Chiang Rai

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Photo, peaze?

Taking a photo with our new BFF at a tea shop in Mae Salong, Thailand.

I’m always asking people in Thailand if I can take their picture. Most of them are extremely gracious about it. But here’s the thing: So many of them also want to take my picture. I’m not sure why. It’s not like they don’t get a ton of Americans in Thailand. The only thing I can think of is my size. I’m 6’3” and tend to tower over the Thais. Plus Steve, who lives in New York, is even taller than I am, so when we walk around together, I think some Thais often find us either quite the sight or imagine that Steve, in particular, is some sort of famous American athlete like Dennis Rodman (god forbid), since he also has a body-builder’s physique.

But it’s very cute when they ask if they can have their picture taken with us. Here’s how it usually works: They’ll come up to us and ask us where we’re from. I’ll say Los Angeles and Steve will say New York. They vigorously nod and say, “Ah, ah,” as if that’s exactly what they expected. Then they’ll say point at us and say something like, “Photo?”

“You want a photo of us?”


“With you?”

More vigorous nodding. Then someone else will come rushing over to grab the camera while Steve and I stand on either side of the man or women (actually, high-school aged girls ask us to do this more than anyone), and we’ll all smile through several photos.

It’s a hoot. It makes me feel like I’m not just going around annoying the Thais for a photo op; sometimes they come over and ask for the same. I quite like it.

These young girls were very excited to have their photo taken with Steve at a temple in Bangkok. Photos by David Lansing.

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Sampling oolong teas at one of the many tea shops in Mae Salong (Santikhiri) in Northern Thailand. Photo by David Lansing.

The people from Mae Salong, where the tea plantation is located, do not look Thai. They look Chinese. Which they are.

After Mao won the Chinese Civil War in 1949, the armies led by Generalissimo Chian Kai-shek retreated to Taiwan. Except for an odd army division which refused to surrender. Those soldiers fought their way out of China and escaped in to Burma’s jungles before being chased by the Burmese army into the jungles of the Golden Triangle where they set up shop around Mae Salong. And used the opium trade to finance their continued war on China.

As one of their generals famously stated to a London newspaper in 1967 when accused of engaging in the illegal opium trade, “We have to continue to fight the evil of communism, and to fight you must have an army, and an army must have guns, to to buy guns you must have money. In these mountains, the only money is opium.”

For decades, Mae Salong was one of the largest heroin refineries in Southeast Asia; hundreds of mules (sometimes as many as 600), protected by the armies of the Chinese Irregular Forces, would carry tons of raw opium down from the hills of Northern Thailand and Burma to be processed in Mae Salong.

Finally, the Thai government realized this wasn’t such a great idea and they came up with a plan to introduce new crops in the area, primarily tea. They also officially changed the name of the area from Mae Salong, which was so strongly associated with the opium trade, to Santikhiri, which means “hill of peace.”

Today Mae Salong (I saw few signs saying Santikhiri) is inhabited mostly by the descendents of the former soldiers and their ethnic Chinese brides who crossed the border after the fighting stopped. And the opium poppies have mostly (but not completely) been replaced with tea and coffee plantations as well as fields of corn and fruit trees (they also make sickly-sweet fruit wines here which are popular with Thais and tourists from China and Taiwan).  In fact, about 80% of all the high grade traditional Chinese tea (mostly oolong) now comes from this area. Which just a few decades ago was completely off-limits to tourists and under the control of the warlord Khun Sa. How things have changed.

Tea grows on the terraced hills of Mae Salong at an average elevation of 4,000 feet.

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Exploring Thailand’s Far North

Tea plantation in Northern Thailand

A tea plantation in the remote hill country of northern Thailand. The sign says “prohibit pluck the top feels numb,” which is pretty much how we were feeling. Photo by David Lansing.

We have been slowly (never more than 20mph) driving along the switchbacks and hairpin turns through the untamed wilderness of Thailand’s Far North for hours.

Steve, sitting in the far back of the van, says, “Khun Ketsara.”


“I think if the driver can pull over soon, he should.”

Liz and Yuri are both green around the gills.

“It’s less than ten kilometers more,” says Ketsara. “Can you make it?”

“I don’t think so,” says Liz. “I think we might need to stop now.”

There is really no place to pull over. The mountain road is so narrow that if we get behind an ancient Chinese motorbike putt-putt-putting up the road we’re forced to follow behind it until it either turns down a rutted dirt road or comes to one of the small hill-tribe villages. But Ketsara lets the driver know the urgency of the situation and he simply stops the van in the middle of the road and turns on the flashers. Which will do us absolutely no good if some vehicle comes barreling along.

The girls hurry out of the van. Liz makes it only a few feet before vomiting. Of course, with the power of suggestion, now all of us feel slightly ill.

“Sorry,” she says, taking a handful of Kleenex from Ketsara as she climbs back in to the van.

“I think maybe we make a stop for tea,” says Ketsara. “There is a tea plantation just one or two minutes from here. Shall we do that?”

We all agree. A cup of tea might do wonders to settle our stomachs. And our nerves.

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Doi Tung Royal Villa

The Princess Mother’s summer retreat in Doi Tung. No photography allowed once you’re inside. Photo by David Lansing.

After days and days of travel the most enthusiastic traveler morphs into an international Willy Loman of sorts who desires nothing so much as an appointment-free afternoon and a long nap in a quiet hotel where beers from the mini-bar can be happily expensed. Sometimes, as you climb a slick hill in a steady rain to go have a look at the summer home of the woman who was the mother of the king of Thailand and died 18 years ago, you have to give yourself a sort of mental slap and say, “Snap out of it, punkie! You’re in Thailand! In the middle of the Golden Triangle! At a royal villa! Go enjoy yourself!”

I’d like to tell you that the Princess Mum’s Royal Villa in Doi Tung was amazing. That I only wish I’d had more time there. That I saw things inside I’d never even imagined existed. But I’d be lying.

If anything the Royal Villa reminded me of the rustic ski lodge at a very third rate ski resort. For a royal villa, it was rather small. And boring. Taking a peak at the “social room” where the Princess Mum relaxed with her family, you couldn’t help but think that it looked exactly like a family room in some mountain-oriented cabin in Montana or Vermont where mom and dad read their summer novels while the kidlets played Parchesi. The furniture looked like what you’d find in any farmhouse in Iowa—simple, threadbare, sun-faded.

One bonus: the Princess Mum had a dental office in the house (evidently she had constant problems with her dentures). But other than that, it could have been any Swiss-chalet-style summer cabin anywhere in the world.

I’d show you interior photos of the place but no pictures were allowed. Not that there’s really anything to take a photo of. Which is maybe why they don’t want people taking shots—it might discourage tourists from visiting.

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Thai coffee

Photo by David Lansing.

About 25 years ago, the King of Thailand’s mum (known as the Princess Mother) decided to build a summer retreat on the top of Doi Tung mountain in the far north of Thailand. There was a reason she chose Doi Tung; Thailand was trying to convince the local hill tribes to stop growing opium poppies but they really didn’t have a lot of other choices. So the Princess Mum thought, maybe if I have a royal house here and try and help the people, they will stop growing opium flowers.

Mum got very involved. She set up schools, clinics, and encouraged funding of new crops to replace the opium growing. It took awhile, but these days the hill tribes are known for their macadamia nuts and coffee (neither of which is indigenous to Thailand). In fact, Doi Tung coffee is now so well known that it’s now sold all over Thailand.

This afternoon we made our way up the steep, winding mountain road during a magnificent downpour to visit the Royal Villa at Doi Tung (the Princess Mother died in 1995 at the age of 94). While we waited for the rain to ease up, we had coffee at the Café Doi Tung.

If you ask a Thai if Doi Tung is the best coffee in Thailand, they’re likely to tell you it is number one. And then if you ask them if Doi Chaang, another famous brand, is as good, they’ll say, “Doi Chaang number one.” In fact, you’ll probably get the same replay about any Thai coffee.

“This is excellent coffee,” I said to Ketsara as we sipped our coffee watching the rain come down.

“You like?”

“I think it’s the best coffee I’ve ever had.”

She nodded.

“Do you think it’s the best?”

“It’s very good.”

“But not the best?”

“Maybe the best. Maybe some other.” She said she could think of a couple of other coffees that were as good. I asked her if we were going to be in the areas where those coffees were sold. She thought about it for a minute and then said, “Ye-s-s-s-s-s.” Which means maybe. What it really means is, It wasn’t on the itinerary but let me see if I can make it happen.

The rain let up. I paid the bill and bought a bag of just-roasted Doi Tung coffee beans. I told Ketsara that I would also buy Thai coffee beans at the other places and when I got home I would sample all of them and tell her which was the best. I did this to insure that she would find the other coffee stores.

“Maybe not just one best,” she said as we headed up the hill to the Princess Mother’s summer retreat. “Maybe all good.”

Maybe. We shall see.

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