Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Chiang Khan - Town that Time Remembered

Regular contributor John Borthwick goes in search of a forgotten Mekong port.

I awake to a hullaballoo of gossip and chanting monks in the street outside. It could all be 100 years ago but it’s not. Chiang Khan, an old Mekong River port in Loei province is a town that time remembered. At 580km north of Bangkok, Chiang Khan’s glory days — if any — hark way back to times of rubber and opium smuggling, and cross-river spats with colonial French or Lao communists.

Until recently Chiang Khan’s riverfront road, Chai Khong and its century-old teak shophouses were slipping into a picturesque decrepitude. It’s hard to get facts about Chiang Khan, other than it has several old Buddhist temples, the population is about 10,000 people and the place celebrated its centenary in 2009.

The sleepy main street

Chiang Khan has boomed in the past few years, having been well and truly “discovered” by urban Thais (although not much by foreigners), many drawn nostalgically to a past that they never had: Buddhist monks receiving alms and sticky rice at dawn, and rambling family homes made of ancient teak on streets of almost no vehicles.

Monks in Chiang Khan

What visitors don’t come here for is banana boat rides, go-go bars and day spas. Instead, I have a simple choice of bicycle or motorcycle hire, Buddhist wats, foot massage, drink by the river, eat by the river and a few more wats. Or coffee. On the trendy Soi Nine side-street off Chai Khong, two escapees from Bangkok, wife and husband team Em and Arm, tell me how they visited Chiang Khan, “fell in love” with the place, bought a run-down shophouse and transformed it into the "See I 249" coffee and music shop.

Farther along Chai Khong I drink at the Ganga Guesthouse, a beautifully restored teak shophouse that bristles with antiques and curios. The proprietors, also ex-Bangkokians, tell a story that might be, as Thais joke, “same-same but different”. However, having settled here just four years ago in their quest for a quiet, creative retirement, they are already considering moving on, due, ironically, to the tourist influx that they were harbingers of.

Chiang Khan stretches languorously along the Mekong shore like a cat on a couch. Sensibly, its citizens long ago constructed a promenade right along the riverbank. This is where you stroll those lavish Mekong sunsets or morning mists.

Rush hour traffic

I hop on my bike and ride through a cool morning, south along to one of Chiang Khan’s main attractions, the Kaeng Khut Ku rapids. I read that “the shiny rocks here are supposed to be very beautiful”. Like me, the writer didn’t actually see the rapids because the river’s flow was too high at that time. No worry. Instead I get birdsong, an old wat, plenty of exercise and the endless Mekong flowing by like time.

Wat in Chiang Khan. Pics: John Borthwick

Getting There: Fly to Loei then it’s a one-hour bus trip north to Chiang Khan.

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