Road Trippin’ – Mae Salong

As we checked out of our accommodation in Chiang Rai, Jina, the owner, suggested that instead of making direct for our next place, which was only 1.5 hrs away we should head further north first to Chiang Saen. We had read that the birding was good at the lake there so I duly fired up Google maps, entered Chiang Saen Lake as our destination and we set off.

Well, you know what they say about relying on SatNav. We were making good time but somehow missed the first turning for the lake without realising it. By the time we had noticed our error we were in fact heading for Chiang Saen the city not the lake. Not to worry, Google showed us how we could get back on track. The only problem was that, as we were driving down the road we came across electricity pylons and cables strewn across the ground with repair trucks all around. It was a bit like a war zone from newsreel footage. The previous night’s storm, which we had seen and heard in Chiang Rai, had clearly been centred in this area and had caused havoc.

We were able to divert around the debris but as Google still had us heading in the right direction that was OK, wasn’t it? So we turned, as instructed down a little road which got narrower and narrower, was full of fallen leaves, branches and the occasional tree which the locals had been at with chainsaws. Tarmac became cement became dirt and still no sign of the lake. It was then that we saw that GiGi (we have a female satnav) had place our destination pin plumb in the centre of the lake. Well, I did ask her to take us to Lake Chiang Saen and she was trying her best. Our Nissan Juke may be many things but amphibious it is not.

So we turned around, swerved around the fallen branches again and headed direct for Mae Salong. This town wasn’t originally meant to be on our itinerary at all but whilst searching on AirBnB for places to stay around Fang (of which, more in another blog) I chanced upon a rather and intriguing looking house set in amongst tea and coffee plantations so that sounded like a good place to quietly see in the New Year.

We arrived at Sweet Mae Salong cafe, as instructed, to be shown to our new accommodation. Ton, the owner, jumped into his car and we followed down a steep cement track (about 1:2 I reckon) to a wonderful, newly built ‘cottage’. It had impressive views from its glass fronted lounge cum bedroom and a long outdoor balcony. We knew that we would be happy here.

View from Sawanbondoi Cottage

Not many western tourists make it here and the locals certainly speak little English. But it does attract a large number of Asian visitors, including Chinese and many of the popular restaurants have a distinctly Chinese feel. This is because of Mae Salong’s very interesting history.

Originally it was just a town on the border with Myanmar (or Burma as it then was) and part of the Golden Triangle. But in 1949 events which shook China (and subsequently the whole world) had their effect in this small town. In that year the Red Army defeated Nationalist Government forces and ushered in the Communist era. Most of the defeated Nationalist forces fled to Taiwan (a source of potential conflict even to this day) but a force of some 12,000 soldiers, part of the 93rd division of the Kuomintang (KMT), fled Yunnan and set up camp in Burma. After skirmishes with the Burmese lasting 12 years most of the remaining KMT were evacuated to Taiwan but in 1961 a group of about 4,000 led by General Tuan Shi-wen, the so called lost division, fled to Thailand and ended up in Mae Salong.

The Thai government gave them sanctuary in exchange for their help in fighting local opium war lords and Thailand’s own internal threat from the Communist Party of Thailand. After 5 years of bloody battles when the communist threat was defeated the Thai government gratefully granted the KMT veterans citizenship and they were at last able to lay down their arms, marrying both local tribes women and Chinese brides smuggled across borders. To this day many of the inhabitants still speak a version of the Yunnan language as well as Thai.

As late as 1974 this area was still growing opium and was deemed too dangerous for tourists but this trade has thankfully given way to a much less harmful drug – tea! The area now grows a wonderful Chinese tea – Oolong -and we took a walk through the tea terraces which was glorious.

A refreshing cup of Oolong tea

Mind you, we did find time for another type of T – a G&T in the cafe.

There was a genuine reason for going to the cafe because we wanted to ask Ton where we might do some birdwatching. “There’s a forest track behind the Maesalong Hill Resort.” he said. Rather bizarrely he then took out his phone and asked if he could take a picture of us. “To send to the manager,” he said, “so that he will recognise you.” And, indeed, the manager did recognise us and greeted us profusely. He showed us the track but told Jane to wait one moment. He came out of his office wielding a sickle on a length of blue plastic pipe. “I let you walk path. You keep track clear for me.” he beamed.

Dangerous business this bird-wathching

As it happened the track was pretty clear. Also, as it happened, there was a dearth of birds but it was a lovely walk through the forest.

Although Mae Salong is noted for its Chinese soldier emigres, the majority of people living in this area are tribes people. And we were most fortunate the following day to witness a festival in the town square. This was an annual celebration to give thanks for the tea and coffee crops, the Sakura Blossom and the hilltribes. It was New Year’s Eve and we felt very privileged to have stumbled quite by accident on such an event.

The costumes were absolutely gorgeous and whilst we couldn’t remotely understand the words of the songs, it was great to join in the festivities. There were hardly any other Westerners there but we were made to feel very welcome.

Although the dancers’ costumes were clearly worn for this special occasion there were a few hill tribe people dressed up in their costumes. Elsewhere in Thailand you’d pay a lot of money to trek to a tribal village and take photos. Here we were staying right amongst it.

We retired early to bed on New Years’s Eve and whilst there were a few crackers and fireworks set off around midnight it wasn’t enough to disturb our sleep too much. But we did want to get up at dawn on New Year’s Day to see the sunrise from Phra Boromathat Chedi, high up above the town. And what a wonderful sunrise it was to see in a new decade.

And with the Sakura (Japanese Cherry) trees blossoming in the early morning light we felt uplifted in spirit. For a place which we hadn’t expected to visit Doi Mae Salong gave us an experience not to forget in a hurry.

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