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 a tea village near Mae Hong Son

Panorama of the reservoir made using 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) refused to surrender to the Communists and 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 MongHsat 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 (site of last week’s earthquake) to crush the KMT.

Under General Tuan Shi-wen, KMT troops fled south, crossing the porous border into Thailand and settling in the parched foothills of Doi Mae Salong, Doi Pan and Ban Mae Nong Bua. The Thai government granted the KMT refugees asylum on the condition that they would help insulate Thailand against a Communist invasion. Though Mae Aw did not tumble into a heavy opium trade like Doi Mae Salong (Mae Salong was the site of some fierce mountain battles, both political and drug-related, and only opened to tourism in the mid 1990s), its KMT museum has a smattering of opium paraphernalia. Not as bloody or complicated as the history of Mae Salong (and thus not as sexy to talk about) Ban Rak Thai’s backstory remains fairly unknown to tourists in Thailand.

Ban Rak Tai's tiny resevoir

Reservoir at Mae Aw (Ban Rak Tai).

Visiting Mae Aw, you’d be hard pressed to find traces of this backstory. With the exception of a KMT museum (filled with a life sized statue of a person lying on his side and smoking opium), the town is free of context. Shop signs and dialogue are in Chinese, tea tastings are plentiful and the villagers very surprised to see foreigners wandering about (especially arriving on a motorbike and not with a tour). Squat mud huts, tiny a-frame bungalows and wild, almost psychedelic graffiti, the quiet village is unlike everything I’ve seen in Thailand.

KMT museum in Mae Aw (Ban Rak Tai)

KMT Museum.

And, of course, there is tea.

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.

Making tea in Mae Aw (Ban Rak Tai)

Preparing tea at Mae Aw.

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

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

Drinking Tea at Ban Rak Tai in Thailand

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

Tea from Ban Rak Tai

Sometimes with animals mixed in:

Tea Kitteh

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

All in all a good day.

Me in Mae Aw (with bonus photobomb)My fun driving helmet and a bonus photobomb from the lady behind me.

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 quiet observation. 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, juxtaposed against the tea and terraces of present day.


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.