Chiang Rai Tour – Doi Mae Salong

I could write a million words trying to describe Doi Mae Salong. In fact, I have. I’ve filled pages and pages with my chicken scrawl, poured over my photos and videos repeatedly. I even lay down with my head hanging off the couch, tipped upside down, trying to shake the right words out of my ears. Truth be told, I still haven’t quite been able to capture the beauty of Doi Mae Salong. I am kicking myself that I didn’t more photos or video, but we were only there a short period and I was busy basking in all Doi Mae Salong had to over.

This is a town with a rich Yunnan Chinese influence, perched high among the hills of northern Thailand, which is surrounded by vast, sloping fields of tea plantations and where it is common to pass small spirit houses beside the main road and ladies picking fresh tea leaves.

The town itself is built all higgledy piggledy – houses of stucco and brick with clay tile roofs, all nearly built on top of each other. Tiny laneways lead away from the main road, winding their way past houses and shops.

Ehk drove slowly into town as small motorbikes zipped past us. I watched pedestrians make their way along the side of the road; one lady, dressed in bright woven clothing, was carrying a large bag on her head and a small child in a sling on her back. Ae explained she had come in from one of the hill tribe villages to sell her wares at the local market. Life seemed to occur at a leisure pace here. Old ladies sat outside shops, smoking and flashing us toothy grins as we drove past. We passed a small house where a group of men were crowded around a motorbike which seemed to be in a hundred pieces on the floor.

Our accommodation for the night, Baan See See guesthouse, had magnificent views of the town and the mountain range, even in the hot season when the crops are ablaze and the smoke is thick in the air. We arrived just before sundown – beer o’clock! – and made a beeline for the small open bar at the guesthouse. The owner was cheery and very friendly, bringing us the coldest beers from his fridge and glasses of ice (we Australians like our beer in the ridiculous cold temperature range and ordering ice with our beers was usual practice on our trip). As the sun disappeared behind us, gentle bamboo flute tune trickled down the hills, followed by a reading of the daily news in Chinese for residents without televisions or radios. It was so serene; if I was any more relaxed, I’d have been lying down.

The view from our room at dusk.
The view from our room at dusk.

It would have been very easy to sink deep into the old lounges on the balcony at the Baan See See Guesthouse bar and let the cool darkness swallow us, but Ae had organised for us to have dinner at a local Chinese restaurant. In Doi Mae Salong, the people rise with the sun and go to bed when it goes down; the local restaurant stayed open especially for us.

The small restaurant we ate at. Doi Mae Salong.
The small restaurant we ate at. Doi Mae Salong.

The restaurant was run by a local family, whose 15 year old daughter waited on our table (the only occupied table in there at that time of night) in her pink and white Hello Kitty slippers. Ae and Ehk ordered the specialty dishes for us to try, including slow cooked leg of pork, stir fried mushrooms, ostrich cooked with black pepper and chilli, steamed buns and umpteen dozen bowls of different chillis and spicy sauces. We ordered enough beer and ice for John, Pat, Ae and I to share (Ehk wasn’t drinking, he was driving) and ate ourselves silly. The food was divine. Ae and Ehk took it in turns to teach us to swear in Thai, and eventually we all were cackling like mad at our own hilarity.

Myself, Patrick and Ae (before we got stuck into the beers, obviously).
Myself, Patrick and Ae (before we got stuck into the beers, obviously).

Sunrise

Ae told us (warned us perhaps?) that we would have the best view of the sun rising from our balcony at Baan See See. Patrick and John are known to be notorious late risers and I’m quite sure they’re both allergic to morning light, so I made the effort to get up and see the sun rise on my own. And I wasn’t disappointed.

The same music that followed the news broadcast the night before trickled back down the mountains as the sun peeked over the mountain ridge, shortly before 5.30am. Who needs an alarm clock when there’s gentle bamboo flutes tunes floating in through your open window? I sat on the balcony and watched a beautiful sunrise, wrapped in my sarong to keep the cool air off my shoulders.

Doi Mae Salong stirs in the early morning light.
Doi Mae Salong stirs in the early morning light.
The smoke haze setting in as the sun rises over the hills.
The smoke haze setting in as the sun rises over the hills.
Those three tiny dots in the street are kids who came out to play.
Those three tiny dots in the street are kids who came out to play.

Doi Mae Salong Nok – 101 Tea Plantation

After a quick breakfast at Baan See See, we went to visit a tea plantation just outside of town. The 101 Tea Plantation spreads across the hills, neatly terraced tea bushes creating neat lines like the ruled pages of a book. From the tea house, we could see hilltribe ladies working a few hills over, small figures dressed in dark clothes, picking tea furiously.

Hilltribe ladies working on the 101 Tea Plantation.
Hilltribe ladies working on the 101 Tea Plantation.

John and I settled in for some tea tasting and a lesson in pouring tea the right way. If I could have taken some of every tea I tried home I would have!

John and I tasting tea.
John and I tasting tea.
Chinese details are found everywhere, this far north.
Chinese details are found everywhere, this far north.

After tea tasting, Patrick and I bought a tiny tea set, and then we set off for the hilltribes we would be visiting that day. But not without a walk through the local markets, which was wonderful to watch the locals go about their daily life. Kids played in the dirt at the side of the road while mum and dad stood in line for the bank. Shop keepers whistled as they opened up their shops for the morning and hilltribes ladies shuffled along to their stalls in their bright headdresses. I could have sat there and people watched for hours.

One of the shop fronts.
One of the shop fronts. If you couldn’t buy it at this shop, it didn’t exist.

Just before we jumped into the car to head off to Ban Lo Cha, I stopped by the stall of two Akha ladies who we selling handmade jewellery and other items to raise money for their village. I bought three different bracelets, even though the ladies were extremely helpful in finding other matching bracelets. They crowded around, chattering excitedly and Ae translated that I was the first sale of the day (which is lucky in Thai superstition). They happily posed for photos too. I’m not a tall person, and both of these ladies would have tucked under my arm with ease!

These are the ladies I bought my bracelets from. They were very funny.
These are the ladies I bought my bracelets from. They were very funny.

Doi Mae Salong is a beautiful, little town that is definitely worth a look. It’s very relaxed and laid back, and if you’re sick of the tourist packed beaches, the quiet mountains of north Thailand might be the solution you’re looking for!