Deep in the hills of north­ern Thai­land, Madam Soo teaches Roy Ham­ric to ap­pre­ci­ate the unique flavour of oo­long tea

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence -

THE hill­top vil­lage of Mae Sa­long, known as Thai­land’s most Chi­nese of vil­lages, is nes­tled on a re­mote ridge­back near the Burma border. It was set­tled by rem­nants of the Kuom­intang army in 1961, af­ter it had fled to Burma fol­low­ing the fall of gen­eral Chi­ang Kai-shek’s de­feated army.

In the past few decades, the sol­diers have switched from grow­ing pop­pies to cul­ti­vat­ing prized tea bushes. Orig­i­nally im­ported from Tai­wan, the bushes around Mae Sa­long pro­duce some of the finest tea in Asia, and the vil­lage has be­come an un­likely at­trac­tion for hardy tea-lov­ing trav­ellers.

Dur­ing my first night in town, I visit a karaoke bar where three tele­vi­sions play sit­coms from main­land China and Hong Kong. The next morn­ing, I walk down the main road, where Chi­nese char­ac­ters on shop signs out­num­ber Thai script.

Lisu and Mong vil­lagers fill the morn­ing mar­ket and I hear Chi­nese di­alects, not Thai, spo­ken ev­ery­where.

The next day, a sprin­kling of tourists brave a one-hour drive over the sharp moun­tain switch­backs to the plan­ta­tions. And they come for only one thing: fine tea. Al­most ev­ery­one in the vil­lage gath­ers leaves, works in a tea-pro­cess­ing fac­tory or tends a small tea gar­den on a plot near their homes. Many va­ri­eties are grown but one of the favourites is oo­long, which con­nois­seurs say com­pares favourably with fine wine.

I want to learn how to ap­pre­ci­ate fine tea and it’s ob­vi­ous Mae Sa­long is the place to do it. That af­ter­noon, I spot a small, non­de­script tea ven­dor’s shop on the main road. It’s sim­ple: two wooden ta­bles and a few stools. A pic­ture of the Great Wall of China adorns one wall. An el­derly wo­man with close-cropped white hair sits on a stool eye­ing me, as if she has been wait­ing for me to show up.

Her name is Madam Soo and, speak­ing in bro­ken English and Thai, she gives me a short course in tea tast­ing. ‘‘ What kind of tea do you like?’’ she asks. ‘‘ Oo­long,’’ I an­swer. ‘‘ There are many va­ri­eties,’’ she says. ‘‘ What kind?’

‘‘ Please serve the one you like best,’’ I tell her. So she picks up a plas­tic bag full of tea buds. ‘‘ Oo­long has been used as a medicine for thou­sands of years,’’ she says, se­lect­ing only three or four small buds. ‘‘ Tea stim­u­lates the blood cir­cu­la­tion and calms the mind.’’

West­ern re­searchers claim drink­ing tea low­ers choles­terol, im­proves the func­tion­ing of the kid­neys and strength­ens the nat­u­ral im­mune sys­tem. In sci­en­tific terms, it’s all about poly­phones and cat­e­chins, which are or­ganic chem­i­cals found in all tea leaves.

The trick is how much ox­i­da­tion or bruis­ing is al­lowed in the pro­cess­ing of the leaves. Bruis­ing re­leases oils within the leaf; green tea leaves are un­ox­i­dised or un­dergo no bruis­ing, while black tea leaves are fully ox­i­dised or thor­oughly bruised. The oo­long leaf is bruised half­way be­tween green and black tea leaves, ac­count­ing for its sin­gu­lar fruity taste.

Word­lessly, Madam Soo pours hot wa­ter into a small, unglazed clay teapot. She drops in four oo­long buds, which ex­pand as soon as they hit the just-boiled wa­ter. Con­nois­seurs say the small clay pots im­prove with age and bring out the best flavours. Af­ter a few min­utes of steep­ing, she pours the tea through a fine strainer into two small, nar­row-lipped clay cups.

She picks one up, mo­tion­ing me to in­hale the aroma. I hold the tiny cup with the fin­gers of both hands. It’s Dong Fang Mei Ren, or Ori­en­tal Beauty oo­long tea, which Madam Soo says she saves for spe­cial oc­ca­sions. The colour of Ori­en­tal Beauty tea is one of its gifts. Imag­ine the clear­est wa­ter. Imag­ine you prick your in­dex fin­ger with a nee­dle. A trickle of dark blood rises. Then you place that fin­ger into the clear wa­ter and stir. The wa­ter sud­denly glows light red, the nat­u­ral colour of Ori­en­tal Beauty.

The scent is like a soft, fruity breeze, with a hint of honey, peaches and or­anges. With my first sip it is as if I have never tasted tea be­fore. A stream of sub­tle, sweet flavours flows over my tongue.

With each sip, Madam Soo nods and smiles in ap­pre­ci­a­tion at me. It’s an­other les­son in how to live, learn and travel well.

Prized bushes: Tea grow­ing in Mae Sa­long

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