"We're taking a drive to Lamphun. It's like Songkran in Chiang Mai in the old days, before Songkran became Water Wars. Would you like to go?"
The invitation came in the form of an SMS from our friend Wilaiwan on the third morning of the Thai New Year, and we jumped at it.
It's true that by being involved in a project to document daily life in Chiang Mai's historic Gat Luang neighborhood we'd gained a good understanding of the spiritual side of the Thai New Year. For most celebrants in the neighborhood Songkran isn't about high-powered water rifles and beer-fueled public gyrations.
But we'd also received our share of soakings. By Day 3 it was all starting to get a little old.
So an hour later we hopped into Wilaiwan's 1970s Mitsubishi. College age P was at the wheel, and as we sped away from Chiang Mai on the old two-lane road to the small town of Sarapee, which sits between Chiang Mai and Lamphun, mother cautioned daugter, "Cha cha." (slow, slow).
Once past Chiang Mai's airport the road narrows. After another 15 minutes or so you cross one last major thoroughfare and all of a sudden you're in provincial Thailand. Glimpses of rice paddies between wooden houses set a bit back from the road, shops close in, heaps of vegetables on their way to market on the back of motorbikes.
The Sarapee-bound blacktop is lined with doon yang (rubber trees). Planted decades ago, they stand tall and straight in an almost perfect row, so full that they cast shadow over the road's two lanes and narrow shoulders. This straight, flat line of tarmac must have been wonderful to bike on 20 or so years ago, before car traffic in and out of Chiang Mai became so heavy. It's still a lovely stretch, especially now that all of the trees have been wrapped with orange cloths -- splashes of color that are a response to a plan announced a year or more ago to fell the doon yang so that the road could be widened. So far so good -- enrobed in monks' cloths, the trees have survived.
It wasn't long before talk in the car turned to food. Wilaiwan is an inveterate food voyager (like us, she plans travels around food and manages to find something delicious no matter where she is) who has led us to many edible treasures in and around Chiang Mai and northern Thailand since we met her six or so years ago. So it came as no shock when the ostensible motivation for our outing -- to catch a glimpse of old-fashioned Songkran -- turned out to be an excuse to do a bit of out-of-town grazing.
We started in the dining area of a somewhat ramshackle bungalow near the Lamphun train station. Set at the edge of an unpaved parking area beneath a huge kee lek (acacia) tree, the place is unnamed but generally known as Guayteow Sathanee Rot Fai Lamphun (Lamphun Train Station Guayteow). Wilaiwan has been eating at this family-owned joint for decades.
It is important to not be put off by the untidy scene at the rear of the restaurant just outside the restroom,
nor by its slooow service, which actually denotes extra care taken in prep by the family of owners.
The rice noodles -- smooth and silky but with a good bite -- are wonderful. You can have rice threads or rice sticks or wide rice noodles, with a choice of beef (balls or sliced and fresh, Vietnamese beef pho-style) or pork balls or mince, or everything altogether.The broth is light and clear in appearance, but packs depth and meatiness.
Grilled sai oua (northern Thai-style sausage) is a must. It's crumbly and intensely herbal, packed with lemongrass, cilantro roots and leaves and threads of wild lime leaf. The latter lend a pleasing citrus-tinged mild bitterness of the type you might encounter in a northern Lao pork and leafy greens stew.
When Wilaiwan suggested we try the deep-fried spring rolls I shrugged my shoulders and muttered a "meh", but I'm glad she persisted in her quiet way. They're practically greaseless, little tubes of thickish flour-y skins that really taste of wheat, tightly rolled around a bordering-on-sweet mixture of taro, carrot, and slivered shiitaki mushrooms. Surprising, and stupendous.
No wonder the dining area, almost empty when we arrived at half past eleven, was packed by the time we left an hour later. And on a holiday too.
Back on the road, we cut across Lamphun to the river, where behind Wat Phatat we walked across a covered bridge cum crafts market to another establishment busting with patrons.
Once you're past Sarapee and heading to Lamphun the doon yang give way to doon lamyai, or longan trees. Wilaiwan intended to introduce us to the fruits cooked in a soup with pork.
At Guayteow Lamyai Lamphun we feasted on chunks of pork so tender it really didn't need chewing, in a broth flavored with a mystery mixture of dried herbs and spices (if you've drunk longan tea or juice -- known as air mata kuching or "cat's eyes water" in Malaysia -- you'll be able to imagine the flavor of the soup). The stewed fruit lent a bit of sweetness, which was nicely balanced by stems of pak beung (morning glory, water spinach), bean sprouts and curly lettuce leaves.
Back at the last place P had hardly touched her noodles and eschewed the sausage and spring roll. Now we knew why -- she'd been saving her appetite for guayteow lamyai.
After Lunch #2 we headed back to the car, stopping at the market on the covered bridge so that I could buy a couple of hand-sewn floor mats. On the way out of town we passed Songkran merrymakers, young people standing by the river gently splashing passers-by and cars with water from buckets. High-powered water rifles were few and far between. Wilaiwan sighed. "Like Chiang Mai used to be."
And with that, a three-hour road trip that included two lunches was justified.
Guayteow Sathanee Rot Fai Lamphun. Find the train station in Lamphun (you can even take the train from Chiang Mai -- it's only an hour). Stand in front with your back to it. This restaurant will be a 5-minute walk up the road to your left.
Guayteow Lamyai Lamphun. Find Wat Phatat. Walk behind it to the river. Cross the covered bridge, continue 1 minutes, and the restaurant is on your right. Everyone knows it.