Oolong and Opium: Mae Salong แม่สลอง

To fight you must have an army, and an army must have guns, and to buy guns you must have money. In these mountains, the only money is opium –  Gen Tuan Shi-wen

Mae Salong (Thai แม่สลอง), is in the Thai highlands on Doi Mae Salong mountain in the northernmost province of Thailand.  It is located in an area called Mae Fah Luang, which is right along the border of Myanmar. The area is known for its hill tribe villages, tea plantations, and cherry blossoms.  It may be an unassuming little village, but this destination has a rich history that dates back to one of the most brutal eras in Thailand.


At the end of the Chinese Civil War, after Mao Zedong’s communist party victory in China in 1949, the defeated anti-communist (Kuomintang) army retreated to Taiwan, except for the 93rd Division, which refused to surrender.
These individuals were originally from Yunnan Province in southwestern China and sought to defend their province but were again defeated and forced to retreat into Myanmar.  On discovering this foreign army on their territory, the Burmese also forced them out after lengthy fighting (12 years) and eventually they retreated to the mountains in Mae Salong in Thailand. In exchange for asylum, the Thai government allowed them to stay if they would assist in policing the area against communist infiltration.

They were ordered to assist the Thai government to counter the advancing armies on Thailand’s northern borders and fierce battles were fought in the mountains.  It was not until 1982 that the soldiers were able to give up their arms to settle down to a normal life at Mae Salong. As a reward for their service, the Thai government gave citizenship to most of the Kuomintang soldiers and their families

Despite the Thai government’s attempts to integrate the Kuomintang division and their families into the Thai nation, the inhabitants of Mae Salong would engage in the illegal opium trade, alongside the drug warlord Khun Sa

We have to continue to fight the evil of communism, and to fight you must have an army, and an army must have guns, and to buy guns you must have money. In these mountains, the only money is opium — Gen Tuan Shi-wen,

In the late 1980s, Khun Sa was pushed over the border into Myanmar by the Thai military and the Thai government was able to set up the The Doi Tung Development Project in 1988. The Doi Tung Development Project ended opium cultivation in the area and set up a drug rehabilitation center and social enterprises to generate jobs. It trained residents to reforest the hillside and grow sustainable crops instead of opium. Residents were also given 30-year land-use titles for small plots on which they could live and farm.

We had nothing, and no hope. With the project, I got rid of my opium addiction, got citizenship, got land and work, and ensured that my children had better lives than me -Somchai Sophonsookpaiboon

The Doi Tung Development Project, is held up by the United Nations as a model for ending narcotic drug cultivation and improving the lives of indigenous communities.Whereas many upland areas in northern Thailand went for coffee, Mae Salong, with its close connections to the Kuomintang and Taiwan (home of the renowned Formosa oolong), went for tea instead. Today Mae Salong is the tea centre of Thailand and high-quality Oolong tea is the specialty. The lives of Mae Salong residents progressed for the better as they switched to cultivating tea. Today, tea plantations and tourism drive the local economy and living conditions have tremendously improved. A tea tasting session is an essential part of any Mae Salong visit!


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