Thursday 16 December 2010

Doi Mae Salong - A little bit of China in Thailand

Chinese Martyr's Memorial Hall
Could Doi Mae Salong be one of the world's most remote Chinatowns?

The little town is accessed by a snaking mountain road about 3.5 hours north of Chiang Mai, itself being fairly remote as it's 600km north of Bangkok. Yet it's as Chinese as Beijing. Maybe even more so, now that the cadres have embraced progressive capitalism with such gusto.

The first sign of Mae Salong's Chineseness is a rather elaborate gate at the front of town indicating the Chinese Martyr's Memorial Hall. (And now that I look at it, that apostrophe is in the wrong position but that's what it's called ...) Chinese Martyr's? What? Who? Where? Why???

It turns out that in 1949 with the Chinese Revolution, defeated Chiang Kai Shek took most of his Kuo Min Tang army off to Taiwan. However the KMT 93rd Regiment had to flee south from Yunnan, through Burma, and they ended up regrouping in these far-flung hills, close to the Burma border.

From here, they agitated and fought against the communists, and did whatever other military work they could do in the area, ingratiating themselves to their Thai hosts. So they were granted citizenship and allowed to settle.

Now, 60 years later, they've left a strong legacy. Apart from the huge red-and-gilt Memorial Hall, tassled red lanterns hang from ornate eaves. Shop signs are mainly in Chinese, sometimes Chinese and Thai.  

One of a thousand tea shops
One enthusiastic vendor calls out to me to try her mulberry wine. (The Chinese invented silk too, made by silkworms which eat mulberry leaves.) It is deliciously sweet, but more like cordial than a wine, so Penfold's don't have to worry about the price of Grange plummeting any time soon, jing jing.

And the locals speak Chinese. "Yes, meeeester, about 80 percent speak Chinese," says Vit Toon, a moon-faced young chap at Little Home Guesthouse, who cooks up a lip-smacking Yunnanese feast including porks leg soup on their terrace overlooking the valley.

"It feels like Yunnan before," says my companion, who'd worked in that southern China province for a couple of years. Indeed the whole town is infused with the feeling of a Chinese frontier town. Especially with the added textural presence of Chinese-origin hilltribes such as the Akha, who's beaded and coined head-wear clank as they shuffle along the steep streets lugging baskets of tea leaves from down the slopes.

Now that opium has been eradicated from the area, the very Chinese crop of tea -- invented by a Chinese warrior let's not forget -- has taken its place.

Dozens of modern and inviting tea shops line the town's streets, stacked ceiling high with bags and boxes and cans of tea of all different varietals. And the endless plastic-sided street markets also peddle tea and tea sets.

So, save yourself the airfare to China. Instead, take a car, motorbike, bicycle or song taew to Doi Mae Salong instead. It's Chinese, to a tea. Er, tee.

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