Surrounded by lush rolling hills dominated by seemingly endless rows of tea plants, the solitary tomb of General Tuan Shiwen looks strangely out of place on a hillside in northern Thailand, as does the ethnically Chinese soldier who stands beside it.
Dressed in military fatigues – with sunglasses hiding an old eye wound – the 55-year-old soldier offers sticks of incense to those who have come to pray at the tomb of the general, who led his troops over the mountains into Thailand in the late 1960s, via Myanmar, after refusing to surrender to the communist forces at the end of the Chinese civil war, in 1949.
The “lost army”, the Kuomintang’s 93rd Division, spent decades wandering the region between China, Myanmar and Thailand, trying to find a home while constantly fighting the communists and those who wanted to move them on. Finally, in the 70s, they were granted land around Mae Salong by the Thai government, in return for helping to crush the communist guerrillas in the mountains of northern Thailand.
At the time, Mae Salong was little more than a thickly forested hillside. As the impoverished Chinese slowly created their new home, they turned to opium in order to survive and fund their continuing armed struggles, gaining a dubious reputation as major drug traffickers. Later, the population turned to tea as they became more established and less military-minded (it wasn’t until the 80s that the soldiers finally put down their guns for good).
Today, walking through the quiet streets of Mae Salong (also called Santikhiri, meaning “hill of peace”) you could be forgiven for thinking you were in southwestern China: menus and signs are in a strange mix of Chinese, English and Thai, Yunnan noodles are a speciality and conversations are held for the most part in Putonghua.
“Almost everyone who lives here is Chinese,” says 21-year-old Huang Meidian, in Putonghua, while selling high-grade oolong tea to passers-by.
The bumpy ride up winding mountain roads to the isolated village – two hours north of Chiang Rai, near the Myanmese border – offers panoramic views out over mountains, with rolling, green terrain stretching out into the distance. Above Mae Salong, a golden temple glistens in the sunlight, offering unparalleled views to those who have the energy to climb to it.
The surrounding hills are dominated by tea plantations and busy-at-work pickers, most of whom belong to the colourfully dressed Akha minority, who live in the villages nearby. Tea remains a major reason why people visit the area – although coffee growers are now taking advantage of the cool mountain climate, too.
There is little street traffic in the village, despite the fact its buildings are mostly clustered along a single road that snakes its way along a mountain ridge, and no one seems in a hurry to get anywhere. Locals smile warmly and invite strangers in to try their tea.
In the evening, the few cafes and restaurants are dominated by youngsters, often listening to a combination of Chinese, Thai and English music. It is hard to imagine a less militant place, yet it is Mae Salong’s unique military history that sets it apart.
The younger generations of Mae Salong are predominantly the children or grandchildren of the soldiers who fled China and who can still be seen hobbling along the streets or, more often than not, sitting sipping tea.
“My father was part of the 93rd,” says 43-year-old Wang Hao, who owns one of the many guesthouses that have sprung up around Mae Salong in the last decade. Wang’s family came from Yunnan, but he was born in Thailand.
“We arrived here with nothing, and for a long time we were very poor,” he says. “The local Thais looked down on us.”
Like many in Mae Salong, Wang holds dual Thai- Taiwanese citizenship, and he spent years working on the island before returning.
“I like the pace of life here,” he explains, sipping a cup of freshly poured oolong tea.
However, others from Mae Salong haven’t come back. Many of the former soldiers, their families and their descendants have left to pursue lives in Taiwan – to where the bulk of China’s anti-communist forces retreated – with waves of evacuations starting in the 50s, when the army was still fighting in what was then Burma.
As the sun sets and lights flicker on across the village, I ask Wang about his views on China.
“The older people see the difference between China and us but, my generation, we don’t have the memories of the crimes and injustices of the Mao era.”
Nevertheless, he says, “This is our home.”
In a dusty field a short walk outside the village, the Chinese Martyrs’ Memorial Museum offers a convoluted history of the 93rd Division – with black and white photos and long texts documenting the many battles and losses it suffered before finally ending up here. A vast and airy central chamber contains a shrine to those who perished, with a small stick representing each of the dead. It is a stark and solemn tribute.
Not all of the older residents of Mae Salong were once soldiers. Hu Jihua, a boisterous 77-year-old, fled China in his early 20s, during the height of the famines of the Great Leap Forward, travelling by foot with his young wife to join his soldier brother. Before that he had been a merchant.
“There was no food. We were eating mud,” he says. “We had to swim across two rivers to reach them.”
Hu spends his days sitting outside the hotel and teashop he and his wife own, laughing with anyone who happens to come by, but mostly drinking tea.
“Since 1976 China has changed,” he says, with a friendly smile, when I ask him if he would ever consider returning to Kunming, where he was born. “But I’m too old to go back now.”
Renting a motorbike one morning I head out into the hills, past entrances to tea plantations and soon I am surrounded by little, empty roads and rolling fields.
Occasionally, I pass through a village belonging to one of the local minorities.
Back beside the grave of General Tuan I am curious about the life of the former soldier handing out sticks of incense.
“I started fighting at the age of 10,” he says. “My father and mother both fought, first against the Japanese and then the Chinese, Burmese, Thais.”
Nowadays he chooses to spend his time here, by a grave that speaks of difficult times gone by, located less than 100 metres from the 93rd Division’s former training ground – which was long ago repurposed as a guesthouse complex of bungalows called Mae Salong Resort, for travellers.
Getting there: Cathay Pacific Airways flies from Hong Kong to Bangkok, from where Thai Airways and AirAsia fly to Chiang Rai. Mae Salong is 1½ hours away by road from Chiang Rai. Alternatively, Cathay Pacific flies from Hong Kong to Chiang Mai, from where Mae Salong is five hours away.