Mae Salong is a village settled by remnants of the former Chinese 93rd Division who moved from Burma to Thai territory in 1961. Originally supported by opium production, in the 1980s the Thai government integrated this enclave into Thai society and as part of the process introduced a policy of substituting opium production for growing tea.
Today, it is a major tourist attraction with a small-town ambience on high hills, delicious native Yunnanese dishes and small hotels and guesthouses catering to visitors. 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.
Public transport to Mae Salong is surprisingly spotty, and having your own wheels may come in handy.
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, very twisty!
From Chiang Rai, take a bus to Mae Sai (platform 5) and ask to be dropped off at Pasang/Mae Salong. The trip costs 25B 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.
From Tha Ton, there are yellow songthaews that go directly to Mae Salong. 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 (30B), hop aboard a Tha Ton-Mae Chan green songthaew to Mae Chan (another 30B), 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.
For the return trip, both colors of songthaew hang out at the 7-11 in the centre of town. They stop running around 5 PM, but in a pinch (or if in a hurry), the motorcycle cabbies can ferry you to Pasang for 300 baht.
Drive on highway 1089 between Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai. The turn off is next to a police station. From here travel about 13km on some of the most amazingly curvy roads imaginable. The return trip can be undertaken on routes no. 1234 and no. 1130 which wind through Yao and Akha hilltribe villages. From Doi Mae Salong a road leads to Ban Tha Ton, the starting point for the Kok River cruise, a distance of 45 kilometres.
It is very convenient to rent a motorbike to wander around the hills and valley. Renting fee is about 200 baht per day. However, it comes with empty tank so need to re-fuel before any ride.
Sunflowers on Mae Salong
Phra Boromathat Chedi
The Martyr's Memorial Hall
Chinese Martyrs' Memorial Hall. A tribute paid to the KMT settlers of Mae Salong, who fought and sacrified for Thailand in their struggle with communist. It exhibits 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.
OTOP Agricultural 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 if you have your own wheels and want to do a round of the many tea plantations around the town.
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, and then go up the steep 700-step staircase. If you have your own wheels, 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.
Tomb of General Tuan Xi-Wen. Located at the end of a road beside a tea house with General Tuan's name, up another steep staircase. Some histories are available, in mandarin, though. There are some tea houses nearby, and you can enjoy a spectacular view of Mae Salong there.
Wat Santikhiri. A modern, standard-issue Thai temple guarding the approach path to the Phra Boromathat Chedi.
There are many tribal villages (mostly Akha) within easy reach of Mae Salong, and local guesthouses can arrange treks in the area.
The thing to buy in Mae Salong is the excellent local oolong tea, grown on plantations all around. The tea bushes here was 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 available, from 200 to 1000 baht per 100g, and they'll be happy to serve up a sample.
Yunnan noodle with bean gravy sold on Mae Salong.
Local Chinese-style dishes worth trying include:
Yunnan noodles (restaurant or morning market) with bean gravy
Papa cake (baked glutinous rice with sweet or sour sesame fillings, outside morning market
Soybean drinks with deep fried dough stick 油条 (morning market)
Bamboo worm for the braves. 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 25-baht noodles are pretty good and served with complimentary tasty oolong tea.
Sakura (ซากุระ), Mae Salong Resort, ☎ +66-53765014. Yunnanese food at the Mae Salong Resort. Try the mushroom dishes, made with mushrooms grown on premises.
Aside from a few dogdy karaoke enterprises, there is virtually no nightlife in Mae Salong. Drink tea instead!
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.
Outside peak season, supply tends to exceed demand and prices are usually negotiable.
Central Hill Hotel (เซ็นทรัลฮิลล์), 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.
Gold Dragon Inn (โกลดราก้อนอินน์), Doi Mae Salong, ☎ +66-53765009. 26 rooms.300-800 baht.
Khumnaipol Resort (คุ้มนายพลรีสอร์ท), 58 Mu 1 Doi Mae Salong, ☎ +66-53765001, . 20 rooms.600-2,500 baht.
Mae Salong Resort (แม่สลองรีสอร์ท), 3/8 Mu 1 Doi Mea Salong, ☎ +66-53765014. Easily the most colorful of Mae Salong's hotels, this place used to be a KMT military training camp and the older 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.
Mae Salong Villa (แม่สลองวิลล่า), Doi Mae Salong (3 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.