Monday, May 26, 2014

From Opium to Oolong: A Day Trip to Doi Mae Salong

The geometry of this region was just stunning.

The view from the Phra Boromathat chedi devoted to the Queen Mother.
As part of the weekly schedule at the Friendly Farm near Chiang Rai, we would work a brief morning shift on Saturdays and then had the opportunity to accompany them to the city for the late afternoon and evening, at the end of which we would meet up and ride back home. We had Sundays off.

One week, having read of the nearby historic town of Mae Salong—where some Kuomintang from China hid out following the 1949 revolution, and where one of the king’s Royal Projects has transitioned the mountain slopes’ agricultural production from opium poppy to tea and other legal cash crops, and where there’s a wat—we decided to check it out.

Having spent Saturday night in Chiang Rai so that we could rent a motorcycle and zoom up the mountain Sunday morning, we commenced our zoom: Step driving, Pil clinging with both hands to the seat-bar behind him. It was a long, buttbone-battering trip. Our poor little motorcycle huffed and puffed its way up a steep grade, and more than once I, at least, thought we were going to have to push it. We coasted on truly the ghost of fumes into a little village high on the mountain and successfully filled up the tank. “Mae Salong?” we asked, pointing at the ground where we were standing. They shook their heads and pointed farther up the mountain. Puttputtputtputtputtputt-puttputtputt...

Phil demonstrating phenomenal dweebiness.

...and Step outclassing him.

The Queen Mother, roped off in red velvet.

A stained glass corner.

The mysterious ball. Seriously, mai khao jai.

Spotted at the tea plantation: fountain tits!
As soon as we parked, before we had even gotten our helmets off, several young girls wearing traditional Akha clothing were standing at the ready, holding out bracelets, necklaces, and other trinkets for sale. (As usual, all there is to do is smile and say “No, thank you” as many times as you can stand to.) In that area, while I’d guess most people can function in Thai and a fair number know a little English, many locals’ primary language is either Akha or Mandarin—we saw a lot of signs in Mandarin. It’s a dusty little town with a very high rate of tea shops per capita.

Before touring the tea fields we headed up to see a celebrated nearby temple, the Phra Boromathat chedi dedicated to the Thai Princess Mother. Built on the side of a mountain, walls covered in small tiles, it offered beautiful architecture on the inside—including one of the few reverent images of a woman that we’ve seen in all the temples we’ve gone into—and astonishing views from its outdoor terraces. I felt like I was in a dream where I was about to fly. Definitely worth having to walk the motorcycle partway.

This was also our introduction to the Thai love for standing coins up on their sides. For evidence, see below. From there, after an unimportant detour in which we discovered a mysterious beachball-sized concrete sphere in a secret ground compartment under a broken stone tile, we headed up to the tea plantations.

The Royal Projects are an initiative of the king of Thailand (who, as far as we can tell, seems pretty much universally beloved among Thai people, though this might have something to do with strict lèse majesté laws) aimed doubly at eliminating the production of opium poppy in the country and at creating a sustainable agricultural sector for the ethnic minorities in remote areas. The distinctive move of the Royal Projects—arguably indispensable for this kind of endeavor to succeed—is to replace opium poppy with an attractive alternative means of making a living. After all, most opium poppy in Thailand has historically been grown by impoverished, remote mountain farmers who couldn't compete with the larger market for legitimate produce. Under the Royal Project, the Thai government more or less guarantees these farmers a buyer for legitimate cash crops such as tea, coffee, and fruits, thereby removing the primary motivation for continuing illegal opium production. The Royal Project also provides farmers with education and money to shift to more sustainable systems. An added bonus is that most of the agricultural Royal Projects we've seen are organic.

An impressive array of coins on their sides.

Wow, you may think. They really love putting their offerings on creative display.

Like, really.

Tea grows in short, wide bushes that, at this plantation, at least, are cultivated in long rows. Because the plants grow/are planted so tightly together, they form a sort of simple micro-forest—complete with a canopy and a floor of small green weeds growing all over each other in the shade, just beside the bare, sun-baked dirt paths. I was hoping to see tiny deer, but alas.

When we arrived, a team of four or five guys was harvesting tea leaves. With one worker standing on either side of the row, they maneuvered a sort of automated clipper-box along the top layer of the plants, skimming off the outermost leaves and containing them. Having watched this and admired the plantation’s resourcefulness, we got a free tasting of maybe six different teas grown there, including a tea flavored with tiny, magical Thai flowers that smelled like the essence of all that is good and admirable in the world. Step sniffed that bowl of flowers like a drug dog sniffs bags at the airport. Alas, the tea made with the flowers didn't taste at all like they smelled, so she left disappointed. I bought a bag of oolong.

That building at the top is the chedi from which we just drove down. Slope was crazy, mang!

The drive down was much steeper than this! On a 125cc scooter!

Trimming tea leaves. Hard work; I envy them not.

Crocodiles eating dragons.

Portland, you have seriously got to work on your kombucha packaging. This looks like whiskey!

Ambrosia from the gods.

1 comment:

  1. Great photos!! And it looks like the sun is perpetually shining!! I used to do that coing thing on the marble bar when I was bartending, but not a couple dozen at a time, nor in all the nooks and crannies. I gather the trip down on the scooter was a little easier.