The village of Santikhiri (Thai: สันติคีรี), formerly known as Mae Salong (Thai: แม่สลอง), is situated in the Thai highlands on Doi Mae Salong mountain of the Daen Lao Range, in Mae Fa luang district, Chiang Rai Province, the northernmost province of Thailand. The area has an alpine-like landscape and climate, and is known for its hill tribe villages, tea plantations and cherry blossoms.
Santikhiri's early history centered around the Golden Triangle's opium trade, in which its distinctive population – the "lost army" of the Republic of China Army's 93rd Division – became involved. At the conclusion of the Chinese Civil War in 1949, some remnants of the anti-communist Kuomintang (KMT) forces refused to surrender, including the 93rd Division, led by General Tuan Shi-wen (also known as Chiwan Khamlue). The division fought its way out of Yunnan in southwestern China, and its soldiers lived nomadic lives in Burma's (now Myanmar) jungles before seeking asylum in Mae Salong. In exchange for their asylum, they fought for Thailand until 1982, helping to counter the communist insurgency at the Thai frontier. In reward, the Thai government granted citizenship to most of the KMT soldiers and their families.
The origins of the Santikhiri community go back to the end of the Chinese Civil War. In October 1949, after Mao Zedong's communist party victory in China, the defeated Kuomintang (KMT) armies led by Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek retreated to Taiwan, except for the 3rd and 5th Regiment of the 93rd Division, which refused to surrender. Fighting between the communist and KMT troops continued in some remote parts of China, including Yunnan in the southwest. When the Communists marched into the provincial capital of Kunming in January 1950, 12,000 troops from the 3rd and 5th Regiment, commanded respectively by Generals Lee Wen-huan (Li Wenhuan) and Tuan Shi-wen, fought their way out of Yunnan and escaped into Burma's jungles.
The soldiers' war did not end after their own "Long March" from Yunnan to Möng Hsat in Burma's Shan State. The Burmese soon discovered that a foreign army was camped on their soil, and launched an offensive. The fighting continued for 12 years, and several thousand KMT soldiers were eventually evacuated to Taiwan. When China entered the Korean War, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had a desperate need for intelligence on China. The agency turned to the two KMT generals, who agreed to slip some soldiers back into China for intelligence-gathering missions. In return, the agency offered arms to equip the generals to retake China from their bases in the Shan State. The KMT army tried on no less than seven occasions between 1950 and 1952 to invade Yunnan, but was repeatedly driven back into the Shan State. The ending of the Korean War in 1953 was not the end of the KMT's fight against the communist Chinese and Burmese armies, which continued on for many years, supported by Washington and Taiwan and subsequently funded by the KMT's involvement in the Golden Triangle's drug trade.
Refuge in Thailand
In 1961, Tuan led some 4,000 battle-weary KMT troops out of Burma to a mountainous sanctuary in Mae Salong in Thailand. In exchange for asylum, the Thai government allowed them to stay on the understanding that they would assist in policing the area against communist infiltration. As a result, most of the village's inhabitants today are ethnic Chinese and direct descendants of those KMT soldiers. At the same time, General Lee of the 3rd Regiment established his headquarters at Tham Ngob, northwest of Chiang Mai. The KMT army was renamed Chinese Irregular Forces (CIF) and was placed directly under the control of a special task force, code-named "04", under the Supreme Command in Bangkok.
After the soldiers reached Mae Salong, China and Thailand struck an agreement to transfer the administration of the group to the Thai government. The Provincial governor of southern Thailand, Pryath Samanmit, was reassigned as the governor of Chiang Rai, to oversee the KMT division, but upon taking up his position, Samanmit was killed by communist insurgents. Soon afterwards, the KMT division was ordered to assist the Thai government to counter the advancing armies on Thailand's northern borders and the internal threat from the Communist Party of Thailand. Fierce battles were fought in the mountains of Doi Laung, Doi Yaw, Doi Phamon and Mae Aabb, and the communist uprising was successfully countered. The bloodiest operation was launched on 10 December 1970, a five-year long campaign that claimed over 1,000 lives, many from landmines. It was not until 1982 that the soldiers were able to give up their arms and were discharged to settle down to a normal life at Mae Salong. As a reward for their service, the Thai government gave citizenship to most of the KMT soldiers and their families.
Despite the Thai government’s attempts to integrate the KMT division and their families into the Thai nation, the inhabitants of Mae Salong preferred for many years to engage in the illegal opium trade, alongside the drug warlord Khun Sa of the Shan United Army. In 1967, Tuan said in an interview with a British journalist:
We have to continue to fight the evil of communism, and to fight you must have an army, and an army must have guns, and to buy guns you must have money. In these mountains, the only money is opium.—Gen Tuan Shi-wen, Weekend Telegraph (London), 10 March 1967
According to a CIA report in 1971, Mae Salong was then one of the largest heroin refineries in Southeast Asia. Only in the late 1980s, after Khun Sa's army was finally routed and pushed over the border into Myanmar by the Thai military, was the Thai government able to make any headway in taming the region – part of which involved crop substitution plans and giving the area a new name. Santikhiri meaning "hill of peace" was introduced by the Thai government in an effort to disassociate the area from its former image as an established opium zone. King Bhumibol Adulyadej and other members of the royal family made regular visits as a sign of their support for the old soldiers who had fought against their own country for Thailand.
As late as the mid-1970s, Doi Mae Salong was strictly off-limits to outsiders. Since 1994, Santikhiri has capitalised on its unique history and has developed into a tourist attraction, with its narrow winding streets lined with inns, noodle shops and teashops. As a result, Santikhiri has become one of Thailand's top ten destinations among backpackers today. The former soldiers had already settled down, some of them having married ethnic Chinese brides who crossed the border after the fighting stopped, and others having married local Thais. The old soldiers and their descendants carry on their normal lives peacefully now, but still retain their Chinese identity; the main language spoken remains Mandarin. As of 2007, General Lue Ye-tien, aged 90 and Tuan's former right-hand man, is the leader of the group, after taking over the leadership on Tuan's death in 1980.
The crop substitution programs successfully encouraged the cultivation of tea, coffee, corn and fruit trees, replacing the opium poppies that had previously been grown. New fruit orchards and tea factories were also set up, followed by production facilities for fruit wines and Chinese herbs, which are particularly popular among Thais and tourists from China, Taiwan, and other ethnic Chinese communities in Southeast Asia.
Geography and climate
Santikhiri is a hilltop village in the Mae Fa Luang district of Thailand's Chiang Rai Province, about 80 kilometres (50 mi) from Chiang Rai. Santikhiri is on the highest peak of the Doi Mae Salong range of mountains, at an elevation of 1,800 metres (5,904 ft) above sea level. It has an alpine-like climate, with crisp cool air all year round and chilly in the winter months of November through February. Santikhiri is accessible via two routes – Route 1130 from Ban Basang and Route 1234 from the south, which until being paved were only accessible by pack horses. Now regular minibus services, running from 6 am to 1 pm, are available from Chiang Rai to Santikhiri.
Santikhiri has long been the home of many hill tribes such as the Akha, Yao, Karen, and Hmong that originated from southern China and Myanmar. Each tribe has its own language, and follows animist customs and practices. Living among the native inhabitants are the ethnic Chinese, who form the majority of Santikhiri's estimated population of 20,000.
Landmarks and attractions
Santikhiri is noted for its High Mountain Oolong, a high grade traditional Chinese tea, which makes up about 80% of all tea production in Chiang Rai. The province produces about 200 tonnes (200 long tons; 220 short tons) of tea a year. The combination of climate and soil conditions at Santikhiri is ideal for growing high quality Oolongs ("black dragon" in Chinese). Such teas are cultivated at elevations ranging from 1,200 to 1,400 metres (3,960–4,620 ft). In 2005, Santikhiri was selected by the Tourism and Sports Ministry as an OTOP ("One Tambon One Product") tourism village in recognition of its fine oolong tea. The goals are to stimulate the grassroots economy, increase the number of tourists, and develop Thailand's products and services. Taiwanese experts work alongside local farmers in tea processing plants which produce top-quality tea for both the local and export markets. The number of tea plantations in the village has increased significantly since the mid-1990s, and includes Choke Chamroen Tea, Wang Put Tan and 101 Tea.
From 28 December to 2 January each year, Santikhiri hosts the annual cherry blossoms festival, which is organised by Mae Salong Nok Tambon Administration Organisation in association with Mae Fa Luang District. The festival celebrates the culture of the hill tribe people from the Chiang Rai area, and includes a handicraft sale, a light and sound show, a parade by the tribes people, and a beauty contest.
General Tuan Shi-wen died in 1980, and was buried in a pagoda-like tomb on a hill-top reached via a 300-metre (984 ft) climb. From the top, there is a panoramic view of the village. There is also a memorial to the KMT soldiers who died in their fight against communism, The Martyrs' Memorial, a museum whose wooden panels bear the names of the dead, set on an altar in the main building. It was constructed in the style of a large Chinese shrine like the National Revolutionary Martyrs' Shrine in Taipei. The museum also features exhibits describing the struggles of the KMT soldiers and the development of the Doi Mae Salong valley.
Phra Boromathat Chedi is a chedi built on a hill near the village, in honour of the late Princess Mother, Srinagarindra. There is an excellent view of the Myanmar frontier from the top, an area that was off-limits when it was under the control of the warlord Khun Sa.
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Santikhiri.|
- Mae Salong travel guide from Wikivoyage
- Doi Mae Salong on Wikivoyage
- Picture gallery of Santikhiri
- Benjarong Magazine: Mae Salong, China of the North