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Mae Salong – Tea & Beautiful Views

Michael Babcock, Thursday, May 1st, 2014

Mae Salong – แม่สลอง – (or Doi Mae Salong – ดอยแม่สลอง – doi meaning “mountain”) is an area in northern Thailand in Chiang Rai province where one of the main activities is growing tea, primarily high mountain oolong tea. The village there is called Santikhiri – สันติคีรี.

Mae Salong reminded me of the village Baan Rak Thai in Mae Hong Son province, mentioned in Thailand Trip – Favorite Moments, Part 2 (scroll down in that blog). Both places are found up in the hills and are home to ex-Kuomintang soldiers, many from Yunnan province in China, who eventually began cultivating tea. The soldiers in Mae Salong were from the Kuomintang’s 93rd division and they continued fighting the Chinese through the 1950s, growing opium to fund their continuing military operations. They were granted asylum in Thailand in 1961 and, later, Thailand enlisted them to fight a communist insurgency in Thailand until 1982 when they laid down their arms and were granted Thai citizenship. There’s a fascinating article on China’s Forgotten Army.

View

View driving to Mae Salong

The drive to Mae Salong, found about 80 kilometers from Chiang Rai, wends its way up to Santikhiri, which is at an elevation of around 1,300 meters. It is quite close to the Burmese border. When we went in January, the climate was decidedly cool. Along the way we stopped several times to admire views, such as this one to the left. In addition to the ethnic Chinese living there, you also find Akha, Yao, Karen and Hmong hill tribes, many of who originally came from southern China or Myanmar.

In addition to the tea, Mae Salong is a popular destination for trekkers.

Tea on a Hill

Tea plants on a hill

Tea Plants

Close up of some tea plants

(Click images to see larger version.)

As you approach the town, everywhere you look there are rows and rows of tea plants hugging the contours of the hills. In the background, you see the hills and mountains: it’s truly a lovely area.

Tea & Blossoms

Tea plants with “sakura” blossoms

Blossoms

Close-up of “sakura” blossoms

When we were there in mid-January this year (2014), we were lucky enough to see some trees with pink blossoms in bloom – they gave a lovely backdrop and accent to the rolling hills with the tea plants. These trees are often called sakura trees, the Japanese cherry tree. Although reminiscent of sakura trees, they are actually a tree native to Thailand and not a cherry tree at all; this variety is taller than the sakura trees and the blossoms are smaller. It is advertised as such because of the fame of cherry blossom time in Japan and is therefore more familiar to people.


Pu-erh Tea

Mae Salong Villa

Mae Salong Villa

Tea Info

Pu-erh Tea Package

A real treat for me was finding a high quality pu-erh tea. Pu-erh (or pu-‘er or pu’ erh) tea is a type of tea, the most famous variety coming from Yunnan province. Pu-erh teas are first oxidized in the sun, then fermented and then rolled and pressed into differing forms. Because it is compressed and takes up less space, it is much easier (than loose tea) to transport over land. Because of the unique processing, pu-erh teas get better with age, unlike un-fermented teas. There are a wide variety of forms and tastes. (Check out the Wikipedia Entry on Pu-erh Tea.)

Tea Package

Pu-erh tea package

Pu-erh Tea

Thai Pu-erh Green tea

We tasted the pu-erh tea at the Mae Salong Villa, where the Choke Chamroen Tea Company provides tastings. It is a high quality pu-erh green tea, aged 8 years. We went through roughly 12 different infusions of the leaves during the tasting; it was marvelous to note how the flavor changed throughout the process. The tea left a lovely aftertaste that spread throughout the entire mouth.

I bought disk in lovely packaging to bring home. The cost was 2,000 baht (about $63, at the time) for 357 grams, about 12-1/2 ounces. It may seem expensive but when you realize how many infusions you get out of each set of leaves, the cost isn’t that outrageous. I will enjoy it here in the states for many weeks to come.


Tea Tastings

Tea Tasting

Tea tasting

Hills and Sign

101 Tea Plantation sign

In the area there are numerous places where you can taste the local teas. There will be a set-up such as the one above left where different teas will be prepared for you to taste. We found an oolong tea that we liked very much at 101 Tea Plantation. We saw the sign above right on the road, right in front of rows of tea overshadowed by the blossoming “sakura” trees.

Oolong Tea

Oolong tea leaves

Blossoms

Blossoms for the tea

At the tasting counter the tea leaves were displayed in cups so that you could see what they looked like before brewing. At this place they also add blossoms to some of their teas for added flavor, such as the ones above right. I don’t know what the name of this blossom is.

Tasting Cups

Cups used for the tasting

Tea Packages

The oolong tea we bought

To the left you see the set-up used to taste tea: there’s a whole ritual to it. Tea is steeped and poured into the tall cup. Then the smaller cup is placed on top, you flip the cups over and pour the tea into the small cup. You then smell the aroma of the tea from the tall (now empty) cup and taste from the small cup. We liked a particular oolong tea with blossoms very much  and bought a couple bags (packages on the right) to take home for gifts.


Yunnan Food

View

View from Mae Salong Nilla

Steamed Fish

Fish dish

If you go to Mae Salong, be sure to stop and have some Yunnan Chinese food. We had dinner at the Mae Salong Villa, which is where we purchased the pu-erh tea. Above left is one of the views from the front of the Villa.

Above right is a fish dish we had, smothered in a lovely sauce, that included mushrooms. It was quite tasty.

Pork Leg

Pork leg with buns

Mushrooms

Mushroom dish

We also ordered Stewed Pork Leg with buns, Yunnan-style, a truly delicious dish. And since the area grows mushrooms, we ordered a stir-fried mushroom dish that was very good.


Morning Market

Akha Vendor

Akha vendor

Main Street

Market street with lanterns

There is an interesting morning market at Santikhiri. It is definitely a local market and most of the vendors are from ethnic hill tribes, mostly Ahka. This is not a tourist market – it’s meant for locals. It’s best to go early; it starts at 6:00 a.m. or even earlier. By 8:30 a.m. or so many of the vendors have already packed up and left.

The area does get a lot of tourists and the Akha vendors are savvy to this: they do not want their picture taken unless you buy something from them or pay them for the privilege.


Written by Michael Babcock, May 2014