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Mae Salong
   

Mae Salong, China of the North

by Benjamin Malcolm

There are precious few remnants of the conflict that gave birth to the town of Mae Salong. Some can be found on the walls of the Mae Salong Villa Restaurant - black and white framed photographs. Neatly arranged in two rows, near a staircase leading to the family quarters upstairs, are black and white still-frame after still-frame of soldiers marching off to battle; generals exhorting troops and Chinese warriors celebrating their freedom.

It is the muffled and yet steady heartbeat of this small town. Mae Salong is the biggest Chinese-Thai village of northern Thailand, an expansive tea-growing community sprawled on a ridgeline about an hour northeast of the main city of Chiang Rai. As with all Chinese villages, it is perched on the border, a mere mountain pass away from Myanmar; one of the old battlegrounds where some of these photographs were taken.


Beyond these pictures collecting dust on the wall, there is little obvious sign of this once turbulent history. Walking along the main street that winds through town, one is instantly transported to a Yunnanese village going about its daily business. The sights and sounds are a mixture of cultures, with a heavy leaning toward the Chinese. Myriad teashops offer free tastings amid countless gold and red bags of Oolong and green tea, radishes and cabbage. An occasional Chinese shirt dries in the sun and Chinese lettering is neatly arrayed under Thai script.

Tastings are in the traditional style served from ornate carved tea stands and in tiny porcelain cups. The taster is given two cups, fused temporarily together by the pressure of the liquid. The long oblong teacup is lifted, splashing the tea into the smaller cup, setting off a chain reaction of aroma and creating a perfect cup of tea.

Mae Salong is also known for its fresh mushrooms and herbs and many visitors,
Thai and foreign alike, depart with large amounts of these delights. The village is renowned as a starting point for treks and is next door to a number of hill tribe villages. The villagers, especially the Akha tribe, travel in and out of the town and there is a Muslim influence to be seen. The daily call to prayer issues forth from the mosque directly below the mountaintop Buddhist temple. A mix of culture is not only seen in the people, but in the animal kingdom as well. Both pack mules and horses are common in the area, a rare sight for Thailand.

There are a number of comfortable places to stay for a night or two in Mae Salong. The aforementioned Mae Salong Villa stands out like a luxurious Chinese temple along the main road into town and there are also resorts catering to an upscale clientele.

The weather is almost always cooler up in the mountains and there is a constant interplay of mist, fog and cloud with bright sunshine during the cold season. Blankets and warmer clothes are a necessity during the chilly nights in Mae Salong, especially around the end of the year.

The history of these Chinese villages is a living, breathing lesson in Southeast Asian history and speaks to the major movement of populations over decades and of freedom hard fought for - in this case freedom won from the People's Republic of China. Like the rogue island of Taiwan, Mae Salong and these other villages exist as a testament to the struggles of the years just after World War II.

Many of the people are descendants of the Kuomintang (Chinese Nationalist Party), which fled China in 1949, following the Communist takeover. The KMT, specifically the 93rd regiment, first travelled to Myanmar, fought for many years against the Burmese army before finally moving into Thailand, in the early 1960's. Isolated and helpless, these refugees built up their second homeland on this foreign soil. The King of Thailand offered the refugees assistance and pictures of his visits to Mae Salong are given a prominent position by the Villa's restaurant door.

Today, 40-odd refugee villages are found in Chiang Rai, Chiang Mai and Mae Hong Son, bordering Burma and Laos. These villages vary in population, ranging from several hundred people to 3,000. According to one estimate, Chinese refugees in Thailand total about 60,000. Another famous Chinese village, in Mae Hong Son, is known as Ban Rak Thai (literally the Thai-loving village). Ban Rak Thai shares the mountain aspect of Mae Salong, but surrounds a mountain reservoir and is smaller and quieter, a hushed community wrapped in pine forest.

Mae Salong is the Chinese name for this biggest town and is the most commonly used, but it has an official Thai name - Santikhiri. This is just one of the myriad efforts to incorporate the refugees into mainstream Thai society, along with Thai language schools, and seems to have had mixed results. Many people speak Thai, but there is no doubt about the cultural influence, which is trumpeted loud and clear through symbols, language and decoration. Looking east over the mountains from town, one can see two giant, almost garish, Chinese teapot sculptures; a recent addition to the landscape by a tea plantation owner.

There is much rumoured movement back and forth across the border, although official figures are hard to come by and are probably not known. The Shan United Army operates drug factories in Myanmar and there are often stories in the newspaper about methamphetamine pills being transited through certain border villages. Khun Sa, the opium warlord, once called nearby Ban Theuat Thai home.

This all lends a rogue image to Mae Salong, which seems oddly incongruous with the impression one receives walking about the streets and teashops. There are no guns to be seen. The war, for the most part, seems over for the residents, who go about their daily affairs, leaving that desperate time and other historical events to collect on the wall incorporated within the ubiquitous black and white photographs.

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