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Thursday, October 25, 2007

Oolong in Mae Salong

This month we took a break and headed north to Mae Salong, the Kuomintang town near the Burmese border. Famous for the oolong tea grown there, the town is really a village stretched out along the ridge of a small mountain, and is known for its resemblance to Yunnanese villages in China. The tea plantations fill the steep slopes below the town and the hills around them are peppered with tribal villages, no doubt providing much of the labor for tea-picking. It's quite a bit cooler up here, with the mountains blanketed in mist in the mornings. The main street is lined with teashops and the oolong flows, so keeping warm is no problem.

We stayed at Mae Salong Villa which has grown into a sprawling, hillside-hugging collection of concrete structures - no longer the quaint bungalows described in Lonely Planet. But the room was comfortable and had the added charm of a nice covered veranda with a view of the tea plantations.

In this area the KMT history goes back to 1961, when a group from this anti-Communist army was forced to leave Burma, to which they'd fled after the 1949 Communist victory in China. They crossed into northwestern Thailand and were granted refugee status later in the 1960's, as the Thai government needed a buffer army against any possible Communist incursions into Thailand. Between 1970 and '74 they fought their bloodiest operation against the Communists and lost close to 1000 soldiers. For this the Thai government bestowed citizenship on many of the soldiers and their families. A large Martyr's Temple which gives a very detailed history of the campaign has been erected on the edge of town. More famous probably is their partnership with drug lord Khun Sa and the Shan United Army in the Golden Triangle opium trade.

... which brings us to our next stop: the Hall of Opium down the road from the famed Golden Triangle, where Thailand, Burma, and Laos meet.

This amazing $US10 million museum is really a series of educational exhibits about the history of opium. The entrance is shown above in the lowest group of buildings on the right; from there you progress thru a tunnel which runs thru the entire hill in the center of the photo, to the rest of the exhibition in the stretched out structure on the left side. The tunnel is a simulated opium 'trip', with disorienting lighting, bas relief ghostlike figures on the walls, eerie cries and sounds, and no end in sight due to its serpentine path. It's quite an introduction! We spent over an hour going thru all the rooms and were very impressed with the creativity and quality of the exhibits. Unfortunately no photos were allowed, so we cannot share this experience visually. Afterward, with some difficulty we found the shuttle bus which takes you back to the car park at the entrance. Then, out of curiosity, we drove up the hill to the structure in the top right of the photo, which is a hotel with attractive modern bungalows scattered on the hillsides along the road. The entire site is beautifully developed and unfortunately underused. It may be due to some confusion with the name; there is a House of Opium down the road in Baan Sop Ruak, the town with the Golden Triangle official monument. This appears to be a private endeavor and has been there for a long time. It houses a great collection of opium-related artifacts and also gives the history, etc. We enjoyed seeing the large collection of pipes and opium weights. Note the label on the pipes...

Our drive home took us thru Chiang Saen, a very old town on the west bank of the Nam Mae Khong/Mekhong River and site of the 14thc. Chiang Saen Kingdom. Phaya Mang Rai, the founder of Chiang Mai is supposed to have been born around here and inherited the rule of the area from his father in 1259. This he expanded to include the towns in the Kok River Basin (around Chiang Rai), giving the kingdom the name 'Yonok'. (In 1296 he founded Chiang Mai further south.) His nephew Phaya Saen Phu established Chiang Saen as a principality and then moved the capital of Lan Na from Chiang Mai to Chiang Saen. Many ruins abound throughout the small town and there is an interesting branch of the National Museum with some fine cast Buddhas, and a hall of hilltribe artifacts including some weaving tools.