As one of the few places in Thailand where it’s possible for foreigners to cross to Laos, CHIANG KHONG is constantly bustling with travellers waiting to go over the river to the Lao town of Houayxai and embark on the lovely Mekong boat journey down to Luang Prabang. On a high, steep bank above the water, Chiang Khong is strung out along a single, north–south street, Thanon Sai Klang, between the cross-river pier at Hua Wiang and the fishing port of Ban Hat Khrai. Once you’ve admired the elevated view of the traffic on the Mekong and glimpsed the ruined, red-brick turrets of the French-built Fort Carnot in Houayxai, there’s little to do in the town itself, though several local excursions might tempt you to stay a little longer. On Fridays, there’s a bustling market around the bridge to the south of central Chiang Khong, while Saturdays see a night market, mostly for food, on the main street.
If you’d like to explore the area around Chiang Khong more fully, the best option is to put yourself up at Baan Tam-Mi-La guesthouse, where Khun Wat has simple local maps and lots of information. Thung Na Noi, a Hmong village 8km west, with a market every Friday, makes a good cycling trip, with the possibility of returning by a more circuitous, 12km route through the forest. There’s a guesthouse in the village and an attractive waterfall, Huai Tong, 3km away. At the Thai Lue village of Si Dornchai, 14km south of Chiang Khong on Route 1020, you can watch weavers at work at three shops near the bridge – this would also make a good trip by bike, returning via back roads along the river. With your own car or motorbike, you could push on from Si Dornchai for 50km to the interesting Kuomintang village of Ban Pha Tang and the precipitous mountain viewpoint at Phu Chi Fa, 25km beyond.
The Mekong giant catfish (pla buk) is the largest scaleless freshwater fish in the world, measuring up to 3m in length and weighing in at 300kg. Chiang Khong has traditionally been the catfish capital of the north, attracting fish merchants and restaurateurs from Chiang Rai, Chiang Mai and Bangkok – the mild, tasty meat of the pla buk is prized for its fine, soft texture, and one fish can fetch B60,000–80,000. The catfish season is officially opened at the port of Ban Hat Khrai on April 18 with much pomp, including an elaborate ceremony to appease Chao Por Pla Buk, the giant catfish god. The season’s haul used to be between thirty and sixty fish all told, but recent years have been so disappointing (only two were caught in 2008, for example) that Thailand’s Fishery Department has begun an artificial spawning programme.
Boat trips on the Mekong
Boat trips on the Mekong
If you’re twiddling your thumbs in Chiang Khong while waiting to cross to Laos, or simply want to spend some time out on the water, ask at your guesthouse about one-hour boat trips on the Mekong or full-day voyages up to Chiang Saen and back. As you leave Chiang Khong itself and chug past sandy outcrops, it’s likely you’ll catch glimpses of villagers fishing, playing or washing in the river (usually met with big smiles and lots of frantic waving).
Crossing to Laos
Crossing to Laos
Foreigners can get thirty-day Lao visas on arrival in Houayxai. As paying in baht is so unfavourable, gold shops (where the rates are often best), guesthouses and banks in Chiang Khong sell dollars. Hua Wiang pier, at the north end of town, is the departure point for frequent passenger ferries to Houayxai. These cross-river ferries are likely to be phased out when the new Mekong bridge, 8km downstream from Chiang Khong, is constructed. However, the project has experienced serious delays, so completion may still be some way off by the time you read this.
From Houayxai, there are buses to Luang Prabang, Vientiane, Luang Namtha and Oudomxai, but by far the most popular option is to catch a passenger boat to Luang Prabang. Usually departing between 10am and noon every morning, these glide down the scenic Mekong in two days, with an overnight and a change of boat at Pakbeng. The alternative is to take one of the cramped, noisy and dangerous speedboats, on which passengers should be provided with helmets and life jackets. These cover the same stretch in six to seven hours. From Houayxai’s cross-river pier, tuk-tuks will take you to the regular passenger-boat pier or the speedboat pier.
It’s easy to sort all of this out yourself and there’s really no need to pay commission to a Thai or Lao travel agent to book in advance.