Delightful Northern Thailand 9 – Mae Salong
Norah roams the tea fields as if she were the boss here. The plantations clings to a steep slope of red dirt. Between endless rows and rows of tea, Norah eagerly walks up and down. In her tight cord jeans, a white polo and her long hair fixed closely to her head, picking leaves here and sniffing there, with an enterprising almost triumphant face, she could be the manager. A Memsahib. Actually, this is just one more of Norah's encounters with crops she never saw growing – and that really excites her.
This is a plantation that welcomes visitors. Near Mae Salong, in the north of Chiang Rai province, we followed a sign down a steep dirt road – "ecotourism – tea plantation". In the very poor village we finally passed, a parked jeep blocked the narrow road. Patiently we waited for the driver to return. A local lady noticed us. Excitedly she gestured us to wait, stormed off and returned – with a tray of cheap jewelry for sale. When the other car finally moved away, we could only proceed at snail's pace – the jewelry lady would walk right next to the car, holding to it, offering her wares. Norah, my ASEAN lover, wasn't the least bit interested – she wanted to see the tea.
"Look", she says to me, returning from roaming the tea fields on her own, "I only found one bush of tree with a flower. They already cut the flowers anywhere else".
Does tea have flowers? Are tea flowers cut? I like to drink tea. Norah, it seems, would prefer to *grow* it.
It's hard work to turn the Suzuki Vitara Long around on the narrow trail. We return back towards the village. Out from the next bush pops – our jewelry lady, once again beaming a promising smile and holding her products right in front of the windscreen. I open the window again and tell her "Mai ao khrap" for the umpteenth time. Norah just looks bored.
Again we have to proceed very very slowly, otherwise we might hit the jewelry seller. Finally she realises that no deal will be done – her face turns sour as if I had burnt down her home. I feel bad, Norah still looks bored.
— MAE SALONG
High on a hill-top, Mae Salong is full of shops that sell tea and mushrooms. There are interesting tea tastings offered, where you are poured several varieties of tea before you make your selection. You can see it in every second shop.
As much as I would like to partake, I finally back off: I don't like the pressure to buy that might arise from the situation. Also, it is not completely clear that they finally hand you the kind of tea you sampled before. The taste of a fine tea also largely depends on the quality of water, so I am quite sure I couldn't reproduce a taste I might experience here.
Actually, involuntary tea-tasting sessions we do have for several mornings on the food terrace of Mae Salong Villa. This place also sells a big range of teas which are piled near the cashier – but the breakfast tea is yellow and exceptionally dull.
With it's distinct Chinese feel, complete with red lamps and many red arches, Mae Salong differs greatly from any other settlement we see on this very diverse Northern Thai sojourn. According to the books, decades ago Chinese Kuomintang members fled Mao's hordes into what's now called Myanmar, then had to continue to Thailand. In this remote area, difficult to reach until not long ago, the Chinese mixed even less with Thai culture than they do elsewhere.
Norah didn't want to stay in a Chinese place as Mae Salong in the first place. Indeed, both of us feel more sabai with lowland Thais, less so with Chinese places or hill tribes except Hmongs. But Mae Salong Villa has agreeable, if subromantic bungalows for us – made from stone, squeaky clean, and crammed into another steep hill with some flowers around. From our little terrace we have a full view of golden Santi Khiri Pagoda, shimmering on yet another steep hill.
The nights are so warm that we spread the picnic mat on the terrace and finish what little yoghurt and biscuits Mae Salong's auntie shops had to offer. Even though this place must be 1000 or more meters above sea level, it's much warmer than at our Chiang Dao lodge only around 450 meters high.
The area seems to offer interesting day hikes through steep, open hillside. According to the guide book, Shin Sane Guesthouse has trekking information.
One evening we walk there. Shin Sane Guesthouse lurks at the end of a dark, dirty lane. First we hear gunfire, bombing, screams. On a grotty little terrace sit one farang and one Thai, watching a horror C-movie. The air is thick with smoke, which fits
in with the war games on the screen – just that the smell is more of ganja than gunpowder. We never inquire for walking trails there.
Excellent as always – makes me want to take a break in the North.