Fabulous food in northwest Thailand, Oh Mae Oh Mae Oh Mae!

One of my favourite food journeys in Thailand started in the fantastically friendly and colourful border town, Mae Sot. The road from here broadly follows the Burmese border north onto Mae Sariang and then Mae Hong Son. We finally rested our weary travel legs in the town of Pai, a hillside hippy enclave about 120km northwest of Chang Mai. The area is incredibly ethnically diverse, with hill tribes of Thailand and Burma, such as Hmong, Lisu, Karen and Shan, as well as Burmese Muslims and Chinese, which has a huge influence on the food.

We all loved Mae Sot, with it’s bustling markets, delicious Burmese curries and fritters, and incredible array of salads. Now we’re not talking run-of-the-mill salad here and definitely not just background music. They take a simple ingredient like tomato, green tea or some kind of innard, and combine with flavoursome dressings to make something sing with flavour.

We stayed in simple rooms at a Japanese guesthouse called Kame, next to the bus station. This was how we met Greg, a local volunteer teacher and our newfound local guide. When he heard we were vegetarian, he offered to take us to a local Muslim vegetarian café where they served us an array of dishes including some wonderful spicy sausages, mock chicken and mock pork curries, an assortment of dals and some spicy red sambal like sauce that I could have eaten by the bucket. This chilli garlic sauce is often served as an accompaniment to meals, especially in street food.

From Mae Sot, we followed the mountainous road into the hot and arid pre-monsoon north. On the plus side, this meant there were few mosquitoes and even fewer other farangs (us foreigners). This is certainly a road less travelled, and with all signs and information absent of any Roman script, we felt a new sense of freedom, and found our trust well placed in local transport and friendly people. We reached Mae Sariang by way of a 9-hour song-thaew, a share taxi pick up truck with a plastic roof over two facing benches. At one point our on-board total was twenty people and a motorbike. Having broken down the rider hitched a lift, bike and all.

Mae Sariang is a picturesque base for more remote jungle trekking and visiting hill tribes. We stayed in a comparatively plush riverside guesthouse with big comfy beds, pressed white sheets and surrounded by lots of teak. Unsurprisingly the hotel food was fairly bland, although we did have some awesome vegetable fried rice, I would now guess to be nam prik pao, at a café in the bus station. The dish varies wherever you eat it. It simply depends on what vegetables are about and whether the chilli jam (nam prik pao) is as kick ass as it should be. Thai style vegetable fried rice is one of my favourite go to dishes at home, if I need to cook something quickly from bits and bobs in the fridge. It's just that kind of dish (see recipe link below).

The next leg of our journey was slightly less arduous, with a four-hour bus journey to Mae Hong Son. We considered staying longer in this rather remote mountain town, but smoke from the slash and burn was pretty intense, so we spent half a day wandering around eating noodles and more fried rice before hopping another bus to Pai (pronounced bye).

Continuing our climb further along the smoky mountainous roads for several more hours, we arrived in Pai late into the night. Exhausted, sweaty and dusty (always a winning combination for arriving somewhere new with two seven year olds in tow) we set off into town in search of somewhere we could lay down our rucksacks for a few days. Pai is a great place to explore, eat and relax. We loved our little bungalow on the outskirts of town, but I think it was the freedom of moped life on well-surfaced empty roads that the children were most reluctant to leave behind. We ended up staying for a week or so in this pretty mountain valley, drawn in by the vibrant arts and music scene, trekking, hot springs, swimming elephants and lots of really good food.

For recipe ideas inspired by my travels with my family, check out these recipes to cook at home:

Vegetable Fried Rice with Nam Prik Pao (Thai Chilli Jam)

Burmese style tomato salad

Lotus root fritters with Burmese style chilli and garlic sauce

  • Posted on March 26 2015

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