Apr 30 - May 9, 2016
Ten Days in Chiang Khong, Thailand
GPS waypoint: 20°15'31.6"N 100°24'28.9"E
Location: Chiang Khong District, Chiang Rai (Province), Thailand
Chiang Saen to Chiang Khong
From Chiang Saen, I continued my travel along the Mekong River going downstream to Chiang Khong, just 55 kms away. It was fairly easy. A green songthaew to Hat Bai (B50) then a transfer to another green songthaew all the way to Chiang Khong's main street (B50) - all within an hour. I had no place to stay yet. With no internet on my phone, not enough Thai Baht, no open money exchange (weekend), it was tough to get my way around.
A Roof over my Head
I first checked-in at Green Inn and later at their sister hotel, Green River for the remainder of my visa. They were comfortable, priced right and conveniently located. Their staff could speak enough English to give me a few travel tips. They even gave me the use of a free bicycle during my entire stay! Green Inn was along the main road and near everything - 7-11, the banks, eating places, etc. Green River was perched along the Mekong River providing an awesome river view and a mountain view with Laos just across on the other bank. With these two hotels, I felt pampered.
The mightly Mekong River dominates the city on the east end. Hotels line up the bank for a river-view room (with Laos on the other side of the bank), quays are venues for town events or evening out-on-the-town-by-the-quay. There is a wide promenade that stretches along most of the city sections although it doesn't span the entire city length. There are exercise equipment on some sections and you can bike along its length or walk. Along the way, there are vendors selling bbq, a meal or refreshing drinks. Prices are very reasonable, even on restaurants lining up the esplanade.
morning yoga along the Mekong River esplanade
A pleasant diversion in Chiang Khong is the market scene. There is the fresh market which is open everyday from 11pm to 6am, but apart from that, there is the day market which happens in different places around the city on certain days of the week. You see the same vendors hawking the same products but it's also another ocassion to say hello to people you know and gives you reason to come out of the house. You can buy grilled food, smoothies, sweets, raw meat and fish and even clothing. Prices are cheap.
- AD 701 - Chiang Khong was part of a city state under King Mahathai where it served as a trading post to hill tribes and people from northern Laos
- 1880s - the Siamese (now the modern-day Thais) occupied Chiang Khong and was annexed into Siam during the reign of Rama V. Chiang Khong occupied a territory that extended all the way to Yunnan in China
- 1893 - the French colonized much of the Mekong’s northern bank into French Indochina which included much of Chiang Khong. The Thais kept what was on the west bank of the Mekong River.
- 1960s - The Kuomintang retreated into Chiang Khong after they (together with Khun Sa's forces - Myanmar's opium king) were bombed by the Lao Army in a 3-way battle to take possession of a train-load of opium
- Dec 2013 - the Thai–Lao Friendship Bridge was built connecting Thailand to Huay Xai, Laos, with combined money from Thailand, Laos and China. This facilitated trade between the 3 countries. With the opening of the bridge, tourist traffic increased in Chiang Khong, but only to cross into Laos to Luang Prabang via a slow boat. Chiang Khong essentially became a pit-stop causing a few businesses near the old port (which has since become a ghost town) to close down
- present day 2016 - Chiang Khong is seeing a transition. The once dilapidated river-front establishments are slowly being purchased by rich people from Bangkok who wish to make this place their vacation get-away
Things Take Time
I noticed that things take time here. Even if I'm the only customer, a meal will still take time until it's served. That's because they usually cook it (not reheat it) and also because they are not rushed - and this includes ordering iced coffee in a cart. They know this and some would smilingly tell me these things take time. I smile back somehow refreshed from the notion that really, there is no reason to rush. Not in Chiang Khong.
Bike Locks not Needed
You can say a lot of things about the culture just by the way people do things. When my hotel gave me free use of a bike, they was no bike lock. This is unusual because everywhere I rent a bike, whether it's in Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos or other parts of Thailand, you have to have a bike lock. The owner calmly said that in Chiang Khong, nobody locks their bikes because no one steals bikes. It was a little unnerving for me to leave the bike at Tesco or the night markets, but when I came back, the bike was always there. If I look at the other bikes, they don't have locks too. Wow! This says a lot about the people of Chiang Khong.
According to some people I've talked to, Buddhism permeates deep into the culture of the Thais. It's not just a mechanical religious devotion confined in the temple, but a profound way of seeing and doing things on an individual and societal scale. Large business establishments will allow vendors to sell in front of their stores - will even clear some space for them. They consider it a way to help people sustain themselves. It's not unusual for someone upwardly mobile to leave a promising career to go back into her hometown to care for her parents. Vendors don't sneak a rotten fruit into what you're buying. When they give alms to the monks, it's not a burden to them, but a means to extend their blessing to their dearly departed. In short, they walk the talk.
He doesn't want to be named, but he was one of the first few guys I talked to shortly after my arrival in Chiang Khong. Fascinating guy. First, he talked about being in training for his forthcoming MMA competition this July in Hong Kong. He started martial arts as a kid and learned Kung Fu along the way. In the course of the conversation, he also mentioned being a mercenary in a Special Forces unit. He had the tattoo to show for it. He talked about missions that sent him to the most troubled spots on the planet, mostly the Middle East. He admitted a little remorse in killing people, but also added that there are certain types he will kill for pleasure. He continued talking about global events and geo-politics, on how current events are shaped by the men behing the curtain, even mentioning a name who pulls the strings on the marrionettes, including US presidents and heads of top corporations. It didn't take long until we were talking about quantum mechanics! Wow, this guys knows a lot. And from what I already know about what we were talking about, he wasn't bullshitting. On top of all these, he was talking about yoga, meditation and spiritual purification, referring to Sanskrit and the Vedas. In our later conversation, he says, "I had a good fuck last night with a French woman." Is this guy for real? As a traveler, I feel privileged to meet such animated characters.
Still a long-haired hippie in his late 60s, Jib runs the Bamboo Resto where he serves good European breads and great coffee. He talked about the old days when hippies would pass through Chiang Khong looking for a cheap place to stay. Since the Thai–Lao Friendship Bridge was opened in December 11, 2013, he said business slowed down even though there was increased people traffic. The new bridge relegated Chiang Khong as a one-night stopover before travelers cross the bridge to Laos on their way to Luang Prabang by slow boat. Nearly all tourists are already pre-booked somewhere so there is very little time to stay in Chiang Khong. I would join him for a coldie as he talks about the Blues in Chiang Mai and Thailand's neighbors, Myanmar and Laos. Thais generally like their Laotian neighbor whom they see as "same-same". However, to their neighbor to the west, they say, "they don't look like us". I guess the sentiment is more a remnant of war and territorial expansion between the two countries during their ancient and recent past.
I had 10 days in Chiang Khong which gave me leisurely time to explore the place unhurriedly. With Chiang Khong where nothing much seems to happen on the surface, it takes a little while to discern the little nuances that makes this place endearing. Like its neighbour Chiang Saen, Chiang Khong is laid-back, charming and quaint...just a little more animated with more shops, bars, restaurants and cafes - but nothing to the level of Chiang Mai. Its people are friendly, unrushed and honest. And perhaps that is Chiang Khong's magic. You can come here to do nothing but relax and chillout. Although it has its share of Wats (what Thai city or town doesn't, anyway?), market scene and hilltribe people, its hidden gem is its culture. Unlike the bustle and frenetic movement in the city, people in this part of Thailand know how to balance work and play. Chiang Khong isn't a destination. It's a lifestyle choice.
Even amongst travelers, I feel privileged. I can stay in a place as long as I want to (visa permitting) without feeling rushed to do all the tourism offerings. In fact, it doesn't even appeal to me anymore to do the temple thing or the waterfall thing. I just like to chillout in a place that resonates, acclimatize to its ebb and flow, meet the people who call it home, or meet the passing travelers and share ideas, insight and experience. Add a cold beer to that, a quaint setting by the river, perhaps a little piped-in Blues music in the background...and what do you have? Chiang Khong!
Chiang Khong, Thailand
- the tourist area where most of the hotels, restaurants, ticket offices, tour operators are, is located along the main drag of Sai Klang (Route 1020)
- people don't lock their bicycles in Chiang Khong
- best time to visit is from Oct to Apr
- it's not beneath the elites to eat street food (but I suspect that's all over Thailand, not just Chiang Khong)
- cafes - Green River Cafe, Cafe de Lao, Chims Coffee, Riders Coffee, Siam Cafe, Taxi Cafe, Dream Coffee
- restaurants - 7he Vow, Bamboo Mexican House Restaurant, Kao Soi Kai, Pad Thai Baan Yim, Jam House, Rimkhong, Hainanese Chinese Rice Noodle
- bar - The Hub Pub
There are packages available from tour agencies or your hostel for about B1350 with free pick-up. But if you want to do this on your own, here's the drill:
- take a tuk-tuk from city center to Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge, B150/trip, 3pax, 10 kms. You can also take the white songthaew passing through the main street, B50
- get your passport stamped out of Thailand...or you'll have a lot of trouble coming back. Thai border opens at 6am and closes 10pm
- take the shuttle bus to cross the bridge, B25. You are not allowed to cross on foot. Shuttle starts operation at 7:30am.
- get your passport stamped-in for Laos. After Immigration, touts will convince you the boats are not safe and will offer a bus route. Don't listen to them!
- board a tuk-tuk for the ferry
- board the ferry for Pak Beng, the first overnight stop. Bring cushion as the seat could be hard. Come early so you can take the front seats away from the engine
- you'll arrive in Pak Beng. Stay overnight. There are lots of cheap lodges
- bright and early, board another ferry for Luang Prabang
backpacker places (US$1 = Thai Baht 34.89 = Php 46.95 as of May 3, 2016)
- The Hub Bicycle Museum - Guiness Records title holder for the fastest circumnavigation of the world, Alan Bate, runs a pub with a museum of bicycles of every kind, some he actually raced on. Free entrance, coordinates 20°16'02.1"N 100°24'15.7"E
- Koumintang (Chinese Nationalist) cemetery - a little north of Chiang Khong on the way to Chiang Saen. Retreating KMT buried their dead after being bombed by Laotian forces during the opium war
- Wat Prakeaw - one of the popular temples within town, coordinates 20°15'57.2"N 100°24'22.8"E
- Hmong Village - about 10 kms away to the west with a nearby waterfall. Best to come after 2pm when they return from field work
- late afternoon stroll along the Mekong River promenade - very laid back and picturesque
- fresh market - close to 7-11 South (there are two 7-11s), daily from 11pm to 6am with Hmong and hilltribe people selling their farm produce
- afternoon market - this happens certain days of the week at different places but same products and same vendors. Saturdays and Mondays near the Wat Phra Kaew, Wednesdays about 100m south of the South 7-11, Mondays at the empty area by the Municipal office
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- big bottle of Leo beer at The Hub Pub (recommended)
- spicy sour salty and sweet fried chicken (house specialty) at 7he Vow
- mueslit + fruit + yogurt breakfast at Bamboo Mexican House Restaurant (pricey but recommended)
- noodle soup with meat
- Khao Soi at Kao Soy Kai (recommended)
- street hot coffee
- coffee at Cafe de Lao (recommended). Specialty is banana chocolate frappe at B70
- pad thai at Pad Thai Baan Yim (recommended)
- one hour massage
- bicycle rental, 24 hours at Mai Fai Guest House
- coin operated laundry at Border Guest House. You can sun hang-dry in their front yard
- bus to Bangkok, 12-14 hours
- Green Bus to Chiang Mai, 6 hours
- Red Bus to Chiang Rai, 3 hours
- double bed in a fan room, shared toilet at Green Inn Resident (by 7-11 convenience store) (recommended)
- one hour, internet cafe
- tuk-tuk ride from Chiang Khong center to Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge
Apr 30 - May 9, 2016
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