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Published: November 17th 2006
Looking across the Mekong River to the border town of Huay Xai in Laos.
© L. Birch 2006
Drifting in and out of sleep. Light from outside the room catching on the mosquito net. A guitar being played nearby, a Thai-accented voice singing the words to a John Lennon song - "Don't Let me Down." In Southeast Asia, it was sometimes hard to discern the difference between the waking moment and the dream. So many sights, sounds, smells and tastes. Colour and experiences beyond your wildest dreams.... or nightmares. Was I dreaming and where were we? How many times would we ask ourselves those questions during the course of our trip?
We were still in Thailand of course, but only just and stood on the brink of entering a new country. That day, we had arrived in Chiang Khong in Thailand's northeast corner. After finding somewhere to stay we wandered out to the edge of town and stood on the banks of the Mekong River, looking across to the border town of Huay Xai in Laos (pronounce it "Way Sigh" and you won't be far wrong).
Most travellers passed straight through without stopping in Chiang Khong but the town had a pleasant feel and we decided to sit still for a few days and enjoy it. To
The dusty mountain village that acted as our base for exploring Tham Lod.
© L. Birch 2006
stand watching boat traffic and the swirling waters of the Mekong or look across to Laos and wonder what it was like over there, relishing the moment when we would cross over and find out - was all part of Chiang Khong's attraction.
Six days earlier we had left Mae Hong Son in the west and begun the journey eastward. There had been a stop in the tiny one-street town of Soppong where we had stayed at the aptly named "Jungle Guesthouse". Ants, geckos and mosquitos were our constant companions along with the owner's pet mynah birds that chimed out with a cheery "Morning" or "S'waddy Tao" everytime you walked past their bamboo cages.
Soppong became our temporary base while we explored the cave system of nearby Tham Lod. Over the centuries, the Nam Lang River had carved out a series of caves that extended over a kilometre into the mountains. The local mountains were riddled with such caves but Tham Lot was the largest and most well known. The caves are not lit so when you arrive, you need to hire the services of a "Lantern Man" who leads the way brandishing a tilley lamp. At the
Like these - at the entrance to Tham Lod - are used to ferry visitors into the caves.
© V. Birch 2006
cave mouth, you are ferried into the main cavern on a bamboo raft where you can then disembark to explore smaller side caves. Progressing deeper into the sweaty chambers near the roof, the glow from the lantern reveals cathedral-like halls where huge stalagmite formations rear up toward the ceiling. Turn out the lantern and the darkness is absolute - the only sounds, the twittering of bats and cave swifts up in the roof of the cave.
A day later, we embarked on a crazy two-day dash across country that started on a cold, misty morning in Soppong. By 7.30am we were at the roadside and managed to hitch a lift in a pick-up truck to Pai, 50km to the east. Piling into the back, we had to pull on extra clothes as the truck began the ascent through low cloud up into the mountains. Though cold, we were soon climbing into sunshine as we left the misty valleys behind - a stunning vista of wild mountains opening up before us. It was a glorious morning full of the smells of the countryside with trees - covered in epiphytes - arching across the road above our heads. Shortly before Pai,
"Look Like Crokalai"
Our guide points out a rock formation that looks like a crocodile.
© V. Birch 2006
we stopped to pick up another group of hitch hikers - five tribal women on their way to market. We made room for them as they clamboured aboard - chattering with amusement at having to share the back of a pick-up with two foreigners. Dressed in brightly coloured tribal clothes, an older woman flashed a frightening smile as she took her seat - her lips, gums and teeth stained a crimson red. Had I not seen this before, I might have thought that the locals had some dark Transylvanian-style secret but the stains are actually the result of betel chewing. Betel is the mildly narcotic nut of a palm and the "crimson smile" is characteristic of the habitual chewer.
From Pai, two days of travel on bone-rattling local buses finally brought us to Chiang Khong, where we sat dreamily contemplating the Mekong and our next move for a couple of days. Not such a difficult thing to do considering that our guesthouse looked out over the muddy waters of the Mekong and Laos beyond. Rising in the foothills of the Himalayas, the Mekong passes through China, Laos, Thailand and Cambodia before emptying into the South China Sea in Vietnam.
Boats moored on the Thai side of the Mekong River, Chiang Khong.
© L. Birch 2006
It was our plan to follow it for some of the way... eventually. But no matter how good it was to simply enjoy the river and the moment, it really was time to get going again. On the other side of the mighty Mekong, a new country and all its attendant delights - waited to be explored.
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