08 Mar 2013 Thailand: Finding Friendship and Tea Above the Clouds
This is an entry in the We Said Go Travel Writing Contest
I sat waiting in the back of the truck; the heat subsiding slightly as a storm hovered above, the beat of raindrops on metal creating watery melodies. In twenty minutes the clouds had passed, but the air still hung heavy with humidity. I reached for a handkerchief to wipe my forehead, my salvation from this sweaty beast lay only hours away; the distance from Chiang Rai to Mae Salong relatively short.
Mae Salong has a rich historical evolution. Although situated in Thailand, the town is mainly comprised of descendants of the 3rd and 5th regiments of the 93rd division of the Chinese Nationalist Army. In the 1950’s and sixties they refused to surrender to communists, retreated into Burma and later sought asylum in Mae Salong. In exchange for helping the Thai government fight communism in that area, the soldiers were allowed to settle. Though it was part of the Golden Triangle (an area across Burma, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam where poppies were grown for opium), by the late 1980’s the drug warlord Khun Sa was ejected and Mae Salong’s hillsides reclaimed by tea trees, filling the air with peace and a subtle Oolong sweetness.
After another storm had passed, I found myself riding in the bed of a truck navigating winding roads to Mae Salong. The humidity slackened as the truck climbed higher, the air now a cool breeze and the sun a warm welcome on my face. As I looked toward the horizon, a lush green ocean unfolded below a powder blue sky, the hills undulating with manicured tea trees. We passed women with baskets full of freshly picked tealeaves, dropping them off at small factories to be steamed, wrung, compressed, and dried. The air held a sweet whisper mixed with earthy tones of sun-drenched tea trees. I took a deep breath, letting the aroma fill me.
There is only one main road; it winds up Doi Mae Salong mountain then meanders along the spine of the Daen Lao mountain range to the town of Tha Ton. I walked passed tea stalls with cups out, ready for steaming samples; kids outside a school practicing band instruments, accenting their music with pauses, then laughter; Akha women in bamboo stalls selling fresh vegetables while others sold souvenirs, wearing their ornately decorated headdresses dripping with beads and silver balls, to entice tourists.
Passing a steaming pot of siopao or “steamed buns”, I grew giddy, pointing at the pot; I held up two fingers and smiled. I can only describe them as hot cream-colored pillows encasing a heavenly-spiced meat mixture. My hunger now at bay, I decided to set out for what I had heard was a panoramic view of the area. After a few wrong turns, I found the correct path and looked up at a challenge: over seven hundred stairs looked down at me.
Out of breath, I hit the last stair and saw it, a temple-like structure honoring the late Thai Princess, Srinagarindra. I slid my shoes off in respect and looked out onto a beautifully sewn patchwork of tea plantations, farmed land, and hill tribe villages. The greenest of greens faded into every shade, the road winding through Mae Salong like a cement snake, the sky a tapestry of purplish blues and grey. I watched the clouds roll in at sunset, like a slow motion waterfall they cascaded down the hillsides, blanketing them in white.
On a walk the next day, an older woman sitting in front of her house waved me over to sit with her. Though I don’t speak Mandarin and she didn’t speak English, we managed a long conversation of pointing, smiling, repeating words and drinking tea. Over the next three days I would walk down to her house to talk, to drink tea, to eat, to go for walks, to people-watch or to help her de-kernel the corn she had been drying out. Despite our language barrier, she made me feel accepted, welcome, and for those few days, at home. The evening before I left, I pointed to the calendar and drew a picture of me leaving. She jokingly shook her head and pointed to the next week, we smiled and I said goodbye.
The next morning I prepared myself to leave a town that now felt so familiar to me. As I looked out the back of the truck, taking in the view for the last time, we passed by her house. She was sitting outside on the bench; we saw each other and began waving wildly with big smiles across our faces. When she was out of sight, I sat back smiling, let the sweetly scented air pass through me one last time, and said goodbye to Mae Salong.
About the Author: CB is an American travel writer currently on a working holiday visa in Australia to fund my next adventure.