Brad and I are certainly two people who love our morning coffee. Brad says I get angry without it but I wouldn’t go that far. When we lived at home we ordered green beans from Sweet Marias in Oakland and roasted a pound of coffee every week. We like it fresh. Yet, when we got to Argentina whole roasted beans got really expensive ($25-$50 a pound) and so we did something unspeakable: we drank instant coffee every day for nearly a quarter of a year. And after a while it sort of became palatable. When we arrived in Thailand I couldn’t believe my eyes: around every corner was a coffee shop ranging from a full on espresso bar to a small table set up on the sidewalk with a charcoal stove, a pot of water and a sock-like sieve used for brewing coffee. Scattered among this latter set up was usually a variety of plastic containers filled with flavored powders and a towering pyramid of sweetened condensed milk – the base for most Thai style coffees.
When we pulled into Mae Hong Son and I saw that we had the opportunity to actually sleep in a coffee shop I was all over it. What made it even better was that this was one of those legit coffee shops with a shiny burr grinder, a wide espresso machine and classy white ceramic cups. The walls were decorated with Burmese puppet dolls, a library of books, comfy sofas and hand woven local garments for sale on a rack. At the back end of the building were four guest rooms, with our room situated literally ten feet from the barista. The indigenous Shan girls who worked the counter wore traditional embroidered tops, quite similar to a tighter and more fashionable version of a Mexican poncho. One of the girls held her baby at her waist and another’s child played games on the communal computer.
That night the monsoon season showed its crazy face, beginning with a cool breeze and then quickly transitioning into something more violent: blowing chairs and a seemingly endless flow of water from the sky. The sound of the rain was deafening under the café’s wide tin roof. The next morning I thanked the wonderful rain for dampening the day’s heat, making our little quest to the morning market quite a bit more enjoyable. We were about to embark on a rigorous search for something I had been desiring for quite some time. We passed the produce drivers who rested on their tailgates and followed the long line of wooden covered stalls down the road. We walked all the way through, eventually retracing our steps until we found a promising stand.
In order to avoid any confusion, I pulled a piece of paper from my pocket and read from it. “Sawatdee ka! Do you sell thoo ah oon?” Sadly, this only prompted a blank stare, the universal sign of complete confusion. No matter how many ways I pronounced the word, nothing was getting through.
We had been warned by our friend Pat in Bangkok that the Thai language was very difficult for foreigners to learn. The funny thing is I wasn’t trying to learn anything, I just wanted to communicate one very important word.
Pat had told us, “Thai is a tonal language. While English has three tones, the Thai language has five. You must be very careful how you pronounce words. Many words, if you say them wrong will mean something entirely different.” He went through the five different tones, only three of which I could differentiate. I couldn’t believe we were of the same species.
So really, who knew what I was saying to this lady. My stomach began to grumble, but while I stood there observing the scene, I realized this just had to be the place. So we pointed to a customer’s breakfast and gave her the piece sign.
In front of the pots, plastic containers, and general mess ran a long counter and a wooden bench. Had we been Asian, we would have fit perfectly in this little nook, but for us it was hilariously small. After a great deal of maneuvering, Brad somehow shimmied his spider-like long legs in place. The petite locals giggled and then a few seats were cleared for us at the big boy’s table.
Once we were settled in, we watched the cook place a tangle of thick rice noodles into our bowls and then envelop them with a heaping scoop of a thick yellow sauce. It was a Burmese dish called “thua oon” or warm beans, and this mysterious yellow sauce was made from chickpea flour and water. Scissored atop the porridge were bite size pieces of fry bread and small spoonfuls of sugar, peanuts, chopped cilantro, hot pepper, and a dark syrupy sauce.
It looked crazy exotic. A young girl who sat nearby curiously watched us. I don’t know exactly what sparked this girl’s desire to help us (perhaps she wanted us to enjoy the meal properly) but she got up, went behind the counter and passed us plastic mugs with water, chili sauce for dipping and a bowl of fried chickpea flour cakes and tofu. I mimicked the girls every motion, twisting the noodles around my chopsticks like spaghetti on a fork. It was heaven.
The following afternoon we tried out another local joint. We had heard of Aunt Khai, a woman in her 80′s who was still making rice noodles by hand. She was the cutest little thing (camera shy, unfortunately) but quickly popped out of her house when we appeared. Under the overhang of her home were plastic tables and chairs, and in the center of each table was the ubiquitous caddy of standard Thai condiments: fish sauce, chili powder, chili slices in vinegar, and white sugar. A picture of the King hung from the bare wall and against it was a self service table for filling water cups. The King’s photo in Aunt Khai’s home was not unusual; his photo was literally present in almost every Thai person’s home and business. It seemed that nearly every person we asked loved the King.
“Why should we not? The King has done so much for the people” one Thai told me. While this may be true, it is interesting to mention that it is illegal for anyone to speak negatively of the King in Thailand. Yes. Illegal.
As for the meal: Aunt Khai made us a delicious bowl of clear broth noodle soup with pork. She worked behind three charcoal grills, each one big enough to hold a single pot. She took her basket sieve, filled it with her handmade rice noodles and then lowered it into a pot of water. Once they were done and in our bowls she added a broth and then garnished with thin slices of red dyed pork, bean sprouts, cabbage, green onions, cilantro and a spoonful of ground peanut. It was true grandmother style cooking.
This town was such a delight. It wasn’t just the unique food that made it this way, but the charming people and atmosphere. We let a few days slip away, watching the routine of the locals and observing the rhythms of the day. The main street was a strip of beautifully preserved wooden shop houses with the ground floors reserved for commercial purposes. The families who ran the stores lived on the first floor, and often times their personal possessions spilled out into the commercial space below.
In the early morning orange robed monks would walk in a line down the street, accepting food from the locals that was to be used to make their only meal of the day. I must admit I’ve been spoiled by the frequency of seeing monks on the streets. They’ve become a common site, yet nevertheless I’m always taken aback by their beauty. They glow in the distance. They walk with purpose and dignity, their shoulders back and head held high. They exude an inner peace that is viral, and strangely while I believe that everyone has bad days, I have yet to see a monk frown. By early morning in Mae Hong Son the monks have been out and so have the locals; off to the market to get the freshest produce and to stop for breakfast at one of the many stands. One such breakfast place was right next to our little coffee shop in an empty plaza. Every morning they would set out their rugs, tables and condiments for another proper Burmese breakfast of rice vermicelli noodles and kahn pomg, a Shan snack of battered and deep-fried vegetables.
By afternoon the local children dressed in their school uniforms would cruise down the main road on their 100cc motorcycles, stopping at the smoothie shop before continuing home. At the shop’s entrance they’d slip off their shoes and pile into a booth to laugh and sip on their fruit drinks spiked with chunks of Jell-O. As night approached the heat would let up and the families who had been hiding out inside all day would migrate to the front of their shops for dinner. Afterwards they would watch television or simply point their chairs out towards the street. We were their entertainment, and they were ours. Other people would set up impromptu parties; the men in front of the frame shop were the liveliest group. In the evenings they would pull out their tiny guitars and play beautiful melodies, always in unison while singing and smiling.