Combining dozens of tumbledown temple ruins with sweeping Mekong River scenery, CHIANG SAEN, 60km northeast of Chiang Rai, is a rustic haven and a good base camp for the border region east of Mae Sai. The town’s focal point, where the Chiang Rai road (Thanon Phaholyothin) meets Thanon Rim Khong (the main road along the banks of the Mekong), is a lively junction thronged by buses, songthaews and longtails. Turning left at this T-junction soon brings you to Sop Ruak, and you may well share the road with the tour buses that sporadically thunder through (though most of them miss out the town itself by taking its western bypass). Very few tourists turn right in Chiang Saen, passing the port for cargo boats from Laos and China, along the road to Chiang Khong, even though this is the best way to appreciate the slow charms of the Mekong valley.
The layout of the old, ruined city is defined by the Mekong River running along its east flank; a tall rectangle, 2.5km from north to south, is formed by the addition of the ancient ramparts, now fetchingly overgrown, on the other three sides. The grid of leafy streets inside the ramparts is now too big for the modern town, which is generously scattered along the river road and across the middle on Thanon Phaholyothin.
Originally known as Yonok, the region around Chiang Saen seems to have been an important Thai trading crossroads from some time after the seventh century. The city of Chiang Saen itself was founded around 1328 by the successor to the renowned King Mengrai of Chiang Mai, Saen Phu, who gave up his throne to retire here. Coveted for its strategic location guarding the Mekong, Chiang Saen had multiple allegiances, paying tribute to Chiang Mai, Kengtung in Burma and Luang Prabang in Laos, until Rama I razed the place in 1804. The present village was established only in 1881, when Rama V ordered a northern prince to resettle the site with descendants of the old townspeople mustered from Lamphun, Chiang Mai and Lampang.
Trouble on the Mekong
Trouble on the Mekong
Armed with a Chinese visa from Bangkok or Chiang Mai, it was until recently possible to catch a passenger boat from Chiang Saen up the Mekong to Jing Hong in China. However, in October 2011, close to Sop Ruak, two Chinese cargo ships were subjected to a brutal armed attack by a group of men from the Thai army. The motive wasn’t immediately clear, but thirteen Chinese sailors died in the incident, and at the time of writing all passenger services between the two countries had been suspended. Cargo shipments from China were also stopped temporarily.
This is a crucial trade route for countries that are linked by the Mekong, and in a bid to get cargo services running again, officials from China, Thailand, Laos and Burma sanctioned coordinated patrols along stretches of the river. But in December 2011, after less than a fortnight of patrols, three Burmese soldiers were killed in a clash with suspected drug traffickers, suggesting that the situation is still some way from being resolved.