Offbeat mountains of Northern Thailand : Doi Mae Salong
With the main town perched atop a narrow ridge and tea covered mountain slopes dropping off on either side, Mae Salong sure boasts incredible views. Doi Mae Salong “ดอยแม่สลอง” (officially called Santikhiri) is one of Thailand’s better known Kuomintang settlements where Chinese Nationalists sought refuge in the early 1960s after fleeing their homes in Yunnan, China. To this day, the mountaintop town maintains a Southern Chinese feel with a variety of ethnic minorities (Akha ethnicity in particular) residing in the area.
During the initial ten years of Kuomintang soldiers occupancy, they funded their arms in preparation for a counter-attack on communist China with the lucrative opium trade. It was in the 1970s that the settlers were offered Thai citizenship if they helped fight Thailand’s communist insurgents and converted the land to cultivate other crops; mainly oolong tea which is now Mae Salong’s main product. A visit to the area would not be complete without some tea tasting at a local teahouse. Mae Salong hosts most visitors between November and February when the hills are scattered with white plum and sakura cherry blossoms. Chinese New Year is also an interesting time to visit with lively celebrations.
At an elevation of 1,367 m, Mae Salong is located in the North of Chiang Rai province just 6km from the border with Myanmar. There are two routes to Mae Salong, both scenic yet twisty. From Chiang Mai the drive is about 245km and takes approximately 5 hours, from Chiang Rai just 65km (approximately 1.5 hours driving time). The road can be challenging and is only recommended for experienced drivers – it’s a good idea to hire a private diver or book a tour so you can relax and enjoy the scenic drive.
Unless you’re really flexible and adamant to try public transport, hiring a driver, tour guide or your own vehicle is definitely the most comfortable and convenient option. If you do decide to use the public songtaews (pick up trucks) be prepared for some potentially long wait times and language barriers.
There is public transport to Mae Salong via two different routes; Chiang Rai and Tha Ton. From Chiang Rai take a bus to Mae Sai and ask to be dropped at “Pasang, Mae Salong”, from the drop off point you need to take a blue songtaew up the mountain road to Mae Salong. Tha Ton is a small town close to the Burmese border and is approximately a 4 hour drive from Chiang Mai. Every day there are multiple orange buses departing from Chang Puak bus station with a final stop in Tha Ton. From the terminal station walk in the opposite direction of the bridge to find yellow songtaews which go to Mae Chan (last departure around midday) where you then change to a green songtaew to reach Mae Salong. A bit complicated and time consuming but possible for the determined!