There is a remote community in the mountains of Northern Thailand that is home to hilltribe villages, tea plantations and the so-called “lost army” of the Republic of China Army’s 93rd Division. It is called Santikhiri (Hill of Peace) though most people still refer to this town by its old name of Mae Salong. It is a popular destination for both Thai and foreign tourists who come to enjoy the cool mountain air, relax in one of the many tea shops and also to learn about the rich and varied culture of the groups that live here.
Doi Mae Salong was settled by the Kuomintang (KMT) after they fled mainland China during the aftermath of the revolution there in 1949. Their influence can be seen even today with many shop signs in Chinese and the shopkeepers talking to each other in Chinese. This is the tomb of General Tuan Shi-wen who was the most important person of the Chinese settlement. The KMT originally moved to Burma’s Shan State but they were eventually pushed towards Thailand. In 1961 Tuan led 4,000 of his troops to Mae Salong.
Today there aren’t too many people left of the original army though their descendents remain. We felt lucky to be able to meet up with General Lue Ye-tien, who was Tuan’s right-hand man. He is a very active 94 year old who still remembers the march to Thailand and the subsequent battles. The troubles for the KMT weren’t over once they reached Thailand. The Thai authorities agreed for them to stay if they in return helped fight the communist insurgents.
They fought many battles in the region with the bloodiest campaign being launched in December 1970 and lasting five years. Over 1,000 people lost their lives in this conflict. The final battle was in Phetchaburi Province in 1981. Finally, in 1982 these soldiers were able to retire and return to a normal life in Mae Salong. In gratitude to their help in putting down the Communists, the Thai government gave them all citizenship. The Chinese Martyr’s Memorial Museum has many pictures and a lot of information about the Chinese community here and the battles that the KMT fought.
On one of the hills overlooking Mae Salong is this beautiful pagoda called Srinakarin Sathit Maha Santakhiri. It was completed in 1996 and dedicated to H.M. The King’s late Mother who had such an important influence over the lives of the hilltribes in this area. The pagoda is built in Lanna style and is about 30 meters high. There are four Buddha images, one on each side facing the four points of the compass. You can come up here by car or walk the 700 steps from Wat Santakhiri. There are some wonderful views from the pagoda. It is apparently a great place to view the sunrise.
I first visited Mae Salong about five years ago when I drove along the scenic mountain roads from Chiang Mai. This time I came from Chiang Rai which is more convenient. As it is a good road many people just come for the day though it is worth staying overnight if not longer. I am told that even in the height of summer, during April, the mountains remain cool at night and that there are only 3-4 days when both day and night are hot. Mae Salong is popular for Thai people who come in December just so that they can experience freezing weather. Although we had good views on this trip in March, when I last came in April 2006 we couldn’t see much due to a combination of mist and smog from burning crops.
In town we stopped at one of the many shops that were selling tea leaves and dried fruit. We couldn’t come all this way without buying some souvenirs for people back home. The shopkeeper was quite keen for us to taste everything, not only the different teas but also the fruit. I have never drunk so many different varieties of tea in my life. I ended up buying several packets of tea as well as some beautifully designed tea mugs that had strainers and a lid. I also bought some of the dried fruit. During our trip we also visited a tea factory which I will tell you about later.
Map showing location of Doi Mae Salong in Chiang Rai Province, Northern Thailand.
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