Some friends and I just had the most wonderful weekend which I wanted to share with you in case you were looking for getaway ideas. You see, we were invited by Sun Suebsaeng, owner of the award winning Tengoku restaurants to experience what he calls the Tengoku Sankampaeng experience, a weekends-only branch of the famous Japanese restaurant, which also provides nine luxury villas for guests to indulge in after a sumptuous feast as well as a base from which to explore the surrounding areas of Mae On.
We made our way along country sois, as they meandered their way past newly planted chartreuse paddy fields, through forest green tunnels of tropical foliage and past pretty wooden houses as well as impressively tasteful mansions as we headed deeper into Sankampaeng’s Mae On Tai towards our destination.
Nine gorgeous villas, dotted around a vast 40 rai ground with a man-made lake with views of distant mountains, fill up to capacity every weekend. This spectacular resort slash restaurant is a personal passion project of Sun who can be seen inspecting his grounds from 5am every weekend morning before heading into the kitchen to personally cook his guests breakfast.
After checking into our villa, we immediately headed to the restaurant where we spent a fabulous evening on our private table in the middle of the lake which was attached to a private bar and party area. We ordered all the Tengoku favourites from the miso grilled eggplant to the torched wagyu sashimi; the cool slithers of raw beef tataki to the salted salmon. And washed it all down with some refreshing sake.
The rest of the evening, we spent wandering our way from private villa, to lake-side tables, catching up with old acquaintances and meeting new ones. Sun is one of those hosts who makes it his personal mission to ensure everyone is having a good time.
After a good – if short – night’s sleep, a jaunty Sun came a knocking at the crack of dawn and soon we were once again making our way through villages and shades, shrubs and forests of green, arriving at a charming little morning weekend market in a Tai Lue village where just about everyone knew Sun, waving and waiing at him as they exchanged morning pleasantries. I made my way down the market (which consisted of about six stalls!) and ended up buying some fresh bamboo shoots from the jungle and a rather terrifying looking chili paste, I have yet to brave.
Here we had a traditional Thai coffee (read intense amount of condensed milk!) and a particularly intriguing super-soft boiled eggs served a la shot glass, with just a splash of Maggie sauce and pinches of salt and pepper for seasoning. It was oddly and unexpectedly delicious.
Next, our host drove us to Sippa Hot Springs, a lovely resort and hot springs where we soaked and sweated away the remnants of last night’s sake before taking a bracing shower to invigorate and rejuvenate for the coming day.
As we slowly made our way back to the resort, Sun pointed out various attractions, “I take my friends to play golf here at Highland Golf Club,” or, “Bob, a retired US soldier lives here and at over 70 he walks 20kms a day, patrolling this mountain. He has guaranteed us that there will never be a fire here!” Other charming village gossips and news kept us thoroughly entertained all morning.
Soon we were told to close our eyes as the four-wheel drive ascended a mountain. After a couple of minutes, Sun – who clearly has a flair for the dramatic – told us to open our eyes and we appeared to have pleased him when we oohed and aahed at the lovely mountain reservoir in front of us.
“The late king had a helicopter pad up there,” Sun points to a distant mountain top. “He used to like sitting there. And that was where he designed this reservoir. Even though he could easily land his helicopter here, way into his sixties he would walk to the reservoir and back up the mountain every time he came.” Sun went on to explain that the reservoir is a favourite among stargazers, being a popular spot to come and camp out during meteor showers. “Because of the late king’s love of this area, the authorities have made sure there is no electricity for miles around here. We should come one night and just look up.”
There was one last stop before heading back to Tengoku – Wat Chiang Saen. According to Sun, this temple with its 750 year old pagoda is the oldest in Chiang Mai, built by refugees fleeing the Burmese occupation of Chiang Saen. We walked around the charmingly shady temple grounds, avoiding eye contact with rather loud dogs, visiting the temple’s small kiln where pottery is made with classic Chiang Saen patterns and designs.
Having had such a full morning, we arrived back to our villa only to realise it wasn’t even nine in the morning! So after a lovely siesta we were once again dragged out of our beds by San who came knocking again and soon breakfast was served. (Don’t worry, he doesn’t go around waking other guests up! We had asked for the full experience.)
“I fried three-storey pork in fish sauce,” he grins as he presented us with a crispy and simply spectacular streaky pork bite accompanied by steaming hot sticky rice. “And here is kanomjeen nam ngiew noodles which is going to blow you away.” It did.
After all, Sun was chosen just over a year ago as member of a committee of seven by Shell Shuan Shim, to step in to take over from MR Thanadsri Svasti, the iconic food critic and brand’s co-founder who had recently passed away. Shell Shuan Shim, now in its 60th year, had received an injection of half a billion baht investment by Shell Thailand, to rebrand and re-launch itself nationwide, in a bid to retake some of the market share PTT’s thousands of petrol stations have been gobbling up of late. Modelling itself after the Michelin Guide, brainchild of the Michelin brothers in France who wanted to encourage motorists to travel by recommending good restaurants, Shell Shuan Shim awards restaurants and street food across Thailand with a signature green bowl. One of which stands proudly at the entrance of Tengoku. If you love good food, then you would be hard pressed to find a food host as fitting as Sun. It all ended too soon, however, but unless we wanted to stay for dinner, we were unable to even think of tasting anything else.
Satiated, satisfied, stuffed and smiling, we headed home, arriving ready to flop on our sofas just over half an hour later.