Mae Salong is a quiet mountain ridge village in the highlands of northern Thailand. Once part of the Golden Triangle opium trade, Mae Salong in 1961 became a refuge for asylum-seeking members of China's anti-communist Kuomintang (KMT) forces. Known today as Santikhiri, Mae Salong is a subtly exotic island in the sky. Getting there on a bicycle is an excruciating kind of fun.
In 1949 approximately 12,000 anti-communist rebels fled the Yunnan Province of China and hid out in Burma before eventually crossing over into Thailand. For a while they supported themselves through their involvement in the healthy opium trade, but in the 1970's the Thai government made them an offer: help the Thai government put down their own communist uprising in exchange for Thai citizenship and a solid pat on the back. One condition of the agreement was that they give up their opium habit and replace it with something more healthy. And the Mae Salong tea industry was born.
Mae Salong is shaped like - and I had to think about this for a while so try to work with me here - a croissant that had a bite taken out of it before being dropped out of a third-floor window and then stepped on. The town straddles the ridge of the highest peak of the Doi Mae Salong mountain range. The one main road through town runs along this ridge, with any number of side roads - some paved, some not - rolling with reckless abandon into the trees and across the mountainsides and in some places straight down into the valley below for all I know. Exploring the area is great fun.
Unsurprisingly, the people here seem to live quite modestly. Walking here, and in many other places like here, I see a sort of beauty in the simple way life plays out. I can't say for sure I'd want to live out my own life in a place like Mae Salong, but spending a little time here would, I think, forever change my perception of the wider world.
Though I only spent twenty-four hours in Mae Salong the place felt familiar. I had never been to a tea-growing village 3,700 feet in the air, but in the course of ten weeks cycling through Southeast Asia I saw many places that presented a similar story. One of simplicity. One of peace. I've always said that those ten weeks in Southeast Asia were the greatest ten weeks of my life. So maybe I would be okay living in Mae Salong for a while.
Then again, a part of me wishes to never go back to this place that is now known as Santikhiri. I want the Mae Salong I met to remain forever just as it is in my mind.