Looking at a map of Northern Thailand, you will quickly locate the two largest and most popular cities for tourists: Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai. Dotting the map all around these two destinations are hundreds of tiny villages with names that are easily forgettable to Western, non-Thai speaking people. Some examples might be Phu Chee Fah, Tha Ton, Soppong, or Fang. Ok, that last one is an exception, but it's probably safe to say that the average reader of this blog has never heard of any of these places before. As a new resident of Chiang Rai, I hadn't either until I started studying the map and asking local residents about desirable road trip destinations. Among the top of the list of places to visit (outside of our own little city) came several names that have now become familiar to me. These are Mae Salong, Chiang Saen, and Mae Sai.
Having a three day weekend due to the Queen's birthday and Mother's Day, we decided to take a little road trip to check out one of these little burgs and learn about our country. The village we chose was Mae Salong, also known as Doi Mae Salong, also known as Santikhiri. More on that later....
So off we set in our glorified go-kart, the Toyota Soluna, on a misty Saturday morning, feeling a little like the Griswolds looking for Walley World, but instead bound for tea and coffee plantations, hill tribes, and cloud level views of the mountains of northern Thailand.
The trip really began once we got onto what the locals call the "super highway", or highway 1, which leads north and south through town. We took the road north and almost immediately were in territory new to us, as we had yet to travel past the airport or supermarket on this road. Soon after we past the familiar places, we noticed large pineapple plantations and small pineapple stands began to line the highway. And when I say they "lined the highway," I mean they were spread apart by about 20 meters, one after another, for miles on both sides of the road. This made Jess and I wonder about Thai business practices, competition, and the phrase "location, location, location."
Further on up the road, the highway splits and we took the road less traveled. Literally, because it was a smaller road and most people don't go on that one....
Once on road 107, we drove through a narrow valley that was filled mostly with rice and banana fields along with the occasional resort or home stay or other small business - nothing remarkable except for its overwhelming feeling of fertility and life. 107 winds on for about 20 kilometers at a slow steady climb, but then suddenly seems to rise in altitude. After a few steeper pitches, the road splits yet again - this time at a police checkpoint. However, we didn't have to go through it because the checkpoint was set up just after the turn we made. My guess was that they were really more interested in people coming in from the Myanmar border to the west than heading farther north. Now on our last road heading to Mae Salong, the reader must understand that roads like this don't really exist in the United States. Such extreme inclines and declines are probably considered either too dangerous or too difficult for some vehicles (or drivers) to manage. Adding to the difficulty of driving up the steep slopes were the extreme curves in the road. Left and right, up and down, very little in the way of guard rails but a lot in the way of tempting scenery to stare at, I steered the Soluna with two tight fists, except when I was downshifting into low gear to crawl up the side of a mountain.
On and on we drove. The whole while I was vividly imagining the timing belt snapping or the brakes burning up and giving out, but then we spotted a sign welcoming us to Mae Salong. One last short, steep climb and we pulled into the first business in town: a Chinese tea shop. And now would probably be an appropriate time to tell you what we learned about this little town and its fascinating history.
When the Chinese Revolution took place in 1949, Mao Zedong's communist army fought and chased off Chiang Kai-Shek's democratic army all the way to Taiwan. But in the Yunnan Province, north of Thailand, Burma, Laos and Vietnam, the pro-democratic forces were trapped and were forced to fight their way south into Burma (uninvited) to escape. The communists took over China, but for the men from Yunnan, the war was far from over. They plotted their revenge and eventual re-takeover of China, with the help of the CIA and Taiwan, of course. The army tried several times to march back into Yunnan and establish a foothold, but were repelled each time, despite their American weapons and CIA advisers. Finally, the Chinese Communists, along with troops from Burma, swept in to destroy the KMT troops, as they were known by some. But the KMT retreated into Laos and Thailand. One of the divisions eventually came to settle Mae Salong. The story goes on and gets more interesting with the addition of opium growing, heroin refining, arms deals, mercenary opportunities, and the eventual peace and citizenship granting of the Chinese troops by the Thai government in 1982. So today, the town is known for it Yunnanese food and culture, tea and coffee growing (instead of poppies) and having a lot of Chinese tourists who've no doubt heard about this strange place in Thailand populated with descendants of ex-Chinese troops mixed with Thai hill tribes. And hence the Chinese tea shop at the beginning of the town!
The shop was actually really cool. Jess and I wanted to buy just about everything we saw - beautiful porcelain tea sets, Chinese lanterns, intricately carved wooden trinkets. But my practical senses overtook me and I declared that we couldn't spend all our money at the first shop in town, so off we went to explore the rest of Mae Salong. Another half kilometer further and we came to what I guess passes for the main area of town. There's a small market on the left, set up under blue plastic tarps, a hill tribe market on the right, even smaller than the other market on the left, and rows of stalls selling almost exactly the same products: imported Chinese stuff. To be fair, the imported Chinese stuff was actually pretty good stuff - dried fruits, of which we bought several varieties, various flavors of tea, a few bottles of fruit wine that tasted like it was made in a hurry, and the most delicious nuts we'd ever tried. We chose the shop that had a sign advertising the free use of their toilet, and like the other tourists who step off the buses and see the same sign, paid handsomely for the fruit and nuts.
After visiting both markets and purchasing a hill tribe dress for Suni (140 baht, negotiated expertly by Jess down from 200 baht), we looked for a place to get lunch. We found a restaurant situated up on a hill overlooking the town and ate an unremarkable dish of chicken and rice, Afterwards, we climbed a little further up the hill to get a look at a small tea plantation. Then we decided to get back in the car and drive farther into town to find the large tea plantation that we had read about before coming. Along the way, we spotted a coffee shop on a sharp bend, perched over the valley. I ordered a cappuccino, a drink I never order, but was blown away by the quality and the experience of drinking it while watching purple storm clouds blow into the valley over the ridges to the north. At this point I was feeling a little underwhelmed by the town itself, but could imagine staying at a hotel here with this view before me and just enjoying being on this spot on Earth for a day or two. Maybe just one.
On to the plantation! Or not. We received directions from the barista on which direction to travel in, but due to a lack of signage, it took us several tentative minutes to stumble upon the place we were looking for. And when we found ourselves there, we still weren't sure if we were there at all. There were no people, no shop, no factory, no welcome - just a collection of large concrete dragon statues in need of repair, a few small huts, and an untrustworthy looking swing for the kids. But we snapped a few pictures of the tea growing on the hill sides, took a couple deep breaths, and then Russ, Audrey, Ellen and I got back into the Griswold station wagon with the dog tied to the bumper and headed home.
Now, as a little postscript, the name of the town Mae Salong has officially been changed by the Thai government to Santikhiri, which means "hill of peace." Following the history of the town from the Chinese Revolution to the Opium Wars, the town definitely deserves this new title, but apparently things like this are slow to change, as we've never heard anyone refer to the town by this new name and rarely see it written as such on any maps.