CHIANG RAI – Amid the hilltops in northern Thailand, the steep green slopes of Doi Mae Salong are covered with tea, paddy and sprawling corn plantations. Breathtaking landscapes appear at every turn when winding through the area on a motorbike—sometimes at a slant of up to 70 degrees.
In the town, it’s all about China: the architecture, resorts, clothing, script on signboards, it’s a world away from the distinct Thai-ness just an hour or so down the road. Women and children don a mixture of traditional Chinese and minority hill tribe clothing, selling tea, fruits and textiles at the bustling local markets. Bordering eastern Burma’s Shan State, Mae Salong feels neither Thai, Burmese nor Shan.
That’s because most of the people who live there are ethnically Chinese, descendants of and former members of the Kuomintang Army. They settled in the region in 1949 after fleeing from China and its restive border with eastern Burma. The area later became infamous as a stop on the drug smuggling route, as opium grown in Burma was transferred through the golden triangle and beyond.
Today, however, is all about the fresh air, astounding views and fleeting glimpses of mountain life.