By Duncan Forgan
Photographed by Aidan Dockery
Nov 17, 2020
EVERY PRINCESS KNOWS THAT snaring a perfect suitor can be a frustrating endeavor.
And I’m beginning to show the surly characteristics of a jilted debutante as I pilot my motorbike fruitlessly around the nether reaches of Chiang Mai.
We’ve been searching in vain for a legendary venue named Khao Soi Prince, known for its nomadic tendencies and irregular opening hours. It can be “hard to track down,” in the words of American chef and Chiang Mai food authority Andy Ricker, understating the point. After a voyage of thwarted hope to an out-of-date location pin, we are no closer to hunkering down to an aromatics-infused, coconut-milk-rich bowl of curry noodles endorsed by Ricker, cookbook author Austin Bush and legions of Thai regulars as a definitive version of khao soi, northern Thailand’s signature dish.
“Nah, it’s not here,” shouts Aidan, the photographer, struggling to make himself heard over the roar of our Royal Enfields as we back the 500cc beasts out of the blind alley, scattering a bunch of careless chickens as we turn.
I’m here in the north noising up barnyard animals and cursing the fickleness of Google Maps on a double-edged mission. First, and most importantly, I’ve decided that after three months of lockdown in Bangkok, with domestic travel now back in full swing in Thailand and my own recent acquisition of a motorbike license, it is a clear and obvious priority to fill my eyes with incredible scenery and my lungs with clean mountain air.
A good motorbike odyssey deserves a sense of purpose. I’ve got ample ground to cover on my intended loop through five northern provinces: Chiang Mai, Lampang, Phrae, Nan and Phayao. The distance (around 1,000 kilometers in total) offers scope to immerse in the culture of the north, its traditions shaped by centuries as part of the Lanna Kingdom, which was only absorbed into Siam in the late 19th century. It also— vitally—means lots of incredible local food.
I’m striving to eat as many versions of khao soi—one of the most potent weapons in Thailand’s culinary arsenal—as possible throughout the circuit. Many Thai staples have the power to arouse passions, but a turbocharged version of this mania seems to befall those with prolonged exposure to khao soi. Tales of curry-noodle obsessives here include, notably, a journalist whose commitment to khao soi resulted in a (questionable) decision to have a bowlful inked onto his upper arm.
It has an origin story as twisty as the mountain roads to which we’re heading. Some posit that the Thai version of the dish evolved as Chinese-Muslim traders plied the spice route south into what is now northern Thailand. The curry and the proteins (traditionally either beef or chicken, not pork) bear a Muslim imprint, while the noodles are, of course, intrinsically Chinese. Others maintain that the dish migrated from present-day Myanmar, when the Burmese held sway over Lanna lands. This theory is backed by the fact that the closest kissing cousin of khao soi is the Burmese ohn no khao swe.
My own affection for the dish is beyond question—though I don’t wear it on my sleeve. What’s not to like about tender, yielding chicken or beef, and firm, fresh egg noodles bathed in spicy coconut milk broth, topped with fried noodles and assorted pickles and finished off with a dash of fresh lime juice?
With its tank-like heft and plant pot–sized piston, the Classic 500 is reassuringly solid—no small thing when faced with the vagaries of the Kingdom’s notoriously unsafe highways. What’s more, the bike’s iconic design, premiered by Royal Enfield just after World War II, means it looks a million dollars and makes you feel, for want of a less corny expression, pretty badass.
As we clear the interminable outskirts of Chiang Mai, the open road is working its magic. I give the Enfield some gas and feel the warm breeze whistling by my ears. By the time the peaks of Doi Khun Tan National Park are an emerald blur in my rear-view, I’ve all but forgotten about the initial food fail.
If khao soi is the official meal of the trip, Leo beer is its designated refreshment. We make it to Lampang by sunset, just in time for icy cans overlooking the Wang River on the outside terrace at the Riverside Guesthouse, a Lanna-style complex of wooden houses surrounded by gorgeous tropical gardens.
The following morning brings a brisk start. Not only do we have to tackle a route to Phrae that traces a twisting network of obscure roads, but we are also doubling down on breakfast. Thankfully, the beaming proprietor of Khao Soi Islam wastes no time getting the day off the right way as he plonks in front of me a bowl of visual and olfactory perfection. The aroma of homemade curry paste tingles my nostrils and it’s an effort to keep a grip of the slow-braised beef as it falls apart at the merest nudge of a chopstick. As I dig in, devouring the mound of super-crisp, deep-fried egg noodles on top, I’m harking back to a primer offered by cook and slow-food activist Yaoadee Chookong on the difference between good and bad khao soi.
“The key is always the ingredients,” she told me in Chiang Mai. “The coconut milk must be fresh-squeezed, the curry paste should be fresh-blended, and the pickles need to be homemade and not sourced from a factory. The same goes for the protein. Beef should be tender, and a chicken version tastes infinitely better if made using local birds, not factory chickens.” The version at Khao Soi Islam ticks all of Yao’s boxes. So too does its swift sequel at the packed Khao Soi Oma on the road out of town, where yellowed photographs of satisfied customers on the walls testify to the creed of its curry noodle gospel.
We reap rich culinary rewards for the next two mornings as well. At Pan Jai in Phrae, the slightly anemic khao soi is rescued by a punchy bowl of nam ngiao—a northern soup/stew with a tangy tomato base. In Nan, the excellent coffee served at Khao Soi Ton Nam provides additional uplift to its famous curry.
It’s not all about noodle soup of course. Other unmistakably northern food highlights along the way include the gaeng hung lay (pork belly curry) at Huen Jai Yong just outside Chiang Mai, and a spicy, herb-flecked sai oua (northern Thai sausage) and nam prik ong (chili pork dip) double-whammy at Krua Huen Hom in Nan.
Lampang and Phrae provinces serve notice of the north’s physical gorgeousness, while their eponymous capitals are rich repositories of princely teak-wood mansions and other traditional architecture. But visual highlights come thicker and faster as the trip progresses. After Nan city, our route enters more remote territory as we make a beeline for the mountains near the Laos border before looping back northwest through Doi Phu Kha National Park and then along Highway 1148, a winding gem that snakes through some of the most spectacular landscapes in the north. The tarmac skirts dramatic limestone pinnacles and valleys that fall away from the edge of the road. It’s an opportunity to luxuriate in northern Thailand’s sheer beauty and the mellow glow it engenders, which is no minor endorsement in these stressful times.
My personal favorite part of the route swoops, dives and turns for around 30 kilometers along a forgotten highway in the far east of Nan province. With nothing around but me, my companions, the ridiculously twisting road, and the endless green hills stretching way out in the distance towards Luang Prabang, it’s possible to get perspective on the present and dream of better times ahead.
Smaller details will also endure. Along the way we clean out a stall selling smoky gai yang (grilled chicken) at an obscure junction between Nan and Phayao, take a dip in a natural pool at Nam Min Waterfall in Phayao, and raise our arms like conquering heroes each time we pass through the ornate arches that mark the threshold of even the most one-horse villages.
Most uplifting, though, is the simple joy of being on the move. Motorbikes and the open road have long been a symbol of freedom—the preserve of the independent-minded adventurer, the leather-clad rebel. And it’s impossible to deny the exhilarating sense of liberty that comes with being in tune with your surroundings on near-deserted highways in one of the most beautiful countries on the planet.
The end of the road comes as both a relief and a disappointment. Prolonged exposure to a motorbike saddle does wreak havoc on the hindquarters; still, the journey itself is anything but a pain in the rear.
There’s just one piece of unfinished business to attend to in Chiang Mai before I return the bike.
I park next to the venue: the signage says I’m in the right spot. I head inside, and take a pew. Minutes later, a spicy, coconut-scented bowl of delight arrives. It’s packed with marinated chicken and springy noodles. The dash of coconut cream on top is a ballsy, almost decadent, touch. I’m more than smitten. After seven days, 1,000 kilometers, and countless Leos, this saddle-sore sweetheart has finally found a prince.
Driving northern Thailand
JP Moto Classic Chiang Mai 1/2 Soi 3 Wua Lai Rd, Hai Ya, Chiang Mai; fb.com/jpmoto classic; Royal Enfield Classic 500 from Bt1,000 per day
WHERE TO STAY
The Riverside Guest House
theriverside-lampang.com, doubles from Bt900.
Nan Lanna Hotel
66-52/772-720; doubles from Bt700.
bokluaview.com; doubles from Bt1,200.
PHU LANGKA NATIONAL PARK
Ing Mok Homestay
66-96/901-3637; doubles from Bt1,000.
WHERE TO EAT
Call ahead for directions and hours; khao soi is a morning- to-midday meal, so most spots close late-afternoon.
Khao Soi Prince
79 Moo 9, Ban Thung Min Noi; 66-89/ 435-3991; meal for two Bt100.
Khao Soi Oma
66-54/226-881; meal for two Bt100.
Khao Soi Islam
66-54/227- 826; meal for two Bt100.
66-54/620-727; meal for two Bt150.
Khao Soi Ton Nam
66-89/635-9375; meal for two Bt100.
Khao Soi Sang Pean
66-54/482-006; meal for two Bt100.