Set beside a dreamy stretch of the Mekong River, the historic town of Chiang Khan has emerged in recent years as a hugely popular destination for domestic tourists. The natural scenery and teakwood houses remain as picturesque as ever, but much of the town now has a kitsch appearance that might disappoint those seeking an authentic slice of slow-paced Isaan life.
First established as an outpost of the Lan Xiang kingdom, the original Chiang Khan was destroyed by Haw warriors from China's Yunnan region in the 1700s. The town was later reestablished in its current location, this time as part of the Siamese empire, and was boosted when large numbers fled the north bank of the river after French colonialists assumed control of Laos in the late 19th century. It was during this period that Chiang Khan's signature wood houses were built.
Once attracting only a trickle of foreign travellers and virtually no one else, the town's narrow lanes are now stacked with "boutique" hotels and souvenirs shops that overflow from the well-preserved heritage architecture. A native told us that most of the long-time residents have moved over to the main drag, renting out their riverfront houses to entrepreneurs from Bangkok and beyond.
This fairly new tourism market is tilted heavily towards an increasingly wealthy wave of Thais. Few Thai destinations have evolved so explicitly for the domestic trade, and none as tightly packed as Chiang Khan. The age-old tradition of saffron-robed monks on morning alms round is now a major draw for snap-happy tourists. Though it gets extremely busy on weekends and holidays, especially in the cooler months, the town remains bucolic on weekdays.
If you don't mind rubbing shoulders with the tour buses, Chiang Khan still has something to offer those looking to bypass the same old foreign tourist hubs. A smattering of ancient temples and natural attractions ensure there's enough to do, while the presence of the Tai Dam people makes it possible to purchase exquisite cotton wears direct from these adept weavers.
And in the end, those hypnotising Mekong sunsets will make you forget all about the crowd of university students giggling in the guesthouse lounge. Chiang Khan enjoys a two-km-wide expanse of this mighty river, forested mountains on the Lao side providing an idyllic backdrop. The sun performs its brilliant finale each day at dusk; smudges of orange, violet and crimson reflected on the steady current, wooden boats puttering back to shore.
A day trip to Chiang Khan from Loei town, 50 km to the south, is a good way to get a taste of the Mekong scenery while staying at the cheaper guesthouses and hotels found in the provincial capital. Those who are turned off by the touristy vibe might head 20 km east to the riverside village of Pak Chom, or a bit further along the Mekong to Sangkhom, just over the border in Nong Khai province.
While the Phi Ta Khon festival in Dan Sai gets most of the attention, Chiang Khan has its own, slightly different scary mask party known as Phi Khon Nam. Featuring a parade of brightly painted masks facing upwards to ask the spirits for plentiful rain, the festival is held annually just after Vesakkha Puja, typically in May or June (depending on the moon).