Waking up at 3.30am to catch an early morning flight is never ideal, unless, of course, you’re flying to Loei to spend a few days in the arms of Chiang Khan, which is ideal. Tucked up in the corner of North East Thailand, sitting on the river banks of the Mekong River, Chiang Khan is a village rooted in the wanderings of different peoples with different stories. The first were the people from the other side of the river, the Laotians, who were then fleeing their own country due to French colonial rule. Bloody Imperialists. After that migrants from China & Vietnam came to trade as well as settle in what became a bustling little town on the river. Luckily for me, my story to Chiang Khan doesn’t involve evading Imperial conquest or looking for a new line work. Rather it was a simple tale of a simple long weekend. Casual. Traveling there came in two parts. The first involved a direct flight from Bangkok to Loei, which took around just under one hour. Just enough time then for a quick snooze, cup of tea and biscuit. The second part involved a car and friends. Yes, this time around I would be riding with friends, who, as luck would have it, had pretty much organized everything from the transport to the homestay and to our extra curricular activities. Excellent. Nothing better than being a backseat easy-riding tourist.
From Loei airport we drove on down the ever wide and ever long and long Route 201 to Chiang Khan. Trucks, cars and lorries all whizzed by. Different speeds. Different loads. Different destinations. I stared out of the window, looking on as paddy fields after paddy fields bristled by bright and green; each quarter sitting flat and wet. Seasonal. Beyond and in the distance the hills laid low and quiet. Calm. After a couple of hours on the road we finally arrived at our destination, Chiang Khan. Stepping out of the car the first thing I noticed was the air. In Bangkok, you see, the humidity tends to mix with the pollution in a way that it makes you feel like you’re walking around with your head stuck in a gold fish bowl stuffed full of old socks. Displeasing. Here, however, you are able to actually breathe the air rather than choke on it. Satisfactory. Stepping inside the homestay the first thing I noticed was the stone decking. That feeling. The relaxing cool soothing feel through your socks. Bless. And then there was the wood. Heaven. Grabbing the banister and walking up the staircases and along the landing to those classic creaky wooden sounds. Wonderful. Also, you learned what a building built with hands, rather than machines, feels like. Warm.
In recent years Chiang Khan has become a rather popular tourist destination, but, so far, it seems, it has yet to have an unsavory effect on the place. In other parts of Thailand, I think it is fair to say that tourism has become a touch attritional. Both host and visitor carry scars. Defensive. But here it feels different. Here, they trade more than just a room, a beer or a t shirt. They share a moment, a word or hand. And the tourists who come here seem more mindful of where there are. And so they should. Chiang Khan walks, talks & moves gently. Never pushy. Always affable. Mellow. The architecture, too, is gentle. Easy on the eye. Wooden homes follow wooden homes. They sit side by side, like a pair of old musicians playing that tune just one more time. Symmetry. Also, lined up along the streets are the classic plastic tables and chairs, which spell street food. Here the local delicacy is a noodle dish — ก๋วยจั๊บ — a cultural reminder of the Chinese. It’s a wonderful bowl of thick soft noodles with classic meat balls, cuts of pork, liver and egg. All swimming in a lovely broth of bone marrow. Lovely.
Now, Chiang Khan’s softly softly gentle feel is captured in a somewhat nostalgic symbol — the bicycle — and not the hipster one gear bicycles. Rather the old gangly 1930s French bicycles with the wide handlebars and paper basket on the front. While rather romantic in notion, they are far from romantic to ride, and like your drunken spouse, not so easy to control. You always feel that at any moment you’re about to lose control and career off and smash into a food stand. Or, worse, someone else is about to do likewise and plough into you. Playing safe, I turned right, off walking street, in between two houses and onto the broad-walk where the horizon opened up, revealing one of the most famous mothers of all rivers, The Mekong. This huge expansive free flowing of water twists & turns all the way from China to Myanmar to Laos to Thailand, Cambodia & Vietnam. For this tiny village, it’s local economy is dependent on it. However, due to declining fish numbers, the local fishermen and their longboats are nowadays just as likely to be out and about carrying tourists as they are catching fish. Sigh.
Stepping off the bike my plan was to take a moment to take in the wonderful scenery, but, instead, I spent around ten minutes trying to unravel the mystery of how to unlock the rear wheel bicycle stand on these things — without kicking it into oblivion. Frustrating. Finally, when all was done & dusted — and upright & stationary — I was able to take in the sunset. Fabulous. Watching the colours of the sky, the river, the hills, the trees, the roosters, the clouds, the monks and the fishermen, as they slowly slipped and dipped away beyond and into the horizon. Wonderful. However, it wouldn’t be long until I’d be seeing little miss sunshine again. Tomorrow morning, in fact, at 5 o’clock. Christ. Another early morning rise, but this time, for an early morning sunrise, which my friend guaranteed me would be worth it. Naturally, I was skeptical. Thankfully, she was right. The hilltop we made our way to that morning was called Phu Tuk. It was just a short drive outside Chiang Khan. And it truly was an incredible way to watch the world turn. Ahead of you rested a veil of o’buttermilk sky. Serene. The jagged mountains, which emerged beyond a canopy of feathery fluff, looked cut and pinned to the horizon. Then rising from behind it all, our golden star. Curtsying, a flamboyant ever-shifting oceanic kaleidoscope of colour unravelled, where each and every second blushed with the majestic tint & tinge of emotion in motion. Spell binding. And it was something, I can guarantee you, that you certainly wouldn’t have been able to experience if your head was stuck inside a gold fish bowl stuffed full of old socks.