Thailand: A charming cultural collision

By Chris Harrington

Chris Harrington discovers a village in Thailand with a distinctly Chinese history

The hill village of Mae Salong. Inset: A man fries dumplings at the bustling village market.
The hill village of Mae Salong. Inset: A man fries dumplings at the bustling village market.

Deep in the beautiful mountains of northern Thailand, there is a little corner that will always be Taiwanese. It's called Mae Salong, and is a little hill village about an hour from Chiang Rai that exists courtesy of an accident of history. It's Chinese to its core, from the food to the beautiful golden temple paid for by the Taipei Government.

In one of those long-forgotten stories of the post-World War II world, two Chinese nationalist armies ended up here. They were granted land and safety by the King of Thailand. In the 1970s, those Nationalist armies repaid the debt by fighting in the dirty guerrilla war against Thailand's tribal communists.

As you approach Mae Salong from the north, it is a spectacular place with a huge gorge cutting off the town from the winding approach road. The market square is congested with Thai and Chinese tourist bric-a-brac stalls and food being sold in the spirit of a shared community.

Our guide, Nui, says the best Chinese steamed buns and noodles in all of Thailand can be found here.

"It's not all 'burn-burn' like Thai food. It's a beautiful place for your stomach."

So how did this piece of China come about? In 1949, as Mao Zedong and his communist armies marched southwards towards Kunming, two Kuomintang armies were trapped with their backs to the Burmese border. In a series of bloody battles, they fought first the Burmese army and then the Chinese Communists to a standstill and retreated into the mountains of Thailand under a ceasefire agreed to by the Burmese. In 1953, a multi-national committee supervised the return of 7288 Kuomintang soldiers to Taiwan. Nui, who is in his early 60s, remembers the evacuation.

"We ran down in our bare feet to Chiang Rai's airfield. There were planes taking off every minute and clouds, clouds of dust."

That same year, the King of Thailand gave Mae Salong to the Chinese soldiers who had decided to stay. These last remnants of the two armies settled down and repaid the favour when they served in squads of 200 and joined the Thai government's war against the Miao Communists in the Khao Ya mountains.

Today, Mae Salong is a peaceful place. Its temple boasts an excellent museum and a moving memorial hall dedicated to the Kuomintang veterans who died in this remote place.

Mae Salong can be reached by a two-hour drive along steep and winding mountain roads from Chiang Rai.

A day's guided tour from Chiang Rai will cost about $35. And that famous Chinese noodle lunch sets you back a mere $2.


Thailand Checklist

GETTING THERE: Thai Airlines flies five times per week between Auckland and Bangkok.

- NZ Herald

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on red akl_n6 at 25 Apr 2014 21:38:46 Processing Time: 1202ms