Nostalgia in Northern Thailand

The tiny town of Chiang Khan is built along the Mekong River in northern Thailand, facing Laos on the other side. In the last few years, the city has embraced its heritage: all the old teak shops are now being restored, with financial encouragement from the Thai government.

During the week, the town is quiet. Come Friday night, Thai tourists arrive from Bangkok hoping to stay in a restored teak hotel along the river or sip tea amidst a sea of retro antiques. It is this sense of nostalgia for the past and loss of old Thailand that draws them here.

View from a restored tea house. Drinks along the mighty Mekong river.
Another beautifully restored hotel.
Streetscape, Chiang Khan
Streetscape, Chiang Khan

More about Chiang Khan from a previous post.

The Road to Indigo

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Fabric speaks to me. I collect it, stash it, feel it. Antique European linens, worn Irish cloth, functional and timeless, faded Ikat from Java, Sumatra and Flores, woven wall hangings from Myanmar, mid-century Japanese Kimono sprinkled with shibori, or little fabric offcuts featuring sacred cranes, plush velvet Italian betrothal bedspreads, alive with colour and kitsch cherubin, or hand worked pillow cases and curtains from the antique market in Arezzo in Italy, embroidered table cloths, ancient filet crochet edging with worked in stories, words or historical events, crocheted jug covers featuring Dolly-Varden shells and beaded weights, Indian silk saris and long dupatta scarves, visiting every floor of a Sari shop in India: fabric hunting is a central part of my journey. It is often the history of women’s work, or a window into a culture, or one that is about to become obsolete, that appeals so much.

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Hand dyed indigo fabric is a recent addition to my textile addiction. I discovered some wonderful indigo fabrics at the Chatuchak ( Cha-Cha) Market in Bangkok in 2013. The following year, I toured an indigo factory in Dali, on the banks of Erhai Lake, Yunnan, China. And this year, I found another small producer of hand died indigo clothing on the banks of the Mekong River, in Chiang Khan, Thailand, as well as some lovely long lengths of deep indigo died linen in the back streets of the Warorot market, in Chiang Mai.

My next step is to learn this ancient art and dye my own cloth. I envisage drifts of indigo muslin, irregular in colour, floating in the summer breeze.Thanks Ailsa for this week’s travel theme, Fabric, at Where’s My Backpack. If I dug out all the representatives of my fabric collection, this post might fill a book.

The Town that Turned Retro

The main thing you will notice when strolling down the main street of the small village of Chiang Khan, Northern Thailand, is that the town has turned retro! The street running parallel to the Mekong River, is lined with teak buildings that have been beautifully restored, and most of these – shops, guest houses, restaurants and tea houses- proudly display an eclectic collection of retro decor. The era is mostly 60s and totally kitsch. Open any of the photos below and delight in retro madness.

The municipality won the year 2010 architectural conservation award from Architect Council of Thailand. Since that year, more than 2000 old teak houses and shops along the main road, Thanon Chai Khong and nearby lanes, have been registered with the municipality’s architectural campaign, with over 600 receiving grants to renovate. This, in the era of the uniform concrete block house, is delightful to see. The young and well-heeled from Bangkok swarm here on the weekends, to stay in ‘original’ old houses with matching decor. The young are embracing Thai architectural history they barely remember, the old teak house, which is now missing from big cities.

Original guesthouse facing onto the Mekong river at Chiang Khan, Thailand.
Original guesthouse facing onto the Mekong river at Chiang Khan, Thailand.

During the day, the town is sleepy, with only a few restaurants and coffee houses open for business. In the late afternoon, the main street transforms into a walking market, although the number of stalls vastly increases on Friday and Saturday nights when the young city folk arrive in mini buses from down south.

The other welcome feature is that the main street and series of  20 or so perpendicular lanes, are devoid of through traffic. Here the bicycle rules and has become the town logo.

You won’t find backpacker travellers here or westernised food, no pancakes or pizzas, and very little spoken English. If you go, take your Thai phrase book. There are a couple of great restaurants in town that do offer a menu in English, the best being Faikam, which does wonderful versions of most Thai favourites. The average cost for a double room, with aircon and bathroom, facing the Mekong River starts at around 600 Baht per night ( AU $24.00).

How to get there. Fly into Loei, with Air Asia, from various big cities in Thailand, then take a mini van from the airport to Chiang Khan. Or, go, as we did, along the Mekong river by car, from Nong Khai to Chiang Khan, one of the great road trips of Asia.

Chiang Khan or Inner city Melbourne?
Chiang Khan or Inner city Melbourne?

From Every Angle

This strange little be-spectacled statue stands at the altar of Wat Tha Khaek, in Chiang Khan, Thailand. Note the fair skin, blue eyes and doll-like features.

This forms part of the photographic challenge offered by The Daily Post this week, From Every Angle. I enjoyed going for a walk to capture this bizarre little trio.

The Mekong and its Ancient Lands.

The Mekong river flows steadily below my veranda, muddy and expansive, treacherous and mesmerizing.  In the warm mists of early morning, a lone fisherman balances on the deck of his long tailed boat, a giant rod held horizontally as nets are cast. He drifts with the fast moving current. 

Morning view of Laos, from Chiang Khan, Thailand.
Morning view across the Mekong to Laos. Chiang Khan, Thailand

The day opens gently in Chiang Khan: the oppressive heat of the afternoon is a distant thought. In the teak guest house next door, the sounds of Thai opera waft across the deck, and a man lounging on a daybed sings along. We are close to a Wat: the early morning prayer and response is suitably soporific. Over the way lies Laos, so close and yet, at this point in the river, so different from Thailand. The village on the opposite bank is enclosed by dense jungle and hills: shanty villages with early morning cooking smoke rising above the trees, and the familiar pointed roof of a Wat just visible in the distance.

Thailand to Laos. view from Chang Khan.
Thailand to Laos. view from Chang Khan.

At this point, crossings to Laos are not possible: there are few signs that the locals bother either, although locals with border passes may do so. International tourists require a visa: from this part of Northern Thailand, obtainable at Nong Khai to Vientiane or further west at Chong Mek to Vang Tao.

I have always yearned to take the great travel adventure of a lifetime, travelling on all forms of river transport down the length of the mighty Mekong through five countries, but I suspect that time has run out.

The busy port at Nong Khai: goods are loaded for a river crossing into Laos.
The busy port at Nong Khai: goods are loaded for a river crossing into Laos.

Ten years ago we spent time on the Mekong in Luang Prabang, one of the finest spots in Laos, and then travelled by long tailed boat for two days up the Nam Ou river, a tributary of the Mekong, then stayed for a week in the village of Mung Ngoi in simple bamboo huts by the river. I hear that life is still the same in that lush, tropical valley, where young men travel up stream in the dark, watching for the glow of tiger eyes along the banks.

Sunset on the Mekong from Nong Khai
Mekong Sunset, Nong Khai to Laos.

On that journey, we also caught up with the Mekong at Phnom Penh in Cambodia, a town that has changed for the better over the last ten years. My photos of this era have sadly been lost.

A place to write beside the Mekong.
A place to write beside the Mekong.

If I had ‘world enough and time’, I would chase that Mekong river from its source in Tibet, down through five countries, to its wide delta in Vietnam, but I doubt that this will happen; I am content with the river running by me now.