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Towering mountains and craggy limestone peaks loom out of the early morning mist, elephants haul teak on river banks, and families drift up and down the rivers on their bamboo rafts. The essence of Northern Thailand is its breathtaking scenery - and its mountain people.
The area between Chiang Rai and Mae Hong Son is hill tribe country, a long chain of semi-connected Akha, Lahu, Hmong and Yeo villages that exist with one foot in the iron age and the other in the world of satellite TV.
Politically, their existence is fraught with tension, as apart from their liking for a slash and burn system of farming which has helped destroy the teak forests, they are denied full Thai citizenship, being migrants from China and Burma, ethnically too different to be assimilated.
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But there is another group of non-Thai refugees in the area - the survivors and descendents of the 93rd Division of Chiang Kai Chek’s Nationalist Army, the Kuomintang, who fled from China after Mao Tse Tung’s victory and settled in these mountains over fifty years ago.
Today, the remainder of the Division and their families, some 6000 people, live where the land stretches in an almost unbroken line of hills to the borders with Laos and Myanmar, in Doi Mae Salong.
They live here because at the time of their arrival, the Thai government was battling against communist insurgents: in return for the Kuomintang’s military help the ex-soldiers, their families and their descendents were given ID papers that permitted them to live in this area of Thailand.
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When the communist threat to the Kingdom had been successfully disposed of, these ex-soldiers of the Kuomintang, who for decades had known nothing but war, had to find ways to survive and a way to finance their dream of mounting an invasion of China from their northern stronghold.
The answer lay on their door-step. Mae Salong was right in the middle of the poppy-growing area of the Golden Triangle, and mule trains laden with opium for the refining factories regularly passed through the Kuomintang’s territory. And so they became ‘tax collectors’ levying a forfeit on the opium convoys and so laying the foundation for their future prosperity..
In the late 1960’s things began to change when a clever and ambitious young Burmese warlord, the imfamous Khun Sa, refused to pay the levy.
Other traders joined his protest (losing their independence and incidentally making him the biggest heroin king in the area), and together they tested the strength of these Chinese Nationalists by forming a convoy in excess of 500 men and 300 mules that stretched for more than a mile along the mountain ridges.
In July 1967 a great battle raged for two days between the Kuomintang and Khun Sa’s army, ending only when the corrupt commander-in-chief of the Royal Laotian Army (who had his own refining laboratories in the area) cheated both the warlord and the Chinese Nationalists by making off with the opium after sending in the air force to bomb the battle site. After this the 93rd Division was a spent force.
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Today, most of the survivors and their descendents live in two hilltop villages, Teod Thai and Santi Kiri, which, with the help of the ‘tax’ money they had accumulated, they have transformed into vast tea plantations.
Teod Thai is little more than a dusty street with wooden one-storey shop houses on either side selling Chinese herbs and medicines, snakes bottled in brandy, spiders in oil, and scorpions in wine, any one of which guarantees increased sexual powers.
Santi Kiri on the other hand, is a village of stunning natural beauty located on top of Doi Mae Salong, 1,408 metres above sea level where layer upon layer of mountain ridges drift in and out among the clouds. Paper banners sporting Chinese calligraphy are draped from posts, and flags fly from the Yunnan style wooden shop-houses that sell coffee, peach wine, chrysanthemums and the local home-grown teas, to visitors from Taiwan who flock to area to marvel at this ethnic enclave whose elders still speak Mandarin Chinese.
In December and January the town is transformed when blossoms from hundreds of cherry trees brought from China and Burma many decades ago spread themselves like a pink eiderdown along the sides of the roads and up to the mausoleum of the community’s ex-leader, General Duan Xi Wen. The villagers are visably wealthy, the people well-dressed and healthy looking, the school echoing to the sing-song sound of children. White bearded ancients, once blood-thirsty tax-collectors, sit outside their tea-houses benignly, their dreams of invading China from northern Thailand now dead.
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Although the hill tribes were involved in opium growing for many years they never prospered as did the Kuomintang. With few exceptions, notably the Lisu, they live in a state bordering on poverty. Naked children play among the pigs and chickens that roam freely in the dusty streets and old women with betel-stained lips sit smoking their pipes outside meagre thatched huts. The contrast with the Kuomtang is startling.
No one knows what the future holds for the hill tribes or the Chinese villagers. Road building, satellite television and pressure on the land and natural resources, is accelerating change and many of the young are already leaving for the bright lights of the cities. Others will stay and continue the struggle.
It won’t be easy.
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