Tiny Town of Mae Salong in Chiang Rai bears a distinctive Chinese Past

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The Martyr’s Memorial Hall in Doi Mae Salong (Image: Wikipedia)


The history of Doi Masalong community set against a backdrop of the Chinese Civil War after after Mao Zedong’s communist party victory in China, the defeated Kuomintang (KMT) armies led by Chiang Kai-shek who later retreated to Taiwan. Among defeated army, the General Tuan Shi-wen led about 4,000 soldiers of Kuomintang (KMT) 93rd Division to fight the way out of China via Burma to a mountainous sanctuary in Mae Salong in Thailand. In exchange for asylum, the Thai government allowed them to stay on the understanding that they would assist in policing the area against communist infiltration. Later the Thai government awarded the KMT with citizenship status and a new settlement on Doi Mae Salong. As a result, most of the village’s inhabitants today are ethnic Chinese and direct descendants of those KMT soldiers.

Mae Salong is used to be a center of the Opium trade but has now been ‘bought out’ by the Thais and flooded with money to turn legitimate and boasts tea plantations and massive horticulture operations. Now Mae Salong has likewise been renamed Santikhiri which means “hill of peace” was introduced by the Thai government in an effort to disassociate the area from its former image as an established opium zone.

The below article is written by Lesie Koh from The Straits Times telling about Mae Salong’s past and present.

As the mist rolls over the tiny town of Mae Salong perched on the hills of northern Thailand, it is hard to imagine that this is the same tropical country better known for the humid streets of Bangkok and the sunny beaches of Phuket. But Mae Salong, a two-hour drive from Chiang Rai, is unlike anything else in Thailand. For one thing, tom yam soup is hard to find in the coffee shops dotting the narrow road snaking up from the dusty plains far below.

The view of a village in Mae Salong called Santikhiri (สันติคีรี). Image: Wikipedia

The view of a village in Mae Salong called Santikhiri (สันติคีรี). Image: Wikipedia


Instead, the star of the morning market, frequented by women in colourful headdresses – identifying them as Akha tribeswomen – is a hot soya bean drink and crispy youtiao. Both prove to be a reviving breakfast, given the daytime temperature that dips to 12 deg C in mid-January. Then there is the scenery. Endless vistas of thickly forested mountains stretch far away to Laos on one side of the ridge above the town and to Myanmar on the other, with some slopes covered by terraced rows of tea plantations. Also, the locals are not speaking a lot of Thai.

“Do you speak Mandarin?” the proprietor of our guesthouse asks tentatively when he sees my wife’s and my Singapore passports.

When we nod, Mr Somboon Iamvitayakun, 62, breaks into a relieved smile. “Sorry, my English is not very good. So much easier if we can speak in Mandarin,” he says in Mandarin.

And that is what makes Mae Salong a most unusual tourist spot in Thailand, a country more often than not associated with gold-roofed temples, spicy food and “Same Same” T-shirts.

Here in Santikhiri, if you go by its official name, a distinctive Chinese culture pervades the entire town, whether it is in the faces, language or food.

“We’re all Chinese here. We try to preserve our culture – we speak Mandarin, we keep our traditions,” adds Mr Somboon, owner of Little Home Guesthouse (www.maesalonglittlehome.com), which charges about 1,000 baht (S$41.60) a night for a bungalow for two.

Crispy youtiao and soya bean milk is a standard breakfast for many (above); Mae Salong’s residents do their best to preserve Chinese culture and the town feels like a typical Yunnan village. (Image: Leslie Koh::Straitstimes)

Crispy youtiao and soya bean milk is a standard breakfast for many (above); Mae Salong’s residents do their best to preserve Chinese culture and the town feels like a typical Yunnan village. (Image: Leslie Koh::Straitstimes)


Indeed, wander past the narrow strip of houses sited precariously on the ridges of Doi Mae Salong – “doi” means mountain in Thai – and you will quickly find that most locals speak Mandarin. And if you happen to speak the Yunnanese dialect, you will find yourself right at home.

For Mae Salong, as history buffs will know, was once the refuge of the “Lost Army” of Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang. While most of the Nationalist troops fled to Taiwan when Mao Zedong’s People’s Liberation Army stormed into Nanjing in 1949, the KMT’s 93rd Division, which was fighting in the hills of southern Yunnan province, was forced to retreat southwards, walking for months into then-Burma.

In 1961, after being pushed out of Myanmar where their opium trade financed arms, they trudged again, towards Mae Salong. It is history that Mr Somboon knows well. His father was a general in the 93rd and he himself fought in the war. “There were just 16 families and 4,000 soldiers here,” he recalls. “Of the original 360 in our unit, there are only three of us still alive. The rest died in war.”

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Holy pool or wishing pool (Image: gt-rider.com)


It is hard to imagine the soft-spoken, grandfatherly Mr Somboon as a battle-hardened warrior, but that is exactly what he was. In exchange for Thai citizenship, he and many compatriots of the 93rd Division joined the Thai army to help it fight communist insurgents operating around the porous borders in the country’s north.

“I fought the Chinese. I fought in Myanmar. I fought in Laos. I fought until I was 50 years old, when I was tired of fighting,” he says. “So I stopped fighting and retired.”

But there is no trace of bitterness on the peaceful face of the owner of Little Home Guesthouse, where we stay three nights. He is more than happy to recommend walks around the hills. Indeed, Mae Salong, while proud of its origins, appears to hold no grudge over its retreat or the losses of the past.

At the Chinese Martyrs’ Memorial Museum (admission 20 baht; along Highway 1089), a large hall and several rooms pay tribute to the troops who fought and died, while also celebrating its residents’ confident march into the future, with pictures of them in meetings with regional leaders.

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Chinese Martyrs’ Memorial Museum (Image: gt-rider.com)


At the tomb of General Tuan Xi-Wen (along Highway 1089 and behind Day Market), an old soldier stands guard, inviting visitors to pay their respects to Mae Salong’s founder – though many are more interested in the views that the hilltop tomb offers.

Walk around town and you will quickly understand why thousands of Thais flock here in the colder months of the year – between November and February – to drink in the clean, crisp mountain air, sup on fresh mushrooms and strawberries, and revel in the novelty of shivering while waiting for dinner to be served on open-air verandahs. Breathtaking views can be enjoyed from just about everywhere, along with cherry blossoms and alpine-like flowers in the winter months.

And if you are tired of the oolong tea being served in every other coffee shop, you can retreat to the rather modern Sweet Maesalong Cafe (www.facebook.com/sweetmaesalong) for a latte or cappucino, which you can sip as you take in the view of the countryside from deck chairs scattered around the open-air verandah.

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Customers on chair Deck at Sweet Maesalong (Image: facebook.com/sweetmaesalong)


While Mae Salong can be done on a day tour from Chiang Rai, it is worth spending a few days in this mountain retreat, so you can meander for hours along the winding roads that dip in and out of valleys, passing through rural tribal villages where time seems to stand still. Even in Mae Salong itself, progress – evidenced in a brightly lit 7-Eleven in the town centre – has not destroyed the village atmosphere.

Schoolchildren trudging uphill to school, teens laughing as they race past on noisy scooters (three to a bike, no helmets, of course), women carrying their day’s marketing in rattan baskets slung on their backs – there is enough life to watch simply sitting at the coffee shops just inches away from the road.

Adding to the sense of isolation is the journey between Chiang Rai and Mae Salong, the only way being a one-hour ride on a songtheaw from several towns at the foothills.

Squeezing onto one of Thailand’s ubiquitious shared pick-up taxis can be an adventure in itself, as you start counting the number of passengers the tiny vehicle can take – if you include those perched on the bumper at the back. At one point, we got to 28.

But if you want a taste of Yunnan and a breath of fresh, cold mountain air without getting out of Southeast Asia, it is worth the ride.

Inside the Museam
The museum is divided into three sections. The first section is photo and history of Doi Mae Salong. It includes:

  • The history of the Northern Thailand Kuomintang Army Regiments.
  • The 1950 battle of Mun-Gou and Da Chi Li in China.
  • Training preparation at Mussar for the counterattack on Yunnan Province.
  • The bloody battle at Salween River and the First Withdrawal of soldiers to Taiwan.
  • The Rearmament of the Solitary Armed Forces at Chiang-La and the Second Withdrawal to Taiwan.
  • Battles against the communists in Northern Thailand on behalf of the Thai government.
  • Models of the battle areas.
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The first section of the Museam (Image: gt-rider.com)


The second section has the names of all the KMT soldiers killed in battle.

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The second section of the Museam (Image: gt-rider.com)

The third section is devoted to the development of Doi Mae Salong and the kind support of HM the King and Queen of Thailand

What to do in Mae Salong
This article is mainly about the museum, Mar Salong community and its path, but there are more thing to do there.

  • Motorbiking. This is motorbiking country and this is the way that many travellers get to Mae Salong. It is very dangerous but can be exiting for some. The windy roads, beautiful landscape and fresh air makes for some of the best motorbiking journeys in the world. The beautiful scenery surrounding Mae Salong, northern ThailandThe beautiful countryside surrounding Mae Salong, northern Thailand
  • Taste or buy some tea.  Doi Mae Salong is Thailand’s major tea plantation area, which is also widely known to produce tea of the best quality in the country. Currently, there are almost 100 tea farmers for over 20,000 Rai (approximately 8,000 Acres) of tea plantation, of which around 10,000 Rai is for growing organic tea. When you’re there you will tea bushes growing all over the area. So the tea is fresh and delicious! Sip a cup in the morning as the mist rises over the mountains. Here most of tea is “Oolong” and it is now big business in the mountains of Northern Thailand and Doi Mae Salong seems a perfect place to grow it. The weather fits, the elevation fits and certainly the ambiance fits. One kilogram of Jasmine Oolong tea sells for Bt 250, which must be a real bargain compared to western prices.
  • Shopping for souvenir
    There is a shopping bazaar in the museum selling the fine teas produced in the steep hillsides around the village. Open daily from 8.30 a.m. to 4.30 p.m. Entrance fee of Baht 30.- per person. There are also of Akha street sellers of handcraft and tourist trinkets and more local Akha villages further down on the slopes of the valley, including notorious Ban Hin Taek, (ที่บ้านหินแตก) now renamed Ban Therd Thai – “Village to Honor Thailand”, believed to be the first Akha village in Thailand. Ban Hin Taek has a long custom of an agriculture industry. Produce such as tomatoes, maize, onions, garlic and potatoes are grown and then sold in other places in Chiang Rai. There is even a tea factory in the village. It also has a prosperous cross-border trade
  • Trekking. With gorgeous mountainous countryside, many hill-tribe villages (Akha, Hmong and Shan) in the area, Mae Salong is a fantastic base to go trekking.

When to go
Doi Mae Salong has Doi Mae Salong splendid natural beauty, cold breeze, authentic tribal culture available for tourist throughout the year. But if you want to visit the peak of the mountain, the best time is in winter from December to February. Tourists can indulge themselves in a nice and comfortable temperature, admire the picturesque sea of fog and sip a cup of warm tea in a meantime. Moreover, tourists can wander around tea plantations and greet hill tribe people in their colorful costumes festooned with distinctive silver adornments. There are pinkish Wild Himalayan Cherry flowers, so-called Thailand’s Sakura, blooming all over the mountain.

Where to stay
If you decide to spend a night or so on Doi Mae Salong, you have a range of resorts and guest houses to pick from. Prices range from THB250 ($8) to THB3,500 ($120). Surprisingly, there are a few high-end resorts there.

How to get there
An access to Doi Mae Salong is very easy owing to the asphalt road.  By car: Drive along the Chiang Rai –Mae Chan route for 28 kilometers. At 1 kilometer away from Mae Chan district, turn left and keep going for 23 kilometers until you pass Pha Duea Village which is a scenic point and a handicraft market. Then from Ekaw T-junction, go straight for 10 kilometers to Doi Mae Salong. The whole distance from Chiang Rai is approximately 64 kilometers. There is a 45-kilometer-long road connecting Doi Mae Salong to Ban Tha Ton village, Fang district, Chiang Mai province.

By bus: From Chiang Rai, catch a local bus to Ban Pasang or Mae Chan (30-60 baht, about one hour), then change to a songtheaw or shared pick-up taxi for the final trip up to Mae Salong (about 60 baht each or 500 baht if you charter the whole pick-up for yourself). For further information, please call Coordination Center for Community Tour Guide, Homestay and Campground at (+66)053-710024, (+66)085-0386362; or Mae Salong Nok Subdistrict Administrative Organization at (+66)053-765129

Edited fror the original article at www.straitstimes.com

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  1. steve