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

 herbs.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.