Bright if not so early the next morning I set off towards the village of Mae Salong, about 50 klicks northwest of Chiang Rai near the Burmese border. This pipsqueak of a village has a more interesting story than most: after the Commies under Mao established their rule over China in the 1950s, one fragment of the losing Nationalist (Kuomintang/KMT) army made its way over to exile in Thailand. There the KMT trained its army for the day of return that was one day to come, and financed itself by growing opium and dealing in heroin, with notorious warlord Khun Sa living just around the corner.
The Thais weren’t entirely happy about this state of affairs, and the KMT head honchos started to have their own doubts about the probability of imminent return, so the two struck a deal: the battle-hardened KMT would help the Thais squelch their own Communist insurgency, and they’d get Thai citizenship and help for crop substitution. Somewhat surprisingly, the plan worked — the Reds got squished, the renegade Chinese became upstanding Thai citizens, and instead of opium fields, it’s now tea plantations growing Taiwanese High Mountain Oolong that dot the hills of Mae Salong.
And that’s where I found myself standing on a broiling hot April noon. It soon became clear that this was well off-season: the peak here is the winter, when the plums and cherries blossom and visitors come not just from Thailand but KMT’s main territory of Taiwan as well. My only consolation was that April is tea harvest time, so leaves were drying out next to tea factories and the smell of roasting tea filled the air.
Guidebooks try to paint Mae Salong as a little Yunnanese Shangri-La, where KMT cadres with wispy Ho Chi Minh beards smoke suspiciously opium-y long pipes, but no, appearancewise it’s pretty much a Thai town these days, complete with the obligatory Seven-Eleven in the little town square. I trekked up to the hilltop to see the Thai stupa and temple, detoured via the Mae Salong Resort (formerly a KMT training camp and still looking about as comfy as an army barracks), had a bowl of not very noteworthy noodles at the Yunnanist Noodle Shop and tried my hand at Chinese tea ceremony with an obliging if English-challenged tea shop hostess. And with the heat and the haze beating down, I felt I’d seen enough and took my leave. Maybe again someday in winter…