Few travelers to Thailand make it to Isaan, the sprawling agricultural heartland in the northeast. Fewer still make it to Tha Bo, a tiny village in the Isaan province of Nong Khai, which borders Laos from across the Mekong River. But I was determined to visit, spurred on by the two-sentence description the town is allotted in most guidebooks: “A large Vietnamese population lives here, and they’ve cornered the market on rice noodle production. From 5–10 A.M. you can watch people at the factories making the noodles, and then at around 2 P.M. they start the cutting, all by hand.”
It is not necessarily advisable to take a 14-hour train from Bangkok to go chasing after what is essentially a footnote in an outdated guidebook. Nevertheless, I was intrigued, both by the chance to see noodle production in action and by the unique food culture around Nong Khai, whose Vietnamese immigrants arrived following the Indochina War in the 1950s. Noodles are big business in Tha Bo—several factories coexist as neighbors, selling to local markets and exporting to other parts of Asia and even America.
Driving through the main road in town, I glimpsed sheet upon sheet of rice paper drying on bamboo racks in the sun. Visiting the factories is a decidedly informal affair: my Thai guide and I simply pulled over on a small residential street and were allowed to wander freely through the hangar-like production area of Jae Muy Ja-Run Noodles, which, at around 8am on a Thursday, was in full swing. Jae Muy is a third-generation family business overseen by the septuagenarian Muy Jun Thin, known colloquially as Jae Muy, whose Vietnamese parents started the company when she was in elementary school. The name translates roughly to “Sister Muy’s Prosperity Noodles,” and the nine-person company turns out close to 400 lbs of rice noodles a day.
Rice noodles come, of course, from rice, which Jae Muy receives in bulk from the farms nearby. She likes to use rice that’s been aged for eight months, which allows the gluten to develop enough to produce noodles that aren’t too sticky. The factory soaks the rice in water for three days, then grinds the soft grains and milky ricewater into a thin, smooth batter. From there, most of the liquid flour is ready to use, but a third of it gets siphoned off into oversized clay pots and left to ferment for three days. The two flours will be mixed together before the noodle sheets are poured, a carefully tested fermented-to-fresh flour ratio that produces noodles with a slight, pleasant tang.
Once the flour has been mixed, it’s poured out onto a 30-foot steam oven that resembles a conveyor belt making the world’s longest crepe. The steam comes courtesy of an imposing wood-burning oven in the back of the room, fueled by leftovers from a nearby sawmill. A small fan placed at the top of the oven directs the steam down the tunnel, keeping the rice flour moist as it down the oven. Great puffs of warm, carb-y steam fill the room, creating conditions that are not entirely unlike what I imagine the inside of a rice cooker feels like.
The sheet emerges at the other end of the oven having transformed from liquid to a delicate, translucent solid. A rotating blade slices the piping-hot sheet into two-foot squares, each of which is carefully picked up and laid out on long bamboo mats by a team of two. The mats are wheeled out to Jae Muy’s front yard, where they’re propped up against wooden posts and allowed harden under the blaring afternoon sun. Hours later, workers will collect each of the bamboo mats and bring the sheets back inside to be stacked up and sliced into noodles of various widths.
When I finally sat down to a bowl of Jae Muy’s thin, delicate noodles, in a silky pork broth laced with licorice-tasting local herbs, my two-day trek seemed like the best travel decision I’d made in a long time.