CHIANG RAI – As the mist rolls over the tiny village of Santikhiri formerly known as Mae Salong perched on the hills of northern Thailand, it is hard to imagine that this is the same tropical country better known for the humid streets of Bangkok and the sunny beaches of Phuket.
But Santikhiri (Mae Salong), a two-hour drive from Chiang Rai, is unlike anything else in Thailand. For one thing, tom yam soup is hard to find in the coffee shops dotting the narrow road snaking up from the dusty plains far below.
Instead, the star of the morning market, frequented by women in colourful headdresses – identifying them as Akha tribeswomen – is a hot soya bean drink and crispy youtiao. Both prove to be a reviving breakfast, given the daytime temperature that dips to 12 deg C in mid-January.
Then there is the scenery. Endless vistas of thickly forested mountains stretch far away to Laos on one side of the ridge above the town and to Myanmar on the other, with some slopes covered by terraced rows of tea plantations.
Also, the locals are not speaking a lot of Thai.
“Do you speak Mandarin?” the proprietor of our guesthouse asks tentatively when he sees my wife’s and my Singapore passports.
When we nod, Mr Somboon Iamvitayakun, 62, breaks into a relieved smile. “Sorry, my English is not very good. So much easier if we can speak in Mandarin,” he says in Mandarin.
And that is what makes Mae Salong a most unusual tourist spot in Thailand, a country more often than not associated with gold-roofed temples, spicy food and “Same Same” T-shirts.
Here in Santikhiri, if you go by its official name, a distinctive Chinese culture pervades the entire town, whether it is in the faces, language or food.
“We’re all Chinese here. We try to preserve our culture – we speak Mandarin, we keep our traditions,” adds Mr Somboon, owner of Little Home Guesthouse (www.maesalonglittlehome.com), which charges about 1,000 baht (S$41.60) a night for a bungalow for two.
Indeed, wander past the narrow strip of houses sited precariously on the ridges of Doi Mae Salong – “doi” means mountain in Thai – and you will quickly find that most locals speak Mandarin. And if you happen to speak the Yunnanese dialect, you will find yourself right at home.
For Mae Salong, as history buffs will know, was once the refuge of the “Lost Army” of Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang. While most of the Nationalist troops fled to Taiwan when Mao Zedong’s People’s Liberation Army stormed into Nanjing in 1949, the KMT’s 93rd Division, which was fighting in the hills of southern Yunnan province, was forced to retreat southwards, walking for months into then-Burma.
In 1961, after being pushed out of Myanmar where their opium trade financed arms, they trudged again, towards Mae Salong.
It is history that Mr Somboon knows well. His father was a general in the 93rd and he himself fought in the war. “There were just 16 families and 4,000 soldiers here,” he recalls. “Of the original 360 in our unit, there are only three of us still alive. The rest died in war.”
It is hard to imagine the soft-spoken, grandfatherly Mr Somboon as a battle-hardened warrior, but that is exactly what he was. In exchange for Thai citizenship, he and many compatriots of the 93rd Division joined the Thai army to help it fight communist insurgents operating around the porous borders in the country’s north.
“I fought the Chinese. I fought in Myanmar. I fought in Laos. I fought until I was 50 years old, when I was tired of fighting,” he says. “So I stopped fighting and retired.”
But there is no trace of bitterness on the peaceful face of the owner of Little Home Guesthouse, where we stay three nights. He is more than happy to recommend walks around the hills.
Indeed, Mae Salong, while proud of its origins, appears to hold no grudge over its retreat or the losses of the past.
At the Chinese Martyrs’ Memorial Museum (admission 20 baht; along Highway 1089), a large hall and several rooms pay tribute to the troops who fought and died, while also celebrating its residents’ confident march into the future, with pictures of them in meetings with regional leaders.
At the tomb of General Tuan Xi-Wen (along Highway 1089 and behind Day Market), an old soldier stands guard, inviting visitors to pay their respects to Mae Salong’s founder – though many are more interested in the views that the hilltop tomb offers.
Walk around town and you will quickly understand why thousands of Thais flock here in the colder months of the year – between November and February – to drink in the clean, crisp mountain air, sup on fresh mushrooms and strawberries, and revel in the novelty of shivering while waiting for dinner to be served on open-air verandahs.
Breathtaking views can be enjoyed from just about everywhere, along with cherry blossoms and alpine-like flowers in the winter months.
And if you are tired of the oolong tea being served in every other coffee shop, you can retreat to the rather modern Sweet Maesalong Cafe (www.facebook.com/sweetmaesalong) for a latte or cappucino, which you can sip as you take in the view of the countryside from deck chairs scattered around the open-air verandah.
While Mae Salong can be done on a day tour from Chiang Rai, it is worth spending a few days in this mountain retreat, so you can meander for hours along the winding roads that dip in and out of valleys, passing through rural tribal villages where time seems to stand still.
Even in Mae Salong itself, progress – evidenced in a brightly lit 7-Eleven in the town centre – has not destroyed the village atmosphere.
Schoolchildren trudging uphill to school, teens laughing as they race past on noisy scooters (three to a bike, no helmets, of course), women carrying their day’s marketing in rattan baskets slung on their backs – there is enough life to watch simply sitting at the coffee shops just inches away from the road.
Adding to the sense of isolation is the journey between Chiang Rai and Mae Salong, the only way being a one-hour ride on a songtheaw from several towns at the foothills.
Squeezing onto one of Thailand’s ubiquitious shared pick-up taxis can be an adventure in itself, as you start counting the number of passengers the tiny vehicle can take – if you include those perched on the bumper at the back. At one point, we got to 28.
But if you want a taste of Yunnan and a breath of fresh, cold mountain air without getting out of Southeast Asia, it is worth the ride.
-By Leslie Koh