The Tea Detective
Uncovering and Exploring the Facts About Tea
Thailand - Where the Wild Tea Grows and
Modern Oolong Tea Flows
In the remote northern regions of Thailand stately indigenous tea trees flourish
in the tropical climate of the heavily forested mountainous Chiang Rai Province.
Anthropologists and tea historians believe the birthplace of tea to be adjoining
areas of remote jungle wilderness that runs from
Assam, India to China's south-
Yunnan province, across the top of Laos and what today is Myanmar, down
into northern Thailand, and across the northern regions of
Ethnic minority tribes of Akha, Hmong, Labu,
Lisu, Kosen, and Lua that originated in
China and Myanmar (formerly
Burma), have been settled in the mountain-
ous remote jungle regions of northern
Thailand, surrounded by the borders of Laos
and Myanmar.

Centuries old wild tea plants have grown into
huge stately tea trees in these jungles, from
which local populations have made tea from
the leaves, as well as foraging the forest floor
for other roots and

For generations the people of these regions
have made a kind of picked tea known as let-
pet or miang.  Today letpet is still a diet
staple for many  people of the region, as well as being used as an offering on religious
occasions, served to elders as a sign of respect, and also served on special occasions.

                                                 To make letpet, fresh tea leaves are first steamed, then packed
                                                 into large bamboo stalks, before being buried and left to fer-
                                                 ment for several months.  While fermenting the letpet acquires
                                                 an extremely pungent flavor and aroma.

                                                 Pickled tea isn't served as a beverage, but rather mixed with oil
and vinegar and served together with fried peanuts, sesame seeds,
fried shrimp, and fresh
tomatoes and green chilies.

Cultivation of Camellia sinensis began in the
1960s in the Thai mountain villages of Chiang
Rai and Chiang Mai. The village of Mae Salong
in Chiang Rai has become famous for its unus-
ual Thai style
Taiwan oolong tea.  How a class-
ically Chinese style of tea came to be produc-
ed in this region is an important and interest-
ing chapter of Thailand's history.

It all began in the 1950s during the Chinese
Civil War when Mao Tse-tung's People's Liber-
ation Army defeated Chiang Kai-shek's Chin-
ese Nationalist Kuomintang Army, sending
them fleeing from Mainland China.  While
          Chiang Kai-shek and over 700,000 of
          his soldiers and political refugees escaped to the island of
Taiwan, other soldiers posted
          in the northern border region of Yunnan province fled south to Myanmar.

          The country of Myanmar had just gained independence from
          Britain two years earlier in 1948, and for the next ten years
          the Chinese soldiers that had fled there helped to rebuild the
          war torn country.  But in 1960 guerrilla war with the commun-
          ists broke out, sending the Nationalist Chinese soldiers and
          their families once again fleeing, this time to the mountainous
          area of northern Thailand.

          The Thai government allowed them to settle in Chiang Rai province, and one of their first
          tasks was to plant tea bushes.  But unable to return to China for tea bush cuttings, they
          had to rely on the Taiwanese instead.

                                                            The Chinese refugees received clonal tea bushes devel-
                                                            oped for the manufacture of Taiwan's semi-oxidized
                                                            oolong teas and before long
oolong tea production
                                                            became the norm and the livlihood in this remote
                                                            mountain region of Thailand.

                                                           The tea bushes flourished in the lush tropical climate and
          the number of tea gardens quickly multiplied.  After a few years a surprise offer of
          assistance came from the government to help further grow this new tea industry.

          The Thai king, Bhumibol Adulyadej announced an ambitious new initiative that encom-
          passed various projects including eliminating land slash-and-burn usage, reforestation to
          conserve highland soil, and creating profitable new cash crops, such as tea, stone-fruits,
          vegetables, flowers, and shitake mushrooms.

          The king's goal behind these new programs was to improve the
          lives of mountain inhabitants by eliminating the profitable but de-
          structive opium poppy cultivation that was a way of life for many
          of the northern highlands people.

          More than 34 different programs taught everything from crop
          growing techniques to tea research and advanced cultivation tech-
          niques, and as a result, today nearly 15,000 families grow more
          than 80 different market crops.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980's experts from the Taiwan Tea Agricultural Research Center supplied Thai tea
producers with tea processing equipment.  The tea farmers in the northern highlands received intense training in soil
management, proper farming techniques, and improved manufacturing.

                                         The Taiwanese also provided new hybrid clonal varieties of
oolong tea to help increase
                                         production.  Today Thai tea farmers are proud to show off their tea making skills and new
                                         tea plant varietals.

                                         With warm days and cool nights that create a cooling cover of mist the tea bushes flourish.
                                         For as far as the eye can see tea gardens blanket the hillsides in neat rows ascending
                                         sharply from 3,900 to 4,420 feet.

                                         Thailand's oolong tea production is small and most is consumed internally, dispersed
                                         to Southeast Asia via the busy Bangkok hub, and sold to visiting tourists in the resorts of
                                         Chiang Mai.  The Chinese village of Mae Salong located in Thailand's Chiang Rai, is being
marketed as an interesting and colorful tourist destination.

Emphasis is on Hmong and Akha fabrics and jewelry, as well as the delicious Chinese and Thai food, and, of course,
the aromatic and flowery local oolong teas.  
Copyright 2011  All rights reserved.
No reproductions of any kind allowed without permission.
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