Underneath the Hand of God - Mae Salong Thailand

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April 9th 2012
Published: June 9th 2012
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Mae Salong from aboveMae Salong from aboveMae Salong from above

The main street of Mae Salong winding through the hills. Viewed from the temple at the top of Doi Mae Salong.
It is perhaps one of those places that life in modern society convinces you can no longer exist. A small sleepy town, quiet, mysterious, with jaw-dropping beauty. You can at once feel as though you have captured it's spirit, while likely never even cracking the surface. I will admit that as we sat in a small town, the name of which escapes me, surrounded by what seemed to be the least hospitable group of Thai's we had yet to come across, under a literally smoke-grey sky, I was wondering why in the world we were headed to Mae Salong. What could possibly sit a top those grey mountains that warranted the long journey to Chiang Rai, the taxi to a secong bus station in Chiang Rai, and the overcrowded bus - luggage in lap - to the small town where our story begins. We were dropped in front of a convenience store and told to wait for a Songthaew which, we came to fear, may or may not show up. The people in the convenience store couldn't even be bothered to walk inside the store to sell us a few provisions, let alone explain how the hell we were supposed to find a Songthaew up the mountain, and when I asked in Thai at a restaurant down the street they laughed and pointed up the street where the bus had dropped us off. We settled for a seat in front of a Songthaew which looked abandoned, and may or may not have even been operational. A man was sitting on a bench and we asked in Thai if this was his Songthaew and if he was headed up the mountain. It should be noted here that Tara and I are by no means fluent in Thai, but we can communicate simple ideas such as 'is this truck yours?', 'is it going to Mae Salong?' and 'when will it leave?' The man replied that it was not his Songthaew. We waited in silence as the grey day grew increasingly dark. There were no guesthouses in sight and sitting there with a heap of luggage we began to develop an increasingly foreboding feeling. Finally, as we were about to move on by foot, the man spoke up and said that it was in fact his Songthaew, but he could not go until it was filled with eight people. As we had not yet seen eight people in the town period, our outlook was not promising. 'How much to take us right now?', we asked. The response was 480 baht (less than $15). Did we already look that ragged a mere four days into our travels? If not, then why didn't you just tell us that before?! We promptly agreed, and at the last minute a hill tribe family, perhaps realizing what had just transpired, decided they too would hop on, contributing 60 baht per adult toward the trip.

As we wove up the winding mountain roads, our spirits lifted with the hills. Although the sky was grey with smoke, and we watched the brush fires that contributed to its ever darkening hue, we began to feel a bit of that magic that radiates from the small mountain town. The bus station in Mae Salong is a patch of dirt across from a seven eleven, and the town consisted of one major road winding over the hill top. Our first impressions were as follows: "Wow, I can't believe there is a Seven Eleven here;" "are we going to be able to find a guesthouse?;" "do the people here speak Thai?;" and "are those
Selling her waresSelling her waresSelling her wares

This woman would not let Tara escape without purchasing a bracelet. Actually, she had just put it on her wrist and Tara didn't know how to get it off. 555
really all tea-shops?" The answers: "I know, I'm shocked too;" "actually, there are several, and they are very reasonably priced;" "only some;" and "yes they are, and you can sit down and sample as many teas as you like, and as a matter of fact, you can also sample the wine, whiskey and dried fruits too, an old man may even break out a harmonica and start playing America the beautiful." But I digress.

We found the first guesthouse we saw a sign for and walked in. It was called the Shin Sane and we rented a small bungalow for 300 baht and a motor-bike for 150 baht (about $13.50 total). We could have taken the $3 / night rooms with the shared bathroom, but hey, we're on vacation, right? After our exhausting day of travel we got dinner and were ready to call it a night. I ordered a Northern style spicy pork soup extra spicy, and it was very spicy. I also ordered a cold pork salad with greens, herbs and a chili-pepper relish. I have made it a habit of eating the spiciest foods I can here. I tell the cooks, yes I want it very spicy, very spicy by Thai standards, not farang standards. And usually the food comes out really spicy, I burn my mouth and drip sweat into my bowl, I sweat through my shirt, I consider it a hobby. However I met my match with the spicy chilli relish on this cold pork salad. The heat was so intense and had the bite of spicy Thai ginger to boot. after five or six bites, I literally thought I couldn't bear it. I had only one other time had a dish that hot, Som Tam from a wise-ass street vendor who crushed up four fresh red chillis when I asked for it spicy. The pork salad here in Mae Salong was almost as bad, and when I went to cool my mouth by going back to the extra spicy soup, the temperature of the soup added an unbearable level to the inferno in my mouth. I felt tears literally begin to run down my cheeks, and Tara commented that every single hair on my head had a bead of sweat. Regardless, I willed myself through the dish, which was, by the way, quite delicious.

As we made our way back up the
Hill-tribe girlsHill-tribe girlsHill-tribe girls

Set up just outside of our room at the start of the early-morning market.
street we decided to see if any of the tea shops were open. Mae Salong is one of those places where the sun goes down at 7:30 and everyone seems to be asleep at 8:00. We did, however, find one tea shop that was open, however grandma did not speak English or Thai. This was perhaps our first indication that the only thing Thai about this town was an imaginary line running somewhere across a not too distant mountain range. We were fearing that we might need to revert to the 'point and nod' method of communication, when grandma disappeared into the back and reappeared with her daughter. Our Aunt (as Thai people regularly refer to unrelated friends by terms such as 'brother,' 'aunt' or 'grandmother), well into her 50s, spoke fluent Thai and decent English, and so we engaged in a friendly mix of Thai-English banter over freshly brewed cups of jiaogulang - an Ancient Chinese cure-all for everything from menstrual cramps to high cholesterol, ginseng oolong and jasmine green teas. We made a few small purchases before heading back along the road that wound through the quiet night.

When we arrived back to our bungalow we noticed a relatively dangerous looking ant, large, orange-red with some moderately dangerous looking pincers. We swept it out through the door and thought that to be the end of the problem. Soon however, we noticed the ants were beginning to pour in from under the door. What did they want? We hadn't brought any food, and there had not been a large group in the room only hours before. Soon after we had pushed them back and sprayed a line of mosquito spray across their path, we heard a blistering round of thunder, and rain began to furiously pound upon the roof of our small bungalow. While we had experienced South-East Asian storms as residents of Phuket at the end of the rainy season in Phuket, we had lived in Nakhon Sawan for about five months of the dry season with almost no rain (including a streak of 3 consecutive dry months which had lasted until the very night in question). The rain brought with it an instant and refreshing chill, and Tara and I slept fully submerged in a sea of blankets with no fan or air-con for the first time in many months.

When we awoke the next morning, we could not have been prepared for the scene before our eyes. The burning of brush by slash-and-burn farming techniques that always marks the end of the dry season here in South-East Asia had reached critical levels this year, with serious health problems and a near total lack of visibility having been reported for many months, particularly in the Northen provinces, of which Mae Salong is a part. On our ride up the mountains the day previous, we had seen much the same, and lamented as the pillars of smoke continued to pour into the mass of grey clouds. Opening the door, however, we were greeted by crisp mountain air, a bright blue sky and cotton white clouds. Right in front of our door a group of hill tribe girls had set up, fully dressed in their traditional garb, selling hand-made goods upon a large blanket. After purchasing a few small gifts, we headed across the street and had fresh fruit smoothies, jasmine green tea, Thai-omlettes (for Tara) and spicy noodle soup (for myself). We rented what was, perhaps, the greatest piece of s*!# motorbike I have ever set eyes upon, and prepared to tackle some of the most
The abandoned tea factory 5The abandoned tea factory 5The abandoned tea factory 5

What a beautiful view, and not just because Tara is in the picture ^__^ (sorry, I have been around Thai students too long)
formidable mountain hills we had yet to encounter in Thailand.

We headed first to an abandoned tea factory complete with a giant swing and huge tea-pot shaped tasting rooms. As we stood in perhaps the most picturesque place I have ever laid eyes upon, we began to get a feeling for what makes Mae Salong so amazing. It isn't the view, the small town charm, the diffusion of beautiful and unique culture, the Yunnanese cuisine, the proliferation of tea and fresh fruit, or the wild history that continues to unfold just beyond the mountains. It is all of these things, and much more, and there is simply no way it can ever be cast with words and photos alone. After putting the memory card on my new camera to the test, we simply sat and enjoyed the beauty of what had become one of those days where all conditions come together in just the right way. We drove back along a dirt road through a small, traditional Chinese village to the main road, then headed up to the temple which sits at the highest point in the town. As an interesting side note, on the way to the Buddhist
Chinese girlChinese girlChinese girl

Her family owned the restaurant we ate breakfast at. She was always curious enough to stare from a safe distance, but rarely came close enough to talk or have a picture snapped.
temple we passed a church in the small Chinese village, and a mosque on the main road, not to mention the innumerable shrines that pay homage to Thailand's pre-Buddhist, animist beliefs. The city was, indeed, a cultural mosaic with Akha, Karen and many other ethnic hill-tribes, ethnic Chinese from Yunnan province, ethnic Thais, and people with a little bit of each. It would make a fascinating anthropological study to chart the number of languages, dialects, ethnicities and religions (not to mention sub-groups and fusions of religions) who live in peace with one another in their tiny mountain-top world.

As we passed through the tea market and took the turn leading up the mountain toward the temple we saw a small village with a formal entry way and a sign which read "Kuomintang Retirement Village." At the time, I thought little of it, assuming perhaps that it was simply some sort of gag for tourists. Having finished a very busy school year only five days before we left, I will admit that I had not done much research on the region. The next day we would also see a Chinese 'Martyr's Memorial Hall,' and again we were quite puzzled by
Yunnanese CuisineYunnanese CuisineYunnanese Cuisine

Slow-roasted pork leg and Yunnanese stir-fried noodles. Exceptional.
it, but unfortunately not quite tempted to enter. After all, we were on a relatively tight schedule, and had so much natural beauty to see (I say to myself now, trying to justify the decision). What I have since learned requires a bit of a background explanation. As we came to find, the Kuomintang Retirement Village had not been built for tourists.

In the early 1930s China was in political and social upheaval from decades of foreign interferance and internal strife. When the Japanese army decided to invade Manchuria in Northern-China, they began a string of events which was already dragging the continent of Asia into World War II. At the time, China had two rival armies, the communists led by Mao Tse Dong, and the nationalist Kuomintang army led by Chiang Kai-shek. When the two armies weren't fighting one another, they fought against Japanese occupation, until the ultimate fall of Imperial Japan's expansionist ambitions with the annihilation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August of 1945. What followed in China was a civil war that would last for more that four-years between the communist and nationalist armies. Ultimately, the communists led by Mao Tse Dong were victorious, and most
Yunnanese Cuisine 2Yunnanese Cuisine 2Yunnanese Cuisine 2

Pan-fried mushrooms in soy-sauce
of Chiang Kai-shek's army fled to Taiwan, where they maintain a fragile peace with the mainland People's Republic. However some of Chiang's army stayed, including more than 10,000 troops from the 93rd division, who refused surrender. They maintained their resistance in the rugged terrain of southern-China, particularly in Yunnan provinse on the border with Burma, a border that extends only about forty miles before reaching Mae Salong, Thailand. Eventually the army found their way into the jungles of Burma's semi-autonomous Shan State. There, they fought off the Burmese Army, which sought to push the foreign army off of their soil, while launching CIA equipped and funded missions into Yunnan in what would be the first of many failed attempts to wrest power back from the communists in the midst of escalating Cold War tensions. In order to further fund their operations the Kuomintang (abbreviated KMT) army became heavily involved in the refinement and traffiking of the 'golden triangle's' cash-crop of cash-crops - opium and heroin. By the early 1970s, the area encompassing North-East Burma, Northern-Thailand, and North-West Laos was widely held to be the largest heroin producing region on earth. About a decade before that, the battle weary soldiers, theirs numbers dwindling well below 50% of the original 10,000 troops, had sought assylum in Mae Salong. The Thai government agreed, in exchange for the battle tested soldiers agreeing to police the rugged hills of Northern Thailand from communist infiltration. Using the cash from the growing demand for the drug in the United States, the soldiers continued their struggle against America's enemy. By the early 1980s, with a warming of relations between the US and China, and a cooling of Cold War tensions, the men whose lives had been to dominated by total-violence finally laid down their arms. Beyond working to acclimate their friends from Yunnan into a life of peace, the Thai government also made efforts to end the grip of drug production on the region. They introduced and subsidized crop substitution plans, where farmers would be paid to turn their poppy fields into a location for the cultivation of high-quality teas and organic fruits. The soldiers settled there amongst the local hill tribe people and the ethnic Thais who called the mountains their home. It is a true blessing that after more than three-decades, these men who had known nothing but war were finally able to discover peace.

As I said, if only I knew then what I know now. Nonetheless, we zipped past the KMT retirement village with not so much as a photo and up Doi Mae Salong (Mae Salong Mountain). When we arrived at the temple which watched peered over the peak, we stared down at the tiny, one street village on what appeared to us to be the roof of the world. It was a surreal experience, one of those out-of-body moments when you realize you are staring upon something that will be etched into your consciousness for the rest of your years. We made it back to our bike and slowly coasted down the hill, at several points fearful that we may not be able to stop the bike. We coasted by the KMT retirement village and back onto the main road. That night we had dinner at the most highly recommended restaurant in Mae Salong, The Mae Salong Villa. When we arrived, there was literally not a soul there - tourism was unbelieveably low during our visit. Undeterred, we headed upstairs and sat down. A young Chinese girl who spoke Thai came out and handed us a menu, informing us that there was a 200 baht ($6) minimum per guest (again, did we look that ragged?) We ordered Yunnanese style slow-roasted pork leg (for me) Yunnanese noodles, and pan-fried mushrooms in Soy Sauce. The food was incredible, with the mushrooms standing out as by far the best tasting mushroom dish of any kind we have ever had.

Our final day in Mae Salong was Easter Sunday. We had noticed a small Akha-Chinese village a few kilometers off the main road, and decided to take a ride in. We rode past populations of semi-wild dogs and chickens, watching as hill-tribe women in traditional outfits made their way up the dirt path into town. When we reached the village, which appeared to house perhaps 100 people, we stopped the bikes as groups of children ran toward us holding out what appeared to be plums. We stopped and the children handed us the small purple fruit. We thanked them and I went to take a bite, but quickly realized we had not been handed frut at all, but chicken eggs dyed purple in celebration of Easter. The children erupted in laughter at the crazy farang who had tried to eat an Easter egg, shell
The abandoned tea factory 3The abandoned tea factory 3The abandoned tea factory 3

The giant swing at the old tea factory.
and all.

I soon noticed that sitting upon the hill was a small, one-room Christian 'church,' and made the connection that this small village must have been converted, perhaps many generations ago. I am saddened by the way missionary efforts have fostered the rapid degeneration of traditional hill-tribe culture and the Animist way of life which had been practiced there and around the world many thousands of years before monotheism sprouted in the Middle East. Nevertheless, it put a smile on my face to remember dying Easter eggs with my grandmother as a child, and to now find an Easter celebration in, of all places, an Akha-Chinese village in the remote mountains of Northern Thailand. Probably taking us for Christians, one of the Thai-speaking members of the household asked if we were hungry, and some of the older women began to lead us into their home. Once inside, we sat with the family in their simple one room house and ate an Easter dinner of sticky-paste inside of bananna leaves, a soft flat-bread, salted hard-boiled eggs, chicken, greens, fresh watermelon, tea and seven-up. The food was not very good, and I had sticky paste stuck to my fingers all
Bus from Chiang RaiBus from Chiang RaiBus from Chiang Rai

On our way to the town at the base of the mountain range.
day. I also ate something that tasted like ground fermented tobacco and I think may have been ant eggs. Nonetheless, we were truly grateful for the once-in-a-lifetime experience. It was a remarkable site to behold, the oldest generation (great-grandmothers, likely) in traditional dress, grandmothers of about fifty-years wearing simple, yet not traditional, farming clothes, mothers slightly older than us wearing more modern clothing and speaking Thai as well as a touch of English, and then young kids wearing t-shirts you would see on a child anywhere else in Thailand. The collapse of traditional culture and on-set of modernity, right before our eyes. The thought struck me as both tragic and unsettling, the type of feeling when you let go of something you know you can never have back.

We said goodbye to our hosts and went into town to pick up some small gifts to present in acknowlegment of their hospitality. We stopped at a Chinese-shop and asked what would make an appropriate gift for our hosts. We were sold a type of traditional, crispy oat snack which we were told was enjoyed by the adults, and were told to stop at Seven-Eleven and get some "taffy" for the children. When we returned to the village and presented the gifts to some of the grandmothers, they looked at the traditional snack, set them down on a chair and proceeded to open the candy from Seven-Eleven and pass it around. They savored the candy slowly, on account that their stained and bloody, often tooth-less gums could no longer chew, the legacy of years of chewing betel with rough tobacco - a staple for the hardworking hill-tribe people. I was later told a humorous story about a young trekker who came upon a hill-tribe village. Against the advice of the trek guides, he insisted upon chewing betel with the rough tobacco. He wrapped the betel nut in tobacco leaves, placed it into his mouth and began to chew. Soon after, his face turned a jaundiced hue before he fell to his knees and began to vomit. As he laid on the floor, the village swine came trotting through the doorway and began to slurp up the vomit, licking the young man's face clean.

Later in the day we took a trip around town and tried some more tea. At one shop we began with tea, which is served much the same way as you might sample wine at a winery. We were joined by a Chinese man who spoke Thai and a smattering of English, and was keen on learning about us. Soon, we were also sampling local fruit wine, and a large tray of dried fruits and nuts were passed our way as well. Not long after, the samples had turned to locally distilled whiskeys, and the old man broke out a harmonica and proceeded to play America the beautiful. At our next stop, we met an English speaking Thai-Chinese man, who was not only a tea expert but also an artist. He explained to us how he would sit in a state of meditation until inspiration struck, at which point he would take a seat at his table and paint beautiful black and white art work accompanied by calligraphy. We sat and sipped local teas and snacked on dried fruits - literally the fruits of the government's opium crop-substitution programs - while he explained the stories, poems, emotions and feelings that inspired various pieces of his art collection. We purchased one for 200 thb ($6), and were given a free mini-drawing of our choice. Our new friend was overjoyed by the interest we took in his stories, and could have kept the tea and stories pouring all night if we had not finally left in search of dinner. If you are in the area and would like to buy a piece of his art, he is located at a coffee / tea shop (one of the few that serves coffee in town) which is located in the center of the 'tea-market' right across from a policebox, makeshift bus-stop and ATM. If you go, please be sure to stay for a story and a cup of tea.

The next morning we said our final goodbyes to Mae Salong. We went for an early morning motorbike ride, had breakfast at our favorite shop, shared some tea and packed our bags. We shared a songthaew down the mountain with a world-travelling couple. The husband was from Colorado, and his wife from Columbia. They had been travelling together for decades. They had no home, and other than their backpacks no posessions except for a few boxes at his sisters house. They had children in five different states, and a year-and-a-half old grandchild they had never met, and they said pressure from
The artist 1The artist 1The artist 1

Speaking passionately about the inspiration for a drawing.
family dictated that they would soon return to The States, where they seemed to have no intention of settling down. As we exchanged travel stories a bucket of ice cold water suddenly blasted through the open back of the songthaew, soaking us and our luggage. The screams of children indicated the culprits. Apparantly, Songkran began a week early in the mountains. We wiped the cold water from our faces and did the best to cover our packs, but there was no hiding and no getting upset. The Thai festival of Songkran was beginning and we were on our way to the epicenter - Chinag Mai. We took one look backward with a longing for the familiar little town which had not yet even slipped through our fingers. Saddened by what we were leaving behind, we couldn't help but smile for what was yet in store.

Additional photos below
Photos: 55, Displayed: 38


Yunnanese NoodlesYunnanese Noodles
Yunnanese Noodles

This shop specialized in Yunnanese noodle soup. The noodles were a soft-flour noodle, the broth chicken based, and it was topped with green-onions and thin strips of pork. $1.
Hill-tribe womanHill-tribe woman
Hill-tribe woman

One of the last women in the home we ate Easter dinner still wearing her traditional outfit. She is seen here holding out a dyed Easter Egg.
After lunchAfter lunch
After lunch

Outside of the home where we ate Easter lunch.
The abandoned tea factory 8The abandoned tea factory 8
The abandoned tea factory 8

View of an Akha Chinese village in the distance
The abandoned tea factory 9The abandoned tea factory 9
The abandoned tea factory 9

Some of the traditional houses in one of the small hill-tribe village
On the way to churchOn the way to church
On the way to church

Some of the Hill-tribe people making their way to a church on Easter Sunday.

Sitting at the base of one small Chinese village, overlooking another.

9th June 2012

Hey Dan, I really enjoyed this even though Tara had told me about this trip in detail a couple times. My favorite part though although thoroughly grossed out was the swine licking the mans face clean. Thank you for the visuals.
10th June 2012

Thank you
Diana, I wish I could have had a real picture from that to really bring the visual to life... I couldn't imagine haha

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