The best part of making new friends at the night market is that they will give you the local scoop on where you have to go to see the best parts of Thailand. We had other plans, but the fellas told us to alter course and visit Phu Chi Fa instead. This mountain peak is one of the highest points in all of Thailand, and you can stand on the Thai/Laos border. We took their advice and pointed our car toward the hills.
As we climbed, the scenery and the feeling of fall fell away behind us. Soon, we are rolling along highland ridges, and it is like early Spring. Pink cherry blossoms pop on trees lining the road, the air is crisp enough to be called cool, and there are stands built up along the side of the road selling strawberries. We stop to acquire a box at what must be the most picturesque strawberry shack in the world.
Everything changes the higher we go. The houses change shape, no longer built on stilts to protect from rain floods, they are perched at odd angles on the hillsides. The clothing the people are wearing become warmer. They are still colorful, with little balls of cotton fuzz hanging from their hems. Embroidered ribbons are cross stitched across the weave, long straight skirts and long sleeve tops are more the norm.
The mountain roads curl around themselves like the ribbons on a gift, and we have to slow down to avoid hurdling off a cliff. This turns out to be lucky. Often as we swoop through a blind curve, we find people laying out or collecting grass to dry on the side of the road. Once dry, they bundle them up into baskets they carry on their backs and take them to their front porch where they bundle them in a certain way to make brooms that are sold in shops all throughout South East Asia. No plastic involved: a bamboo handle, grass brush bristles, and cotton rope strand to hold it all together. “Wow,” I say as I contemplate all the work that goes into these hand made brooms. It’s not art; it’s necessity - but it is artful.
At the top of the mountain, clouds alternately rise and descend, swallowing us in fog then coughing us back out again to feel the sun on our faces. Neither our wardrobe nor our tropical acclimated skin are prepared for these temperature swings, and we alternately bemoan the heat and the chill until we finish the climb up to the ridge and our attitude is cheered by the incredible view.
We climb to the top where we can see Laos on one side, and Thaliand on the other, then take a seat to eat our strawberries and watch the clouds clump and float around us. Maybe it’s just that it’s been so long since I have enjoyed a berry of any kind (berries do not grow in tropical heat), but these strawberries were incomparably juicy and sweet. A handful of snappily dressed local tourists dot the landscape with us; the monks in their orange robes make for a particularly picturesque scene.
We continue our journey along the Thai/Laos boarder, flowing through villages, cities, and raw nature framed by the feathers of bamboo trees, just like the Mekong river beside us. As the sun gets lower, the water transforms from blue to silver, silver to gold. The river current leaves a mirage of flat calm, while simultaneously pulling the small wooden canoes along their course in one direction, stopping the others despite their engine’s full throttle roar. We are starting to fret there will be no reasonable hotels for the taking, so the road’s winding curves pull at us with a nervous momentum. We never get a full view of the river, instead we peek through windows made between trees and neighborhoods until we reach the bustling town of Chiang Kong.
The streets tighten and we are again pinned between flower shops and roving buses filled with orange cloaked monks. It’s around dinner time, so the street is clattering with street carts rolling into place. We turn right down a small ally and consult the hotelier to find the first of our options full. We try two more places, full...and full until on our fourth we score a room with river front view just in time to watch the sunset.
Wood smoke from land and river mist mix together to form a humidity that carries the sound of a gong ringing from a buddhist temple on the Laos side of the river. Long, narrow river boats speed downriver tugging their ship’s flag wide open in their relative wind. I am basquing in a scenery that feels so foreign and mysterious.
“We’ve eaten nothing but strawberries today! I’m hungry.”
We decie to hunt down our meal of something new, so we slurp down the rest of our “new anchorage” beer, shower off the day's road dust, then coif our hair in a mirror that is about four feet too short for Andrew.
We step out into the City and explore the waterfront. If I had one word to describe Chiang Kong - maybe just all of Thailand - it would be “colorful”. The wall murals, the clothing, the lighting, the people are all bright and happy and colorful. “The Land of Smiles” rings true here, another country where your social connection is tested by the timing, width, and nature of your smile. Our smiles serve us well here, and we make friends and acquaintances as we go.
For dinner, we find a cart selling something I can only describe as “Smooshies.” There are five options - vegetable, pork, beef, chicken, and tofu. Each of these varieties are combined with their secret paste of spices then mashed into a "Smooshie” consistency - not quite a soup, not quite a solid. The husband and wife team manning the cart watch us with interpretation as we inspect their offering. We point out the two we would like to try, but they shake their heads. A bit frantic, they dial someone on a small flip phone, then hand the phone to me.
This happens sometimes.
“Uh, hi. I am standing at a food cart, and we are hoping to buy some dinner.”
“Oh!" The woman on the other end of the line now understands. “That is my mother. They don't speak much English. Where are you from?” I explain we are from the U.S. “I see, well, all the food they offer is spicy.”
“That’s okay, we can handle a little spice."
“You can! Okay, really. Okay, give the phone back to my mother."
“Thank you!” I know this trick. Now, this nice woman will help her mother pack us with the perfect tasting selection at the right spice level for people who “can handle a little spice” as per Thai translation. I smile, hand the phone back to the woman behind the cart and wait. Her eyes go back and forth between teh food and me while her daughter speaks into her ear, and I imagine as her daughter says “they say they like spice” the woman beams a smile and raises her eyebrows at me. “Okay? Okay?”
The woman hangs up and then explains to her husband what just transpired. They both start waving plastic baggies in the air and filling the newly formed vacuum of space with a scoop each of the “Smooshie.” The wrap up a selection of firm vegetables with which we are intended to scoop up the smooshie - cabbage, green beans, carrots. Then, we smile and take pictures together.
We take our smooshies back to the hotel to watch the river flow under the light of the moon. The flavors were all very delicious - various concoctions of red, green, or orange chilis, rice vinegar or lime, lemongrass and lime leaf or garlic and ginger - depending on which squishee we chose from. The vegetable and the tofu smooshies were palatable for us, but the meat purees were odd for us. Maybe if we had grown up eating the European pates?
New food, Day #3.