Cloaked in a cold drizzle that seems to hang constantly in mid-air, the town of Mae Salong during rainy season feels like a piece of China that became trapped inside a cloud floating over the mountains of Thailand's far north. The squeals of motorbike brakes on the wet concrete fill the otherwise quiet streets, where dogs sleep undisturbed by traffic. Akha women carry baskets of vegetables past Yunnanese noodle shops, and everything familiar about this country seems far beyond the foggy tops of the mountains that make up the panoramic view. Yet every year, this curious town attracts thousands of tourists with its scenery, weather, tea, and simply its juxtaposition between the very different worlds of China and Thailand.
Glancing past red and gold Chinese scripts, through open double wooden doors and into sturdy concrete homes, it is common to see three generations family members squatting nimbly around low tables, their faces buried in the steam rising from boiling bowls of noodles. They are most likely conversing in Yunnanese, a dialect of Mandarin, and the most commonly spoken language in the village. The glare of TVs projecting dramas and news via satellite from Taiwan provide some of the only light on Mae Salong's evening streets, where the only business open late into the night is the town's lone 7-11, which celebrated it's second anniversary this summer. The only modern chain store in the village, it competes with smaller family-run shops, some of which sell opium pipes wrapped in newspaper alongside bottled water and toilet paper.
The concealed opium pipes give a small glimpse into Mae Salong's controversial history. Once recognised as one of the biggest suppliers of heroin in Asia, Mae Salong was established as a refuge for rogue soldiers from China's defeated Kuomintang (KMT) Army in 1949. While the army surrendered to the communists, the 93rd regiment refused to give up fighting, and endured a long journey through China, down to Yunnan and into the forests of Burma. The Thai government then offered thousands of these soldiers asylum in exchange for assisting Thailand in its fight to defend itself against the communist revolution – a perceived threat internally as well as from the northern border near Mae Salong throughout the 1960s and '70s. In exchange for their loyalty to their new country, the Thai government provided thousands of KMT soldiers and their families with citizenship and encouraged them to assimilate into Thai society.
However, this mountainous corner of Chiang Rai remained isolated – cut off from the rest of Thailand and governed by drug trade with the United Shan Army until the 1980s, when the cultivation of tea finally replaced opium. In another attempt to revamp Mae Salong's image, the Thai government rather unsuccessfully attempted to rename the town ‘Santikhiri’, meaning ‘hill of peace’. During this period, Mae Salong finally got electricity and paved roads. Difficulty of travel during the rainy season used to confine families to their own homes for months – it once took residents two days to venture just over 30 kilometres down the muddy mountain paths of Doi Mae Salong to trade and buy supplies.
Mae Salong first welcomed tourists in the mid 1990s, and now boasts a healthy tourism trade, with most visitors arriving for short stays between November and March. One of the main attractions for Thai and foreign tourists alike is Mae Salong's famous oolong teas – shops selling and sampling the local product line the village's streets. Grown from seeds originally imported from Taiwan and then locally cultivated by Akha labourers on Doi Mae Salong's green slopes, they are light in colour and to the lay person, taste of a combination of Chinese jasmine and Japanese green tea. One of the most unique blends is known as ‘beautiful tea’ – a drink made sweet by slightly coating the tea leaves with honey during the refining process. The process between picking the tea leaves and selling them ranges from a couple of months to one year. All the shops serve the tea in a ceremonial sampling process to interested customers – measuring the water's temperature, then pouring the tea into a series of tiny cylindrical porcelain cups to achieve maximum flavour and aroma.
While it is said that “you haven't been to Mae Salong unless you buy the tea”, there are other local delicacies that should be indulged in as well. Mae Salong-style ‘khao soy’, the famous northern Thai noodle curry, is a tart variation of the dish made popular in Chiang Mai, but with thinner, smaller, curlier yellow noodles. Also worth trying is Yunnanese beef curry with ‘mantou’, or Chinese steamed rice buns. Breakfast in Mae Salong is best had early at the Akha morning market in the centre of town, where women in red plaid headscarves serve hot soy milk and fried chunks of dough alongside pig innards, unfiltered Burmese cigarettes, and tables of fruits, vegetables, and medicinal Chinese herbs and ointments.
Do-it-yourself trekking is a popular way to fill the days in Mae Salong, with some guesthouses offering maps detailing walking routes in the area. Lahu, Lisu, and numerous Akha villages are all within ten kilometres of the town centre. These villages can also be reached by horseback, as many of the guesthouses arrange such tours lasting four to five hours. One of the most stunning sites in the town, however, is the fairly new Wat Phra Barom Thad Chedi – a golden temple at the top of 700 steps. The structure itself is immaculate – in the giant empty rooms, the only offerings visible were Chinese coins balanced auspiciously on their edges in front of shrines and a large golden image of Buddha.
Now that winter winds are blowing, tourists are converging upon the village to marvel at the blooming cherry blossoms, clear skies and crisp, cool weather and the dreamy, rain-induced sedation of Mae Salong will, for the time being, come to an end.