Chiang Rai, Chiang Khong, and the Magical River Journey to Laos
“Let’s walk down to the river! It’s so close,” Mike said.
“Okay, sure,” I replied. “Why not?”
So began the night we almost got attacked by a gang of cats. Yes, you read that right–a gang of CATS.
We had just finished dinner at a roti restaurant when our fateful stroll began. Full of delicious roti and maybe a bit emboldened by the fact that we’d survived six weeks in Asia without major incident, we headed off down a windy pitch black street towards the Kok River.
Suddenly, up ahead, the ear-piercing screeches of multiple cats broke the nighttime silence. We froze in our tracks. Those were definitely cats–and it sounded like they were murdering each other. We had stumbled upon a neighborhood cat fight.
In the split second we were debating what to do, a huge, menacing orange fur ball darted around the corner, his outline visible in the alley’s one weak streetlight. The cat made eye contact with us and started rushing towards us.
“RUN!” Mike shouted.
We dashed back to the main road as fast as our roti-filled stomachs could carry us, Mike yelling about not wanting to get rabies (the one freakin’ vaccination we declined at the travel clinic over the summer). When we reached the safety of the main street and realized fluffy the demon and his cronies hadn’t followed us, we paused and burst out laughing. Had we really just run away from a roving pack of CATS?
So went our first night in Chiang Rai!
When our bus from Chiang Mai rumbled into Chiang Rai one dusty afternoon (yes, the towns have the same name save for one letter), we were struck by the latter’s small size. Chiang Mai is a city, while Chiang Rai is most certainly a town. Although there is a modest tourist scene (mainly due to Chiang Rai’s famous Wat Rong Khun, or White Temple, one of the most recognizable landmarks in Thailand), Chiang Rai is a sleepy little city that most tourists skip. We decided to go since we were heading north anyways to catch the slow boat down the Mekong River from Thailand to Laos. It was right on the way and had some cool-looking sights, so why not?
Aside from the near-miss cat gang attack, we were charmed by Chiang Rai. We did visit its celebrated White Temple, which was built by a Thai artist in the 1990s. It’s a futuristic-looking place that’s a cross between a Buddhist temple and a modern art installation. (We weren’t permitted to take photos inside, but there are images painted on the walls of cultural icons like Michael Jackson).
We also went to Chiang Rai’s much smaller, but equally fascinating, Blue Temple. The ceilings and walls were decorated in ornate designs, all painted brilliant shades of blue. Out of all the temples we visited in Thailand, this one was my favorite–the design of the entire building just pulled me in. I couldn’t stop staring.
We took advantage of public transportation, including riding a songthaew (a shared taxi truck where the bed has been converted into seating). The songthaew that pulled up to the bus stop was completely full, but that didn’t deter the driver from wedging us in. He eagerly waved Mike onto the only “seat” left, a precarious metal ledge hanging off the back. Sensing my hesitation to place nothing between myself and the asphalt but a metal rod, he gestured for his wife in the passenger seat of the cab to move over and allow me to join her. She smiled and patted the seat next to her. (The people of Thailand are awesome). I plopped in and off we went.
In the food department, Chiang Rai was the site of Mike’s favorite lunch in all of Thailand–nam ngiaw, a tangy tomato paste stew with dry roasted chilies and cubes of congealed beef blood. (Yes, I ate it too. It was great, but nothing beats khao soi for me!)
The day before our river journey to Laos, we hopped on a local bus from Chiang Rai to the even smaller town of Chiang Khong. Chiang Khong is located in the far north of Thailand along the border with Laos, and was the spot we would set off from on the two day slow boat trip to Luang Prabang.
The bus ride was way more fun than we anticipated. The rice fields and mountains we passed were gorgeous, and the journey was made even more memorable by the stops we made in little villages to pick up and drop off passengers and packages. Apparently local buses in Thailand serve as a postal system of sorts, so the back of the bus was packed with items that we delivered along the way (including a bundle of truck shocks that we took to an auto shop).
Upon arrival in Chiang Khong, we checked into our riverside hotel then biked downtown in search of a meal. The restaurant we had been hoping to eat at was closed, but some helpful locals sitting at a bar across the street informed us it would open in an hour. We headed over to the bar to join them to pass the time. After introducing ourselves and being greeted with friendly questions (Where were we from? How many nights were we staying? Were we taking the slow boat to Luang Prabang?) we discussed everything from the best motorbike trips in Thailand to the trains the Chinese are building in Laos (the first mass transit system the undeveloped country will see).
It wasn’t until we were getting ready to settle up close to two hours later that we realized the man sitting next to us was the owner of our river cruise company! He insisted on paying for our drinks, smiled and told us he’d see us in the morning. And it turned out the owner of the restaurant across the street was none other than the man who’d initially called to us from the bar. We meandered over to his restaurant for dinner and ate some of the most fresh and flavorful Mexican food of our lives (Mexican cuisine in Thailand may sound odd, but there’s so many crossovers with ingredients in Thai food–cilantro, chilis, and peppers–that when you think about it, it’s really not strange at all). Though Chiang Khong is a tiny hamlet with only one main street, we loved it there and would have stayed longer if we could.
The morning of the cruise dawned chilly and misty, with a light fog hanging over the Laotian side of the river. Watching the sun slowly rise over the Mekong was spectacular. Our cruise director picked us up first thing as promised, introduced us to our guide, Saipon, and escorted our group to the Thailand-Laos border. After stamping out of Thailand and getting our Lao visas, we were off! As we headed to the river port, everyone shared a laugh when we encountered the most confusing traffic circle we’d ever seen–the spot where the left-side driving Thais and the right-side driving Laos meet in one spot on the border. Let’s just say it was utter chaos (but pretty entertaining).
When our group (which consisted of five other Americans and three Belgians, who we became fast friends with) boarded the river boat, we were instantly in awe. The boat was a long wooden “slow boat” operated by a Lao couple and their grandson. Slow boat cruises are a common way to get from Thailand to the UNESCO World Heritage city of Luang Prabang, Laos, our next destination. We lucked out–on our boat built for forty, there were only ten passengers! The boat had multiple tables and lounge areas, giving us all room to spread out and find a little corner to read, nap, or just watch the scenery go by.
The two day journey ended up being a highlight of our entire trip so far. Being surrounded by natural scenery for 48 hours straight put everyone in a languid, meditative state. We passed verdant green mountains, fishermen in canoes, and water buffalo bathing along the shore. We stopped in two rural villages, including one that sold beautiful handmade textiles, as well as Laos’ famous Pak Ou Caves, the site of thousands of Buddha images left behind by religious pilgrims since the 14th century. We marveled at the “fast boats” that sped by us (the alternative to the slow boat, the fast boat will take you from Chiang Khong to Luang Prabang in one day instead of two). Fast boats are notoriously dangerous; they crash so frequently that the captains (and many passengers) wear helmets for the whole ride. No thanks!
Even our overnight stop in the tiny town of Pak Beng was memorable. Saipon, our guide, took us to the local market (Mike and I tried chicken feet for the first time–they tasted, well, like chicken, but they had a strange consistency). We then joined Saipon and our fellow travelers for a hearty dinner of water buffalo larb (a combination of minced meat, chili flakes, lime juice, and herbs) and rounds of Beer Lao. Mike noticed the first sign that we weren’t in Thailand anymore when he saw a chicken running down the stairs of someone’s house through their open front door. Laos, we realized, was going to be a different experience. It’s one of the least developed and impoverished countries in the world, but it’s also known for being full of beautiful, unspoiled mountains and welcoming people.
After dark, we sat on the balcony of our riverside lodge, gazing up at countless stars and watching the lights of the slow boats in the harbor below slowly go out. A man came to check on the pigs and chickens penned on the hill next to our room, rustling the leaves of the nearby banana trees as he fed them their evening meal. Classic rock music from a bar up the road drifted down towards us. It was official: Asia had ruined us. As Anthony Bourdain said, coming to Asia for the first time is like discovering a world in color you never knew existed, casting what you knew before in black and white. That sentiment couldn’t have rang more true than that night in Pak Beng.
Until next time, la kon from Laos!