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 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.