Now we know why it's called off the beaten path
Getting To Mae Salong was rather adventurous as there was no direct way and opinions differentiated on how to get there. Unluckily for us, the receptionist at our travel destination spoke hardly any English which is a huge disadvantage if you don't only want to organize a tour through the tea plantation but also find out the way of how to get there from Chiang Mai.
Luckily for us though, our hostel receptionist was extraordinary helpful and managed find the bus schedule, but also to book the tickets and called about 5 times the Mae Salong hotel receptionist to clarify on how to get there. In the end we got told that we would have to get a ticket to the border city in Thailand called Mae Sai, but we would have to get off somewhere in the middle of nowhere at a junction, where we would have to hail a bhat bus to bring us to Mae Chan to spend the rest of the evening. Schedules usually don't exist and bus drivers drive when they wish- difficult to comprehend for a German soul 😉
Turns out, this highly elaborated agenda was not 100% accurate after all. Once we reached the train station, we met a French couple who heard about another route for getting to Mae Salong, so confusion was all around and it didn't help that the drivers English was plain basic. In the end, we were lucky and dropped off in the center of Mae Chan were we seemed to be the only tourists around. Everybody was extremely helpful, even more so than in Chang Mai or Bangkok maybe because they were not fed up with tourists. Eventually we found our accommodation or rather the accommodation found us (news of backpackers arriving in town traveled fast) and went out to grab something to eat but the streets were dead but we ended up in a bar with nice music and a very cool vibe. Other than 3 foreigners who seemed to the working at the local language institute, we were the only ones - what a feeling!
The next day we continued our journey and tried to find the bus stop, with people pointing us to many different directions, again. Eventually we met a lovely lady working for the tourism foundation. She was waiting for her bus which comes every hour but didn't show up. I asked her 'what is your boss going to say if you come one our late?' - she replied' not much, I will just text him - like it's a usual procedure. We quickly found a bhat bus heading towards Mae Salong and ended up having a great conversation with a fellow traveler who used to work in South Sudan for doctors without borders - she described it as nerve wracking , having to fear for your life constantly, which was seconded by another girl we met who worked there as well for the same institution. After having an approx. 5 Thai minutes break (= 30 German minutes) we continued our journey and eventually reached to Mae Salong, a tea lover's paradise.
Mae Salong: its transformation from Opium hub to a tea lover's paradise
Mae Salong is a very special village and while it is now focusing on growing tea, it used to be in the center of the opium drug trafficking due to its favorable location between Myanmar and Laos. Nowadays, it enjoys a reputation of having the best tea of Thailand, mainly producing Oolong which is very popular in China . An additional interesting aspect of this small village is it's cultural diversity and history of migration. There are mostly Chinese living in Mae Salong which becomes evident as soon as one enters the street with Chinese writings everywhere and Chinese dishes.
The 'lost army' of China and the hill tribes in Mae Salong
At the conclusion of the Chinese Civial War in 1949, some warriors of the anti-communist forces KMT refused to surrender and the troops fought their way out of Yunnan in South-Western China, ending up living in Myanmar. Under international pressure, part of the troops had to return, but some sought political asylum in Northern Thailand and fought for the Thai against communists in return for a granted citizenship.
Of course they brought their traditions along, but on top of that, there are several villages or quarters in Mae Salong where Akha, Yao, Lisu, Lahu, Longneck and other tribes live. Some of them have opened their gates for tourism and are welcoming tourists in exchange for selling souvenirs. Cultural tourism is an often discussed topic in tourism studies and it can either be interpreted as human zoos or as an option of preserving the local traditions and having an income at the same time by doing so. While on the one hand offering hill tribe tours can have the effect of 'putting up a show' and can end up in people being forced to stay in the tribal village or to act a certain way in order to attract tourists, on the other hand, many of the tribes migrated from other areas (such as the long necks from Myanmar) as refugees and have not been granted citizenship. Without being legally recognized as Thai's citizen, they are not allowed to work, neither to go to school and this is also valid for their kids. So as a matter of fact, they are left with few possibilities to work and no education (which is why you will see many kids on the street duing the day selling souvenirs). We didn't end up going to 'see the tribes', but there is no right nor wrong and one should do whatever they feel comfortable with.
Instead, as true tea addicts, we spent one entire day sampling different types of tea from several tea shops along the street (for free, by the way!) until our body couldn't handle it any longer. Thanks to our 'tea ceremony course' sponsored by some of our friends on my last birthday, we totally looked like experts knowing that the small tall cup is for smelling the tea 🙂 Then we ended up walking along the tea fields and relaxing, enjoying the scenery and a brief moment of pre-christmas spirit with advent candles and Poinsettia out in the wild at 30°, before continuing our way towards the border crossing with Myanmar.
Another post office visit...
All the good tea, tea cups, sweets and other souvenirs ended up causing additional weight and as we learned from our South America experience, we knew that sending post from Thailand might be cheap whereas Myanmar probably not. In total, we had been to 4 post offices in 4 different countries and we could probably write a book just about post offices around the world. We planned on sending another package including Christmas postcards home from Mae Sai, the city bordering to Myanmar. There were different opinions on how to get to Mae Sai and the locals where not sure about the departure time, neither the color of the bus or the bus stop. On top of that, some pointed us towards the left, some towards the right. Tourism office is not particular useful in Mae Salong, unless you speak Chinese-so no luck there neither. Eventually we found our way towards Mae Sai with a stop in Mae Chan. Totally exhausted after arrival in Mae Sai, we continued walking towards a post office, but it turns out that post offices are closed on the king's birthday- very interesting.
Luckily for us, there was another post office directly at the border and we ended up trying to figure out how to ship our stuff towards Germany. After some long discussions with the post clerks (usually they need a Thai address in case the delivery doesn't reach it's destination so that it can be send back) and eventually, 2 hours later, we were postcard- and souvenir free and walked towards the border with Myanmar.
Entering Myanmar by Land and flying to Inle Lake
This would be our first border-crossing by foot in Asia, after having crossed th Colombian-Ecuadorian border in South America. We expected long queues and maybe some difficulties but the border crossing was very easy I guess mainly due to our European passports.
We ended up having a chat with the people handing out a visa, got beauty tips from one of the girls there and found out that in Myanmar, people don't have family names. On top of that, many are named after the day they were born (monday, tuesday,...), so many people are called the same names 🙂 We finished our first cultural excursion by realizing that men also wear 'skirts' and women use a strange 'paint' for their face called thannakka.
In general, first impression of Myanmar was very depressing, with beggars everywhere around the border, and people in worn off clothes. The only consistency that was visible throughout our whole trip was the taxi mafia which seems to exist in every country in this world with the aim of ripping you off. However, this was soon forgotten once we met the friendly staff of our hotel and we hoped, that this friendliness would be kept through our Myanmar adventure.
On the next day after enjoying a warm shower for a change and a lazy day in the hotel room we made our way to the airport. Which can be at best described as basic. Hand written passenger lists, manual scales for the luggage and airline slogans that fail their original purpose
Worrying that it is necessary to emphasize that, after all Myanmar has slightly less than one fatal airplane accident a year. But after boarding the second hand propeller plain from some Italian airline and enjoying some surprisingly good pastry we safely landed in Inle Lake in time for the sunset.