For the Tan Your Mind team, Chiang Rai was characterized by sex, drugs and rock ’n roll.
And before my editor and mother suffer simultaneous heart attacks, let me clarify by saying the sex came in the form of Baan Dam’s graphic carvings; the rock ’n roll, from its resident musician; and the drugs from the Opium Museum adjacent to the tripoint border of Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar.
(Outpost editor and Mrs. Bedford, simultaneously: “Not funny, Susan!”)
Some people just don’t appreciate my humour.
After all that hedonism, it was no surprise our crew needed to unwind with a cup of tea. So we headed Chiang Rai’s famed Choui Fong Tea plantation, located about an hour’s taxi ride from the Opium Museum.
Most of Thailand’s ambrosia is knotted and dishevelled, akin to the jungles depicted in Vietnam War movies, and so the mathematical precision of the plantation was a stark juxtaposition. The ordered rows of tea bushes on the lolling hills looked like the easiest hedge maze ever, and there was something soothing about their calm meticulousness in a country characterized by hive-like traffic and humming markets.
An afternoon at Choui Fong encompasses driving or meandering the laneways between the tea fields and lunching at the open-air restaurant on tea-themed foods. Lena’s salad was largely tea leaves and even my pork dumplings were accompanied by a sprig. (In case you’re wondering, raw tea leaves taste like generic green vegetation.)
The plantation grows award-winning assam, green, oolong and black teas. Samplers of three varieties of oolong are available in the gift shop, and Lena and I whetted our palettes, pinkies up.
“This one has notes of perfumed bathwater,” I commented in my best sommelier voice, sounding not unlike Fraiser Crane. “With a floral nose and a tropical fern finish.”
Lena sniffed her cup and swirled the tea around in the glass to check its legs before taking a sip. “Mmm, fresh-cut grass, brand-new garden hose. 2016 was an excellent year.”
In all seriousness, the Jin Xuan, Ruanzhi and Gui Hua oolong teas were all good. My favourite was the latter, which is a blend of Jin Xuan and osmanthus flowers, while Lena preferred the earthier Ruanzhi. Oolong teas are known for their polyphenol content, which activates the enzyme that dissolves triglycerides.
Tea has always held sentimental value for me. Growing up, my Polish grandmother tackled any personal issue I brought to her with a cup of sweet, milky black tea; meanwhile, my cronies and I treated the bubble tea shop adjacent to our high school as our personal Central Perk.
When undergoing the knee-mincing, lung-wringing task of trekking to Annapurna Base Camp in the Himalayas, my best friend, our fathers and I relied on Nepali chai to keep our fires stoked; while writing my subsequent travel memoir, my editor and I frequently met for tea. When I faced horrific medical and human rights situations while volunteering in Kolkata, the street-side chai in terracotta cups calmed my rattled nerves.
Therefore, visiting the tea plantation was more than just an opportunity to admire the manicured shrubbery and dine on tea-leaf salads. It gave me the chance to reflect on my personal history with my favourite beverage.
This trip, too, has given me new tea-related memories. As Lena kick-starts the morning with a café latte and the boys with Red Bull, I wake up with a cup of Thai red tea, served from street vendors in disposable cups with plastic bag handles so they can be carried by motorcyclists.
Like sugar and opium, tea is a commodity that has shaped the world, for better or worse, yet the Choui Fong tea plantation doesn’t highlight that. Instead, it captures tea’s personal essence as friends relax on the patios, enjoying the handsome vistas, each other’s company, and of course a fresh cuppa.