UP AMONG THE COOL, MISTY HEIGHTS OF THE NORTH perches a little town with an atmosphere and a past unlike any spot in Thailand. It's a place of aging warriors who survived desperate battles, a one-time den of opium traffickers, a community that could have been plucked right out of China. This is Mae Salong, which has emerged from its hard and unsavoury beginnings to flourish as the heart of Thailand's "Tea Country" Here, the brew – a blissful, daily must for millions around the world – is never far away. The town's main road, which twists along a ridgeback like a dragon's tail, is lined with picturesque teashops
serving it in delicate porcelain cups. And as far as the eye can see, hillsides are carpeted with tea bushes thriving under ideal growing conditions – rich soil, cool nights and humid days, and an altitude of some 1;300 metres above sea level.
But perhaps the key to tea's success in these mountains of Chiang Rai, Thailand's northernmost province, are its enterprising, hard-labouring inhabitants. Being ethnic Chinese, world champion tea drinkers and connoisseurs, doesn't hurt either. Take members of Chamreon Cheewinchalerrnchot's family whose lives have been typical of the town's residents ... but first some tea.
It's a wintry morning on the veranda of their Mae Salong Villa, the red Chinese lanterns swaying gently in the bracing breeze as Chamroen's wife Ming orders up three steaming teas to sample.
A grizzled Akha tribal bangs his cymbals nearby while old nostalgic tunes waft from a hotel speaker. Haze blurs the outlinesof surrounding hills. "It has a milky scent, doesn't it?" Ming suggests, as we apply our noses to a cup of Oolong No. 12 much as wine aficionados do before taking a sip. Another is redolent of flowers and the third, Green Jade Oolong Tea, reminiscent of sticky rice. "Tea is a kind of art,' says the charming woman – and medicine, extolling Oolong's efficacy in tackling high blood pressure, cholesterol, diabetes and fatty foods.
The teas come from Chamreon's plantation, among the three largest in Mae Salong, and all started by fighters of Chiang Kai-. shek's Kuomintang (KMT) or their children. Chamreon's father was a colonel, Ming's mother a Captain who joined the KMT at the age of 13. Suffering, the loneliness of exile and deaths of comrades became the staples of their lives for more than a decade. After the triumph of Mao Zedong's Communists in 1949, the KMT's 93rd Division began its ordeal, first retreating out of China's southern province of Yunnan into neighbouring Myanmar. From there, the defeated troops staged futile forays into their homeland
with armed assistance from Taiwan and the United States. The KMT proved unwelcome guests in Myanmar where, in order to sustain their military organisation, they became major opium and heroin traffickers„tafenexpanding into smuggling jade. antiques and consumer goods. Chased out
of Myanmar in the early 1960s, the "Lost Army," as it is often called, moved into northern Thailand with one section of it, including Chamrecn's and Ming's parents, settling in Mae Salong where a village like any other in their native Yunnan was built. Other KMT remnants were relocated to Taiwan, which to this clay maintains close links with the Chinese communities of northern Thailand.
From the start, Chamreon's father and others planted Assam tea, but with little success. Plums, peaches, pears and other fruits were also grown but markets for these perishables were far from their then remote, isolated homes. In the 1970s, projects initiated by His Majesty
King Bhumibol Adulyadej sought to improve tea quality and marketing just as the KMT were once again taking up arms – this time to help fight the Thai government fight, and win, against domestic communist insurgents.
Their wars finally over, the weary warriors turned in their weapons and disbanded the military organisation in the mid-1930s and. in exchange, a grateful Thai government
began to grant them citizenship and land. The town's name was also changed to Santikhiri – Hill of Peace – although Mae Salong is still more commonly used. It was a classic tale of swords (and opium knives) turned into ploughshares, or more specifically tea.
Chamreon, a handsome, energetic man of 50, recalls how in 1989 Taiwanese experts came to Mae Salong to study how tea production could be improved while about the same time a dozen residents of the town, himself included, travelled to the island republic, where they saw how profits could be gleaned from small plots of Taiwan's superb Oolong ("black dragon" in Chinese) tea. But getting the Camellia sinensis into Thailand was a different matter. Cuttings were seized four times by Bangkok customs before officials from HM the King's projects stepped in to let them pass through. Then followed a period of trial and error, with tea quantity and quality improving season after season, bringing growing prosperity, a tea culture and tourism In Mae Salong.
Chamreon got in on pretty much the ground floor of the latter. As manager of the town's first hotel, the Mae Salong Resort (where he also-sang for guests), he realised that more visitors were on their way, so in 1986 he opened a restaurant with 10 simpleadjöining bungalows (Ming recalls some rather hefty German guests crashing through their bamboo beds). The modest enterprise has now expanded into the hillside, 80-room Mae Salong Villa, one of four hotels, six guesthouses and a number of home stays in the town. "The tea plantations are a kind of attraction for tourists. Before people used to come and say 'What's so special about Mae Salong? There are cherry trees but they only blossom briefly once a year,"' Ming relates.Tea plus cool weather amid mountain scenery are attractions, but many also come to Mae Salong for its special Chinese ambience, although Akha, List], 'lac), Shan and other ethnic groups are also found among its 6,000 inhabitants. The original mud-floor huts may be gone, and the mule trains have been replaced by motorcycles, but Mae Salong's streets are still lined with the neatly whitewashed, one-storey houses typical of Yunnan, their fronts emblazoned with scrolls wishing guests good fortune in Chinese characters. In the streets, the language is heard among both old and young, the children attending a Thai government school during the day followed by attendance at a Chinese one from 5 to 7.30 pm. Although Mandarin is taught, it's the Yunnanese dialect that is spoken at home. "We still adhere to the old Chinese traditions arid culture.
42 Sawasdee February 2000We celebrate special days and perform rites, which are already lost in China.' Chamreon says.
Of the first generation of KMT soldiers, Ming relates wistfully, "Time is flying." Not more than 20 of them are still alive, often seen chatting together over cups of tea or heaping bowls of Yunnanese noodles and black chicken soup, clinging to bygone ways. The last of the KMT commanders, Gen Lue Ye lien, is now 91, the honourary head of the community ',dill possessed of charisma and a soldier's ramrod ;Jule. l-lis predecessor and the man who led the KMT's 5th
In Mae Salong, Gen Tuan Shi-wen, lies in a pagoda‑u.; koleum overlooking the town. Below, an expansive Ind houses the Taiwan-financed Chinese Martyr's MJJtil Museum with a vast, austere central shrine containing the inemolial tablets of some 750 KMT soldiers who perished for their cause. Gilt dragons pull sentry duty on the orange-tiled rook, held up by scarlet columns. Flanking halls, narrate the KM I '=-,tort' in faded photographs, documents and sandbox displays of their big battles. Old photographs are also exhibited at the Mae Salong Villa and the Mae Salong Resort, which once served as a military training camp.
Left: A Chinese seiHng teas. plantation in theBesides the shared past and ethnic make-up, which foster cohesiveness, what keeps Mae Salong together and unique is a long-standing deal with the Thai government that outsiders cannot buy land in the town and existing property can only be passed on from local parents to children. Hence, the thankful absence of out-of-scale hotels and other inappropriate development by Thai and foreign outsiders. How long Mae Salong's character can remain intact depends much on the young generation. The town's youth has long been going off for education to Taiwan – both Ming and Chamroen studied there – and increasingly to Bangkok where jobs are much more lucrative and plentiful than back home. Chamreon says Mae Salong's children may spend years away, accumulating experience and savings, but then return to set up businesses.
44 Sawasdee February 2008But Ming wonders about her own, three of who are now at university in Bangkok: "I don't know if they will come back. Children these days like to sit behind computers. They don't want to work hard, and tea is hard work."
Tea, however, is the very thing from which many could make a living. Chiang Rai province now produces some 1,000 tons of it a year, with Mae Salong accounting for about 100 ("But it's considered the finest tea," Chamreon boasts). Tea is a continuous pursuit, harvested six times a year as compared to rice or corn, which yield only one or two crops. And while profit margins aren't great, Thai tea can now be shipped in large quantities to solid markets at home and abroad.
The plantation of the Choke Chamreon Tea Company is situated eight kilometres outside the town while processing takes place at another nearby location in a brand new factory. Chamreon and his twin brother Jathupon also handle marketing, often travelling with government delegations to promote Thai tea in Southeast Asia, Europe and the Middle East. Their own brand – Emerald Thai Tea – is now exported to China, France and Taiwan, which still sends some experts to the top Chiang Rai growers. But perhaps not for long; with growing conditions better than those in Taiwan, the students are now equalling, if not already surpassing, their masters.
Chamreon points to the clean water running from the heights, a soil kept robust through organic rather than chemical fertilizers and marauding insects held at bay by an insecticide of assorted mulched vegetation. Looking out over the thriving, 100-hectare plantation and the sweep of mountains bathed by a gentle afternoon sun, Chamreon talked about the long march of his parent's generation that made what was around him possible. I recalled General Lue's words when we met several years ago. 'We had no money, no food, no guns and no country. We had nowhere to go. The past was a nightmare," the old leader said. "Let us look to the future."