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Exploring Mae Salong, Thailand

In the remote woodland hill regions of northern Thailand, in the province of Chiang Rai, tea trees flourish in the tropical climate.  This area is part of the historical tea regions that anthropologists have found as the birth place of tea. This tea belt traverses through Yunnan Province, China to northern Assam, India, Laos and present day Myanmar, into Northern Thailand and Vietnam.

A little town, with a big history lies just south of the Thai border with Myanmar and in the province of Chiang Rai, and it is called Mae Salong. A little group of us, Joe, owner and operator of Saratoga Food and Ghost Tours, his wonderful partner Kim, ​Marcus my fiancé, photographer and videographer and I, set out on a four hour journey north of Chiang Mai in search of Mae Salong.  Though situated in Thailand, this particular village is home to people of Yunnanese (Chinese) descent.  Everything was written and spoken in Chinese and all of our communications were about to be with google translate and gestures.
 
A little on the interesting history of this area:  The ancestors of these people arrived at the conclusion of the 1949 Chinese Civil War as the 'lost soldiers' who refused to surrender.  For protection, they escaped China, settled briefly in Burma, and found their way to northern Thailand for asylum. In exchange for safety, the Thai government sought assistance to push back communist insurgencies at the frontier.
 

​This geographical region bordering Laos and Myanmar was known as 'The Golden Triangle' as it was a hot spot for the production of opium. Today, this area has been turned over by the Thai government to a more sustainable crop, tea.  Tea shares the landscape with cherries, coffee, lychee and wonderful citrus.

We discovered Mae Salong to be a quiet village, with many vendors of tea.  As we explored and stopped for tea tastings, we came across the production of Assam black tea at one of the villages producers.  It is always amazing to experience the fragrance of freshly harvested wilting tea leaves.  It is too beautiful for words.

Many of the tea varieties in this area were brought over from Taiwan decades ago and their style of tea is similar to that of the mountain producers in central Taiwan.  We tasted Jin Xuan No. 12, Oriental Beauty, Qing Xin No. 17 amongst others.  I decided to bring home a Hoarfrost, or winter frost harvest, oolong that has a unique sweetness and is unlike any tea I have tasted.  I also choose a Rose Scented Oolong, as its fragrance and delicacy was enchanting and unique.

  

Fresh Tea Leaves Withering

Women sorting through the fresh black tea, removing stems.

That evening, we were welcomed by the indigenous Ahka tribe just a few miles away.  Their children toured us around their little village, we dined on their local food cooked over a fire and slept in mud huts.  It was really a remarkable experience.

Ahka Children with Hayley and Marcus

I am excited to share some of their tea with you!

The Women of Tan Huong Cooperative, Vietnam

Just north of Hanoi lies the little city of Thai Nguyen and just a few kilometers away, the Tan Huong Tea Cooperative.  The Co-op is made up of 41 members with gardens, 80% women and is directed by a board of all women. (Isn't it wonderful?)

The Board of Tan Huong

In 2000, the cooperative formed with the help of The Canadian Tea Alliance, a group that helped to empower areas of economic hardship through tea production, and by 2010 these women were producing a superior green tea, a green tea that met the rigid guidelines in place for Canadian import.  While they are one of four cooperatives supported by Canada, they are the only ones to meet strict regulations for export to North America. Logistically, in the early 2000s it was hard to reach this tea garden because of the poor infrastructure, but today these women have put money back into their homes, their town and their roads.  These once struggling cattle farmers and noodle makers, have found their success in high quality tea, and for over a year and a half now we have been proudly carrying their tea.

The Tea Ceremony

The Whole Tea Group

When we drove up to their tea factory and saw a large group of people waving outside, emotions took over.  We were welcomed with such enthusiasm and ceremony.  Their gratitude to sell tea in the west was overflowing.  They greeted our little group with a formal tea reception, followed by a visit to a tea garden and factory, and a beautiful generous lunch with flowing rice wine and many toasts and handshakes. We drank tea and ate sweets and the women proudly displayed their new harvested buds.  The Director held my hand as we explored the garden and the Finance Director showed me her little tea production shack, that must have been 9'x10' large.  When we stepped outside, she told us this that the little room was her family's house, before they made tea. 

Hayley and Director of Finance in Her Garden

Visiting the Tea Garden

 

Lunch at Tan Huong

This visit was so emotional, that when we said goodbye and I thanked them for producing such beautiful tea and for welcoming us so graciously, we all began to cry.  I felt in this moment, the impact of our choices. More directly than I ever imagined, I realized that by buying Tan Huong green tea, I am making an immediate impact on these families and this village. That is a choice we make with all things, when could buy commercial and support an industry or we could buy artisanal and support a family.

Saying Goodbye at Tan Huong