Hilly Doi Mae Salong Village and the story of the isolated Chinese Tribes
When the sun-deprived holiday makers think of Thailand, they immediately picture in their heads paradisal tropical beaches, balmy wind and fine sand bathing their weary feet. Stop here, there’s more to it. The less touristy North of Thailand is where you’ll find tranquillity, with the local people going about their daily business. This place is known as Doi Mae Salong village or Santikhiri.
If you’re ready for something remote and almost detached from the Western influence, make yourself comfortable, sit down, relax and take notes. I’m about to tell you the story of the less known and not so obvious touristic destination.
It’s a mix of somehow a little outlandish area with particularly rich Chinese heritage. Add to it lush miles of rolling hills with panoramic views, this place is so unique it is nowhere else to be found in Thailand.
Chinese Tribes living in Doi Mae Salong Village
It may come at surprise that upon approaching Doi Mae Salong village we felt like we’d crossed the border with China. It is nothing like modern Shanghai we saw but it’s so traditonal that people often liken it to South West of China.
Mae Salong village has actually been renamed to Santikhiri which means ‘hill of peace’. However, most tourist guides and travel agents around Chiang Rai still refer to it as Mae Salong.
Despite its infamous drug trafficking history dating back to 1970’s, it is a tranquil and undisturbed village with peaceful Chinese ethnic minorities who preserve their traditions and values.
Doi Mae Salong is a hilltop village located in Mae Fa Luang district in the Chiang Rai province, the most northernmost province of Thailand. The location of this enigmatic and almost untouched village is so far up that it is much closer to reach Myanmar (former Burma) than distant Thailand.
It is here where you will meet ethnic minorities Akha, Yao, Hmong, Lisu, Mien and Karen, living peacefully with each other in Mae Salong and other neighbouring villages.
History of Doi Mae Salong Village
It all started in 1949 during Chinese Civil War when some remnants of anti-communist soldiers did not want to surrender, including 93rd Division. The soldiers of this infamous ‘lost army’ fought their way out of Chinese province Yunnan and wandered around the jungles of Burma before reaching the Thai soil where they had finally settled.
Some time later, the majority returned to Taiwan under pressure but a few stubborn ex-army soldiers sought refuge in the isolated, almost inaccessible at the time, Mae Salong, now Santikhiri.
This obviously did come at a price. In exchange for asylum, Chinese soldiers had to serve Thailand until 1982, fighting communist guerrillas and insurgents before Thai government granted them Thai citizenship.
There’s a little more to this story. Sadly, despite attempts from Thai government, the Chinese soldiers did not integrate into Thai society and in order to escape poverty, they chose to engage in the illegal activity of trading opium alongside drug warlord Khun Sa.
Today’s wondrous, lush green tea and coffee hills look very different to, back then, forested hillsides, where Chinese soldiers found refuge. Sequestered in the highlands with no trade activity, they would fund their living from immoral drug trafficking.
These almost godforsaken parts of Northern Thailand were once one of largest poppy plantations in the entire South East Asia. Up until today, this shameful story is remembered and told to visitors.
Fortunately, the story took a remarkable twist and in 1980s Chinese ex-army soldiers were relieved from their duties, turning the poppy plantations into high grade Oolong tea terraces.
Climate in Doi Mae Salong and surrounding area
If you are, just like most visitors, coming from Chiang Rai or Chiang Mai, you are most likely going to notice the difference in climate. Being 1,134m above the sea level, it is the highest hilltop in Doi Mae Salong range so expect the air it to be cooler and drier but sunshiny.
If we were to compare it to anything we are familiar to, it is somehow closest to the European Swiss climate on a summery day, sort of perfect weather to us. Even more so with the views being unconditionally breathtaking.
Every time we go back in our memories to this incredible area, we feed our imagination with this sensational, alpine landscape and miles of evergreen tea plantations stretching over these spectacular highlands.
What to expect in Doi Mae Salong Village
Try Traditional High Mountain Oolong Tea
As soon as we stepped outside, we were welcomed with a smile by the local people. They were all hospitable and despite the obvious language barrier, we managed to bond with them. The elderly Chinese lady invited us to try the local specialty, Oolong tea.
Oolong Tea is delicious there. I can’t tell you if it’s because of the landscape, dry and cooler air, local feel or high quality of the tea so I will make a bold assumption and say all of the above factors had their say in it.
Five Flower Tea is a traditional Chinese herbal tea and is sensational! At first I was a bit sceptical as I heard ‘power tea’ – wondering what alcohol was poured and mixed in there, obviously lost in translation moment. Slightly astringent, it has a nice aroma and blode yellowish shade.
It is mainly the Akha tribe that work high up in the hills around oolong tea plantation. The cooler climate in the highlands is ideal to cultivate tea and you may even see some coffee plantations.
Enjoy local snacks offered by the locals
That day turned even more memorable after we got offered to try some of the local snacks! I think you should know me by now, I love trying new things no matter how bad they look (or taste!).
Yunnan noodles are the specialty around the area. We discovered them in Chiang Mai, packed with chilli, kimchi style cabbage with meat, minced pork, peanuts and almost clear soup. Depending on your spice tolerance, you may or may not handle it well. It’s so spicy that it tickles your throat and makes you cough but it’s so fricking good!
Crispy Maggots. I know, I know… I think you should give them a go! If you are curious and want to know what they taste like, they actually aren’t too bad! Sort of crispy and slightly salted but they not have significant flavour. Close your eyes, they a little less salted than your salted crisps!
Home-made dry ginger was the best I have ever tried. Try it, it is lightly sweetened but so soft that it sort of melted in my mouth! Kevin is not a fan of ginger and his reaction was… a little different!
Bee Sting Whisky is something I wish we hadn’t given a miss. The 0.5L bottle in front of us contained some floating dead bees inside and did not look exactly appealing and I backed out because I’m allergic to insect bites! However, Paddy Bee Sting Whiskey is closest to this deli and is now on our bucket list.
Take a stroll in the Oolong tea terraces
It’s an absolute must. It’s an opportunity to see where your freshly brewed oolong tea originates from, how it’s cultivated and picked. The sun at such high altitude isn’t forgiving and the tea plantations require hard labour, expertise and good picking skills.
The people of the mountains are very agile and well prepared for delivering high grade tea. It’s important to respect their hard work and not disturb them much.
If you love taking pictures nearly as much as we do, even basic camera in this place is going to take some be phenomenal shots! It’s so surreal during twilight when the terraces become almost empty and you’re left with this jaw-dropping landscape, all to yourself and your memories.
Capture tantalising sunset or sunrise in Mae Salong
It’ll be one of the highlights of your stay in South East Asia. We saw a spectacular sunset with sun plummeting from the top of the tea plantations, splashing warm, golden rays over the miles of tea terraces, gradually stepping down for the Empress Night to take over.
Even on our way back to Chiang Rai, some left behind rays were reaching out their long arms with light, as if to embrace us for the last time, as we were driving back down to the modern civilisation.
If you’re staying overnight, you can sit back and gape at the descending sunset whilst sipping your oolong tea from the balcony of your hotel with a view over the mountains.
See Cherry Blossom Festival
We got there a little too early for it but if you are lucky enough or plan your visit well, you may even encounter some of the most beautiful cherry blossoms, second only to Japan. The Cherry Blossom festival lasts from 28th December until 2nd January, making it a perfect location for a romantic, very private New Year’s Eve or an extension of Christmas in Thailand.
See the local Akha and other Chinese hilltribes
Almost all of the people living in the village are Chinese descendants of 93rd Division who either married Chinese or a Thai. They’ve kept their traditions well and despite living in Thailand, they use their local Chinese dialect. Youngsters are more influenced by the West so you may hear some English music as well.
Santikhiri offers an amazing blend of peacefully cohabiting cultures. Whilst the majority are ethnic Chinese, you will encounter tribe people originating from Southern China and Myanmar, each speaking their native language.
Some hill tribe people wearing colourful traditional clothes are selling their handicraft on the markets and others will set up their makeshift stands by the tea plantations to attract wandering tourists.
The morning market starts at 5.30 am and ends at 9 am. It’s a good opportunity to see hilltribe people coming down for their fresh food supply. There is also a local market clustered by the main road leading to the way down on the mountain single road down.
Rest your mind
By all means, this place is motionless, quiet village offers total detachment from modern society’s worries. Take a slow-paced, romantic stroll along the streets, smell the fresh, crispy air from the highlands, watch youngsters engaging in the chit chat, embrace the beautiful, oriental scenery and local customs of Chinese ex-soldiers descendants.
Where to stay in Doi Mae Salong Village
Doi Mae Salong is an absolute jewel in Thailand and if you can, spend a night or two in there. There aren’t many so serene places in Thailand like this one. Being so cultural, it is one of those locations where time is taking a slow motion and people’s lives are unaffected by modern lifestyle.
Despite the remoteness from the rest of the province, there are several hotels with an amazing view and good, Western style standards. Once you spend an evening there, you will be thanking us for booking your accommodation in advance!
Wang Put Tan Boutique Hotel offers prime location, great room standard and top-notch overview of the mountains from the balcony at a very reasonable price.
If you’re looking for more authentic experience and are on a lower budget, you may want to try places like Akha Mud House.
How to get to Doi Mae Salong Village
This beautiful, almost motionless village is tucked away from the noise of modern society. It took us about 1.5h to get there from Chiang Rai as Santikhiri is located about 80 km from Chiang Rai and 40 km from Mae Chan.
We hired a yellow taxi driver who was polite and humble. Compared to other drivers we’ve had in the past, he did not seem to be impatient or annoyed with the journey he had to take from and to Chiang Rai.
If you’re planning to drive, beware that the way to Doi Mae Salong village is bumpy and pretty steep, definitely far from being the easiest. There are many sharp turns and steep slopes as the route is quite hilly. I cannot tell you how enjoyable was the ride, though! The panoramic views we were surrounded by were unforgettable, starting about half an hour after we left Chiang Rai. We were quite tired but how could we not indulge in the sheer prettiness lurking over the window?
If you’re driving, stay alert, especially after sun sets as the roads aren’t lit for a large chunk of way between two locations (the middle part which is also pretty steep). I would not recommend a motorbike unless you’re experienced in Thai ways, we lost reception a few times too.
Take public transport is you’re staying overnight. There are regular mini buses from Chiang Rai that will take you to Santikhiri (Mae Salong). Otherwise, hire a driver who will take you up to the mountains so you can have a truly uninterrupted experience.
We hope you’ll have just as good time in this magical place as w did. Leave a comment under the article for any questions!
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