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I didn’t expect to practice my Mandarin during my time in northern Thailand. And yet, there I was, clumsily speaking in Chinese with the 70-year-old owner of Kou Ching Shop while she skillfully made the perfect pot of loose-leaf oolong tea.
“I drink tea every day,” she explained, with a smile as deep as the laugh lines on her face. “That’s why I’m still so healthy.”
Ama, as everyone calls her; my Thai guide, Liu; and I were in the small village of Mae Salong (also known as Santikhiri), which is about 40 miles from Chiang Rai. Ama has lived here for more than 40 years, and she, like the majority of Mae Salong’s residents, is Chinese — the result of impoverished soldiers and their families fleeing China’s communist regime in 1949 and eventually settling in these forested hills of Thailand’s Chiang Rai Province. (Meanwhile, a larger mass of the population had escaped to Taiwan.)
Tea plantations are responsible for Mae Salong’s main export, and they comprise most of the village’s real estate. Ama’s own shop has become the go-to spot for locals and travelers alike to shop for tea or share a freshly brewed pot over lighthearted conversation.
Other means of income for the village include the cultivation of lychee, longan fruit, oranges, passionfruit and more, all of which are grown and harvested at a lower elevation. Such fresh crops can usually be purchased at wayside stalls on the bumpy road up to Mae Salong. Higher up are the tea plantations (Ama’s oolong tea is grown some 8,200 feet above sea level), as well as coffee plants — though, once upon a time, the area was better known for the furtive production of opium, which has since ceased under Thai government rule.
Today, the Mae Salong people consider themselves wealthy, but they come from very humble beginnings.
Ama gestured for me to drink my second serving of tea, this time a “fragrance fire flower” blend. Once more, she had poured the tea into a ceramic cup, placed right-side up, before covering it with a wider vessel, positioned upside down. After holding the two together and flipping them so that the liquid remained in the wider cup, I was instructed to roll the empty narrow one — still very hot — between my hands. I also held it close to my nose and inhaled, allowing the tea’s lingering aroma to enter my nostrils and fill my lungs. Finally, I took a sip.
According to Ama, this is the proper way to enjoy a cup of tea, as it promotes an appreciation of the tea’s nuanced flavors and fragrance. Also, during the harsh, cold winters in southwestern China’s Yunnan province — the former home of Mae Salong’s Chinese locals — the rolling motion provided welcome warmth and comfort.
After saying our goodbyes to Ama, Liu and I trudged down the road, passing friendly stray dogs while kids and teens, sans helmets, sped by us on motorized scooters. Liu told me that the road was fairly new; before, the village had been accessible only by horse or donkey.
We slowed further to sample items from vendors who had piled fruit, vegetables and other goods on rickety tables.
"These people wake up before the rooster calls," Liu said, as we sampled a sweet potato that had been roasting over ashy-black coals moments before, steaming up the crisp mountain air. “They’re very hardworking.”
However, no one in Mae Salong is in a hurry. It’s peaceful here, likely a sharp contrast to the turmoil and terror of the Chinese Revolution and its aftermath.
Cherry blossoms begin to appear in early February, creating a delightful burst of pink across the mountainside. All year, there are nightly food markets as well as stands peddling a variety of clothing, shoes, toys and more. Thai people have long found solace in Mae Salong from the sticky heat of other regions, and an increasing number of international travelers have discovered this village, too — but even still, it feels a bit like a secret.
“Today, the Mae Salong people consider themselves wealthy,” Liu said. “But they come from very humble beginnings.”