Even the journey to the North conjured up the feeling of dropping away into the wilderness, as we boarded a local government bus (think hard rows of plastic seats), and subsequently a ‘songthaew’ (truck with wooden benches) that climbed through the mountains, from heat to chill, to reach the remote corner of Mae Salong.
Nestled in the North-Westernmost corner of Thailand, practically in Burma, Mae Salong is a tiny scenic mountain-ridge town, famed for its Oolong tea production and surrounding hill-tribe villages. We chose to visit because we’d heard about other further North places like Pai or Chiang Rai that – although popular – sounded too tourist-ready (i.e. full of ex-pat restaurants and hostels, with little remaining authentic flavour) and we were craving some ‘real’ Thailand where we’d feel like guests in a regular town, rather than catered-for tourists.
And Mae Salong definitely delivered! We lucked out when, on arrival, we asked a recommended hostel about rooms and were shepherded down the road to a building that literally overlooked the entire mountain range, spreading across endless tea plantations, cute towns, and mountains in the distance. After checking the room (and finding it was pretty swanky and even had its own balcony!) we were ecstatic. It felt like a fancy weekend away! Oh and it cost £5.50 a night btw. So yeah… Asia!
We went into town – a long road dotted with small tea ‘factories’ (tiny rooms with tea-processing machines), dinky restaurants and tea houses – in search of food, and were delighted to find a place dedicated to Yunnanese noodles.
Before arriving we’d read about how the town is basically a Chinese village, formed when Chinese nationalist fighters fled over the border and were allowed to stay. And this is evident, not only in the Oolong tea (which you get FOR FREE with meals in restaurants) but also the food itself. We loved the simplicity of a restaurant just selling one thing, and we could see why it was such a hit when we tried it. A steaming hot bowl of thick rice noodles, shredded pork, wontons, and ALL the spicy, coriander-laden flavours, with too many veggies and herbs to mention. And cost about 40p. With FREE OOLONG TEA. Given the fact it was now pretty chilly (we had jackets and leggings on for the first time in months!) this was an ideal meal, and we left feeling warmed, and pretty chilli-high.
That night, to christen our balcony, we bought a load of ‘beer’, ‘rum’ and coke, and some snacks, and hit the bench to admire the views and play embarrassingly loud music (Abba). The ‘beer’ turned out to be sweet white wine (in beer-looking bottles!) and the ‘rum’ turned out to be an unidentifiable spirit that we were later told contains lighter fluid. In a town with no English signs, menus, or English speakers, I guess this is an inevitability! Like good sports, we downed the lot, and had a jolly good night (wrapped up in wooly hats and many layers of clothing!)
The next day we were feeling understandably fragile but still made it to the buzzy (early) morning market (6-7am) to buy fruit, and some much hyped local speciality deep-fried donut sticks that you eat by dipping into hot soy milk, then swiftly retired to bed for a morning of watching trashy films on TV (Alfie anyone?).
By the afternoon, we managed to drag ourselves out of bed and went on an invigorating 5-hour trek, mostly in the pouring rain, to take a peer into nearby hill-tribe villages. The walk was super pretty, all rolling hills, tea plantation workers picking away at plants, endless views, and cute little hamlets of a few houses a piece. We got lost a couple of times despite our trusty hand-drawn map, but still happened upon some cute little villages with water buffalo drinking from streams, wooden huts, and adorable children shouting ‘SABWADEEEEEE!’ at us as we huffed and puffed past.
More than anything, it was great to be out trekking again and feeling the blood pumping after, frankly, so much over-indulgence and sedentary touristy-ness, and despite the trek going on a bit longer that we’d expected, it was really fun. We rewarded ourselves with a double-dinner of more noodle soups and delicious Oolong tea, then watched some more films before bed (the novelty of having a TV/entertainment!)