The Left-Behind Village

Mae Salong sits along a winding mountain road in Northern Thailand. The village is in an isolated valley, the hillsides lined with terraced fields. Thirty years ago it would have been nearly inaccessible. Today, a paved road deposits tourists at a market at a crossroads not far from the town center. Some come for the tea, others for the scenery, but most are here to experience a cultural anomaly: A lost colony of Chinese soldiers from a forgotten war.

Atop a ridge overlooking the town is the tomb of Duan Xiwen (段希 文). It was General Duan who, more than 50 years ago, led a group of refugee soldiers out of Myanmar and into the hills north of Chiang Mai. For nearly two decades, Duan and his officers ran a small semi-independent fiefdom based in Mae Salong. They survived by working the land and the revenue they derived from their involvement in the Golden Triangle opium trade.

The village’s history traces back to the conclusion of the Chinese Civil War in 1949, when many of the forces loyal to the Nationalist government of Chiang Kai-shek retreated to Taiwan. But a few divisions, bottled up in the southern province of Yunnan, instead fled south into Myanmar. With assistance from the Nationalist government and US intelligence agencies, these units established a base area in the hills along the China-Myanmar border.