We had cast off from Chiang Mai in our little rental car first light the morning before. Once we had popped out of the bustle of the city, the roads narrowed and in places, the jungles grew so dense we were driving through green tunnels of vines and filtered light. Whenever the forest opened up, wildflowers popped and bloom to create streaks of pink, white, and yellow as we sped past. We enjoyed a breakfast of coffee and fried rice over looking a babbling river at the first national park we found.
Our next leg took us up and over mountains, past geysers, and into a haze of farm smoke that hung in the crevices between peaks. We stop for a “milk shake” and a beautiful view to find that in Thailand a “milk shake” literally means a glass of milk poured over ice. Not what we were expecting, but the view was great.
Our goal for the day was to reach Phayao, a small town at the foot of mountains hosting numerous national parks to see. We had reservations at Iya Homestay and Guesthouse, based on Andrew’s fool proof strategy for choosing hotel rooms: the cheapest place with the only bad reviews being “Slow Wifi”. We pull into a small driveway and see four small cement houses in a row, just across from a patio, an open air kitchen, and a reception office. The owner and his cute dog greet us.
“Hello! Welcome!" He shakes our hands and asks “Where are you from?” Upon hearing we are from the US, our host opens his arms wide and says “I love the US! This home stay was modeled after everything I learned while I visited Texas!" He grabs the key for our cabin off a hook in the office and opens the door while he continues “Everything really is BIGGER! in Texas, isn’t it! The sky is bigger, the stars are bigger... My friend had a truck so big, I had to climb up just to get in. I loved it."
As it turns out, America has visa that allows Thai people to come to the US to work for a while and then travel. Many Thai people will fly to the US to work at Thai restaurants for three months, then travel to see the country. This is what our host had done, and in his three months of journey he stayed at a dude ranch in the open range of Texas. Now. I know why we have such great Thai food in the US - its made by actual Thai people!
Our host gives us recommendations for dinner and places to explore for the afternoon, and we set off around the corner to visit the town center focused around a very large freshwater lake. We explore a beautiful walking park with a flower garden and the requisite statues of dragons and elephants.
For dinner, we follow our host’s instructions and make our way to a restaurant settled right on the shoreline of the big lake, just in time to watch a beautiful sunset. We learn Thai people like all their dinners to start with soup. So, we start with soup and have a lovely hot and sour Thai prawn soup before perusing the menu to make sure we try a “new food” for the day.
“Talapia with Yum Sauce in Her Body.” I read, “Have you ever tried yum sauce?"
“Get your mind out of the gutter,” I tell him, and we order the talapia.
“Yum sauce” turns out to be all that it promises. Fresh, crisp vegetables (bell pepper, spicy hot red and orange peppers, purple onion, thin carrot slices) chopped in small pieces and marinated in a sauce that must include rice vinegar for tang, palm sugar, fish sauce, lemongrass, ginger, galalangal, and kafir lime leaf. This concoction was spooned over a crispy deep fried talapia, then served over rice.
With new food #1 in the books, we return to our home stay for a quiet sleep in our comfy cabin complete with a horse shoe coat hook and “Texas Big” number signs.
The sun had barely crept over the mountain skyline when we found New Food for Day #2. We emerged from our cabin and crossed the small driveway to sit on the patio just outside the open air kitchen. Our host greets us and serves us coffee while we get to talking about our adventures into town last evening. His wife cooks us our breakfast in their tidy and fresh open air kitchen.
“Thai people love food. We are always eating!” Mr. Texas Thai explains. “Always eating. Twenty four hours per day, eating, eating, eating. We are all getting fat!” I nod politely and rub my own buddha belly which is still full from yesterday's adventures in new Thai foods. I can’t remember ever seeing a fat Thai person, but I will take my host’s word for this. His wife says nothing. She lays a chicken and liver porridge before me, a savory Thai comfort-food I’ve never tried before. I scoop a bit into my mouth, curiosity being an uncertain spice.
“This is why I mountain bike.” Mr. Texas Thai explains, “I ride my bike at least 150 miles per week, usually more. You say you are mountain bikers? How do you mountain bike at sea?”
The chicken porridge is as delicious as it is unusual to my palate. The oats are cooked in a freshly made chicken broth, then topped with shredded chicken, liver, and thin slices of sweet and spicy thai sausage that is spiced with hot pepper, anise, and sugar. They sprinkle green onions atop this concoction add a boiled egg with a rich yolk made by free range chickens, and you have a rather filling and satisfying meal. Though, I’m not sure I love liver.
Andrew explains we don’t mountain bike at sea.
“Would you like to see my first mountain bike? It’s an antique! The first of a kind manufactured by a Thai bike manufacturer.”
After breakfast he takes us around his family home, into the back yard into a wooden shed making its way into sawdust from whence it came. Nestled among other garage detritus are two bikes long disused, but still under loving ownership for gratitude of the thousands of miles they carried him. I know the kind. I sneak closer and inspect the emblem on the head tube of the Thai brand: a unicorn!
“Andrew, check it out! Oddgodfrey is the Thai bike manufacturer’s mascot!"
We enjoy the yard, the intricately carved eaves of our host’s traditional family home, and I fall through the floor in the shed because...termites.
Then, we return to check out and carry on down the road. “Kop Kun Kha!” “Kop Kun Khop!" Thank yous are shared all around, we enjoyed our stay, and made nice new friends. Back on the road we decide we are going to need to get a little exercise in if we plan to continue our Texas-Thai friend is right. If we are going to survive our Thai Food Schmorgasbord Extravaganza, we will need to squeeze in some exercise. So, we find a national park boasting fourteen waterfalls along one four mile stretch of hiking trail. And, these were not little waterfalls, either! We found ourselves the only ones on the trail and enjoyed the shade and calm of getting lost in the jungle.
As we make our way back to the car, we find ourselves in the middle of scout camp, the Thai scouts dressed up in their uniforms and tightened into rows and circles around their scout master. We watch the ceremony until there is a good time to sneak around behind the back of their group and make our way out of the jungles and into the valley beyond. I love these little reminders that our lives are not that different, even when we live a half a world away from each other.
To be continued....