Chiang Khong isn’t so much a destination as a stopover and its role as a Lao border crossing and access point to the Luang Prabang boat services along the Mekong River is what’s plonked it so firmly on the tourist map. The small riverside town, located across the murky, swirling waters of the Mekong from the Lao town of Huay Xai, sees plenty of tourists arriving from Chiang Rai, Chiang Mai or Pai and then departing the following morning over Friendship Bridge Number 4 to catch the 11:00 slow boat to Pak Beng, or of course vice versa.
Chiang Khong doesn’t offer a lot of obvious tourist draws or activities: no famous sights, no national museums, zero ancient ruins, prestigious temples or spectacular hilltop pagodas. And it draws a near complete blank when it comes to trekking, tubing, caving or rafting. It is though, a charming and picturesque little town and one of the best things to do in Chiang Khong is simply — nothing! We mean chill-out, stroll up and down the scenic Mekong promenade, kick back in some of its excellent range of riverside accommodation, check out its plentiful cafes, bars, coffee shops and restaurants, and if you get your timing right wander the lively markets. If you poke around a bit there are a few things to do and see outside the town such as walks, viewpoints, villages and minor waterfalls. You may not want to stay a week but we reckon it’s well worth a detour even if you’re not planning on joining the slow boat circus to Luang Prabang.
A good bet for a walk or cycle is a nearby Hmong village and waterfall, both named after the local stream and called Huay Tong. The country lane leading the five or so kilometres to the village is signposted in English off the road (as is the waterfall) that skirts Chiang Khong to the west. The lane is approximately level with the end of Soi 2. The village isn’t the most traditional but it’s friendly and you may see a few Hmong women dressed up to go to market. Towards the end of the village a track leads off to the right to the waterfall another three kilometres distant. The track is a bit rough, and steep, so you’d be better leaving your bicycle or motorbike at this point and doing the last stretch on foot. The small falls aren’t spectacular but it does make for a pleasant hike.
If you have your own transport, then a spectacular viewpoint worth taking in lies north of town on Route 1129. The road climbs a steep hill, near the summit of which is the Hmong village Kiu Khan. Awesome views stretch from both sides of the mountain, so looking west towards Chiang Saen and southeast towards Chiang Khong.
Weekends during high season sees saffron-clad monks line the waterfront promenade to collect alms -- as well as passing in front of several of the town's temples they also pass many of Chiang Khong’s guesthouses. You obviously don’t need to participate yourself and you can merely sit on an hotel or restaurant terrace and take in the photogenic scene. We visited on a monk-free, rainy season month, but we’d assume riverside places open early. The alms givings take place November through February around 06:00-07:00 along the central stretch of the riverside promenade.
Chiang Khong’s early history is somewhat vague but it has been an autonomous riverside trading post for some time, though rather at the mercy of its more powerful and numerous neighbours: Chiang Saen, Chiang Rai, Phayao, Nan and of course Chiang Mai and Burma. It was finally incorporated into Siam in 1884, during Rama V’s rule, during the same period as Chiang Saen was. In more recent times it was yet another North Thai town settled by the fleeing Kuomintang military, and a KMT cemetery can still be seen on top of the hill overlooking town, though the gates are kept locked. Some of these Chinese nationalist soldiers died from malaria and other diseases, others in combat.
There was an infamous three-way battle north of Huay Xai in the 1960s between the KMT, Khun Sa’s forces and the Lao army over control of a large opium train making its way down the left bank of the Mekong. The KMT attempted to interdict it so a stand-off occurred until the Lao army, showing no favouritism, sent in some planes to bomb both sides. The Shan troops retreated to Burma, and the KMT to Chiang Khong with their casualties, leaving behind a lot of opium and a bunch of dead mules. Nearby Doi Luang was also the scene of bitter fighting during the 1970s as the Thai army employed their KMT auxiliaries to combat Communist Party Thailand insurgents in the mountains. The KMT settlement has since been relocated, so once again Chiang Khong has reverted to its status as a remote cross-border trading post, and a market town for the nearby Shan and Hmong villages.
Chiang Khong is strung out along the banks of the Mekong so consequently has a long, thin, north-south orientation with Route 1020 (adopting the in-town name of Sai Klang Road), running parallel to the river between the old ferry pier and immigration at the northern end and the bridge over the small River Sai to the south. After the bridge the town spreads out a bit with residential and commercial areas off to the right and left. The permanent market and bus stops are up this way, just across the bridge, as are a couple of the larger banks.
After this the route becomes four-lane and leads off towards Chiang Rai and here, on the edge of town, you’ll find the large Crown Prince Hospital and Lotus superstore. Bearing left takes you to the border crossing and the new bridge over the Mekong while to the right Route 1174 branches off to Payamengrai and Chiang Rai, approximately 115 kilometres away. If you were to continue past the bridge, hugging the Mekong, Route 1155 will eventually lead you out at Phu Chee Fah 80 kilometres away.
Back in town, most banks, shops and wats are situated on the central stretch of Sai Klang, as is the police station and post office while many of its guesthouses and cafes are on the section slightly to the north. A steep bank leads down from the main road to a riverside promenade though this is intermittent and doesn’t run the entire length of town. Abrupt, narrow lanes connect the two and, built on this slope, many high street hotels and guesthouses have their entrances on the third floor with stepped accommodation facing the river.
The jetty at the northern end of town is now only used for local traffic and tourists are no longer permitted to cross to Huay Xai from here. Just before this Route 1129 veers west and heads off to Chiang Saen, some 50 scenic kilometres distant. A couple of hundred metres up Route 1129 a ring-road branches off running parallel to Sai Klang and skirting the west of town before re-connecting with the main street at the junction with the police station. Side lanes lead off it to the west taking you out to the hills and a nearby Hmong village if you want to explore or fancy a hike. There’s a minor waterfall up this way, too.
By Mark Ord.
Last updated on 8th October, 2016.