Chiang Khan – the new Luang Prabang
If there was a dictionary entry for “cute” in regard to towns, there would surely be a couple of photos of Chiang Khan filed under it. Over the past 10 years or so some smart investors turned the formerly sleepy Mekong crossroads into a beautifully renovated showcase of traditional Thai small town architecture. It is so perfectly manicured that it has a bit of a doll’s house appeal. It is lovely! Really.
Being so neat and pleasant it automatically makes you think about staying longer. Just to dust off this little bit more from the road-trip you are on, or kick back a liiittle longer in the artsy coffee-shops and riverside restaurants with a breeze. And why not?
For good reasons Chiang Khan has become one of the most popular weekend getaway destinations for Thai city dwellers. “Finally getting away from the stress and the headache”, sighs a woman from Khon Kaen over our shared breakfast by the riverfront. She arrived late Friday night by car with her Mom and an auntie for a 2-night stay of utter relaxation and a bit of shopping.
Nearly every single building in the main walking street now houses a guesthouse or homestay combined with a restaurant and / or a souvenir shop, clothes shop or chic café. The families who lived here for generations have long moved out of the old town to the outskirts or the countryside. A lot of them have sold their property, seeing large amounts of money for the first time in their lives.
Next the old wooden shophouses were renovated one after the other and rebirthed as picture book homestays. A few newly built boutique hotels followed and voilá there is the Thai version of Luang Prabang, just about 500 kilometers down the Mekong!
After a while of strolling up the well fashioned river promenade with it’s immaculate benches and nicely constructed lookout platforms and strolling back again the beautiful walking street in between vintage houses and vintage decor the feeling of floating through a wonderful but slightly unreal presentation of something else sets in.
Lovely Luang Prabang has that same stage character. Like imitating life in a way the city escapee wishes it to be – tidy and cute. To add to that flavour the weekend trippers do all wear matching shirts with their fellow travellers, their family, their friends, their team. All of them! Mostly some cutsie print from Chiang Khan walking street market. It is impossible not to smile when watching the groups meander on bicycles or on foot through the streets and walkways, holding hands, taking photos, creating selfies. Everyone is giving their very best achieving the ultimate cool or cute on their photos. And the backdrop is just perfect. No doubt.
Cruising around town on a bicycle is another really pleasant thing to do in Chiang Khan. The river promenade has a cyclist lane that goes all the way to the famous river rocks called Kaeng Khut Khu, about 5 km away from town centre. There is a whole legend around that location which can be studied in a cartoon version onsite.
The food stalls by the river serve some of the otherwise unknown local delicacies like dancing shrimp (containing actual live shrimps jumping up and down on the plate!) and spicy papaya salad with rice noodles. Note to self: Never say “yes” to spicy, when asked by a waiter in Isaan. Not even “yes, a little”. Stay humble. Especially if you are a farang (foreigner)…
Many a temple flanks the way along the Mekong. And like in most major Thai cities there is a special route to visit the 9 most important ones. 9 is a lucky number in Thailand and making merit this way no doubt a good thing in matters of love and health and business. Maybe even more effective when done on holidays in the spirit of a pilgrimage.
The same reason might have turned the morning alms round of the local monks into a visitor attraction. While monks collect food offerings in every hamlet and every megacity of the country it once again seems to be just perfect to be doing it in Chiang Khan. Around 6:30 am the Thai tourists line up in what has been the walking street the night before and present sticky rice, packaged drinks and other small giveaways to the passing monks. Another strong resemblance with the famous Mekong sister Luang Prabang.
Giving and hoping definitely makes sense in this kind of environment. Chiang Khan surely looks like dreams can become reality.