish that takes over your senses and leaves you wanting another three plates!

Food in Yangon

All of the food we ate in Yangon was amazing, especially Chinatown.

This was the restaurant we hit two nights in a row, it was so good:

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Beware the squat box loo, though! As with all of SE Asia, carry tissues with you everywhere.

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The staff were endlessly entertained by the boys eating the bits of chilli and garlic out of the dipping sauce. Hot hot hot! Three dishes, rice and two beers cost us around 3000 kyat.

Zawgyi House Cafe food is nothing to be sniffed either:

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The Zawgyi duck soup is highly recommended. Hot and peppery with plenty of holy basil, bean sprouts and thin noodles make this dish a real winner.

Zawgyi House Cafe is a little more expensive, but still not Western prices… Not even Thailand prices! Sit outside and face the street for the best view of the Yangon life, including people disembarking buses right into oncoming traffic without even blinking (nearly all cars in Myanmar are right hand drive and everyone drives on the right hand side of the road… You do the maths). A few hours of shade, cold beers and mineral water ice (remember to always avoid tap water in Asia) cost us 20,000 kyat – about $USD25.

Hidden secrets

The more we used the Lonely Planet Myanmar guide, the more we noticed how out of date it was. It also seemed to talk up a lot of places that turned out to be a bit of a dive. I suppose to goes to show how quickly Myanmar is changing.

After a few hours of hiding from the heat, practising our Australian-accent-butchered Burmese and sampling the local brews at Zawgyi House Cafe, our waiter, Min Soe Khaing told us the best place to see a sunset in Yangon was the top of Sakura Tower, at the Sky Bistro.

Lonely Planet did not rate it very highly, but I thought it was a winner! Spectacular views of the city from the Shwedagon Pagoda to the Strand Hotel and beyond are the backdrop to funky 70s tunes, icy beers and tasty happy hour snacks.

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The view of the Shwedagon Pagoda is on the non-smoking side of the floor and views of the city, Strand Hotel, river and Sule Pagoda on the smoking side. We took it in turns to wander back and forth from one side of the floor to other, drinking in the beautiful views (as well as a bit more Dagon beer). Even on a dirty, hazy day like we had, we could still see so much.

Watch boats move about in the vast Ayerwaddy River and 70s styled buildings light up with bright neon lights as the sun sinks ever lower. The Sule Pagoda and Shwedagon Pagoda are lit beautifully and create an interesting clash between east and west, old time and new.

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Highly recommended.

Sky Bistro, Sakura Tower. Sule Pagoda Road.

Approx 3500 kyats per tall bottle of beer, 5000 kyat Happy Hour snacks.

Mosque Street eats

After we arrived yesterday, we checked in and headed straight for Chinatown, a few blocks away from our hotel at Merchant Court. The heat and humidity was immense and our walk turned into a search for an icy cold beer and food.

Best Chinese ever!
Best Chinese ever!

With the storm clouds building, we turned down Mosque Street in Chinatown. Our noses lead us past restaurants specialising in steamboats, Korean and a vast array of Chinese food. We may have stopped for too long outside one Chinese restuaurant, and were ushered inside hurriedly by the owner, who explained in very fast English that the food here was “very very nice!”.

The place was packed with locals, so we took this as a good sign and jumped in. The menu/ordering was unlike anything I’ve seen before. You are handed a menu and a sheet of paper with the dishes available and the price listed on it. Once you have chosen your dishes from the menu, simply put a tick next to the corresponding numbers on the list and hand it to the waitress.

Lap Gamna Sauce Beef
Lap Gamna Sauce Beef

I ordered hand made noodles with beef, some pork dumplings and two Tsingtaos, while Pat picked a dish called “Lao Gamna Sauce Beef”.

I’m pretty sure everything on the menu here would be amazing, as there was a constant stream of different dishes landing on the tables of locals around us – but trust me. Order that Lao Gamna Sauce Beef. It’s got a wonderful taste – it’s sweet and salty and spicy all at the same time. It’s packed with green chillis, carrot and onion, topped with a black bean, tomato and red chilli sauce. Absolutely unreal.

My noodles were amazing, and the pork dumplings were sensational, but Pat’s Lao Gamna Sauce Beef stole the show.

If you’re ever in the Mosque Street area of Singapore looking for good food, this is definitely the place to find. Unfortunately, the restaurant’s name was written all in Chinese… and I don’t speak or read a word of Chinese! I think it just adds to the experience.