Getting a chance to visit Mae Salong can be a bit complicated. From Chiang Rai you’ll have to take a few buses before getting there and try to hold on while climbing the many hills that bring to the town high up in the mountains. In the North-East of Thailand, Mae Salong (or Santikhiri) has a very special history that can be felt when you spend a few days there: this town was one of those that joined the infamous Golden Triangle’s opium trade like a few in the North of the country but what makes it so special is that its population are mainly of Chinese rather than Thai descent.
The founders of this town were the “lost army” of the Republic of China’s 93rd division. They fled China’s Civil War and created a new place to live. While there is now not that much left of the old Chinese culture in Santikhiri you will still find influences in the local food or with the residents who speak a combination of Thai and Chinese. This could be regarded as a choice for business more than due to their heritage, it still gives a feeling of a Chinese enclave in the middle of Thailand’s mountains. Sometimes said to be similar to a town in Yunnan it is very different and very special. But why should you come to Mae Salong and take the time to explore? What is there to do? If you’ve got a few days you could simply enjoy the views from a cafe and sip some tea while watching people passing by, but if you fancy being a bit more active you might want to do a bit more:
Visit Mae Salong: Climb to Phra Boromathat Chedi:
Take the stairs and get climbing to the stupa called Phra Boromathat Chedi. It’s not really just about the stupa, it’s about the view: once you get up there you’ll get some gorgeous views of the town and the surrounding mountains. If you still have some energy after those few hundred steps then keep on climbing to the top of the hill. There isn’t much up there and sadly the trees are hiding a bit of the view but it will offer a better look at the other side at the mountains that cannot be observed from the stupa. After that get back down and sip a cold beer.
When: Early in the morning or late in the afternoon might be the best time to do this. The sun can get pretty strong during the day.
Visit Mae Salong: Get up early and discover the local market:
Rise as early as the sun does and join the local market that is located near a few famous hotels. People from local hill-tribes come here to do their shopping and it’s a great time for watching people doing their daily business. If you are interested in taking a few photos try to ask nicely, people are not very receptive to camera wielding tourists up here, and might not be happy to be photographed (or, if you’re lucky, they might give you a nod and then ignore you, which is a pretty good result)
When: 6am is the perfect time to get up and get ready to explore. Be careful though: the market ends pretty early (around 9am) so be there as soon as you can.
Visit Mae Salong: Go to a tea plantation and try out their products:
Mae Salong is famous for the tea they grow and sell all around Asia. The hills and temperatures are perfect for it and a few plantations can be found around the town. Spend an afternoon in one of them (we opted for 101 that was a fairly easy name to find) and try a few black, white and green teas. You will get the option to visit their plantation and watch how people are working. Be careful if you visit outside of the peak season, as you might not find many people there to show you around. Tea though is a great gift to bring back to your family, and the one there are some delicious one to choose from.
When: Anytime of the day. A visit like this can be adapted to the rest of your schedule.
Visit Mae Salong and the local hill-tribes villages:
Rent a motorbike or take a horse trek to visit the villages nearby. A few hill-tribes (mainly Akha) are not too far from town and are easily accessible by road. Spend a day exploring your surroundings, enjoying the views but be very careful: the road can get very very steep and might be a bit scary sometimes.
If you want to arrange for a horse trek try to book it in advance; when not being used for trekking the horses are hard at work in the fields, and may well not be available if you just drop by unannounced.
Try the local delicacies:
If you became a bit tired of the local Thai food after being in the country for a while then lucky you: you’ll find a lot of Chinese (mainly from Yunnan) dishes in this little town. Quite different from what is usually served, it’s a fun way to try something new and to get to plunge a bit more in the Chinese heritage of this town.
How do I get to Mae Salong?
From Chiang Rai it’s fairly simple: get a bus to Mae Sai and explain to your bus driver that you will be going to Mae Salong (or Santikhiri), they will drop you off in a village where you should see songthaews (type of cars with benches at the back) waiting. One of them will take you up on the hills to Mae Salong. The trip shouldn’t cost more than 100BTH per person.
How long should I stay?
From 2 to 4days, it seems like a reasonable amount of time to spend in town, giving you the time to explore your surroundings.
Before you get to town read a bit more about the history of the Chinese army who founded this town. It’s an interesting view into China’s past but also in the Golden Triangle’s Opium trade that did affect those areas for a long time.
Where should I stay in Mae Salong?
For less than 20USD you can get a lovely cottage with your own balcony and you end up pretty close to the morning market as well. The host is very friendly and this place has been running well for a while as this was our choice when we came to Mae Salong. If you don’t have your own transportation, it’s a pretty good bet.
(From 20USD to 40USD)
Pretty amazing views on the hills and the tea plantations, your own balcony and some great food coming from the staff, this is the perfect choice if you are looking to get away from it all and simply enjoy your holiday. Beware that you will end up away from town and this might be difficult to access without your own transport.
(From 40USD upwards)
At up to 70USD, this luxury comes with airco in your room and if you are visiting in Summer, this is something you might not want to pass on. As with most hotels in the area, rooms come with a balcony and view on the hills. With a pretty modern decoration, the rooms are exactly what you might need after a long day of walking.
Have you been to Mae Salong? Would you like to? What activity would you opt for once there? Let us know in the comments.
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