Chiang Rai’s mountaintop town of Mae Salong began life as a Yunnanese town; unsurprisingly, today, it feels like less of a typical Thai town and more as if it belongs in Southern China. Remnants of the Kuomintang (KMT) who fled Yunnan after defeat in the Chinese civil war by Mao Tse Tung’s communist forces founded the town in the early 1960s.
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 others under General Tuan setting up camp in what is now Mae Salong.
The deal presented by the Thai government to the KMT was: help us fight our own communist insurgents (the Communist Part Thailand or CPT) and we’ll let you stay here. (Other units settled near Pai, Mae Hong Son and Arunothai.) They did also spend considerable time and effort fighting Khun Sa and his Shan United Army for control over the lucrative opium trade. Indeed Khun Sa’s base, which you can now visit as a short side trip, was located just over the hills at nearby Hin Taek (Thoed Thai) village.
During the early 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 rather an embarrassment to Thailand and its US ally. Efforts were taken to bring the region and the KMT under control and the Yunnanese soldiers toed the Thai line in return for citizenship. Khun Sa was forced over the border, Mae Salong was renamed Santikhiri (‘Hill of Peace’) and the region was opened up to tourists.
The name never stuck but the Chinese Republicans have, and nowadays most of the population of the town itself is descended from soldiers and families of the 93rd Division. Contrary to many reports, you won’t see any old KMT soldiers in their tattered uniforms these days; well, you may still see some of the old soldiers but their uniforms have long since disintegrated. 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 see Lisu and Lahu in town too.
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 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.
Other activities in the small town itself include checking out the local hilltribe villages and markets; visiting the unusual Chinese Martyr’s Memorial; 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 and some fine accommodation options to suit most budgets. Overall, Mae Salong is an interesting and unusual spot to while away a couple of days. The weather’s cool up here and the village is frequently in the mist, lending plenty of atmosphere to this history laden outpost.
Mae Salong’s position atop a 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, ATMs and the songthaew stop. Tea houses, larger hotels and the police post lie along the Mae Chan road running east out of town.
Back on the Tha Ton side of town, the highway bears south and is lined by more markets, more resorts and many of Mae Salong’s restaurants. The small hospital is along this stretch, down a side road, while a steep chedi-topped hill looms over the town to the northwest.
A sealed lane linking several Akha and Lahu villages does a short loop from the handicraft market skirting east around town to re-join the Mae Chan road, otherwise there is only Route 1234 leading in and out of town. This takes you east 12 kilometres to a T-junction with the Thoed Thai (formerly Hin Taek) road and on another steep 30 kilometres or so to Mae Chan on Route 1. South there’s around 15 – also very steep – kilometres before you meet Route 1089. Mae Chan is 30 kilometres east and Tha Ton equidistant to the west. Route 1089 is largely flat but still very scenic.
The border regions north of Mae Salong are still pretty wild country, so do give serious consideration before wandering too far off-piste and please check with your guesthouse beforehand for any new developments worth considering when planning a longer trip around the area.
By Mark Ord. Last updated on 8th October, 2016.