Aug 25 2012

Mae Salong, Chiang Rai

Published by at 4:18 am under Chiang Rai

If you read anything about the mountaintop town of Mae Salong, you’ll be told that it doesn’t resemble a typical Thai town at all and that you’ll feel like you’re in northern Laos or southern China. That’s very true; the reason being it was founded in 1961 by remnants of the Kuomintang, (KMT, or Nationalist Chinese Army) fleeing Yunnan after defeat by Mao Tse Tung’s forces.

Mae Salong sunrise - Hin Taek is behind the hills, top right

Mae Salong sunrise — Hin Taek is behind the hills, top right.

During the 1950s many elements of the KMT army took refuge in Formosa (now Taiwan), while certain units escaped through Burma and Laos to settle in the sympathetic anti-communist Kingdom of Thailand — other units settled near Pai and Fang among other northern Thai locations. Here they were welcomed with almost-open arms and they proceeded to spend the next 20 years fighting against Thailand’s own communist insurgents as well as contesting the opium trade with Khun Sa’s Shan State Army, plus having occasional tiffs with Laotian troops.

US assistance to the KMT was reduced dramatically after Mao’s victory in China and KMT army units were forced to finance, to a large extent, their own operations using money from the lucrative opium trade. Khun Sa’s base was incidentally just over the hills at nearby Hin Taek village, which you can now visit as a short side trip from Mae Salong.

During the early 1980s with Thailand’s CPT (Communist Party Thailand) efforts on the wain and the likelihood of Thailand becoming the next Southeast Asian domino decreasing, the drug financed and more or less private army became rather an embarrassment to Thailand and its US ally. Efforts were taken to bring the region and the KMT remnants under control — they were relatively successfully it appears, and KMT soldiers toed the Thai line in return for citizenship, Khun Sa was forced over the border, Mae Salong was renamed Santikhiri in a PR move and the region was opened up to tourists.

Hill-tribe market, Mae Salong

Hilltribe market, Mae Salong.

The name never stuck but the Chinese nationalists have and nowadays most of the population of the town itself is descended from the KMT — though contrary to many reports it’s rare to see old KMT soldiers in their tattered uniforms these days. (A decade or two ago, however, yes.) The surrounding area is predominantly hilltribe and predominantly Akha, for whom Mae Salong is something of a capital, at least socially and commercially, even if they actually reside in the nearby hills.

The Akha congregation of Mae Salong Christian church

The Akha congregation of Mae Salong Christian church.

These days cherry orchards, oranges and above all tea plantations have replaced the poppy fields and Mae Salong is famous for its oolong variety — another Formosa connection. A tea-tasting in one of the high street’s tea shops is now an essential part of any visit. This does mean quite a bit of the surrounding hills’ forest cover was cleared, but some spectacular landscapes can still be seen and the town’s location along the ridge-top of Doi Mae Salong allows great views in every direction.

View over tea plantation near Mae Salong

View over tea plantation near Mae Salong.

Other activities in the small town itself include checking out the local hilltribe markets, climbing up to the pagoda and Buddha image on the west side of town — there are superb views over the surrounding landscape — and not least, sampling the town’s excellent Yunnanese cuisine. There’s a particularly good restaurant at the western entrance to the town; just walk back up the hill from the town centre and it’s on your right.

Ridge-top Akha village, seen from Mae Salong

Ridge-top Akha village, seen from Mae Salong

Around town are some easy hikes to be made to nearby predominantly Akha villages — your guesthouse should be able to advise and even provide you with maps. Longer treks and even horse-riding on the small but sturdy Yunannese ponies are also offered and a couple of spots in town rent motorbikes for longer trips such as a ride down to Tha Ton, a visit to Ban Lorcha or Hin Taek.

Another Akha village near Mae Salong, looking north towards the Burmese border

Another Akha village near Mae Salong, looking north towards the Burmese border.

Note that some of the border country north of Mae Salong is still pretty wild, so do give serious consideration before wandering too far off-piste and please check with your guesthouse beforehand.

Mae Salong, mobile shop in an outlying village

Mae Salong, mobile shop in an outlying village.

We recommended Mae Salong in an earlier post as a destination on our Chiang Mai-Chiang Rai loop and you can find getting there details in that post.

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