Friday, 25 March 2016

mae salong / santikhiri: the photogenic thai village

Dawn at Mae Salong.

Love mountain scenery, tea plantations and peaceful villages? If you ever find yourself in Chiang Rai and you know how to ride a scooter, do yourself a favour, and take a side trip to Mae Salong.

The official name of the village these days is Santikhiri, but it seems that everyone still refers to it as Mae Salong. Whatever you want to call it, this place makes for a wonderful getaway from the hustle and bustle of city life. We were here for only two or three days, but it was such a rejuvenating experience.

The morning market is where we would begin our day.

Mae Salong morning market.

We had dumplings for breakfast. Yes, dumplings! At times, in Mae Salong, it feels as though we have transported ourselves to a little Chinese village. This is where Kuomintang soldiers from Yunnan settled down with their families some decades ago, and to this day, you can still see how they have retained elements of the Chinese culture. Many of the residents here speak both Thai and Mandarin, and given that I know only a few Thai words (and most of what I know is food related, ha!), I happily interacted with the villagers in Mandarin whenever the opportunity arose.

Dumplings. Delicious dumplings.

We would tuck into our tasty pan-fried dumplings, dipping them into a tangy, spicy, herb-and-sesame-studded dipping sauce before popping them into our eager mouths.

And we would observe the world go by.

Young monks going on their morning alms.

Then, we zoomed around the narrow, winding roads, checking out the nearby Akha hilltribe villages and taking in the fabulous scenery. I wish I have pictures to share, but it's not easy (and not safe!) to take photographs while clinging on to the back seat of a scooter on those hilly roads, even at a slow-to-moderate pace. Moreover, there are times when I just want to enjoy the moment - the breeze in my face, the smile of a stranger - without fiddling around with my camera, and let's face it, given my limited skills, those pictures probably wouldn't have turned out great, anyway!

We wanted to get dessert, coffee and tea from Sweet Mae Salong Cafe, but unfortunately, they were closed. At least we caught a glimpse of their darling little dog.

A fluffy creature at the Sweet Mae Salong Cafe.

We found this spot that appeared to be a tourism center at some point in the past, but it seems to be all but abandoned these days.

Why? Who knows. Those giant lion sculptures are interesting, though.

Giant lion statues. You can see our tiny scooter parked on the left side.

And the giant teapots are certainly charming.

Giant teapot.

Also, behold these quirky teapots that look as though they're suspended in the air.

More teapot sculptures.

We took a walk in the tea plantations.

Lush, verdant tea plants (camellia sinensis).

Seriously, this place really is ridiculously photogenic.

View from the tea plantations.

And it's green like you wouldn't believe.

Fifty shades of green, am I right?

I was so ecstatic to see this hen and her chicks, and to capture a photo of them pecking away merrily. I used to have chickens that are similar to these ones, in which the babies are either all black or chipmunk-like (golden brown with dark chocolate and cream stripes), and they are just the cutest things ever.

Adorable chicken family.

Aside from indulging in dumplings wherever we could find them in Mae Salong, there is this casual and cheerful little bakery-cafe-restaurant near our guesthouse that became one of our favourite places to hang out for snacks and drinks.

New Era Bakery Food & Drink - also known as Xin Shi Dai Bakery.

True to their name - New Era Bakery Food & Drink - they do a nice variety of scrumptious baked goods. Upon showing our interest in what they had to offer, they brought out more treats, and we ended up purchasing a bunch of different things to bring back to our guesthouse so we could have something to munch on whenever we were feeling peckish.


But also, it is nice to just lounge around in their rattan chairs, and sip on a delightful smoothie or two.

I think this was a mango smoothie.

Additionally, they offer both Thai and Chinese cuisine on their menu. Obviously, I jumped on the larb gai.

Isaan-style larb gai - minced chicken salad with chilli, lime juice, herbs and shallots.

I got to talking with the owner of the place. He is pleasantly down-to-earth, and we conversed easily in Mandarin. He talked about wanting to drum up more business and asked me for ideas, so I suggested listing his place on TripAdvisor as well as using social media platforms such as Facebook (and I see that the place has built up a small online presence since then!). Now that I've finally gotten around to writing this blog post, hopefully it comes in helpful, too - you never know if the occasional traveller might do a keyword search for where to eat in Mae Salong, and they might end up with my recommendation here!

A quaint view of village life from the vantage point of the bakery cafe.

There isn't a lot to do in the evenings in Mae Salong, aside from finding a place to eat dinner. After our meal, we might walk to the 7-Eleven convenience store to grab some random tidbits, or pop by the bakery again, before heading back to our guesthouse and entertaining ourselves by going through our photos for the day on our digital cameras, and playing games, watching videos, and browsing the internet on our tablets.

Bye bye, Mae Salong.

Even though we were in Mae Salong for only a very short time, it is unquestionably a memorable part of our trip to Thailand. As someone who grew up in Malaysia with a Chinese heritage, I think the intriguing Thai-Chinese combination here has an appeal that is at once fascinating and familiar to me. Plus, of course, there's that stunning scenery. It's definitely worth a look if you're ever in the area.


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