CHIANG MAI, Nov 1 — These days you can find great coffee anywhere, provided you look hard enough.
Beyond searching for a good cuppa in unusual places, sometimes you just want to get away from the madness of everyday life: the busy-ness and the bustle, the sense we always have to hustle to keep up with the latest, the Next Big Thing.
The best coffee is the coffee you can enjoy without worrying about the next task to check in your To Do list.
So we head for the mountains or away from the city, at least. It takes us a good 20 minutes of driving to leave the old city of Chiang Mai behind.
We are greeted by stunning views of the majestic Doi Suthep Mountain. No more tall buildings. Smaller houses, further and further apart. The noise of traffic lessens, almost disappears.
We exit the main road and enter a serene gated neighbourhood. Such enclaves are known as moo baan in Thailand, and offer a respite from urban cacophony and smog.
Trees offer shade as we navigate the twisting lanes: golden showers of ratchaphruek (“royal tree”) with their beautiful, tiny yellow flowers; jasmine and frangipani; the white blossoms of tui (or mangrove trumpet trees) that are used to make spicy-sweet kaeng som curries.
The atmosphere is bucolic, hardly the place we’d expect to find a coffee shop, much less an excellent one.
However, if there is anything our travels have shown us, it is that you can find stellar coffee where you least expect it. Life is full of surprises, if you embrace them.
Soon we arrive at Asama Café, nestled inside the compound of a large bungalow. Entirely unassuming, the shop is the size of garden shed (which it could well have been, in its former incarnation).
Despite its diminutive size, the café — its name is also stylised as “A/sa/ma”, as though to break up the syllables in the correct fashion — already has some customers, many of them moo baan residents getting takeaway iced Americanos. (It’s a very Thai habit, drinking cold beverages in the morning, we observe.)
The baristas welcome us with friendly calls of “Sawadee kub!” and “Sawadee ka!” — the way staff at a Japanese shop would cry out “Irasshaimase!” in unison.
Unlike an overly tidy and minimalistic store in Tokyo though, Asama Café is endowed with more human warmth, more clutter, more things for the eye to follow.
Marie Kondo may not approve but we are enraptured.
The blackboard menu is a recital of caffeinated drinks but five special beverages grab our attention.
These are all developed by the café owner, Asama “Mook” Vichaidit, who is a veteran judge at Thai barista competitions as she is both World Barista Championship (WBC) and World Latte Art Championship (WLAC) certified.
Mook’s signature creations include the Sparkling Espresso, a strong espresso carbonated with tonic water for extra effervescence; Cocaine, a hot latte laced with a dash of brown sugar and orange zest; and Espresso on the Rock, which hits the spot, like lightning.
The espresso shots that go into the making of these drinks are pulled from Mook’s beloved Spirit, an espresso machine by the renowned Kees van der Westen.
One machine can cost anything from US$13,000 to US$20,000 (RM54,000-84,000), hardly the investment one expects in a suburban coffee shop so clearly baristas at Asama are serious about their craft.
The coffee is only part of the equation, of course. Part of the experience is the back-to-nature appeal of its location.
Some customers enjoy their cuppas indoors where there is air-conditioning but we head outside for fresh air and sun.
Water lilies and lotus cover the surface of the stream that branches out from the main lake. The water lily flowers float on the water while the lotus blooms rise above them. Dragonflies buzzing from pad to pad, blossom to blossom.
The sun beats down with nary a cloud in the sky right above us. In the distance the Doi Suthep Mountain stands guard; there at least, the peak is shrouded by mist. The effect is entirely hypnotic.
We sit down at a small table overlooking the stream and the greenery. Our coffee of choice is Mook’s mythical Gravity Latte.
Mythical largely because it is adored as far as Bangkok, where a version of it is served at another café, Some Time Blue, which is run by National Thailand Brewers Cup 2016 champion Sutida Srirungthum, a friend of Mook’s.
(The coffee community is a tightly knit one and coffee lovers are the better for it, since most baristas worth their salt would be more than happy to recommend their favourite cafés to you, which is how the original café hops began.)
Asama Café’s Gravity Latte — the original, as it were — is akin to a double shot of espresso into a chilled glass of creamy milk. Nutty and balanced, cold and velvety, this is the manna of gods.
Feeling a tad peckish after our long drive, we also share one of Mook’s bestselling Espresso Panna Cotta. Here, the silken and custard-like cream is made smoother still with a layer of espresso. Perhaps it is possible to get too caffeinated but with such splendid views and brews, who’d notice?
In truth, we had come here for coffee. What we discovered are the mountains and the lake, warm smiles and a rare solitude, a brief escape from the chaos of city life.
We are rejuvenated, and isn’t that why we travel away from our comfort zones and seek out new experiences?
122/128 Chiang Mai Lakeland, Chiang Mai, Thailand
Open daily 8am-3:45pm
Tel: +66 815305388