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Published: June 17th 2020
Friends for a meal are easy to find, friends until the end of life are difficult to find… ~ Thai Proverb
Today we were travelling northeast from Chiang Mai to Chiang Khong
(via Chiang Rai).
We were awake at 5:30am. We had an early start to Chiang Khong, and we had to organise our packs and pick up some breakfast beforehand. I headed out to a nearby 7-Eleven store to pick up some banana muffins and Thai milk tea, as it was too early to settle at a café. It was enough to get us started for the day. We checked out of the People Place Hotel (our accommodation for the past two nights in Chiang Mai), jumped into a minibus and sped off towards Chiang Rai at 8am sharp.
It didn’t take long to clear the suburban outskirts of Chiang Mai. We were soon travelling through rural Thailand, with thick forest vegetation scarred by the country’s ubiquitous roadworks. It was sad to see small villages disrupted by the unavoidable upheaval that always accompanies progress. I know transport infrastructure is necessary, but it must be hard when a highway cuts close to your home. When you suddenly find your front door opens onto bitumen and traffic. When only a few weeks earlier you lived in a quiet
rural village with narrow paths leading to nearby streams.
I’d feel an immense sense of loss if excavators started carving the earth into smooth road surfaces around our house, and I couldn’t help but wonder if a foreign power was funding the roadworks we were travelling through. However, I knew in the back of my mind that this highway will benefit tourists wanting to travel from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai in relative comfort, so they could type their travel notes in peace without too many bumps. People like me!
We passed small villages with basic wooden huts and tiered agricultural fields, where water buffalo stood silently and stared at the passing traffic, with small birds perched on their backs. I’m pretty sure they too lamented the roadworks. At one stage I saw an old lady from one of the villages trying to cross the freshly carved earthen road with the aid of a walking stick, and an excavator didn’t even bother to slow as it churned past her – the huge blade only missing her ankles by a few metres.
The roadworks petered out as the morning wore on, and we found ourselves on established (albeit
bumpy) bitumen roads. The roadside villages had adapted to the new normal, having set up trinket shops and cafes to service the tourist hordes seeking adventure in Northern Thailand. Large rural centres (old and new) popped up every now and again, and mountains and hills were barely visible on the distant hazy horizon.
Carved wooden furniture shops bordered rice fields, and motor cycle repair shops were everywhere. After a quick toilet stop at an upmarket cashew franchise on the roadside, we continued our north-eastern journey towards Chiang Rai. The roads narrowed, the forests thickened and our minibus struggled up mountainous arteries crowded with cars, buses, trucks and motorbikes.
If there was one constant on this trip, it was the changing landscape. Soon we were travelling on wide dual lane roads through flat agricultural fields, where rice fields predominated and villages were well established.
We pulled into Wat Rong Khon (the White Temple) on our way through Chiang Rai just before midday. From the moment I stepped out of the minibus I disliked the gaudiness and tackiness of the place, but we had committed to this detour, so there was no turning back. I struggled with the pointlessness
of this temple, and I was surprised to see monks in the grounds. There were Disney and Marvel elements scattered everywhere, and the person responsible for this privately owned monstrosity is referred to (and revered) as an artist. I couldn’t help but wonder if the temple was consecrated, and if the Buddha himself would have bothered visiting?
After 30 minutes we’d seen enough, so it was time to escape the crowds and head for the food court. Luckily for us, there was a positive note to our brief stopover in Chiang Rai – the food court food was fabulous. We shared a bowl of khao soi
(chicken and yellow egg noodles in a spicy coconut milk-based soup, served with crispy fried noodles, pickled greens and fresh lime), and it was good. Really good! The woman who served the khao soi
tried to warn me of the dangers of the chilli paste, but I smiled and spooned three generous portions over the soupy broth. My god it was hot! No wonder she kept trying to warn me. After a few chilli-induced coughing fits we managed to finish it, and while it wasn’t quite as good as the khao soi
tried the day before in Chiang Mai, it was pretty close.
Feeling very satisfied, we left the crowded food court and made our way to the minibus. The early afternoon sun was searing, so we sought out shade wherever we could. We left the White Temple around 1pm, and to say I was pleased to leave would be an understatement. I have a lot of time for the Buddhist approach to life and co-existence, but I struggled to find anything that could support a person’s meditative search for enlightenment at Wat Rong Khon. I think the ‘creator’ of the White Temple has simply capitalised on the popularity of temple tourism in Thailand, and turned this tacky white playground into a personal cash cow. I think even Buddha would have struggled to find the true nature of reality
within the temple grounds.
As we continued our north-eastern journey, the flat terrain became noticeably dry and arid. We were travelling on narrow rural roads which slowly wound their way through tiny villages. What once were rice fields were now dry crumbly earth, and every so often limestone outcrops jutted straight into the sky. We began to encounter more and more
roadworks, which slowed our progress considerably. I was really looking forward to our destination on the edge of the Mekong, but we still had a few hours in the minibus before we arrived. Chiang Khong was a new place for us – the first on this trip – and everything from this point onwards was a new adventure. We were excited!
A little further on we encountered well-irrigated rice fields, so I can only assume the dry arid fields I’d seen previously had been let go. The narrow rural roads eventually opened onto wide dual lane highways, and we sped towards Chiang Khong as if our life depended on it! The land was now very flat, and the occasional rice-field stood out against the prevailing parched brown earth.
We arrived in Chiang Khong in the mid-afternoon and headed straight to our guesthouse. The place was right on the Mekong, and the sight of the river was quite welcoming. We had been really looking forward to this part of the trip, and we were finally here.
We piled out of the minibus, dropped our packs in our large and comfortable room (which had the most amazing view across
the Mekong to Laos) and set off to discover Chiang Khong – a remote river village on one of the northernmost points of Thailand. The streets were relatively empty, and it wasn’t long before we found ourselves wandering the grounds of a small temple located just above the river bank. An old monk was standing at an elaborate concrete fence and looking over the river. He barely moved the whole time we were there, and he seemed to be in some type of trance. It was as if something across the Mekong had hypnotised him and caught him in its spell. When he realised we were in the temple grounds, he turned, smiled and said hello. I felt slightly guilty for interrupting his thoughts. When we returned later in the afternoon, he was still there, staring across the river…
We were embarking on a two-day wooden slow boat adventure down the Mekong the next morning, so we needed supplies. You can count on finding a 7-Eleven store anywhere in Thailand (even in the most remote parts of the country), and Chiang Khong was no exception. After stocking up on biscuits and chips, we headed out to Rim Nam House
for dinner, which was just along from our guesthouse. Like most places in Chiang Khong, it was set just above the river bank, and the view from the open dining area across the Mekong was incredibly atmospheric.
After refreshing with a large Chang beer, I ordered spicy stir-fried seafood with holy basil and chilli, while Ren ordered a chicken stir fry with onion and chilli. The meals were extraordinary. My dish was smoky, spicy and full of flavour, and Ren’s was also very tasty (although it didn’t quite have the same level of spice as mine). It was an amazing dining experience, and one we weren’t expecting in such a remote location.
By pure chance, the meal exhausted our very last baht. We were crossing to Laos early the next day, and we had no further need of Thai currency. It saved us having to exchange the surplus currency at the border, or having to take it back to Australia where it would be pushed to the back of my desk drawer, waiting patiently for our next trip to (or through) Thailand.
We made our way back to the hotel, and after freshening up with a very
welcome shower, we settled in and caught up on our travel notes. I sat at a small wooden table on our room’s amazing balcony, soaking in the late night air as I quietly tapped away on my laptop. I could hear voices from Laos drifting across the Mekong – there was laughing, singing and general joviality, which seemed a little odd for a Sunday night. It felt strange to be so close to another country, watching car headlights moving along roads, and hearing signs of life emanating from dimly lit houses.
At one stage a recording of the Last Post drifted across the river. I wondered why someone in Laos would play such an emotive piece of music, so entrenched as it is in war history. Maybe it was on a radio playlist, or maybe it was being played for another reason altogether. It didn’t take long before the tuneless voice of a karaoke-loving Laotian drowned out the mournful bugle. I discovered later that it was a long weekend in Laos to celebrate the creation of the independent Lao Armed Forces on 20 January 1949, which was a key step in the country’s independence from France.
long travel day, where we had spent five and half hours on bumpy roads from Chiang Mai to Chiang Khong (and endured one and a half hours at a gaudy white castle in Chiang Rai), it was time for bed. We were crossing into Laos early in the morning, and we needed to be rested for our two days on the Mekong. SHE SAID...
We woke at 5:30am. It was going to be a long travel day from Chiang Mai to Chiang Khong
on the Laos border. It was way too early to have a big hotel breakfast, so we had a very light start with banana muffins and Thai tea flavoured soy milk from the 7-Eleven. We would be stopping in Chiang Rai to visit the White Temple and have lunch soon enough.
As much as we’d enjoyed being back in Bangkok and Chiang Mai, today marked the beginning of the ‘brand new’ part of our trip. To say we were happy would be an understatement – we were thrilled and excited beyond measure! 😊
We loaded our bags into two minibuses and left at 8am. It was luxurious having only five people in
a nine seater minibus. It didn’t take long to get out of the morning traffic in Chiang Mai and start seeing rural plots of land. However, we hit road works almost immediately. The road had been dug up for widening, so we drove for almost two hours on bouncy dirt roads. The scenery turned from farmland to coconut trees, and large teak and mahogany trees. I fell asleep quite soon and woke to forested land with gigantic bamboo forests that had been cleared in places for banana, mango and corn farms. Villages comprising tiny cement buildings with tin roofs hugged the roadside. The traditional villages with wooden huts and tiled roofs were few and far between.
We had a toilet stop at 10am at a massive roadside shop that specialised in nuts and chips (crisps) of all sorts. I was rather surprised that we didn’t buy a truckload of chips as we usually do, but none of the tastings appealed and they seemed much too overpriced compared to other shops. Plus, we were rather distracted by a cute kitten Christina had found in the carpark. We’d recently passed a small town that had open hot springs on the side
of the road, and I wish we’d stopped there so we could’ve supported the small village shops rather than big chain stores.
After a police checkpoint we continued driving on a sealed road, but it was just as bouncy as the dirt road had been! The landscape started changing to rice paddies on either side of the road, but they were in-between their two planting seasons, so the fields were a sea of brown stalks from the last harvest.
We finally reached Chiang Rai, and stopped at the Wat Rong Khun (White Temple). I’d read mixed reviews of the temple over the years, but we decided that we had to see it for ourselves. The massive traffic jam caused by the many large buses in the car park should have warned us that this wasn’t going to be a pleasant experience. The temple is the creation of visual artist and painter Chalermchai Kositpipat, whose plans for the complex are apparently so grand that they won’t be finished in his lifetime. From afar, the white and silver architecture against green lawns had a striking element to it, but on closer inspection, it was really quite tacky and hideous.
We walked over an entry bridge that hung over a sea of plaster cast hands that were ‘reaching out from the underworld’. Given the bizarre entrance and almost-theatrical feel to the place (not to mention the artistic references to superheros and spaceships), I was quite surprised to see that there was an actual prayer room and Buddha statue in the centre of the main building. There were a couple of people praying, but to me the whole place was devoid of any spirituality and was quite soulless. We walked through the complex, but didn’t linger.
I kept thinking of a couple of glowing reviews that had likened this work to Antoni Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia in Barcelona…!?!?! I’m not sure how anyone could draw that parallel. This is probably the weirdest tourist site we’ve been to so far. The best thing I can say about this place is that it looks like a stage set designed by high school students for an off-beat gothic play. Maybe we should have heeded the negative reviews… although I think the reality was actually much tackier and gaudier than the worst reviews had suggested. 😒
Quite disheartened by the whole thing, we wandered
off to look for lunch. We walked to the food court across the road from the temple and ordered khao soi
(chicken and yellow egg noodles in a spicy coconut milk-based soup, served with crispy fried noodles, pickled greens and fresh lime) from the many dishes available. I was truly astonished at how delicious the meal was (in spite of Andrew being quite heavy handed with the smoky chilli oil!). It was restaurant quality food from a small food court in what was essentially a tourist trap. They could have charged exorbitant prices, but the prices were very reasonable.
We left the White Temple and arrived in Chiang Khong just over two hours later. I can’t say much about the trip as I slept solidly for the entire journey, and only woke when we pulled into the carpark of our guesthouse.
The serene Baan Rim Naam Guest House sat right on the Mekong, and on the opposite bank of the narrow river sat Laos! Our room was on the river side and had a lovely balcony with a picturesque view. It was so weird that we could see across to another country while we lay in bed! 😊
The afternoon was still rather hot, but Andrew and I couldn’t wait to explore the streets around our guesthouse. We would be leaving quite early the next morning, so we wanted to make the most of our time here. It felt like we were the only tourists in this part of town. We walked along small back streets, passing traditional wooden houses on stilts, and smaller houses with shops in their front rooms. There seemed to be a few cats around, and most seemed to have a Siamese breed look to them. One very friendly white cat lounging on the counter of a shop meowed at us as we walked past, and that was all the invitation I needed to go over and give it a lot of love! 😄
Our efforts to walk along the riverfront were hindered by the construction taking place (apparently a new boulevard was being built, but it looked more like new guesthouses to me). So we decided to walk down to the concrete pier and check out the boats… hoping that our boat into Laos was in better condition that these ones!
We then walked uphill to the local temple –
Wat Luang. It was deserted apart from a monk who seemed to be fascinated by something happening on the river, and a friendly black dog sunning himself on the astroturf (artificial grass). Despite being heavily gilded, I liked the temple buildings… and I especially liked the religious artwork on the wooden ceilings. But I think I mostly liked the temple because of its ambiance – it was nice to absorb it all in peace and quiet. I spent some time playing with the black dog I named Rex. He loved the attention and got very excited, but was also somewhat confused by our interaction… he was clearly well taken care of and he adored the monk, but being loved and played with probably wasn’t a regular part of his life. It wasn’t until later that I wondered if it had been rude that we gave all our attention to Rex and basically ignored the monk!
We kept walking until we got to the main street. The dusty town wasn’t a beauty by any means, but I still really liked it. We found a 7-Eleven and stocked up on chips and biscuits for the boat trip the next day. We
returned to the guesthouse to sit on the balcony and watch life on the river. The construction trucks just below us were noisy and unsightly in comparison to the tranquillity of river life… fishermen throwing nets out of their small boats, women picking vegetables from healthy looking garden beds right on the river bank, and others attending to rows of big blue drums which apparently held mung beans that were sprouting. I had never realised this was how bean sprouts were sprouted!
As the day started cooling down, we joined the group for a walking tour. It ended up being essentially the same walk we’d already done, but dusky light gave a different feel to things. We then walked to dinner at a restaurant that was affiliated with our guesthouse. We sat on an open deck with the lights of Laos twinkling in the growing darkness… it was so calm and relaxing. I ordered stir-fried chicken with onion and chilli, and Andrew had the stir-fried seafood with holy basil and a load of chilli. The food was seriously fabulous, and a fitting last dinner in Thailand.
The group had bonded by now, and it was lovely that everyone
was nice, polite and considerate. Our reliable litmus test of ‘is there anyone that people avoid sitting next to at dinner?’ proved this point. This boded well for the upcoming boat trip, as we’d be in close confines for two days.
We had plans to have a night cap and do some writing on our balcony after dinner, but given how mosquitoes just love me, I decided to play it safe and stay inside. Andrew braved all the bitey flying things and enjoyed the river breeze. It had cooled down to a lovely balmy evening.
We didn’t see much of Chiang Khong, but I warmed to what little we did see of it. It’s a small town that probably wouldn’t see many tourists if it wasn’t a border crossing point via the relatively new Friendship Bridge. This was only the second time we’d be crossing a country border over a river, but the previous one (from Romania into Bulgaria) had been by train, so I was eagerly anticipating the bus and boat crossing we were about to embark on.
Next we cross into Laos and catch a slow boat southeast on the Mekong River.
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