One of the main settlements in Northern Thailand, the hillside town of Mae Salong is also one of the most scenic. Mae Salong was founded in 1962 by the Kuo mintang (KMT), or Chinese Nationalist Army, following their defeat in China by Mao Zedong in 1949. It became a center for exiled Chinese soldiers, who used it as a base for incursions into China. The Thai military agreed to let the KMT stay if they helped to suppress Communism, which they believed would become rife among the hill tribes at the time of the Vietnam War. In return for their help, the KMT were allowed to control and tax the local opium trade. As a result, the area around Mae Salong was relatively lawless and dangerous until the 1980s.
When Khun Sa, the opium warlord, retreated to Myanmar in the early 1980s, the Thai government began to have some success in pacifying the area. This was helped when, soon after the end of this turbulent period, Mae Salong was officially renamed Santikhiree (“hill of peace”), in an attempt to rid the town of its former image. The new term is used for both the town and the 3,950-ft (1,200-m) peak that rises above it, Doi Mae Salong. A temple has been built at the summit, giving spectacular views of the surrounding rolling hills, which are dotted with hill-tribe villages. Akha and Mien villagers can be seen at the market in Mae Salong, but the town’s main population is made up of old KMT soldiers and their descendants. The sight of low, Chinese-style houses made of bamboo and the sound of Yunnanese (a Chinese dialect) give the overall impression that Mae Salong is more of a Chinese than Thai town.
A road built to Mae Salong in the early 1980s made the settlement less isolated. Opium production is now suppressed, having been replaced by cash crops such as cabbage, tea, and Chinese herbs and medicines. This produce is sold in the town’s market.