As a small outpost of Thailand at the border to Laos on the banks of the Mekong River, Chiang Khong seems to be a meaningless place without any tourist attractions or reasons to stay for a tourist or traveller. There are mountains, plains and the big Mekong River. Tourists only go through here on the way to Laos and further then to Vietnam and Cambodia. Most of them have not much time - they make four countries in three weeks or so.
There are no bigger places around Chiang Khong; the next bigger city of importance is busy, noisy, industrial Chiang Rai, quite a business center and tourist spot, promoted by the influencial tourist guides. Big, ugly Chiang Mai, also called Thailand's 'second capital', is some eight bus hours away.
Chiang Khong therefore is a place with a good deal of charme, representing the old Thailand in a way as it almost doesn't exist anymore. Thailand is a rapidly changing country. Soon, almost nothing will be as it was just a few years ago. Chiang Khong and it's surroundings are a last spot which gives an impression of what made Thailand so attractive in the past.
A very short History of Chiang Khong
It's said that Chiang Khong has been founded in 710 CE. In later times it's said it has been a small kingdom of local importance even and stretching out deep into nowadays north Laos and south China. I wouldn't give too much on it. Besides, the areas in Laos and China are very mountainous and inhabited since long by hill people. They were not controllable by a city-based civilization (See also: 'The Role of City States in Southeast Asia').
However, the place was defenitely an urban, civilized center in a widestretching surrounding of wilderness with long, often unsave ways to other towns.
Lonely Planet claims that Chiang Khong payed tributes to the kingdoms of Lanna and Nan. In fact Chiang Khong was part of Lanna, and probably further integrated than merely through a vassal status paying tribute.
But one thing is clear, Chiang Khong is situated at an old trade route between China and the central plains of Thailand. Together with Houayxay on the other side of the Mekong River it was a place where merchants had to cross the big river by boats. Probably many stayed here for a night at least and it's supposable that it was a trading point from it's foundation on, because the river is a natural waterway for smaller boats to transport goods and people deep into Laos and China and vice versa.
It's also clear that people lived on both sides of the river, that Chiang Khong and Houayxay were one place after all. The division between both came through the 1893 border, drawn by the French expansion into nowadays Laos and it's clash with the empire of Siam.
It is possible that Marco Polo on the way from Beijing/China to Mergui (also Myeik, a coastal port at the Andaman Coast in nowadays Burma/Myanmar) came through Houayxay and Chiang Khong, crossing the Mekong River here. Marco Polo describes this journey in his second book, where he also mentions his stay in Lovu/Lopburi.
Having been incorporated part of the old kingdom of Lanna, Chiang Khong fell for a time under the rule of the kingdom of Ayutthaya and was probably under Burmese domination (under vassal status) for more than two centuries after 1548 CE, as the rest of Lanna/north Thailand was. In the 19th century, Chiang Khong became part of the Siamese empire of Bangkok, which extended for some decades the contemporary border into Laos by far.
The only witnesses of Chiang Khong's past, as I can see, are two little remains of a city wall, probably part of a former gate, at the main road in town. In the old temples like Wat Luang (8th century) I personally don't see much of the traces of history anymore. The small, inconspicious side-buildings are the oldest.
It was always most suitable for people to settle down at riverbanks. Rivers serve as a source of fresh water, a waterway and a drainage system. Chiang Khong stretches some kilometers along the majestic Mekong River. There is a promenade where one can walk along the banks for some kilometers without much traffic. Most of the hotels and guesthouses are there and some restaurants as well.
Particularly fine here is the climate in the time from November to February. It's getting cool and dry, many days have an ideal temperature - not too hot, not too cool. Though, the local people suffer quickly a cold or even flu when the temperatures drop. When it get's down to eighteen degree celsius many people here dress like they were suffering a Syberian winter.
From March on it's getting extremely hot, until finally the relief comes in May/June - rainy season, which lasts then until August/September.
Nowadays Chiang Khong is a booming place, it's in a kind of a gold rush. That's due to the construction of the new Thai-Laos Bridge, which will change the sleepy place into a bustling industrial bridgehead for Thai-Chinese businesses. Since the decision about the bridge construction was politically done, the ugly real-estate speculation doesn't stop, and prices for land are booming. It's said that the first who bought land here from the peasants were Thai's from the inner decision-making circles in Bangkok, who were the first who knew about the future bridge project and took advantage of the knowledge before it was made public. Since then there is a permanent real-estate buying and selling going on.
Well, Chiang Khong is under a rapid change, as Thailand is in general, but here is one of the hot spots of development. That's a pity for the natural surroundings first and, second, for the living quality of the community. There is much building activity already, and it's only the beginning of much, much more in the close future.
The main road is a bad example of how it will develop more and more. The main road leads for some kilometers through Chiang Khong, parallel to the river, with a certain distance. It's not too wide, but heavy traffic on it. Including really big trucks. There is no sidewalk, so that pedestrians are exposed to the dangers of the traffic. Not to mention the noise and the smog and dust. The main road is the worst place in town, and a real annoyance. A typical piece of Southeast Asian city-planning in which pedestrians, simple people, are ignored.
So, in short words, the place will grow and grow and grow and eat up much of it's natural surroundings and will loose it's charme of a laid-back, peaceful countryside town with plenty of folklore. Pollution of all kind will increase.
The Sights of Chiang Khong
Sights? Forget it. It's not a place for sightseeing.
Apart from the very humble remains of an old city wall (as mentioned above, takes five minutes for a visit) there is not much to see in particular. There are the usual temples in and around town. The temples in Lanna / north Thailand are nicer than the temples in most other parts of Thailand for their rich temple paintings. The paintings served in former times, when the verymost people were illiterates, as teaching books for history and mostly for the story of the 'Life of Buddha'.
The Chinese Cemetery
Placed on a hilltop north of town, the Chinese cemetery grants the visitor a view over the Mekong valley of Chiang Khong. The place is actually not a sight, not at all, but it's a peculiarity and makes an interesting stroll. Apparently people take care for the place, because it's tidy and clean. The cemetery is surrounded by a barbed wire fence and the gate is always closed, except anything happens here. Image by Asienreisender, 2/2012
Further to mention is maybe the Chinese cementery a bit out of town on a hilltop near the road to Chiang Saen. After the retreat of Chiang Kai Shek's troops from China in 1950 a certain Chinese nationalist military unit got permission to settle down in Chiang Khong. They established the cemetery, which is almost always closed (locked). The Chinese community meanwhile moved out of town to Ban Wiang Mok, some 30 kilometers southwest of Chiang Khong near the road to Chiang Rai.
Another place worth to go for a look is Alan Bate's pub 'The Hub'. It's a combination of a pub and a bicycle museum; Alan Bate is a professional cyclist.
Around Chiang Khong are several villages, mostly inhabited with Hmong People who came from Laos after the Vietnam War. It's rumored that there are connections between them and the in Laos remaining Hmong People who are or were still in war with the Laotian government.
The River Mekong
The Mekong River is, after the Amazonas River in South America, the second richest river in biodiversity on earth. Since it wasn't possible to navigate the river from the South China Sea up to inner China and lower Tibet, the industrialization of the Mekong didn't take part in the colonial time. That's changing now. In Sanyabury/Laos is a new megadam under construction who will hurt many fish species because they are migratory. Fish ladders don't help here, unlike they do sometimes somewhat in North America or Europe. The Sanyabury Dam will be the first of some dozens of more dams following. The biodiversity of the river will be destroyed through this heavy impacts. The river as a source of food and agricultural irrigation will be destroyed as well. Some 65 million people depend on the Mekong River as a food source.
Now I already hear the first fishermen complaining that there are fewer fish in the river than before. The construction site seems to take effect already. That might be. But it's not the only threat for the Mekong.
In China at the upper Mekong there are already at least four dams built, another four either under construction or already finished. They have already a significant impact on the river's ecology.
Besides, the Chinese industries demand now to make the river further navigable. For that purpose it must be made deeper and the rocks in part of it have to be blasted away. That means another heavy impact on the biotopes.
In Chiang Saen, some 40 kilometers river upwards, a new and big industrial port has recently been built. It's designed for receiving the import goods from China mainly, partially also from Laos and Burma/Myanmar. It's in the interest of the industries to extend the navigable routes down northwards deep into Laos, best down through Cambodia and Vietnam, reaching the South China Sea. For this purpose the Mekong River will be transformed and industrialized, until it is a mostly dead water housing only some monocultures of species bred and marketed by other industries.
For an elaborate article on the 'Mekong River' click this link.
The Bridge over the Mekong
The article on the bridge is meanwhile outdated, for he represents the situation in early 2013. The new bridge has been opened officially on December 11th, 2013. The bridge is 480m long and 14.70m wide. Chiang Khong is now declared one of the notorious 'Special Economic Zones'.
Some five kilometers south of the town is a big building site. A new road was built to connect Thailand to Laos via a new, fourth Bridge over the Mekong River between the both countries. The bridge is meanwhile almost ready, only the final asphalt coat is still missing. Also on both sides of the river the big border control buildings are still under construction. It will take some more months until it all is ready and the services will start - probably around mid 2013.
At the moment all the custom services are in town, and the people border traffic is managed by small longtail boats. Additionally there is a great deal of trucks passing through Chiang Khong's main road and the parallel road to the main road. They drive to the northern end of the town where a truck ferry is running. The worst thing is that a lot of the trucks transport petrol for Laos. There is no pipeline to supply the area around Houayxay and so forth with petrol, so it all is coming from central Thailand on trucks, supplying the petrol stations in north Laos.
I always find it absolutely incredible, how inefficient the modern traffic system is. And how much waste it produces.
The Impact of the Bridge
An article in the Bangkok Post from January 3rd, 2016 describes that the touristic expectations in Chiang Khong's new town, a newly-built subtown a kilometer west of the bridge, have fallen far below prospect. The new town flopped and is now called as the ghost town by locals.
That could change with the launch of the second phase of the Special Economic Zone here. More state concessions to investors, a still better frameset to exploit labour and nature shall stimulate the economy. Land prices already doubled again.
Big Chinese investment caused already impact on the nature. Greater sections of the riverbanks are changed into banana plantations, irrigated now by water pumps. The bananas are cash crops for the China export. Another company wants to build a large industrial area into a plot covered with wetland forest. Locals protested already against the plans. The forest plays an important role in the local ecology; besides it's a source of food and water for local people.
The construction of the bridge came together with the massive expansion of the road from Chiang Khong to Thoeng, and from there further to Chiang Rai. Now there is another road expansion undergoing on the road from Chiang Khong to Chiang Saen. This was before one of the most picturesque roads I ever knew, with little traffic on it. Now, a massive traffic boom due to expanding border trade is expected.
West of the Mekong River and the town the landscape stretches out into a wide plain. The plain is irrigated by a sophisticated canal system, which gains it's water from Nam Chang Reservoir at the foot of the mountains. Rice is cultivated here.
The plain is a picturesque landscape, and looks like a garden eden. There are some dirt roads crisscrossing the landscapes. Unfortunately there are more and more of them built, and an steady urbanization process is ongoing. In a few years it will be too urbanised to be still a great rural place in the countryside.
The mountain chain raises west of the plains. There are several of these mountain chaines in the north of Thailand. They all are offshoots of the Himalaya Mountains and are aligned roughly in a north-south direction.
The mountains are forested, but most of the forests are cultivated. There are teak forests and further west, around Ban Houay Meng are many rubber plantations. Also orange plantations appeare here and there.
Entering the mountains at Nam Chang Reservoir means hiking through dense green without clear paths. There are some, but few people go here and the tracks often end up inmiddle of nowhere. So, it's most important to make sure to find the same way back one came.
In April/May, after months without a drop of rain, the water-level of Nam Chang Reservoir is very low. Most of the water is used up to irrigate the rice paddies east of it, allowing another harvest in the dry season. Then it's possible to walk completely around the lake, following it's direct shores. Here and there it's a bit difficult and requires some climbs along steep, slippery, muddy shores. A bit dangerous I found at least two passages when I did it in May 2012.
The workers at the entrance near the dam told me it were also possible to surround the lake by walking through the jungle. I tried that also in April 2012, but ended up deeply in dense bushes at the rear end of the lake. I couldn't find a way to come through to the other side and had to walk back the same way which I came.
In the past, until the 1960s, Thailand was covered with virgin forests by some 80%. Most of it was primary rainforest. In the time of the Vietnam War there was much communist activity in Thailand itself. The Thai army fought against communist troops and also against a number of hill people in the mountains. The army had severe losses in those fights. Baker/Pongpaichit claim that the Thai army lost four times as many soldiers than the communists did in the encounters. As a consequence, the army used agent orange, supplied by the USA, to clear the forests. In the following years it was part of politics to deforest the country, not only for the profit out of the wood commerce but to make the countryside better controllable for the army.
It's a strange thing in a way - although Chiang Khong is such a remote, small, picturesque and peaceful place with plenty of green around, it appears frequently very noisy. Particularly at the river happens a lot of noise pollution. It starts in the morning around six o'clock with the first propaganda broadcasted by loudspeakers. It comes from both sides of the river, including Laotian sources. That might be state propaganda, music, religious stuff or just blunt advertisements from radio broadcastings. In Thailand there is two times daily the national anthem played in public. That includes a spoken introduction and, not seldom, noisy announcements of any kind before and after.
Notorious are the temple festivals. They last days, not seldom a week and are accompanied by an incredible din level. If you stay next to a temple which is having such a festival, your sanity is under a sever threat. Not to mention all the drunkyards around and the funny shows they promote at these temple festivals. Sometimes the hubbub has not seldom an impact over kilometers, because additionally to the volume level the basses are always set on the highest level.
The people here like parties, and parties are as better as noisier they are. Besides the temple festivals there are all kind of other party's. Actually there is almost always any party going on anywhere. A marriage, a newborn child, a funeral, somebody built a house, bought a car or gained money. All that and more means above anything else: TAM-TAM-TAM, BUM-BUM-BUM.
Noise is transported over water. The heavy din from Laos appears at the Thai side of the river as if you were on the party itself.
One of the worst festivals is a fair at the upper end of Chiang Khong, near the river banks, held annually in April. There is a week of buying, selling, playing and the funniest kinds of shows like snake-charming (a number of seldom and big snakes I saw there in 2012). The organisers equip the place with twelve 1,50m high loudspeakers - the end of any conversation in a radius of several hundred meters (at least) around.
Another source of heavy noise are boats and ships on the Mekong River. The small longtail boats can make a hell of a noise; the big wooden boats with their outdated engines are not any better - their noises are lower in tone, but hefty as well.
Not enough with all that, there are motorbikes and cars allowed on the river promenade. Drivers enjoy it to let the engines run even when they leave their cars, having a smoke. Additionally they might play loud music, open the car doors, and hang around there for some time.
Even the officials in the custom office sometimes play loudely their music (karaoke e.g.) and pester the surrounding with it.
Staying in a place at the river banks means always being disturbed every night.
Growing up under deprived conditions, lacking any education which earns to be called so, most of the people don't get ever mature and remain eternal adolescents.
As bad as the noise pollution is, the air pollution is worse. The air pollution is more serious, because more destructive for the environment and a more severe threat for anybodies health. The simple people here have no consciousness of health and environment, so they don't care at all for the consequences of all the fires they start in the dry season. In March the surroundings are completely dried out, all the plants are dry and the predominant colours are not green as usually, but yellow-brownish, with a lot of dust coming with the draught. It's also very hot then.
A fire on the river island between Chiang Khong and Houayxay, made by local people. That happens every day and night everywhere around in the dry season. Image by Asienreisender, 3/2012
Traditionally the stubbles on the rice fields are burned down. But much more burns. Bushlands burn, forests burn, rubbish is burned. Some guys use the fire to drive animals out of their hideouts to hunt them. Since no rain clears the air anymore neither stops the fires, heavy smog accumulates. The sun shines through a thick layer of smog, what makes her looking even at noon like a reddish morning sun. Pretty apocalyptic.
This is all very accepted by the majority of the population. People with cardiovascular diseases have to suffer the consequences more than others. The authorities seem to do little or nothing against it. On the contrary, the local 'waste management' means burning the waste at a disposal site not far from town under the open sky.
Well, Thailand in general has a major problem with dogs. There are masses of dogs around. It's a peasant society, a smallholder society. This kind of people keeps dogs since hundreds, rather thousands of years. In the past they might have done a good job keeping wild animals away from human dwellings, assisting in hunting activities and warning people when foreigners appeared who might have bad intentions. Nowadays the beasts are above all great trouble makers, always annoying and threatening people. Although the most dogs are not really dangerous, you never know... If you walk on a street and you meet a couple of dogs, you always have to be aware that they could be dangerous. Particularly if you don't behave accordingly to their instincts, they might feel encouraged to trouble you even more. Barking, coming close, maybe biting. They are a plague, pesting the public space. A great deal of them belong more or less to certain people, not few are strayers. Most of them are sick, carrying multiple diseases. Being bitten by one means a secondary threat of getting an ugly infection. Rabies is among the worst.
Actually it's great to do jogging once a day along the river banks on the promenade which stretches out for a few kilometers. But at the southern part are many dogs living. Most of them have to play the strong one when seeing a jogger. Although most of them are not dangerous, there is at least one big, fat, white dog almost at the southern end of the promenade in a garden right hand who is dangerous. Normally he is behind a fence and gate and makes a great deal of a show there when I am passing by, but in the cases the gate is open and he is free around he tried already two times to bite me. The owners of the beast were nowhere to see, although it happend very close to their house and my shouting at the dog was clearly to hear. Shouting helps always to keep them at bay.
Well, ehm, the orange gentleman above is always around the custom house, and... he is really a personality.