Mae Salong, situated in the hills of Chiang Rai province of northern Thailand, is a region as picturesque as they come: waves of lush tea plantations row upon row and, in January, the pink glory of delicate cherry blossoms in full bloom.
But you’ll also find the unexpected: a distinctly Chinese feel found nowhere else in the country.
A Brief History of Mae Salong
Once remote and now a tourist destination near the Myanmar border, Mae Salong gained notoriety in 1949 when it became a refuge for the KMT (China’s defeated anti-communist forces from Yunnan province) and a hub for the opium trade. The Thai government eventually granted asylum to the new residents in 1961 in exchange for their help in defending the country against the communist insurgency in and around the Golden Triangle until 1982.
The 1,200m-high village in Mae Salong is home to the descendants of the KMT, where you’ll discover Chinese lanterns, signs in both Thai and the Yunnanese dialect of Chinese, and restaurants serving Yunnanese cuisine.
The opium fields in the surrounding countryside have been replaced with aromatic tea plantations, tea shops and farms where Chinese herbs and produce are grown. No longer the capital of opium production, the village is now known as Santikiri, or the “Hill of Peace”.
Half the pleasure of visiting Mae Salong is the scenic drive through the highlands. The winding road will take you through hill tribe communities, open farmland, rolling hills and commanding views of the mountains. The air, cool and crisp, is a refreshing change from the smog of city traffic.
Expect the drive to be 2 hours from the city of Chiang Rai, and 4 hours from Chiang Mai. You can also reach Mae Salong by taking a combination of buses and songthaews (local pick-up trucks).
Having your own mode of transportation, however, will allow you to get there faster and stop whenever you like to take in the scenery and shoot photos.
I booked a driver from my guesthouse in Chiang Rai, which was far more convenient than public transportation for my day trip.
A Tea Lover’s Paradise
Coffee plantations dot the hilly landscape but Mae Salong’s defining crop — and draw for visitors — are the fragrant tea plantations.
With its refreshing climate, high elevation and fertile soil, the area is ideal for tea growing, and tea drinkers around the world know it. The tourist season peaks November-February when the cooler temperatures offer welcome relief from the rest of Thailand.
High-quality Oolong tea is the specialty in Mae Salong, so you’ll want to have a taste of the local brew at one of the many tea houses against the backdrop of leafy green terraces or in a shop on the main street in the village.
If you’re an early riser, be sure to check out the morning market in the village for local products produced by the Ahka, a hill tribe with origins in Tibet who eventually settled in northern Thailand.
I’m typically not out of bed before 8:00-8:30am which is when most of the vendors close up so I made my way to the Tourist Market instead. Find it on the south side of the village in the afternoon for souvenir, medical herb and tea shopping.
Note: Snapping a photo of an Akha seller may come with the expectation that you will either pay them or buy a product from their stall.
What I Missed
Wat Santikhiri, the village temple, is Thai but home to a Chinese-style pavilion, as well as fantastic views of the countryside and tea plantations. I ran out of time so I skipped what would have likely been an outstanding photo opp. Don’t make the same mistake I did!
My visit didn’t coincide with the cherry blossom season in January, so I missed that too. During this time, you’ll enjoy a stunning, 4-km burst of little pink flowers, making Mae Salong even more alluring.
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If you’ve been to Mae Salong, share your thoughts. What did you love most about it?