Chiang Khan, Loei province’s “ode to the Mekong,” remains a tranquil, blissfully subdued slice of Isan despite its growing popularity among Thais looking for peaceful escapes from Bangkok.
By Dave Stamboulis.
Loei Province, while well discovered by Thais, still remains off of most foreign tourists’ radar. The sleepy natural scenery-filled province is considered part of the northeastern (Isan) region but physically belongs more to the north, as it is made up of steep mountains and impenetrable jungles. Famed for its yearly mardi-gras style festival, “Phi Tha Khon,” it has remained a backwater until recently when the quaint river town of Chiang Khan, nestled against the Mekong across from Laos, became a popular attraction among Thais looking for peaceful escapes from Bangkok.
Chiang Khan has about 700 heritage houses, vendors shops and old homes, that are on its local historic register, about a third of all buildings in town. Most are right out of classic Indochina, with teak floors, louvre shutters, and carved wooden facades, most of which sport wooden birdcages and planters full of orchids. The town was formerly a trading port busy with both Lao and Vietnamese traders, but these days, at least on weekends, it is full of Thai tourists from Bangkok who are all looking to relive a bit of the nostalgic past.
The town has changed quite a bit in recent years, with kitsch slowly starting to replace the traditional charm, evidenced by the weekend night market selling retro items along with plenty of junky trinkets, pretty much created entirely for the visiting urban crowd. However, the setting still remains quite lovely, with superb views across the languid Mekong from just about everywhere in town, not to mention some excellent escapes just outside of town.
The big attractions here still remain traditional. Visitors in the know awaken in the pre-dawn hours to wander down to Chai Khong, the main riverfront street running though town, waiting for the parade of monks who appear out of the early morning fog, walking barefoot and clutching their alms bowls as they make a slow pilgrimage though all the shops and houses, asking for food. Local owners feed their birds, and fishermen in baggy pantaloons make their way onto their longtail boats, their motors disturbing the still Mekong, as they set forth in search of a morning catch.
Bicycles are an excellent way to get around here, and can be rented from several riverfront shops. There is little traffic along the Mekong especially early in the day, and it’s a short pedal out of town to Kaeng Kut Kuu, a set of cascading rapids that also offer some of the river’s best swimming possibilities depending on the season. During the dry season when the river is low, a set of atmospheric local restaurants set up shop in the riverbed, turning out plates of som tam papaya salad, grilled chicken, and bamboo baskets of sticky rice with which to soak it all up. Vendor stalls have fried prawns and coconuts for sale, and one can also arrange boat trips from this point, most of which head upstream to the Hueang River and the gigantic golden Buddha statue, Phra Yai, which towers on a hill above the water.
Back in town, there is now a wide range of accommodation choices. In the old days, I used to always call in at Loogmai Guesthouse, an old shophouse-style colonial place with high ceiling fans and picture postcard Mekong views. Ms. Neng, the owner here, says the house was favored as a retreat from cannon fire some 50 years ago when the Lao rebels were battling government forces and stray shells came across the water.
Loogmai used to cost a pittance but these days, it has been upgraded to more of a boutique residence, as have many of the guesthouses in town. The Old Chiang Khan Boutique Hotel (www.theoldchiangkhan.com) is also atmospheric, with a fine teak wood exterior and homey rooms, some of which overlook the river. Rooms can be had here for less than THB 2000 a night, and if you want something more inexpensive, just head off the river road to find some more simple guesthouses that don’t have a view to charge for.
The Tai Dam ethnic minorities are another reason to make a beeline for Chiang Khan, especially if you are in the market for textiles. The Tai Dam come from the highlands of northern Vietnam, and are renowned as weavers. They have settled in Loei from the early 1900s. They turn out some gorgeous quilts, tablecloths, and scarves, among other products, and have several small workshops in town.
While the town has changed, with some locals lamenting that it won’t be long before Chiang Khan goes the way of Pai–its artsy small town mountain equivalent to the west–the landscape still remains the same. The Mekong saunters lazily by, the sunsets over Laos are incredible as ever, and come evening time, once the tour buses have left, especially on weekdays, Chiang Khan remains a tranquil and blissfully subdued slice of Isan, certainly far less visited on the farang travel circuit than most of the fabled Mekong River haunts.