A Taste of China on the Thai-Burma Border

Tucked into the outer reaches of Northern Thailand is a Chinese tea village, its mud huts lining a reservoir next to the Burmese border. Only 44km from Mae Hong Son but a world away in feel, Ban Rak Thai (also known as Mae Aw)’s peeling mud walls and tiny tea shops seem out of place amid the pine forests of Doi Pan. Home to around 1,000 people of mostly Chinese descent, the sleepy village is known for its tea, with vans of curious Thai tourists (and the occasional farang) making the trip for a day.

It is definitely strange to get a small taste of China on the Thai-Burma border, but well worth the effort to get here. And not just for the tea (which was delicious) but also to stand at the reservoir’s edge and imagine the town as it once was.

Ban Rak Tai history opium trade

Ban Rak Tai a tea village near Mae Hong Son. Photo from my friend Nezar’s iPhone.

To trace back to original inhabitants of Mae Aw (or as the Thais call it Ban Rak Tai, “the Thai-Loving Village”), one needs to go back to the Chinese Civil War and the Kuomintang (KMT) party. Under Chiang Kai-shek, the KMT ruled a good swath of China from the late 1920s, until Mao Zedong’s party wrestled control and established the The People’s Republic of China in 1949.

Several KMT divisions – most notably the 93rd Division, many of who ended up in Doi Mae Salong not far from Chiang Rai – refused to surrender to the Communists. They fled into the jungles of Burma, where they camped out and built up infrastructure for their new lives.

KMT Chinese forces were once so prevalent in the Shan state that they even built an airport at Mong Hsat with regular flights to fellow KMT strongholds, and took over the whole region east of the Salween River. As Thant Myint- U notes in The River of Lost Footsteps the KMT “were on the verge of taking all the Shan States and were within a day’s march of the regional capital, Taunggyyi.”

Seeking to destabilize newly-communist China from inside Burma, the KMT tried to invade Yunnan seven times between 1950 and 1952, but were pushed back into the Shan State each time. From Burma’s perspective, this was nothing less than an invasion from China and they launched an offensive against the KMT.

At the same time, Burma doggedly lobbied the UN to call for withdrawal of KMT troops to Taiwan. China eventually did agree to evacuate, but only removed several thousand troops. Finally, in the early 1960s China sent 20,000 troops from their People’s Liberation Army into Shan State near Kengtung to crush the KMT.

Under General Tuan Shi-wen, KMT troops fled south, scrambling over the mountains and across the porous border into Thailand. There, they settled into the parched foothills of Doi Mae Salong, Doi Pan and Ban Mae Nong Bua.

Doi Mae Salong (officially known as Santikhiri) tumbled into the opium trade, and was the site of some fierce mountain battles, both political and drug-related – and with heavy involvement of the CIA.

As Patrick Winn noted in a September 2019 article:

“Without telling the American public, the US had become a logistical wing of this jungle-dwelling army — not only flying in .50-caliber machine guns, but erecting radio towers in every zone the KMT conquered.”

And in order to buy more guns, and maintain an army, there needs to be a steady stream of income. “And in these mountains?” the KMT commander once famously said, The only money is opium.”

Winn continues:

By the early 1970s, according to a declassified CIA report, Mae Salong was home to one of the “most important” heroin refineries in Asia. Another CIA report compared KMT forces in Thailand to “Chinese warlords” and says that they were “heavily involved in opium trafficking and narcotics refining.”

By the 1980s, after Mao’s death, the Thai government gave the KMT forces a choice: stay in Thailand but only if you start moving away from the booming opium trade. And so many of them did what the the Thai government encouraged them to do: start growing tea.

Today Mae Salong is safe, and a site of tourism to the tea plantations that emerged out of the golden triangle’s former opium trade, as Winn’s article details. There is also a tourism push to Ban Rak Tai and its tea plantations. At the time of my visit, fellow travelers were not aware of Ban Rak Tai’s backstory, which is why I wanted to write this post.

ban rak tai and its opium and KMT history

Reservoir at Mae Aw (Ban Rak Tai)

In Ban Rak Tai, though the opium battles were not as bloody and the history not as complicated as Mae Salong, there was a small KMT museum with a smattering of opium paraphernalia.

And honestly, visiting Mae Aw, I was hard pressed to find visual traces of this backstory. With the exception of that KMT museum, filled with a life sized statue of a person lying on his side and smoking opium, the town is free of its historical context.

Shop signs and dialogue are in Chinese, tea tastings are plentiful and the villagers were surprised at this time (2009) to see foreigners wandering about, especially arriving on a motorbike and not with a tour. With its mud huts, tiny a-frame bungalows and wild, almost psychedelic graffiti, the quiet village was unlike others I’ve seen in Thailand.

KMT museum in Mae Aw (Ban Rak Tai)

KMT museum in Mae Aw (Ban Rak Tai)

And, of course, there is tea.

thailand tea village

Tea from Coffee Camp near Mae Hong Son

My friend described Ban Rak Thai as wine tasting, but with oolongs and tieguanyins instead of reds and whites.

Walking through the village, you can step into any of the dozen tea shops and sample the teas on offer, tasting the differences between morning tea (I bought several packages of this naturally sweet, calming oolong) and Emperor’s tea and jasmine tea.

tea tasting village thailand

Making tea in Mae Aw (Ban Rak Tai)

Once brewed, the tea was poured into a long porcelain shot glass:

tea tasting ban rak tai

Step 2

And then flipped over – quickly, to avoid spilling the tea – for drinking:

Drinking Tea at Ban Rak Tai in Thailand

Step 3.

In each of the shops, rows and rows of tea:

Tea from Ban Rak Tai

No shortage of tea to take home.

Sometimes with animals mixed in:

Tea cat

Spot the feline.

Tea kitteh, guardian of Oolongs.

Of course being me, there had to be food involved. The Yunnan specialties in this tiny village do not disappoint. We had a perfectly braised pork shoulder, topped with scallions and served with steamed, fluffy rice buns. To compliment the pork? This absolutely delicious tea leaf salad:

Tea leaf salad in Ban Rak Tai, Thailand

Tea leaf salad thailand

All in all a good day.

travel to ban rak tai for tea northern thailand

Bonus photobomb.

I always talk about how important it is to learn the history of a place before you get there. This isn’t because I’m a travel snob or so that I can sound big in the brain, but because so much of travel is about this kind of rewarding learning.

You can spend a day and see a tiny tea village on the border, or you can spend the same amount of time and under the surface have the added colour of imagining the town as it once was, learning about its interesting and complicated history as it fits into the region’s former booming opium trade, juxtaposed against the tea and terraces of present day.

-Jodi

p.s. Mae Aw has a tea festival in February, so for anyone wanting to make the trip, it might be fun to plan around the festival.

pps. for further reading, do check out Patrick’s piece, referenced in this article, as well as the following:

Hello, Shadowlands: Inside the Meth Fiefdoms, Rebel Hideouts and Bomb-Scarred Party Towns of Southeast Asia, by Patrick Winn. Patrick also wrote a longer book about the history of the drug trade within Southeast Asia. Engaging, at times shocking, historical read.

The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade, by Alfred W. McCoy. One of the first books to link the CIA and U.S. government to global drug trafficking.