Thursday, January 24, 2008

Mae Salong: Just In Time for Tea

"You should go to Mae Salong." said Alberto the Italian as I was fleeing Phuket. "I bought a teapot," he patted his bag which held his newly purchased teapot which was insulated on all sides by large bags of Oolong tea, "you will like it there".
High in the Northern Thailand hills lies the peaceful little Chinese village of Mae Salong. It sits on a ridge just under a high peak, the nose of which is capped by an ornate Chedi. I went up to the Chedi on the advice of a couple of travelers I had just met and joined for coffee. They had been in Mae Salong for a week, and I had only one afternoon and evening there. “What is the best thing to do with one afternoon?” I asked. They glanced at each other and both agreed, “The Chedi”, they said in unison. And so after a bowl of pork noodle soup, I climbed up each of the 700 steps that led the way chanting ‘Om Mani Padme Hum’, one word for each step.

Halfway up the steps I was approached and propositioned by a group of relatively harmless young teenage boys who were accosting the town with their Bangkok attitudes. “Thai boys?” said the hotel owner when I told her about it later, “not sound like local boys.” The local boys are all Chinese, of course, and probably have manners. At the top of the steps I was greeted by a Hill Tribe woman, selling her wares in front of the Chedi. She let me know she was the mother of 5, so I felt sorry for her and bought her offerings. I went up into the Chedi and took a good look around at Burma and all of Northern Thailand as well as the birds-eye view of the village and tea plantations of Mae Salong.

It wasn't until midway through the day that I knew I would end up in Mae Salong. I had caught the bus back to Chiang Rai from Chiang Khong, and took a taxi masquerading as a Saengthaew to catch the boat going to Tha Ton. I didn't think I would have time to do both Mae Salong and Tha Ton, and I liked the idea of a boat trip up the river through the countryside, so I chose Tha Ton. However, I had apparently missed the daily boat a half hour earlier, and the other option was to rent a private boat for 2500 baht (about 75 dollars). I didn’t feel like being so extravagant so I huffed and got back into the Saengthaew and told the driver just to take me back to the bus station, I would go to Chiang Mai. He said, “I can take you to Tha Ton”. I turned him down, but the fact that he would drive that far made me think…

“How much for you to drive me up to Mae Salong?” I asked, sticking my head through the back window when the truck had come to a stop. “1500 baht”, he yelled up toward me. “No that’s too much!” I exclaimed, pulling my head back into the truck.

Next stop, “How much you spend?” the driver asked me. “1000 baht,” I answered. “Not enough,” he said, “I have to drive long way, drive back, gas expensive,” he asserted, “1200 baht” (about 35 dollars).

“Ok” I said. “Pull over so I can sit in front.” The driver pulled over and I settled into the front and ate the bananas he offered me as we made our way up the windy road to Mae Salong. The scenery was magnificent and I knew immediately that I was going to wish I could spend more time in those hills. You can get there cheaply if you have time to take the bus and then wait for the public Saengthaew, but I was feeling short of time so this was like a miracle for me. I had only one afternoon in the town, and I wanted to make the most of the time.

When I came down from the Chedi, I walked from one end of town to the other, wandering through the hill tribe market stalls, and the multitude of tea shops before the sun set and I made my way back through the town to my hotel.

The hotel, The Mae Salong Villas, was a red lantern trimmed very ornate Chinese affair with a huge banquet hall. They are a tour group hotel, essentially the only one in town, so they often have a full house. The other options were some inexpensive guesthouses closer in to town, but I decided to splurge my one night in the mountains.

My room had a spectacular view and was as clean as a hospital, and about as warmly appointed, you can’t hand it to the Chinese for their interior decorating skills. The gleaming whiteness of the walls however, made it very easy to hunt and kill the evening mosquitoes, a task I’ve become very good at, occasionally using one hand to grab and squish one right out of the air in one agile movement. This movement has become quite the impresser to those lucky enough to witness it. I’ve yet to meet anyone who thought this activity was cruel.

The banquet hall was crowned at the back by a wall of tea and a facility for tasting. The owners have a tea estate and sell all their own teas at the restaurant. I had a long talk with the owner and found out that the tea is picked by Hill Tribe folks. “They are very clever,” said the owner, “We used to pay salary, but they were very lazy and did not pick enough tea. Then we switched to paying them by weight, and they started picking more stems because stems are heavier. This is a great problem later because we can’t use stems to make the tea. We have to supervise very closely to make sure they pick only leaves.”

Unlike the plantations of India, the workers here are not supplemented beyond their salaries in theory or reality. They get paid for their labors and that is all, and then they go home in the evening, to their Hill Tribe villages. Also unlike India, here, the tea industry seems to be thriving. How do the laborers fare? Good question.

The next morning, after buying much tea, I hopped on the public Saengtaew down to Tha Ton, changed to another one that went to Fang, and hopped on the bus that took me through the sharp pokey mountains down to Chiang Mai where it seems I’ve left a little piece of my heart.

Oh, Alberto, you were right... and I also bought a teapot.
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