Thai winter in Loei

November 25, 2017



'dawn awakes lazily, dusk comes early... so little time to pick my bunch of fiddleheads'




Winter.  The cold season in Thailand is nothing close to any of the European winters but it is still Thailand’s very own.  My grandmother was from Loei, the coldest province in Thailand, where temperatures could descend to below zero during the nights.  I spent many of my childhood years in this region so I know it well.  The temperature drop of this past week brought me back to a nostalgic recollection of Loei, the Mekong basin, the particular river bank where I was born.


The cold season in Loei is very cold, a concept I find hard to convince anyone of, especially those from Bangkok or down south.  Chiangmai is generally not as cold- just nice- but it is severe enough for the people who live in the valley where the north-winter winds fiercely blow through.  And certainly bad enough to attract the cool-weather seeking tourists throughout the high season!


Our rural northern winter brings images of low grey clouds and showers of mist, red rosy cheeks of the village children in funny, thick, multi-layered clothing that didn’t seem to fall under any fashion trend generally remembered in Thailand.


Loei is a small laidback province of the northeast region that once was part of the northern kingdoms.  It is shrouded within valleys and high mountains, with large areas harbouring the Mekong River.  The dialect of Loei is unique, neither northeastern nor northern.  It is its very own Bhasa Loei, spoken from the mouths of Thai people with fair complexions.  It shares a similar culture and language with the Lanxang Kingdom, the former royal kingdom of Laos that is known today as Luang Prabang.


And probably because of this and its proximity to the Mekong river, which has been an important conduit for communities along its banks for thousands of years, many people of northern Loei including my great-grandmother have their ancestral roots reaching back to Luang Prabang.  Lanxang (A Million Elephants) and Lanna (A Million Rice Fields) – Chiang Mai and northern Thailand today - were two inseparable sibling royal kingdoms which extended from Siam some hundreds years ago.


Although most Thais know Loei from the highlands’ National Parks of Phu Kradeung, Phu Rua and the Mekong town of Chiang Khan, the people of Loei are most proud of their vast meadows of cotton, and sweet tangerine and tamarind orchards. Throughout the area down to Nong Khai province, along the Mekong valleys, beautiful furrows of tomatoes and cold-climate vegetables and herbs of all kinds colour the scene.


Wild ingredients, fresh herbs and river fish abound at the local market stalls.  During those Loei days I had innumerable opportunities to travel along the river roads that border Laos; a true sublime beauty that has always remained in my heart.  And that was where I started noticing the edible treasures this region had to offer.


The “Indochine culture”, I often describe as following the flow of the Mekong basin  which to me, is a special trail in many aspects.  It is now such a dim and distant part of memory, of which I often dream.


More than 4,900 kilometers in length from the Tibetan Plateau, the Mekong basin is one of the richest areas of biodiversity in the world, only the Amazon can compare.  The river flows through Yunnan Province, then Myanmar, until the famous tri-point of Laos, Myanmar and Thailand (Golden Triangle).  From the Golden Triangle, the Mekong flows between Thailand’s most northern province of Chiang Rai, then to Laos, running to the interior of northern Laos once again before re-entering Thailand at Chiang Khan district of Loei.


The river continues further between the Thai northeastern region to Vientiane (the Lao capital) to its southern region down to Cambodia and finally ends at the delta in Vietnam and the South China Sea.  The river defines the Laos-Thailand border for some 850 kilometers.


During the early years of the 30’s, the French had long been active in the neigbouring countries for a decade, a glorious time of the colourful colonial era before the unfortunate invasions of the Americans and the communists.


My mother often mentioned that people used to regard the city of Vientiane, the capital of Laos, as the destination of those times.  Bangkok was far away and at the time, Saigon actually had more happening.  My mother and her socializing group of friends then smoked the thin lady cigars, loved perfumes and would not dance on the floor without a partner for their rock and roll moment.  They possessed several Montagut ensembles, loved to talk about drinks over and over, and would take time savouring their food.  This rings a bell every time I read Peter Mayle!


The French had brought some very good fashion to the Indochinese and this neighbouring part of Siam.  Like in old photographs, the classic bay windows and the rustic charm of the old sitting chairs a la francais, the elders dreaming of their glorious youth tinged with these unique Western cultural experiences.


Today, the old French colonial influence has become overshadowed by changes brought forth in the twenty first century. I am always curious about what it had been like and am often disappointed that this quaint appeal has all but been extinguished from everyday life.  However, some nuances of the era can still be seen, experienced and tasted. The French touch remains influentially strong and delicious.


The colonial era has certainly passed down its legacy of making sausages, cold and warm salads, and clever recipes for cured meats, conserves and preserves.  The use of fresh herbs is frequent, more generous than anywhere else in Thailand, and people of the area today have inherited this method of blending local spices and exotic ingredients the cool climate and dark soil has to offer.


Today, Loei is home to the country’s very first vineyard, with Chenin Blanc and Syrah grapes being grown.  Nongkhai is the booming gateway to Indochina’s trails.  People appreciate the cities and these two sides of the Mekong are more than just far away sleepy places. This is the birthplace of the so-called Indochinese cuisine that has made many restaurateurs in Paris and Los Angeles a fortune.  It certainly influenced how I started my cooking and gave me the appreciation for an apéritif.


My late granny, the khunyai in Thai or maetou in local dialect, was a matriarch farm lady.  Cotton plantations, tamarind orchards and rice fields were among the landscapes for rotations of the crops during those years when I was a kid knowing her.  Although the family had been involved in agricultural activities, none of our relatives could truly claim we were anywhere near effective farm operators.


We were rather encouraged towards the more academic and “civilised” side of life, though I can’t say this was necessarily the best outlook.  So, yes - through out-sourcing the grounds in return for the commodities, we had relatively great participation in farming, harvesting and distributing of the crops.


The cold season in Loei is always memorable; a season to look forward to.  To start it off, we got to wear thick colourful clothes, would scurry to take our baths before the sun went down. We were allowed extra expenses for ‘cosmetics’ such as body lotion and the Nitingale brand lip balm!


Our excitement as kids during the farming period was when we were allowed to get involved, ‘not to get in the way’, as my cousins insisted, in the harvesting.  Scenes of large crowds gathering, singing now and then, and flirting, are fondly remembered.   Even when everyone was working, it was full of fun for us.  People even got paid at the end of their hours.


My sister and I earned our pocket money by picking the cotton wool at our late grandmother’s farm.  The wage depended on the weight of what we picked and was delivered at the end of our shifts - or when we decided to give up.  It came up to barely 50 satangs (half a baht) per kilogram of a good long hour.


Driven by money, we got quite clever; we would rise early and start in the field way before sunrise, collecting the cotton whilst they were still wet and thus “heavy” from the freezing mists of the night.  We even came fully prepared with our own jug of hot coco.  We struggled to stay awake all day and anxiously looked forward to our wages at sundown.


Among our numerous adventures, yet another hysterical episode between siblings, was the year when the cotton farms in the area battled against a nasty worm invasion.  It was a state of emerency that made the farmers feverish with worry.  Our granny hired double the workforce to get rid of the unwanted worms, literally hand picking one by one off the valuable cotton.  It had to be dealt with as soon as possible with all available resources, so we were most welcome to participate in this effort and successfully helped to collect hundreds of bugs.


We must have been some of the very few kids in Thailand who didn't mind touching worms in such number.  We even pretended they were our catch of the day, the main ingredient in our cooking fun; our early attempts at authentic tom som soup, from which wafted delicious aromas from the herbal stock and fresh spices that everyone in the field would have stopped for.  We would giggle hysterically observing the appetite-wetted reactions of the adults humoring us on our culinary efforts.


The portrait of the cold days has always been the launching of the foggy hours; the dawn seemed to turn later than it should have.  The vegetables freshest before the birds began their singing, so the cooks say.  The best foods of the season must be the vegetables and greens, wonderful perfumed leaves, fiddleheads, dill, lime basil, sweet basil, holy basil, hairy basil, wild basil, mint, coriander, cherry tomatoes, honey tomatoes, plum tomatoes, giant tomatoes, bunchy tomatoes, sweet potatoes, strawberry tomatoes, Phak Naam, Home Ple, mixed herbs, new breeds of this and new breeds of that - all so stunningly abundant that I would fail miserably trying to recall all their names.


The atmosphere of my granny’s village before and after the farming hours is always lively.  Later in the morning the sun began to warm us whilst the smoke of wood fires slowly rose.  Although many households nowadays possess satellite television in rural Thailand, the electrical heater is still a rare thing.  We blame the old habits of loving to get out of the house for the sunlight and the colours, and to socialize amidst the street life, watching the fisherman sell his catch to the wealthier homes or simply learning the new technique of char grilling the mok (the wrapping of food in banana leaf and cooked by either grilling or steaming) over the wood fires.   The chaotic but humorous sounds from the street vendors, making their rounds selling sweet coconut desserts, never failed to keep us amused.


Come the dusky hours that seem to arrive early, the evenings of the cold season are typically dark and yet delightful to my eyes; filled with the warmth of cotton wool bedspreads; gathering in front of wood fires, with excuses for cooking and partying.  The making of khao laam (rice cooked in bamboo) evolved from the variety of recipes extended to both sweet and savoury (the bamboo that is crucial, is fragrant bamboo with only the greenest and hairy-skinned type called for).


The making of complicated desserts, was an event that usually took two hours after the main course, everyone looked forward this, to avoid the inevitable- boring bedtime.  The scene was a display of the stronger cook hand-grating coconut, the inspired cook brewing syrups and the pastry-chef wannabes playing around attempting to make flour palettes - whilst the story teller told his tale.  It was often the case that the fruits of all this activity, resulted in less than ten minutes of eating before having torush to bed after all!


November and December was the time when some rice fields were advanced enough for an early harvest. The sounds of bamboo flutes or Piang-or being played in the neighbourhood, were carried along on the chilly the north winds, which signaled that some young farmers had finished the jobs for the year, and were quite ready for the attention of the young ladies nearby.  This, my favourite weather, reminds me of our need for hearty food to keep warm.  We were always indulging in raw vegetables, which in turn gave us their goodness to protect us from the cold. How I miss those days.  Instead of counting sheep I count those wild ingredients that I miss so dearly.


The season of low obscure mists heavy with dank.  The season of loving and cuddling, things we don’t seem to have time for anymore. The season of rice trays with their smooth fragrance of selected grains to be used for next season’s seeding - the carefully hand picked and peeled grains to be cooked for ‘the most darling child’.


And I have been, more than once, honoured  to have my turn tasting ‘treasured new rice’.  A splendid wonder of experience my late granny etched upon my life for which I would trade anything to taste one more time.


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