Wednesday, January 6, 2016

travel to Northeast Thailand, Isaan, and about tea

Recently well-known tea personality Robert Godden commented on a tea-travel post that all tea bloggers turn into travel bloggers when they go places, since the subjects automatically overlap then.  This post will test the limits of that contention.

Over the New Years holiday I visited Isaan (or Esarn--it's just a transliteration), the agricultural area in North-Eastern Thailand.  They don't grow tea there, or drink much tea; there don't even seem to be many Chinese people living there.  I didn't drink as much tea as I normally do on a daily basis on the trip, or buy much.  All the same I'll describe the trip as it related to tea.

not just any dinosaur, a Thai dinosaur

Part of that is seeking out the overlap.  Google Maps mentioned there was a tea-related business not so far from where we stayed in Khon Kaen, which we really visited to see nearby dinosaur fossils.  But I didn't make it to that shop.

tracks from a dog-sized dinosaur

I did go to see a dinosaur museum, and we hiked out to see fossils they left as they were found in a park, and nearby dinosaur footprints.  You just kind of expect those to be big, from something like a T-Rex, but they looked to be made by one a good bit smaller than an ostrich.  And we visited two different zoos, which both had small water parks, just perfect for my kids.

As for contacts, Trip Advisor describes the museum we visited, with further links easy to find from there.  The park information is available through this official government site, with other resource descriptions in Lonely Planet or Trip Advisor type listing.

But back to the tea then.

I had tea in a Vietnamese breakfast-themed local restaurant.  I took a picture of the Thai tea strainer used to brew tea there, the kind that looks like a small wind-sock, which is usually used to make hot tea and milk, mixing sweetened condensed milk into brewed tea.  An original version would be a Thai Assamica-type black tea but now they would probably more conventionally be made from low grade Ceylon, tea from Sri Lanka.  I ordered it cold, and I'm quite certain what they gave me was from powder instead, the typical version (#1 Brand, whatever that is).  It wasn't bad, but I can see why I never drink that, clearly artificial in origin, real powdered tea mixed with chemicals.

traditional!  not ideal brewing practice though

I also bought what I thought was a Vietnamese tea there, labeled as "Hoang Hao," a kind mixed with herbs (based on trying it; the package didn't have that much English on it).  That tea was pretty nice.  Later I noticed the relatively obvious packaging included Chinese characters, not Vietnamese, or kanji instead of Latin lettering with digraphs and diacritics (accents), so it's origin made a bit less sense.

Of course it was a relatively basic tea, related to quality level, since grade can be used to refer to only leaf preparation, in the convention that results in the strings of letters.  Later I asked a Chinese friend to read the package description and say what it was, but it's not so clear, only "tea," so I never will know.  It makes no sense to me it is Chinese tea mixed with herbs, and the name seems Vietnamese, and a Google result says it's a Vietnamese export / import company, more related to medical supplies and advertising, but so it goes, I don't need to know.

tea; seemed to be Vietnamese green tea with herbs

I also bought more mulberry leaf tea / tisane, since I'm running low on the last batch, but of course that's not exactly tea.

The subject of how to brew tea when you travel comes up from time to time, and for some reason it seems organic and natural to me to not prepare ahead and then struggle through it.  Somehow it even adds to the experience to approach it that way.  In the past that took different forms.  One natural solution is to brew tea in a coffee cup in a hotel room, then strain into a second cup.  I once bought a tea-pot strainer once at a Daiso (essentially a Japanese dollar store), and that helped.  Really packing a teapot, or gaiwan, a french press, or whatever else, would make a lot of sense, although it would take some of the fun out of it too.

supposed to be a lighter oolong, really

This time I brought a tea bottle--cheating, really.  When people mention brewing "grandpa style" this type of device is what they are referring to, at least in the original Chinese form.  Ordinary people walk around in China with these, plastic versions, and keep refilling the water until the leaves give out.  The most natural tea type for this use, it seems to me, is lightly oxidized oolong, because it won't get astringent when over-brewed, and it brews a lot of tea.

Given that Chinese people drink more green tea (per stats I've seen; with the obvious disclaimer that I'm not an authority on consumption background, and not everything you see is right) then maybe green tea is filling that space sometimes, even though most versions will get a bit rough if they brew too long.  Of course in the West most tea-enthusiasts tend to not use boiling point water for that, adding another concern; one would't walk by hot water sources available at a range of temperatures, so then mixing water, or letting it cool would come up.

I won't get into it here but of course the modern tea-culture version of those devices are tea tumblers.  Most would probably not be glass, but also not the Tupperware-grade plastic that had been more typical previously, the kind Chinese tourists walk around the Forbidden City carrying.

It's interesting how a Chinese linkages can really tend to justify practices related to tea.  I've noticed that other tea enthusiasts are much more likely to see our Chinese vendor counterparts--those working in the West--as a valid reference, compared to other Westerners selling tea, when this really may or may not translate to an immersion in traditional practices or knowledge.  In discussing local culture with a friend living in Beijing, along with his Chinese girlfriend, it was interesting to hear about how their class-oriented society was separated so that not just practices related to something like beverage choices but any type of general contact might be avoided by those of the more privileged class.  It made me consider how rather than looking on the use of plastic bottles to brew tea "grandpa style" as validated by crowds of tourists some other Chinese people may see it as yet another lower form of a traditional practice.  I'm all about function over form anyway.

unrelated action shot

Of course I screwed up the Grandpa-style brewing theme and only threw in some black tea at the last minute, not because I thought it would work well, but just because I felt more like black tea.  It still worked; I drank four cycles of strong black tea, which brewed better than it seemed likely to.  I did cheat a little and poured it into another bottle to drink, to limit infusion time, not going with the most basic practice of drinking tea with leaves still floating in it.  Hot water just kept turning up in different places, like magic, just as I wanted more tea, so I had the full effect of a spontaneous brewing practice.

cheerful in spite of holiday traffic

It almost worked really well to switch over to that Vietnamese tea (if it was that) but I lost it in the mess that was a randomly packed car, so after checking options at a gas-station stop (convenience store RTD bottled tea, coffee shop tea-selections, powdered tea mixes from a stall) I went with the obvious default on the drive back:  Mountain Dew.  It paired perfectly with a Thai version of Cheetos.

Tea got a bit lost in all this, didn't it?  At least in other trips I could drink badly made tea at hotel breakfasts, but we visited local restaurants where I only tried those two types.  I saw Thai teas at a shop in an outlet mall on the drive back, a half-dozen types, probably most relatively decent lightly oxidized oolong versions, with a bit of green tea.  As unnatural as it seemed I didn't buy any, since I'm completely burned out on mid-range lightly oxidized oolongs.  At least we did see those dinosaur fossils, and as always the best part was my kids loving general aspects of travel, so I'll get back to the more interesting tea themes through mail order.

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