Mae Salong may be my favorite place in Thailand. Not only does it grow and produce wonderful oolong teas in the Taiwanese style, but it is also filled with funky modern history and is more than twenty degrees colder than Bangkok or even neighboring Chiang Rai.
This northern town was founded in the mountains outside Chiang Rai and near the border with Burma by semi-retired/post-civil war KMT (Kuomintang or Guomindang or Nationalist Army or 中國國民黨 you take your pick). These Chinese soldiers and their families fought in Southern China during the civil war that followed World War II. As the tides of war change and the Nationalists saw their positions fading, many escaped, retreated, and regrouped in Northern Burma and continued to fight despite the victory of the communists in the capital and Mao’s proclamation of the Communist Chinese state in October 1949.
These Nationalist soldiers did not fare much better in Burma than they had in Southern China and were forced to relocate again, this time choosing Northern Thailand. Here they built a community of (primarily) yunnanese-speaking, tea-drinking, high-mountain-living folk. Also they tended to smuggle opium across the border on donkeys, but that is only natural. What are borders for if not illicit exchanges? Many of the old nationalist soldiers are buried in elaborate tombs around the many little valleys.
These days, most of the illegality is gone, but the cold, Chinese community, and tea remain. Laurel and I spent multiple days enjoying the cold, if a little rainy, weather with cup after cup of nice hot tea. I also bought about four kilos/nine pounds of tea to bring home.
We also hiked around up and down a bunch of hills and valleys and even saw some giant walking sticks.
It was fun trying to talk to people in a mix of Thai and Chinese. At times I was pretty unsuccessful, but that is part of the fun, right? Actually I was surprised by how well my Thai stood up despite the heavy accents.
The most amazing part of visiting this city may be the views. Mae Salong sits almost a thousand meters higher than Chiang Rai and the long and winding ride up to the top has some amazing lookouts. The city itself is thin and straddles the ridgeline. I really haven’t been to a place like it before. If you happen to be reading this deciding whether or not to go, I cannot recommend it enough.