Photo: Freighter on the Mekong.

Eat and meet

Mobile carts equipped with grills, woks and ice boxes set up in the centre of Chiang Saen along the Mekong from late afternoon on, selling barbecued pork or chicken with spicy dipping sauce, whole salted fish, local-style sausages plus som tam and sticky rice, washed down with lashings of cold beer. You sit at low tables on mats on the wide footpath with views down to the Mekong and across to Laos. Some stalls have menus in English, though they all sell similar things at similar prices and you can just select from the grill. Some even have WiFi.

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When you have Chiang Saen’s wonderful riverbank eating scene to enjoy, you don’t really need too many other options, but just in case, here’s a few.

Steak Sudkhet, in the central section of the main street, proposes Thai versions of Western food; think steak and French fries, burgers, fried chicken, sausages, mostly in the 90 to 100 baht range or up to 160baht for a rib-eye. We couldn’t see any Thai options on their menu though their principal clientele is local, but it does mean dishes are prepared for local tastes. We didn’t risk their more expensive steaks so can’t comment. Staff were bubbly and keen to practise their English, and you get the impression they don’t get many Western customers.

Round the corner and some 200 metres on the left down Sai 2 is a unnamed (in English, at least), popular Korean barbecue buffet – help yourself and cook your own. Options are priced at 79 to 129 baht per head.

Back on the waterfront, the small and friendly 2 Be 1, near the corner of Soi 4, is worth a try either for a drink or food if you’ve had enough of kneeling on the footpath opposite. They have a small terrace out front and serve cold beers and cocktails with the latter going from a bargain 80 baht up to 150 baht. There’s a large food menu of Thai standards including several vegetarian options, with mains from 70 to 90 baht. Opens late, too.

Also on the waterfront on the corner of Soi 5 is a chicken and pork on rice cafe. Good, cheap and popular with locals, they have noodle soups too but close relatively early. A bit further up the road, level with Soi 1, you’ll find a string of well positioned waterfront eateries. There’s a row of souvenir stalls facing the street, behind which is a carpark and the cafes are on the far side. On the left as you enter is the free gym, outdoor traditional massage and the town’s useful bicycle hire spot. The cafes do the usual range of Thai standards and also have grills for chicken and fish; the one we tried even had an English menu. Prices are reasonable and we got a serving of pat kraphao moo (minced pork with chilli and basil) for 30 baht. They do tend to close down early though and past 20:00 you won’t find much left.

Wiang Kao Coffee is convenient if you’re waiting for a bus, since it’s located immediately opposite the Kasikorn Bank and bus stop on the main street. It’s a shady little spot with tables in a cute garden, with fishponds and fountains. Another good coffee spot, Rom Mai Coffee – this time with Mekong view – is located next to the police station on Rimkhong Road, under a massive ficus tree. Again on the riverfront is Mongdoonam (roughly translating as ‘staring at the water’), next door to 2 Be 1, has fresh coffee and a few cake selections.

There’s no tourist bars as such but Chiang Saen does have a fair selection for the locals. The largest, and something of a town icon, is the Kong View Station, usually known as rot fai bar (train bar) due to a railway carriage sitting in the grounds. The carriage has Chiang Saen–Sipsongphanna (the Thai name for Yunnan’s Jinghong City) stencilled on the side, though of course there isn’t and never has been any such route and the closest railway station is all the way back in Chiang Mai. When we enquired as to its provenance, staff had no idea. The interior has been lovingly restored and even comes with suitcases on the luggage racks, and the tables and benches are part of the bar and restaurant’s seating. Kong View includes a coffee shop (day-time only), garden seating area and bar near the road, Japanese food stand and a second seating area with a stage on a lower level close to the river. Prices might not appear too cheap but quality and so value for money is good and their menu extensive. Most Thai mains go for between 90 and 200 baht, with whole fish dishes 175 to 275 baht. There’s also steaks and a few Western choices plus the aforementioned Japanese stand. This spot is justifiably popular among locals for dinner and drinks and they have live music weekend evenings too. Note that a track leads down the side of the restaurant to the Mekong 100 metres away, providing unobstructed river views.

A short distance further north, at the junction with the ring road on the right, is a string of Thai-style pubs. All serve food and while we couldn’t find English menus the waitress’s recommendations were very good and not excessively priced. Being Thai pub grub, it is spicy -- be warned. These spots serve more of a young crowd than Kong View. The bars are not at all of the seedy variety, though we’re not sure we can say the same for the outdoor karaoke joints on the other side of the road.

2 Be 1: Rimkhong Rd., near Soi 4, open daily 10:00-00:30
BBQ Restaurant: east side of Sai 2, open daily 18:00-22:00
Hainanese chicken cafe: Rimkhong Rd. corner of Soi 5, open daily 08:00-20:00
Kong View Station: route 1290 north of town past Gin’s Resort, T: (081) 991 7301, open daily, coffee shop/bakery 07:00-19:00, bar/restaurant 10:00-00:30
Mongdoonam: Rimkhong Rd, near Soi 4, open daily 08:30-18:00
Rom Mai Coffee: Rimkhong Rd, next to police station, open daily 08:30-18:00
Steak Sudkhet: Phaholyothin Rd., T: (089) 661 9911, open daily 09:00-21:00
Wiang Kao Coffee: Phaholyothin Rd. opposite Katsikorn, open daily 08:00-17:00

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