If you ever find yourself in northern Thailand…
Maybe you’re in Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Pai, or maybe even Bangkok (you would need to fly and drive but hey its for the tea…)
Visit Mae Salong.
If nothing else, the drive up into the mountains is absolutely stunning. I mean it. Stunning.
Do yourself a favor and pay 250 baht to rent a scooter for the day. (This all assuming you’re comfortable on a bike.)
Make sure its at least 125cc’s. You are going to be driving in the mountains. Don’t get scared, remember, stunning.
I pulled out of Chiang Rai on my bike and headed north towards Mae Salong.
Mae Salong sits about 75 minutes outside of Chiang Rai (70 km away) and about 6 km from the border of Myanmar (Burma).
The drive is pretty straight and flat for the first 30 minutes or so, but then there are a number of twists and turns that need to be maneuvered. This is some of the fun though.
Once I got up into the mountains and began winding my way through the pass, the views were absolutely insane.
I look left and I am looking into Myanmar. I look right and I am looking over Thailand off into the distance.
I think I probably stopped and got off my bike at least 5 times to just admire the views. They were glorious.
After about 90 or so minutes after departing Chiang Rai, I finally arrived into Mae Salong (the city).
For some reason the google map app was telling me to keep driving, higher into the mountain. I had typed in Doi Mae Salong for my destination. “Doi” means mountain in the Northern Thai dialect. I guess it was taking me to the peak of the mountain.
After another few kilometers going up the mountain and the temperature had dropped at least 3-5 degree (C). I was wearing every long sleeve layer of clothing I owned (3 layers) and was chilly.
I arrived at the top where there was a Thai monument. I stopped for a few minutes to admire the the view. Again: stunning.
I headed back down.
Driving into the city I was greeted by people, houses, storefronts, and dogs on both sides of the street.
I continued on and saw what appeared to be a market off to the left — a permanent structure. All of the metal gates were down however — it appeared closed, so I continued on.
I came next to a street where the merchandise was pushed far out onto the sidewalk in an attempt to catch the passer by and make a sale. I will admit they would get me later in the day.
I found a place to park my bike (at least I had hoped) next to a random ATM, and random guy, and a few other bikes.
I realized then that I was hungry. I needed to eat. I wanted something authentic.
I walked by a restaurant on the left that was packed with Thai people. It looked like it had a Chinese influence based on the dishes presented on the sign. I continued walking.
Hmm, what to get… wait, that last place was packed with Thai people. Surely they are eating at the place with the best food. I quickly turned around.
I walked into the restaurant and sat down at a ‘table for one’ — there were 6 other seats.
They frantically (I swear there was a sense of urgency) looked for a menu in english.
Thailand is know as the Land of Smiles. This is due to the nature of the people. They are kind, gentle, and generally an open people — very welcoming and hospitable.
That’s why they were rushing. They didn’t want me to wait; I was okay with waiting. It was a cultural contradiction.
I ordered a pig leg, a bamboo membrane soup (remember its chilly out), some rice, and a the most delicious bao I have ever had in my life. Seriously, the bao was incredible.
I devoured it. The bao dipped in my soup was… 🙂
I finished my meal, paid the bill, and then moved on.
I needed some tea.
I walked off to the left to explore some of the stores that were bursting from the seams with wares and goods.
I stepped into the first place that had a shelf full of different oolongs.
I asked the storekeeper a question about something and quickly realized I did not possess the language skills for this conversation. She understood some of what I was wanting, but not everything. It was okay. I thanked her and continued on…
I peaked inside a few more stores with similar looks and feel and kept walking along the road. I then happened upon “fair” of sorts where there were a number of tents and booths setup in what seemed to be a section of land in the very middle of the city. So a town fair I decided. A majority of them appeared to be selling tea!
I walked into a few of the booths trying to figure out how I was going to muster the ask that I am most interested in asking.
I had wanted to compare an oolong 12 against an oolong 17 (both Thai). I was hoping that someone would be accommodating.
At one booth, I was able to ask:
“Oolong 17?” — he brought me a bag of oolong 17.
“Oolong 12?” — he brought me a bag of oolong 12.
Now the most complicated ask: “can I taste and compare the two?”
I assumed this would be okay, due to similar experiences in recent tea shops.
The guy turned and pointed at his kettle on the table. “No hot water.”
I assumed the electricity had not yet been hooked up in his tent.
Okay. “Thank you.”
I moved on.
I peered into several additional tents and many did not look very inviting. For the record it looked like everyone was setting up, as if this were the day before the event started.
Oh well, lets keep going.
I circled around to my left and saw a woman inside of her tent. She appeared to be setup or almost finished being setup.
We made eye contact as I walked past.
She said something to me in Thai and beckoned me towards the table at the front of the tent. I hesitated for just a moment.
She smiled as I came closer and directed me to take a seat. I tried to explain my desire to compare an oolong 12 with an oolong 17.
Darn. She didn’t understand.
Hmmm… what to do. I still hadn’t sat down.
Just then a man walked up to the tent. He appeared to be working the event — he had a bunch of packaging in his arms.
Over the next 20 minutes he translated… well sort of… what the woman was going to brew, etc. At one point I did have to get out google translate — that 12 v 17 was pushing me forward.
“12 and 17, yes?”
“I can compare them both, yes?”
A smile likely exploded across my face in this moment, but I can’t remember for certain. Okay, this was going to happen, I thought!
I sat down. He sat down.
The kettle was brought to temperature. The tea was washed. Let’s do this.
She first offered me the 12.
I liked it.
I wish I had written down specifically what I liked about it, but I didn’t. Sorry self, next time.
Honestly, I was kind of distracted by the manner in which the tea was presented to me.
She filled the tall cup with the first steep’s brew. She then took the tasting cup and flipped it upside down, and placed it on top of the smell cup. She then flipped it over and put it in front of me. The tea was trapped into the tall cup… I was going to get to break the seal and experience the joy of the water gushing into the cup.
I will say this: it was fun!
As I said before, I enjoyed the first steep.
She then gave me a second steep of the tea. I enjoyed it again.
Okay, number 17 now!
I must admit, its possible I may have been slightly biased before this experiment ever began — I had an amazing oolong 17 at a local Chiang Mai tea house, Monsoon Tea, just a week before. However, for the sake of the experiment, let’s assume I was not.
Oolong 17 was now sitting in front of me.
I liked it.
Darn! This again?! 🙂
Next time, I promise. I will write it down.
I sat there for the next 15 or so minutes tasting the 17 and then back to the 12. A young Thai lady and her boyfriend had sat down next to me. She sensed my struggle in communicating (after the older gentleman had left) and offered translation. I think she was excited to practice her english! She was great!
I ended up buying the oolong 17. I truly liked it better, any bias aside.
I also ended up buying some “southern ginseng” — I needed help with the translation here.
The tea lady gestured to me what appeared to signify “healthy body, and good for the back.” At least that’s how I interpreted it.
The younger woman explained that the lady was saying that it was good for health. She then said to mix it with the oolong because it made the brew better. She also stated that it was good to drink before bed. Okay. I could always use help sleeping.
I will say I tried the southern ginseng by itself and it had an astringent sweetness to it. (I haven’t mixed it yet, but I will.)
I paid for my teas. I thanked the woman for her hospitality and tea. I thanked the other young woman and her boyfriend for her help and I was on my way.
As I was getting up, I heard singing and instrumentals coming from the other side of the site. I went to explore…
It was a group of local people singing and dancing. I stood there for a few minutes and watched with a smile.
I looked at my phone… less than 20% battery.
But how? I had full battery when I left. I don’t think Apple likes me.
I still wanted to shoot some drone footage and then explore some of the tea fields. And there was also the matter of navigating home.
I headed back towards my bike while admiring all of the different food offerings from the street vendors along the way.
As I was passing a young boy in front of one of the carts, I looked down and saw what appeared to be a purple potato in his hand. Mmm… that looked good, I thought. I turned around and approached the woman roasting the potatoes over a small box of either coal or wood.
She looked at me and said something in Thai. I wasn’t sure what she meant, but I signaled and mumbled “can I get one” of the potatoes. She offered a handful of them for 20 baht. I told her I only wanted to buy 1. I just wanted to taste it. She gave one to me and waved her had to signify “free”.
Okay. I took it from her and peeled the skin back to reveal a brilliant purple color. I went in for the first bite. It was good. It reminded me of a sweet potato. (As I google it now, it is in fact a member of the sweet potato family.) Delicious.
I then pulled a 10 baht coin out of my wallet and asked if I could have another. She obliged.
I then arrived back at my bike and headed out to one of the tea fields that I had marked on my map. Up and down, left and right, I steered by bike towards the fields.
I finally arrived at the one I wanted to see. They have a pretty massive observation deck to look out over the valley and tea fields. I don’t think they were open — and they appeared to be a new operation. It was alright, I still got to check it out.
I walked through the fields off to the left. The tea bushes were blossoming with their flowers. This is something that I had never seen in person before.
I took a minute or two to fully appreciate the sweet smell that they gave off. I then followed this up with a few photos. I wanted to remember this moment.
Back on the bike, I was down to 10% battery. The camera really kills the battery.
Round and round the curves I drove. “Where can I fly this drone?” I wondered.
With in a few minutes I came around a bend and entered a section of mountain/valley where it formed a natural bowl in the side of the mountain with one side open (think Ancient Roman theatre). On all sides of the bowl were rows of tea bush. At the bottom of the bowl was a small pond and a farm house.
I pulled over. This was my spot.
I put Sparky Flyboy (yeah, that’s my drones proper name) in the air. I then dropped it into the center of the bowl I wanted to get a video shooting up from the lake to 200 meters.
There were two large white geese swimming in the middle of the pond. As Sparky descended upon them, they starting squaking.
I then pulled up on the joystick and sent Sparky straight up until I reached 200 meters.
You can see the video here.
Back on my bike, I’m down to 8 percent battery.
I pushed on through the mountains and eventually came down to flat lands. It was such a fun (and still beautiful drive). My route ended up being a giant circle and I eventually found my way back to the main road and my hotel in Chiang Rai.
What an adventure!