Bai Fern Restaurant - Thai restaurant in Mae Hong Son: Thailand
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Bai Fern Restaurant

 Bai Fern Restaurant, Mae Hong Son

The boundaries between the outside and the inside world are less distinct at the Bai Fern Restaurant in Mae Hong Son - a forest of potted greenery erupts from almost every wall, railing and corner. A cloth-wrapped tree trunk enters through one section of the floor and exits back out through the roof, disappearing into the sky. A sign on one wall captures the spirit - "If you love nature, let us be your resting place."

Established 16 years ago by owner Tawatchai Nateepagone, the Bai Fern is located in an expansive open-air wooden building on Khunlumprapas Road, within walking distance of the downtown shopping areas of the city. The Bai Fern is an integral part of the eco-tourism dream of Nateepagone, a fern aficionado who went on to establish the Fern Resort just outside of town. The Resort offers much of the same cuisine in a quiet, more rural setting.

"We're one of the oldest restaurants in town," says Manager Sumalee Sangduanchai.

Due to this long history, the Bai Fern is able to offer an expansive selection of the North's favourite cuisine, such as Ook Gai; country-style chicken curry with lemongrass, nahm prik noom; roasted banana pepper dipping sauce with fresh vegetables and lahp muang; a saltier version of the common lahp found in the Northeast. The fried chicken in pandan leaves is popular with visitors, as is the steamed whole snakehead fish with vegetables. The latter takes a good half hour to prepare.

Our party of three tried several of the specialty dishes at the Bai Fern, mixing elements of the North into a delicious sampling - the lahp muang, the haw moke blar chon; fried fish with curry paste in a pot, pakut fie dang, the fried fine-leafed fern with oyster sauce and gang kha gai muang; local curry with chicken and mixed vegetable. All of this was supported by a generous portion of sticky rice, the backbone of any good Northern meal.

The dishes complimented each other well. The lahp muang, which is fried in blood and thus has a darker appearance than regular lahp, was both spicy and salty, while the haw moke provided us with succulent chunks of the same snakehead fish pureed in a sweet coconut curry. The fine-leafed fern is almost identical to water spinach (pak boong) and like that dish is stir fried with chilies and garlic in brown bean sauce. The local curry and indeed, most of the curry of the north, is packed with herbs and vegetables (long beans, baby eggplants, mouse-ear mushrooms and wing beans) it resembles a meaty stew as much as it does a curry. All curries of the north use a soybean paste as the main ingredient (local markets usually have large stacks of rounded pressed bean discs); coconut milk and shrimp paste are less commonly seen.

The restaurant had run out of one of its big sellers, the fried Pai River fish with garlic and pepper. Diners should come early to order this province-exclusive white-skinned fish, which abounds in the rainy season.

Atmosphere is a strong component of the restaurant's allure, with the evening's cool season breezes mixing with the sounds of folk music through the night. Burmese, Shan and Northern Thai carvings and figurines are artfully arranged amidst the myriad of plant life. The effect is of an eclectic Northern greenhouse.

Khun Sangduanchai said that because of this natural environment, diners could always experience elements of the natural world around them, fauna as well as flora. Seemingly underscoring her point, a column of black ants slowly made their way along one railing nearby where we were sitting; in tune as the diners were to the restaurant's atmosphere. Mosquitoes can also come and go, depending on the season, so it's wise to wear long pants or pack some lotion when going to eat there.

As an added bonus to both diners and the environment, the restaurant offers a 10 percent discount to patrons arriving by bicycle.

The Bai Fern expanded eight years ago and there is seating in both the older front section and the newer back area. The front section includes a mini gift-shop of local crafts (one wall has become a virtual gallery of Burmese string puppets) and there is an Asian Books carousel for those who are looking for the latest soft-covers. For a more private and intimate meal, diners can choose the little nooks along the railings to the side and back of the restaurant.

The Bai Fern Restaurant is located at 87 Khunlumprapas Road, Mae Hong Son, Tel. 053 611 374.

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- November Issue, 2002

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