04 Nov Our Mae Salong Mountain Haven
I awoke to the sound of buzzing insects rather than the hum of Chiang Mai traffic. As Andrew slid back the balcony door crisp alpine air hit me and through the grey dawn light, I could spot a stripe of neon orange on the horizon. The sun was rising over our Mae Salong mountain haven, illuminating dozens of peaks cloaked in mist and a vast cloud sea that filled the valley bowls. It was a sight that made me thankful to be living here in Thailand.
Our Mae Salong Weekend Getaway
Mae Salong (now formally known as Santikhiri) is a village nestled high in the mountains of Northern Thailand, close to the Burmese border. Up there the twisty, flower-lined roads are perilously steep and early-morning mist rises off the mountain tops like steam from a mug of tea. Life is sustained by the plantations that groove the valleys with their rows of tea bushes. Wherever you go in Mae Salong and the surrounding area, you’ll be greeted with a pot of hot, locally-grown oolong tea to taste in a doll-sized cup.
It took us almost an entire day to drive from Chiang Mai up to Mae Salong. In the golden light of late-afternoon we stopped at Choui Fong, one of the largest tea plantations in the area. As we marvelled at the rolling terraces set against the Mae Salong Mountains, tea pickers slowly patrolled the aisles, tirelessly plucking leaves from bushes. The plantation was busy with Thai Saturday tourists sipping iced green tea, dressed in black and white clothes to mourn the Thai King’s recent passing.
When we finally arrived at Phumektawan resort, a cluster of hotel rooms perched at the top of a valley, the air was tinged with evening cool. “Sun…” said the hotel owner, counting off six on her fingers and then splaying her hands upwards like a fountain. “Ah, sunrise at 6am,” we nodded in understanding. Opening the door to our room, she pointed from us to her and made walking motions, “Then you, me – market.”
A Perfect Day in Doi Mae Salong Thailand
Sure enough, after watching the sunrise through a curtain of cloud the next morning, our new friend was waiting to take us to the morning market. Mats covered in colourful produce were spread along the street. Dogs mingled with monks collecting their morning alms and local shoppers, some of whom were dressed in their traditional embroidered hill-tribe clothes. We stopped to buy a bag of tea and some bite-sized oranges before following our guide into the market hall. There, stalls were piled with hunks of meat, pigs’ heads and bags of nuts and rice. At one table a man deftly rolled out strips of dough while another fried them in a cauldron of oil.
Back at the hotel, we dipped the donuts in warm soy bean milk accompanied by tea and eggs for breakfast. As we ate we watched the sun break through the clouds in shafts, burning the mist from the mountains. Our first stop of the day was Phra Boromathat Chedi, set on a hilltop above the village. A group of young monks, dressed in knitted orange jumpers to match their robes, were sweeping the paths as we started up a long flight of steps surrounded by yellow-and-black caterpillars. At the top, a temple dog trotted over to show us the view over Mae Salong village.
Mae Salong’s Chinese Heritage
Once upon a time Mae Salong was an army base and it was opium, rather than tea, that was grown in its valleys and traded with Burmese drug barons. In the 1960s, the village became home to the 93rd division of the Chinese Nationalist Army, who had refused to surrender to communist forces and fled to northern Thailand. The soldiers produced opium to raise money for weapons until the Thai government offered them citizenship if they agreed to fight for Thailand and start growing mushrooms and tea instead of opium.
This story was loosely told through a series of photographs at the Chinese Martyrs’ Memorial Museum. Just across the road from the memorial, we discovered a beautiful temple guarded by dragon statues and a golden pagoda. Although Mae Salong is now mainly a Thai village, elements of its Chinese heritage remain in the oolong tea that was imported from Taiwan and the Yunnanese food sold in the village. We tried a vegetarian version of the yellow noodles and stopped at a café for hot lemon and Thai iced tea. Afterwards, the woman poured us various grades of oolong tea and wild-growing green tea to taste.
Giant Teapots and views at Wang Put Tan Tea Plantation
Our last stop of the day was Wang Put Tan Tea Plantation, which is one of the largest tea producers in the area. At one point it must have been a tourist attraction and camping ground, but what we discovered was an eerily-empty field of giant statues. There were golden lions and huge shiny tea pots, abandoned camping pods and tea-related sculptures. A dirt road led us down to the equally-deserted tea plantation itself, where we stumbled upon more incredible mountain views.
In front of us was a steep valley lined with rows of tea. In the distance, staircases rose towards green-furred mountains which stretched up towards the sky. The only sounds were of insects humming in the fields and there wasn’t a single other tourist in sight – we were totally alone with the view. There are few places on the main tourist trail in Thailand where you’d be lucky enough to get such a treat.
That evening we arrived back at our hotel tired but full of tea, sunshine, adventure and alpine views. We were greeted with bowls of avocado and instructed to sprinkle brown sugar on top, which turned out to be bizarrely good. While we ate we settled back to sip another pot of yellow tea and watch the sun set over our time in Mae Salong, the mountain haven we’d been desperately in need of.
How to visit Mae Salong
We would recommend hiring a car to get to Mae Salong as the roads are extremely steep and windy and unless you’re an experienced motorcyclist, they can be dangerous to drive. We rented our car from SixT and it cost £32.50 for three days plus £23 for petrol. There are about a dozen Mae Salong hotels and guesthouses, we stayed in Phumektawan Resort which cost £25 per night, including breakfast. The room had a great view and the hotel owners were incredibly friendly, taking us to the local morning market and always plying us with free tea and avocados. The weather is cool and fresh in Mae Salong, particularly at night, so bring a jumper, proper shoes and trousers.