With an early history centred around the Golden Triangle’s opium trade, Mae Salong is predominantly a tea-growing region these days and graced by many gorgeous undulating valleys.
Using Chiang Rai as a base, head out on a little day trip to Mae Salong, but the transport is a bit of a saga on the first try, so head out again for a second try…
Scam travel to Mae Salong
Catching the morning bus from the main bus station in Chiang Rai back in August 2014, we are dumped along the highway just before the Mae Salong turnoff.
A young girl on the bus advises to get off at the market in Mae Chan a few kilometres before the turn-off, which is where you pick up the Songthaew to Mae Salong. But, the bus conductor says no and so, this is where the scam begins.
The bus conductor tells tourists to get off along the highway just before the Mae Salong turn-off, which is basically in the middle of nowhere. A Songthaew is conveniently waiting for unsuspecting tourists. For those that are not aware of the scam, which the bus driver and conductor perpetuate, then you will pay dearly for the privilege of a ride to Mae Salong, as the turn-off is still an hour away from Mae Salong.
Of course, the Songthaew rips you off to the tune of 400B one-way while smirking in your face, as he believes you have no other choice as a tourist but to cough up the cash. This was the scam in 2014 so not sure if authorities cleaned this up.
Although this guy is the only transport around, we do have another choice – a pain though. Instead, decide not to feed the scam and walk back along the highway to the service station and enjoy a local coffee at the station’s café to wait for the next bus back to Chang Rai, and try again tomorrow.
Correct way to travel to Mae Salong
At the Chang Rai bus station, the bus board states a direct bus to Mae Salong in its timetable. However, this is not entirely correct either as we learned the previous day. The bus (50B) only takes you to Mae Chan – make sure you get off at the market area here – to then catch another Songthaew (20B) to take you through to Mae Salong.
The last part of this trip takes you around very windy roads and hills but the vistas are gorgeous. If you suffer from travel sickness, then I suggest popping a travel sick pill before the start of this journey as Thai drivers are a little crazy on the pedal.
The last part of the trip is odd as we arrive at an army checkpoint only a couple of kilometres out of Mae Salong. Everyone piles out of the Songthaew to wait for half an hour, before piling back into the same Songthaew and then continuing to Mae Salong. This also happens on the return journey and I’m not sure why really, does anyone know?
Mae Salong town
Once in Mae Salong, the Akha Hill Tribe ladies badger you like there is no tomorrow.
Selling their goods and trinkets, be prepared to part with some cash – you will be followed everywhere until you do buy something.
Most of the items are handmade by the colourful ladies and even if you buy a small trinket, it is something and not expensive at all. Perhaps a souvenir for someone back home?
This is how these ladies make a small amount of cash.
The Akha hawkers wear traditional dress and it is simply beautiful.
The elaborate beaded headdress is also made with silver coins and baubles, which must weigh a ton. I’m told that the headdress is traditionally passed down from mother to daughter – can anyone confirm this theory?
A sleepy small town with several shops, local restaurants, small hotels, guest houses, and a few tea houses. Make sure to relax in a local tea house and try some of the local yummy fresh tea, while watching the town go by…after all, this is the reason most travellers come to Mae Salong.
Also, check out the small stalls off the main road heading down the little hill – football pitch on the right – as you can buy some really cheap scrumptious cashews and other Thai snacks to devour on your return trip to Chiang Rai.
Finally arriving at Mae Salong after the saga, miss visiting the tea plantation as it is spread across 10 kilometres and we just don’t have enough time or further reliable transport.
You can hire private drivers from Chiang Rai to Mae Salong for the day but I hear this is quite expensive – although if you’re strapped for time, this may be a good alternative.
The last Songthaew from Mae Salong to Mae Chan is quite early at around 16:00 hrs and you then have to wait for another bus to Chiang Rai. So, after the previous day’s palaver, we don’t want to miss this last bus as sadly, buses don’t service the actual Mae Salong region.
Tomb of General Tuan
If you have time, trek up to the mausoleum of Mae Salong’s founder and former drug warlord, Kuomintang General Tuan Xi-Wen.
The small museum is unfortunately all in Chinese.
It is worth the hike for around 500 metres up the steep hill through the lovely lush dense forest just for the spectacular view of Mae Salong.
Is Mae Salong worth visiting?
The stunning views and fascinating people-watching make Mae Salong definitely worth visiting.
Mae Salong is not your typical Thai town and exudes more of a Chinese feel. Maybe because this mountaintop town was founded in 1960 during the Chinese Civil war by the Kuomintang (KMT) army fleeing Yunnan after its defeat by Mao Tse Tung’s forces. A lot of history in this region.
Before setting off, make sure to plan your trip here a little more than usual for Thailand, otherwise, you waste too much time and won’t experience much at all – but for now, it’s back to Chiang Rai as going to cross the border into Laos for more exploring.