Mae Salong's early history centred on the the opium trade of the Golden Triangle. Its recent history was shaped by the 93rd Division of the Chinese Nationalist Army that refused to surrender to Chinese communists after the Nationalist Kuomintang government was routed in 1949.
Unlike most of the unrelenting nationalists that fled to Taiwan in 1949, a force of 12,000 escaped from Yunnan to Burma and continued an insurgency against the Peoples' Republic. They were at first supported by Taiwan and the USA, but diplomatic shifts—which included US ambivalence towards the nationalists and improved relations between Burma and communist China—later led to the partial disbanding of the nationalist forces in Burma. While thousands left for Thailand in 1961, many remained in Burma.
The soldiers that settled in Mae Salong kept it as a military base in preparation for an eventual counter-attack against communist China. They funded their arms purchases with opium production and rubbed shoulders with notorious Burmese warlord and drug baron Khun Sa, who lived a few kilometres away in Ban Hin Taek and who initially trained with the Kuomintang before founding his own army.
In the 1970s the Thai government struck a deal with the renegades: the battle-hardened soldiers would help them fight Thailand's own communist insurgents in exchange for legitimacy and Thai citizenship. Part of their going straight involved the soldiers' cessation of opium production in favour of the cultivation of mushrooms and above all oolong tea, which is now Mae Salong's main product.
Some guidebooks wax lyrical about today's Mae Salong as a miniature Yunnanese Shangri-La, but if you come with this image in mind you may be a little disappointed: at first glance, Mae Salong looks much like the little Thai town it is, predominantly populated with Hill Tribe people and relocated Thai much more than Chinese. Nevertheless, the crisp climate, the lingering Chinese influence (although much of it commercial more than endemic), passable native Yunnanese dishes and small hotels and guesthouses catering to visitors still make this a popular getaway, worth visiting even on a hurried day trip, but well worth stopping in overnight. There are several four-story modern hotels completing construction (as of Nov 2013) which aim to capitalise on the first class views across the valley.
In November, sunflowers bloom, but the peak tourist season is during December-February when the hills are alive with white plum blossoms and pinkish sakura cherry blossoms. It gets misty and cold during this time, so pack a sweater and decent shoes! Tea production gets into gear toward the end of this season, with the smell of roasting tea wafting through the streets, but the same haze and rising temperatures that affect the rest of northern Thailand are in evidence here too from March onward, and the rainy season from June to October is rainy indeed.
There are two roads to Mae Salong: one from Pasang, a hamlet on the Chiang Rai-Mae Sai highway, and one from Tha Ton, on the northern border road from Chiang Mai. Both are scenic and very twisty — pop a pill beforehand if you're prone to motion sickness.
From Chiang Rai, take a bus to Mae Sai (platform 5) and ask to be dropped off at Pasang/Mae Salong. The trip costs 25 baht and takes approximately an hour. (Beware: there's another Pasang to the east of Chiang Rai, signposted at platform 9, but this will take you in entirely the wrong direction!) At the Pasang T-junction, there are blue songthaews that leave when they get 8 passengers at 50 baht each, or when somebody ponies up the 400 baht to charter. Try to get here as early as you can, since otherwise, especially in the off season, you'll be looking at a long wait.
An even better option is to take the same bus mentioned above and ask to be dropped off at the market in Mae Chan. There are four scheduled services daily 07.30, 09.00, 11.00 and 13.00. The cost is 60 baht and may involve a change in vehicle at the half way point, in which case the fare is 30 baht (as at December 2011). Green songthaews back to Mae Chan/Chiang Rai leave town at 7, 9, 11, 1, and 3, starting at ShinSane guesthouse and picking up through town (Jan 2014).
From Tha Ton, there are yellow songthaews that go directly to Mae Salong. They leave at 0830, 1030, and 1230 for 60baht from a station on the right around the curve on the north of the bridge. Can be chartered for 600 baht at other times. This also offers an alternative route for Chiang Rai and Mae Sai: coming back, take the yellow songthaew to the Tha Ton-Mae Chan road (30 baht), hop aboard a Tha Ton-Mae Chan green songthaew to Mae Chan (another 30 baht), and then take the Chiang Rai-Mae Sai bus. This sounds complicated, but is probably faster than waiting for the "direct" songthaew to fill up. From Chiang Mai there are buses to Tha Ton.
For the return trip, both colors of songthaew hang out at the 7-11 in the centre of town. They stop running around 17:00, but in a pinch (or if in a hurry), the motorcycle cabbies can ferry you to Pasang for 300 baht.
The shorter route is via highway 1089 from Mae Chan (near Chiang Rai) towards Tha Ton (to Chiang Mai). The signposted turn off is next to a police station. From here travel about 13 km on some of the most amazingly curvy roads imaginable. The return trip to Mae Chan can be undertaken on routes no. 1234 and no. 1130 which wind through Yao and Akha hilltribe villages; you can also make a diversion north to visit the royal development projects and villas of Doi Tung.
Mae Salong is quite spread out, and while you can cover the central sights on foot, it is very convenient to rent a motorbike to wander around the hills and valleys. Renting fee is about 200 baht per day. However, bikes come with empty tanks, so you need to re-fuel first!
- Chinese Martyrs' Memorial Museum. A tribute paid to the Kuomintang settlers of Mae Salong, who fought and sacrificed for Thailand. It exhibits the history of their struggle, along with developments of Mae Salong throughout the years. Reached by a well-signed turn-off from the southern road after the market, a short hike or quick motorbike trip. edit
- OTOP Agriculture Centre, (opposite Mae Salong Villa). This grandly named site — it's actually just a mostly-closed hut, a map of tea plantations in the area, and a thermometer-equipped viewing point — is primarily handy for getting your bearings if you have your own wheels and want to do a round of the many tea plantations around the town. edit
- Phra Boromathat Chedi. A chedi (Thai-style stupa) built on a hill near Mae Salong village, in honour of the late Princess Mother, Srinagarindra. Next to the chedi is the Princess Mother Hall, a modern, Thai-style pavilion outwardly like a temple in appearance, but not containing any religious objects. There are good views across town and west towards Myanmar from up top. There are two ways up top: on foot, follow signs from the village center up the hill towards the Mae Salong Resort and Wat Santikhiri, turn to the right into a parking lot next to a smaller temple, and then go up the steep 719-step staircase. If you find yourself at the Resort, you have gone too far, back up to find the parking lot. One can also drive to the top, as there's a winding, steep road that starts from behind the tourist market and curves up from behind, with breathtaking hilly views along the Myanmar border edit
- Tomb of General Tuan. The mausoleum of Mae Salong's founder and erstwhile drug warlord, Kuomintang General Tuan Xi-Wen. Located at the end of a road beside a tea house with General Tuan's name, up another steep staircase. There's a small museum here, but unfortunately it's all in Chinese. There are some tea houses nearby, and you can enjoy a spectacular view of Mae Salong there. edit
- Wat Santikhiri. A modern, standard-issue Thai temple guarding the approach path to the Phra Boromathat Chedi. The more interesting parts of the temple lies across the street leading to the Mae Salong Resort; peek inside for a nice little Chinese-style pavilion. edit
There are many tribal villages (mostly Akha) within easy reach of Mae Salong, and local guesthouses can arrange treks in the area, either on foot or by horse (400 baht for 4 hours).
The thing to buy in Mae Salong is the excellent local oolong tea, grown on plantations all around. The tea bushes here were originally imported from Taiwan, well known for its high mountain (gaoshan) teas grown in a very similar subtropical climate. As well as tea itself, tea sets from China, as well as candies, fruits, and everything else you'd need for enjoying tea Chinese style, are also available.
- Wang Put Tan, (beside Sweet Mae Salong). One of the largest producers in the area. You can see the giant golden teapot guarding their plantations in the fields below their flagship store. Various grades of oolong are available, from 200 to 1000 baht per 100g, and they'll be happy to serve up a sample. edit
For Akha handicrafts, Yunnanese street snacks and cheap Chinese imports, check out the two markets in town.
- Morning Market. Up the hill and left from the 7-Eleven, true to its name this place opens up at the crack of dawn and most of the action is over by 8 AM, making this a great place for an early breakfast. A few shops do remain open until noon and beyond. edit
- Tourist Market. Opens in the afternoons on the south side of town, with Akha selling local produce (tea, mushrooms, herbs) and knickknacks to tourists. edit
Take a break from Thai food and try out some Yunnanese cuisine. Dishes worth trying include:
- Yunnan noodles with bean gravy
- Papa cake, baked glutinous rice with sweet or sour sesame fillings, outside Morning Market
Other food generally available in Northern Thailand include:
- Hot soy milk with deep fried dough sticks (油条 you tiao) at the Morning Market
- Bamboo worm for the brave. Deep fried and dried, it tastes like crispy cookie.
There are a large number of noodle shops around town.
- Yunnanist Noodle Shop, (downhill from 7-Eleven). The English-language sign may sound a little unfortunate, but their 30-baht noodles are pretty good and served with complimentary tasty oolong tea. edit
- Sakura (ซากุระ), Mae Salong Resort, ☎ +66-53765014. Yunnanese food at the Mae Salong Resort. Try the mushroom dishes, made with mushrooms grown on premises. edit
Aside from a few dogdy karaoke enterprises, there is virtually no nightlife in Mae Salong. Drink tea instead! Or, if you're feeling frisky, sample any of the numerous Chinese liquors with unfortunate pickled bugs and snakes inside.
- Sweet Mae Salong. If all that tea is starting to get to you, drop into this little wood-paneled cafe for an espresso, some home-baked cakes and pastries, plus great valley views from the terrace. edit
Outside peak season, supply tends to exceed demand and prices are usually negotiable if not resulting directly half price. (Price indicated below are updated on December 2014).
- Akha Guest House, (next to Shin Sane GH). As the name promises, this operation is run by Akha tribesmen, who also arrange treks to their villages. 4 rooms with 3 beds each. 150-200 bath. edit
- Gold Dragon Inn (โกลดราก้อน อินน์), Doi Mae Salong, ☎ +66-53765009. 26 rooms. 300-800 baht. edit
- Shin Sane Guesthouse, ☎ +66 37 65026. The name means Number 1 in Yunnanese, and it's no idle boast, as this place was the first guesthouse in Mae Salong when it opened back in the 1970s. It's still a pretty good budget option. Rooms with shared bathroom from 100 baht, private bath from 200 baht. The bungalows in the back (500 baht) are quieter. 100-500 baht. edit
- Little Home Guesthouse, ☎ +6653-765389 (firstname.lastname@example.org), . Very nice place run by a terrific family that are always happy to help or give any information you might need. They have rooms in the guesthouse starting at 200/300 baht and beautiful bungalows for 500/800 baht (low/high season).The food in the restaurant downstairs is tasty! edit
- On the main road you can spot 2 fields suitable for camping: one is as you see the city sign Mae Salong, and the other one is 5 minutes walking after the 7/11 on the left (spectacular view on the valley and tea plantations). Basic toilets on site but possibly no charge.
- Baan See See Montain View (บ้านซือซือ), 18/3 moo.1 mae salong, ☎ +66-53765053, . 12 bungalows. 400-1,000 baht. edit
- Central Hill Hotel (เซ็นทรัล ฮิลล์), 18/4 Mu 1 Doi Mae Salong (opposite 7-Eleven), ☎ +66-53765113. It doesn't get more central than this. Small but clean rooms with good views out into the valley. 19 rooms, from 500 baht. edit
- Khumnaipol Resort (คุ้มนายพล รีสอร์ท), 58 Mu 1 Doi Mae Salong, ☎ +66-53765001, . 20 rooms. 600-2,500 baht. edit
- Mae Salong Flower Hills, (3 km east of town), ☎ +66-53765496, . The newest and nicest of Mae Salong's midrange places, you'll see the breathtaking sloped flower gardens if coming in from the east. The 1,500 baht rooms are overpriced as each bungalow parly obscures the view of its neighbour and there is a long walk up 2 flights of steps to get there. Another downside is the location, a fair hike away from town. 800-1,500 baht. edit
- Mae Salong Resort (แม่สลอง รีสอร์ท), 3/8 Mu 1 Doi Mea Salong, ☎ +66-53765014. Easily the most historical of Mae Salong's hotels, this place used to be a KMT military training camp and some of the army green and brown bungalows look the part. However, these days it's a little underused and the older buildings are pretty grotty; check if they can give you a deal on the newer, nicer ones. There's a small but mildly interesting photo exhibit on the KMT, a good restaurant (see Eat) and nice views down towards town. 500-2,000 baht. edit
- Mae Salong Villa (แม่สลอง วิลล่า), Doi Mae Salong (2 km east of town), ☎ +66-53765114. A tarted-up concrete block with a good Yunnanese restaurant with a terrace plus its own tea shop. 60 rooms. 800-1200 baht. edit
- Mae Salong Mountain Home (แม่สลอง เมานแตน โหม), Doi Mae Salong, ☎ +66-8 4611 9508, . Nice bungalows with huge bathrooms. The resort is in the middle of tea plantations located. Nearby is a huge teapot and a lions sculpture. 9 bungalows. 800-1500 baht. edit
Any opium warlord action has long since moved to the Myanmar side. Still, this is a border area, so don't go trekking too close to the boundary and keep your papers with you, since there are plenty of police checkpoints around.
- Doi Tung — royal development projects just to the north of Mae Salong
- Mae Sai — gateway to Myanmar
- Thaton — quaint town and rafting on the Kok River
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