As Chris mentioned in his post, one Lonely Planet writer had heard Phayao called the “Vienna” of Southeast Asia. I’d agree this is an egregious overstatement by whomever originally made this comparison, even having never traveled to Vienna. Personally, I like to think of Phayao as what I imagine Waikiki was like during the time my grandma was growing up in Honolulu in the 20s and 30s. Quiet, laid back, not yet teeming with tourists but bursting with potential. Lots of bamboo pole fishing and net fishing, a walking promenade along the water where families would picnic every night at sunset, friendly locals who accept farang in their neighborhood but don’t overly cater to us as a means of industry. Staying a week in Phayao felt like traveling back into time and visiting what my hometown might have been like generations ago.
With few tourist attractions in Phayao, we laid low the six days we we were in town, taking advantage of cheaper costs at a guesthouse called Baan Homhug. I was hesitant at first to stay at a guesthouse that had shared bathrooms, but with no other occupants, we had the bathroom all to ourselves! Our hosts were an older couple probably in their 70s. The woman seemed to split most of her time playing Candy Crush on her computer, playing with their pet beagle, or taking care of her grandson as her daughter gave music lessons to kids in the house. Her husband could be found throughout the house either napping in front of the TV or napping upstairs on the roof, or eating and smoking outside. They were fantastic hosts. Once they discovered that Chris spoke Thai, they would make an effort to small talk with us whenever they saw us. The man would even gesture to me so I could feel part of the conversation.
Every day we walked along the promenade at sunset, sometimes getting caught in rain showers and finding shelter wherever we could. We walked through different night markets and walking streets and enjoyed some of the festivities from the 10-day lychee festival that had started the day we got into town. The only wat we visited was about a mile out of town, Wat Sri Khom Kham. It was a bit run down but had fascinating imagery in the temple of Heaven and Hell, as well as a sculpture park outside also depicting Heaven and Hell. I found the Hell depictions most interesting.
One of the featured foods in Phayao is – no surprise here – fresh fish stuffed with herbs, salted and slow grilled. We found this dish everywhere in town, restaurants slow grilling the fish in front to attract eaters, at the night market food stands, on the side of the road. Of course, we had to try it. We feasted one evening and had “yam pla duk fu,” catfish chopped up, fried and garnished with a heaping of pickled veggies and cashews, and “pla pao kleua,” fish stuffed with herbs, coated with salt and slow grilled. These two dishes, plus a side of sautéed morning glory (like bok choi), rice and an icy cold coke to share cost us 360 baht, about $11 USD.
Phayao was a restful retreat for us, though I guess this whole honeymoon could be considered a restful retreat. What’s been most refreshing during our travels is the liberty to not to jam-pack each day with things to do or sights to see, furiously buzzing about on a manic tourist schedule like we normally would with a set amount of vacation time. We’re traveling slowly, we’re soaking in the culture and character of each town, we’re not (overly) analyzing the opportunity cost of visiting one town over the other or negotiating the trade-off of staying just one more day. If we had less time to travel, say 4-5 weeks (the amount of vacation time I’ve had each year for the past decade), for sure we’d skip places like quiet Phayao. But we would have missed out on so much.