Photo: Pretty valleys around Mae Salong.

Introduction

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Even the briefest description of this remote Chiang Rai Province mountaintop town will go to lengths to point out that Mae Salong isn’t a typical Thai town and feels more as if it belongs in Southern China—or words to that effect. That’s because it did begin life as a Yunnanese settlement founded in the 1960s by remnants of the Kuomintang (KMT) army who fled Yunnan after defeat by Mao Tse Tung’s forces in the Chinese civil war.


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Most elements of the Republican army took refuge in then–Formosa, now–Taiwan, while certain die-hard units escaped through Burma and Laos, from where they continued to raid over the Chinese border, before settling in the sympathetic anti-communist Kingdom of Thailand. The 93rd Division—the so-called “Lost Army”—finally arrived, bedraggled and exhausted in these remote northern reaches, with the 7th Regiment under General Lee settling in Fang’s Doi Ang Khang district and other elements under General Tuan setting up camp in what is today Mae Salong.

An Akha village near Mae Salong. Photo taken in or around Mae Salong, Thailand by Mark Ord.

An Akha village near Mae Salong. Photo: Mark Ord

The deal presented by the Thai government to the KMT was: help us fight our own communist insurgents (belonging to the Communist Party of Thailand or CPT) and we’ll let you stay here. Other units settled near Pai, Mae Hong Son, Arunothai and numerous other sites across northern Thailand. They did also spend considerable time and effort fighting Khun Sa and his Shan United Army for control over the lucrative opium trade and Khun Sa’s base, which you can now visit as a short side trip, was located just over the hills at nearby Hin Taek or Thoed Thai village.

Towards the end of the 1980s, with Thailand’s CPT on the wane and the likelihood of Thailand becoming the next Southeast Asian domino decreasing, the drug-financed and more or less private army became a bit of an embarrassment to Thailand and its ally the US. Efforts were taken to bring the region and the KMT under control and the by now ageing Yunnanese soldiers toed the Thai line in return for a peaceful retirement. Khun Sa was forced over the border, Mae Salong was renamed Santikhiri (“Hill of Peace”), poppies were replaced by oolong and the spruced-up region was opened up to tourism.

Wat Muang Khiri. Photo taken in or around Mae Salong, Thailand by Mark Ord.

Wat Muang Khiri. Photo: Mark Ord

The name never stuck but the Chinese Republicans have, and nowadays the majority of the town’s inhabitants are descended from soldiers and camp followers of the 93rd Division. Back in the 60s, it would certainly have closely resembled a Yunnanese town with walled courtyards surrounding wooden or wattle and daub houses; mules the most common form of transport, Chinese the lingua franca and KMT soldiers in tattered uniforms filling the tea shops.

These days, things have changed—both in Mae Salong and Yunnan—and the old buildings are increasingly rare as they’re replaced by shiny Thai bank outlets, air-con convenience stores and buffed concrete-finished hotels for weekending Thais while ageing combatants of the 93rd division are replaced by their brash, bilingual great-grandkids whizzing through town on the latest model Honda.

Tea anyone? Photo taken in or around Mae Salong, Thailand by Mark Ord.

Tea anyone? Photo: Mark Ord

Despite time (and the Thai government’s) best efforts there is still a very different feel to the town; you’ll hear as much Chinese as Thai spoken and there’s still some older residents who can regale you with tales of Mae Salong in the 60s and 70s. If you poke around, a few of the old buildings remain and the cafes and restaurants serve more Yunnanese than Thai food. Its position atop a sharp ridge is unique in its own right while many of the town’s newer constructions are painted an unusual, uniform reddish-ochre colour.

The surrounding area is predominantly Akha, for whom Mae Salong is something of a local capital—at least socially and commercially—even if they actually reside in the nearby hills. You’ll also occasionally see Lisu and Lahu in town to adding to the colour.

These days cherry orchards, oranges and above all tea plantations have replaced the poppy fields and Mae Salong is famous for its oolong—another Taiwanese connection. A tea-tasting session 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 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.

Other activities in the small town itself include checking out the local hill-tribe villages and markets; visiting the unusual Chinese Martyr’s Museum; climbing up to the pagoda on the west side of town—which boasts superb views over the surrounding landscape—and last but not least, sampling the town’s excellent Yunnanese cuisine. There’s also the possibility of trekking in the surrounding area and some fine accommodation options to suit most budgets.

Overall, Mae Salong is a fascinating and unusual spot to while away a couple of days. The weather’s cool up here and the village is frequently in the mist, piling on added atmosphere to this history-ladened outpost.




Orientation
Mae Salong’s position atop this narrow ridge means the town is pretty much restricted to the sides of the undulating ridge-top road, with slopes covered in tea plantations dropping off abruptly on both sides. The centre—if you can call it that—consists of the narrow lanes around the morning market where you’ll also find a couple of the more interesting guesthouses. Just downhill is the inevitable 7-eleven and the songthaew stop. Tea houses and larger hotels line the Mae Chan road running east out of town.

Back on the Tha Ton side of town, the highway bears south and is bordered by more markets, additional resorts and many of Mae Salong’s restaurants. The small hospital is off this stretch, down a side road, while a steep chedi-topped hill—Wat Prathat Doi Mae Salong—looms over the town to the northwest.

A sealed lane linking several Akha and Lahu villages performs a short loop from the handicraft market skirting east around town to re-join the Mae Chan road, otherwise, there is only Highway 1234 leading in and out of town. This takes you east 12 kilometres to the T-junction (Sam Yaek Iko) with the Thoed Thai (formerly Hin Taek) road and on another steep 30 kilometres or so to Mae Chan on Highway 1. South, there’s around 15—also very steep—kilometres before you meet Highway 1089 at another T-junction and songthaew stop named Kiew Sathai. Mae Chan is 30 kilometres east by this route and Tha Ton equidistant to the west. Highway 1089 is largely flat but still very scenic.

Safety
With the region now pacified and firmly under central government control, safety concerns are much reduced in these border regions though we would still be wary of wandering too far off the beaten track on your own. The area north of Mae Salong in particular remains a favourite smuggling route for drugs from Burma and shooting incidents between border patrol officers and traffickers are not unheard of.

If you’re planning on hiking or even biking in remote areas please check with your reception first as they ought to have an idea of the current situation. Soldiers and police at any of the numerous check-points would also not hesitate to turn you back if there were any problems. These guys are also a good source of upcoming road conditions and will know enough basic English to be able to say “good, bad—ok or no ok!”

Bear in mind that rural road conditions can change rapidly with landslides, slippages or potholes appearing after a bad rainy season. Alternatively the highways department may see fit to resurface a dodgy stretch so what’s a good road now may be bad in 6 months’ time and vice versa.

Finally in town itself—and we’re not joking here—we’d say the main danger is Mae Salong’s schoolkids. Chucking out time at the local secondary school sees the town’s main drag turn into a racetrack as myriad motorbikes ridden by helmetless kids—often two or three to a bike—whizz through town at top speed. Bearing in mind the number of sharp bends this makes crossing the road at certain times of the day potentially fatal.

Your main safety fears these days—schoolkids aside—are steep mountain routes or slippery leaves on the myriad sharp bends rather than bandits or opium trains and as you’ll see below you’re some distance from a decent hospital.

Police
There is a couple of police boxes in town but Mae Salong is too small for a police station as such and the nearest ones are in Thoed Thai and Mae Chan. There is a booth at the southern end of town by the T-junction and hill-tribe market and a second one as you head east, just before Mae Salong Villa. The former does proclaim “tourist information” but both are staffed during daylight hours at best.

What you will see more or less permanently manned however are police checkpoints on the routes in and out of town with permanent set-ups at the Kiew Sathai junction of Highways 1234 and 1089 and a second east of town at Sam Yaek Iko, the junction of the 1234 and 4032 Thoed Thai road. These guys are not trying to extort fines, Chiang Mai style, out of unsuspecting tourists, rather they’re checking for smugglers and illegal immigrants and most of the time the officers are happy with a wave but don’t take the proverbial either so slow down, wear your helmet and have paperwork handy in case.

There is a large station on the left as you enter Thoed Thai otherwise it’s Fang, Mae Chan or Chiang Rai with the nearest tourist police found in the latter or a tiny occasionally manned booth in Tha Ton.

Emergencies T: 191
Police Box Highway 1234, by T-junction opposite the hill-tribe market, Mae Salong
Thoed Thai Police Highway 4032 just south of the town centre T: (063) 828 3701

Hospitals
There is a small hospital in town and the larger Mae Fah Luang Hospital in Thoed Thai, but apart from getting a few cuts and grazes patched up we’d recommend heading for the larger Fang Hospital if you’re travelling west or back to Chiang Rai for its wider choice if you’re going in an easterly direction.

Mae Fah Luang Hospital Highway 4032, around 2 kilometres north of Thoed Thai centre
Mae Salong Hospital To the east of Highway 1234, around 1 kilometres south of the town centre.
Emergencies T: 1669

Post
A grocery store on the left of the road just before Mae Salong Villa serves as the town’s post office. We’re not sure about any additional services such as EMS or Western Union but it ought to be ok for any of the postcards that are available from the Xin Shi Dai Bakery.

Post Office Highway 1234, approximately 1 km east of the town centre Open: Mo–Fr

Banks
Note at the time of writing there was only one bank and a single ATM in town so, assuming a worst case scenario, it’s probably a good idea to cash-up before reaching Mae Salong as the next closest would be in Thoed Thai. The solitary branch is the TMB (Thai Military Bank) located up the hill from the town centre around halfway to the junction with the hill-tribe market and police box.

TMB Highway 1234, around 500 metres south of town centre. Open: Mo–Fr 08:30–15:30

Climate
With regards Mae Salong’s climate there are several salient factors we’d bring to your attention. Firstly, corresponding to its mountain-top location, the town does find itself stuck in the clouds for lengthy periods during the rainy season months of May to September. This doesn’t mean constant downpours but rather an enduring drizzle with cloud cover frequently obscuring landscape views. However, swirling mist patches and occasional bursts of bright sunshine do make for some dramatic skies and if you’re lucky you can get some truly spectacular views at this time of year.

During the winter months of November through to February temperatures can drop dramatically and single digit, night-time readings are common. In addition you’ll get mist of a different nature as morning temperature inversion creates the picturesque “sea of fog” effect in the valleys. Once the rising sun burns off the mist, blue, clear skies are par for the course at this time of year though again, once the sun goes down, it’ll be noticeably cooler than lowland areas. Weekends and public holidays will see large influxes of local tourists while Chinese and Taiwanese tour groups have a heavy presence at this time of year.

Lastly, the hot, dry season from March to May sees the perennial northern Thai problem of smoke from forest fires and agricultural burn-off. As much of the cultivation on Doi Mae Salong is tea, fruit orchards and at lower altitudes rubber plantations, local farmers can’t really be blamed but smog drifting over the border from Shan State or up from the heavily farmed valleys south and east will impact on air quality and visibility in and around Mae Salong.

When to go
In tourism terms the above means; winter months are ideal climate-wise but come with the disadvantage of crowds and high season accommodation prices while rainy months are much, much quieter but riskier in affording spectacular vistas. If you’re lucky you may be treated to the most dramatic skies while conversely you may suffer two days of clouds and drizzle.

If you’re planning on any trekking or hiking then rainy season obviously isn’t great and already tricky mountain road conditions are made worse. Rain also puts a dampener on the colourful roadside markets. In so far as mountain landscapes are the main draw up this way then the hot season smog is definitely worth avoiding.

Low temperatures make air-conditioning redundant at most times of year while a fleece or warm clothing is essential for cool months and handy for morning motorbike rides during any period. Waterproofs or plastic ponchos are also a given for bike riders although an umbrella would suffice for wandering around town.

Resources
As usual GT Riders’ Golden Triangle map is the top of the range for this area though we did pick up some half-decent freebie maps from Chiang Rai’s TAT office. GT Riders also provides professionally researched information and photos on both Thoed Thai and Mae Salong on their website.

This site provides reasonably extensive information on the area’s principal hill-tribe group, the Akha.

There’s a wealth of online content dealing with the KMT and recent history of the area but we particularly enjoyed the following sites which cover more specifically Mae Salong as well as including fascinating interviews with some of the old Chinese soldiers who originally settled the mountain.

http://www.scmp.com/magazines/post-magazine/article/1573385/home-93rd-mae-salong
http://www.oldworldwandering.com/2012/05/03/china-forgotten-army-mae-salong-thailand/

For those interested in delving deeper into the region’s fascinating, complex and little known history the following books make great reading. Alfred McCoy’s tome covers opium in the broad Golden Triangle area as well as SUA and KMT’s involvement while Richard Gibson’s study is an excellent and comprehensive account of KMT history in the region.

The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade by Alfred W McCoy.
The Secret Army: Chiang Kai-Shek and the Drug Warlords of the Golden Triangle by Richard M. Gibson & Chen Wenhua.


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