The “Golden Triangle” calls to mind the opium trade which, for many years, was this region’s most notorious product. Thailand has worked hard to replace opium farming with other productive and profitable trades, not least of which is agrotourism. Doi Tung and Mae Salong are known for coffee and tea, respectively, and it is these areas we will now visit in search of intellectual and caffeinated stimulation.
January 20, 2016
Neither our rooms nor the breakfast buffet at the Tanya Inn measured up to our expectations. On the plus side, there is hot water available on the sink faucet. But everything was dusty or mildewed, and my showerhead was heavily clogged, leading to very incomplete coverage. There were no tea bags near the hot water urn at breakfast, and the choices were not very interesting. We’ll be back in a few days so they definitely need to up their game.
We only had to drive about an hour to reach our first stop, a viewpoint along the mountain road to Doi Tung where hill tribe vendors had set up numerous stalls selling colorful bags, purses, and clothing, bracelets and bells, and numerous other items. This probably was not our first encounter with members of the Akha minority, since they also sell in Chiang Mai (which we visit on the Northern trip), but here they are the main group which influences the designs available. We helped out with a few purchases and continued up the hill to Doi Tung Coffee.
Doi Tung is a brand created around a development project to restore this deforested mountain area to a healthy ecosystem that could support the population through legal activity. This involves planting with native species, and rebuilding the economy around coffee grown in the shade of macadamia nut trees. These premium products fetch a good price here and in Doi Tung shops and cafes around Thailand. I don’t know whether this coffee is better than any other; I picked up a few packages just in case.
But Doi Tung is much more than a government project, it is the model project of the Mae Fah Luang Foundation, and an important legacy of Her Royal Highness the Princess Mother, the mother of the current King of Thailand. We visited the Doi Tung Royal Villa (site), a fantastic teak home which was the residence of the Princess Mother during her final years. The furnishings are beautiful and tasteful, and there is a lot of information about her hobbies, including drying flower crafts and mystery novels, on the recorded audio tour. It was a little crowded with tourists lost in narration (through their headphones) or trying to get photos in too-narrow spaces, but worthwhile to gain insight into the Princess Mother and other members of the royal family.
We strolled back down the hill and ducked into Krua Tamnak Restaurant for a small feast. We began with a plate of macadamia nuts with various dry seasonings, a very upscale take on a snack commonly made with peanuts or cashews. We had a soup of small, probably locally grown, shiitake mushrooms and pork ribs; a mixed mushroom salad; Northern Thai “naem” sausage with eggs; and Hunglay pork curry (richly spiced but a bit sweet). This provided a satisfying foundation for an afternoon walk through the steeply terraced Mae Fah Luang Garden, but just to make sure we would have plenty of energy, we had a dessert of tapioca pearls tinted green with pandanus leaf extract, and topped with coconut cream and young coconut shreds.
In the garden (site), artists have created large “insects” and “birds” using colorful wool, creating a whimsical environment that also offers numerous spots for selfies and photos with friends. There are a few serious exhibits, but it’s more entertainment than education. The Hall of Inspiration (site), which we visited after the garden, is quite the opposite: it chronicles the life of the Princess Mother, and the reigns of her two sons, the current and former king. Most of the exhibits are in Thai, but there is enough English to get the general picture.
This main part of Doi Tung feels quite a bit like a carefully planned amusement park or ski resort. The more reverential and artistic aspects merge with the commercial. In free moments, we visited the various shops, which are coordinated so you can, for example, get your coffee or nuts anywhere on the street for the same price. Eventually we decamped to the Doi Tung Lodge, down the hill a bit from the other attractions, for the night. With an electric kettle and 3 sizes of towels, the rooms are clearly designed to appeal to all visitors. I didn’t get a remote for the A/C, but it doesn’t appear to be needed in this temperate climate.
We got early access to the open-air dining room for our happy hour, where we could try to photograph the changing colors of the sky through the foliage. The Lodge seems to be connected with the restaurant up the road where we had lunch; we certainly noticed some continuity in the menus. We had a very interested dry “dip” of crushed dry ingredients, including chillies. I don’t know what was in this, but it was a tasty snack, served with cucumber spears, carrot sticks, green bean and small lettuce leaves. Other plates included deep fried pieces of Northern Thai pork sausage; sauteed small whole shiitake mushrooms with whole pickled garlic cloves; fried fish fillets with a tamarind sauce; a Northern larb (“city larb”) of pork; and stir-fried chayote greens. We got two soups when they failed to substitute, a rich coconut milk-based soup and a stronger one (the details of which I can’t recall). Finally, there was that rich tapioca dessert again. We would sleep well tonight.
January 21, 2016
We awoke to another unseasonably pleasant (more moderate than usual) morning at the Doi Tung Lodge, with a nice view from the dining room for our breakfast buffet. They even offered fancy Doi Tung drip coffee in an individual filter bag (sold in the shops for about $5 per six units). Since they had given us a sample of Doi Tung Oolong tea in our rooms, I was disappointed to find only Lipton on the buffet, but today we would be heading to Thailand’s best known oolong tea producing region, so I was sure to get my fill later.
About half an hour North of the main Doi Tung development area, very close to the border with Myanmar/Burma, the Mae Fah Luang Arboretum at Doi Chang Mub (site) offered even more flower and insect photo ops. These were again mostly temperate climate plants, but with locally cultivated variations. A side walkway led to a platform translated to the “View Point to the Tri Cities.” We tried to figure out which direction was which country — Thailand, Laos, Burma — but the reforestation was too successful here: we couldn’t make out many details through the trees.
After a winding drive back down to the main highway, we stopped for a quick one-plate lunch and then backtracked a short way to the Cottage Industries Centre and Outlet (site) which produces goods for Doi Tung. Since this was everyone’s first visit here, we used Google Maps navigation. As unfortunately occurs all too often, we ended up stuck in a one-lane alley behind the desired destination and it took a while to turn the van around to get back to the main road. When we eventually arrived at the gate, because we had not secured advance permission, we were given badges in exchange for our van drivers’ licenses. Permission? This place is full of tourists.
Anyway, we did see a roomful of looms with busy weavers at work, but the no photo signs caused us not to tarry and we turned to the shop. Some items were nicely discounted while others were just as expensive as up the hill. Elsewhere on the site we saw some coffee production work, but unfortunately the ceramics workshop was inaccessible. Not sure it’s worth visiting.
We loaded back into our vans and headed to Mae Salong along another winding mountain road. In contrast to Doi Tung, which was planned down to the Disney level, Mae Salong has several scattered clusters of shops and restaurants wherever the road levels out. Blink and you miss it, at least at van speed.
We stopped at a memorial to a regiment of the KMT, nationalist soldiers who had retreated after the Communist revolution in China. In exchange for their service in countering a communist insurgency in the North, Thailand granted them citizenship. The first building had large panels describing the history of the regiment in Thai, Chinese, and English, along with some confusing diaramas. The second building seemed to mark the individual dead, although this was not translated. The third building had some additional history of the redevelopment of the area. After many photos, we stopped at a local shop to use their toilet and ended up sampling a range of products from dried fruits to bitter melon tea, which actually is not as bitter as you would expect. Time to hit the hotel.
The Mae Salong Villa offers a number of two-story bungalows along a winding stone path. Local hill tribe women eagerly take your heavy bags from your hands to help you up to your room. Each floor has a balcony shared between two rooms, so it was perfect for our happy hour, as long as we brought a few extra lightweight chairs to the party.
For dinner, we enjoyed the local Yunnanese-style specialties, including a healthy herbal soup of sliced fish and goji berries; a whole fried fish with a somewhat sweet sauce; “spinach” stir-fried with garlic; braised pork knuckle with steamed buns (we had to request extra skin because they don’t bring it to tables of foreigners?); bacon-sliced pork belly strips arranged over a mountain of preserved vegetables; tasty little stir-fried shiitake mushrooms; and a seasonally home-made Chinese sausage that was a bit too salty for my tastes.
Tomorrow is our tea tasting day where we will sample the local oolongs and most likely take home a few bags. And then back to Chiang Rai and Bangkok. Our journey is coming to a close.