I do have many books waiting to be read (far too many to list!) and I do keep lists of those books I read each year as I try and reach my target of 50 books per annum.
I have lists of TV series to watch and again of those I have watched.And I am often heard muttering ‘Life is a neverending list of things to do’ but No I very definitely do not have a list of places to see or visit.
Maybe that’s because as a Tour Operator for most of my working life, I have always travelled, maybe it is because I enjoy revisiting places I am already familiar with and like old friends are comfortable in their presence or maybe it is because my default setting is to do as much as I can anyway and as there is so much to see, why keep a list.
Who knows, but I have been aware that one of the journeys I have wanted to make for some time is to follow the mighty Mekong River for those hundreds of miles where it forms the border between Thailand and neighbouring Laos.
The Mekong is one of the great rivers of the world and one furthermore whose name has an evocative ring that immediately brings associations to mind, just like the Nile (exploration), Ganges (religion and cremations), Mississippi (Mark Twain and Huckleberry Finn) and the Amazon (rainforests).
But what do we associate with the Mekong?
I think for some of us with interests in literature it might be the Orient of Somerset Maugham or George Orwell and for others perhaps the terrible battles in the Mekong Delta during the Vietnamese War.
I had previously visited the Mekong on several occasions, firstly in 2006 when I led an Action Aid charity group on a Bike Trek and we cycled across the Mekong Delta from Ho Chi Minh City (or Saigon as may locals still call it) to Chau Doc, before taking a boat up the Mekong to the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh.
I returned to Phnom Penh with my friend Ampai a few months later in 2006 and then three years later in 2009, when again with Ampai, we crossed the Mekong from Chiang Khong (near Chiang Rai) in Thailand to Huayxai in Laos and then took a slow longboat down the river to the beautiful Laotian city of Luang Prabang, one of the true highlights of any visit to South East Asia.
In 2018 we were back in Laos and stayed in a lovely Thai owned small hotel on the Mekong at Champasak, in 2019 we flew to Luang Prabang for a short break to enable me to renew my Thai visa and last year, when exploring the Golden Triangle area of Northern Thailand, we had a riverside room on the Mekong near Chiang Saen.
So I was familiar with the Mekong and, just as after listening to Don McLean’s evocative ‘American Pie’ in 1972 I thought that I too wanted to ‘drive a Chevvy to the Levee’ of the Mississippi, I had also decided in recent years that it would be a great road trip to follow the Mekong along the Thai – Laos border.
And as an aside for devotees of American Pie I had to settle on a Buick Skylark convertible and not a Chevrolet but in 1985 I did drive some 10-15 miles atop a riverside levee in dirt poor Mississippi!
At a time when many western nations were successfully vaccinating their people against Covid – 19 June 2021 saw Thailand and many South East Asian nations really struggling to contain the virus and in particular the new Delta variant, and whilst there was no lockdown or curfew, certain restrictions were in place, travel was not encouraged and many National Parks were closed. Nevertheless, as I was due to visit Ampai in her home village in mid June this year, I thought this might be as good a time as any to continue past Ubon Ratchathani to Khong Chiam and then follow the Mekong for several days to either Nong Khai or Chiang Khan. In the end we opted for the latter.
In the course of gathering some facts for this article I was surprised to learn that although the Mekong is the 12th longest river in the world, it is only the 7th longest in Asia!
Hands up anyone who can name the 6 longer Asian Rivers! (Answer: the Yangtse and Yellow Rivers in China are familiar to many but the Yenisey, Ob and Lena are all less well known flowing northwards across Siberia to the Arctic Ocean. Thebsixth is the Amur which flows eastwards forming the Chinese Russian border for much of its length). The only other rivers longer than the Mekong are the Nile, Amazon, Mississippi, Rio Grande and Congo.
The Mekong is 4,909 kilometers (3,050 miles) in length rising on the Tibetan Plateau and flowing through China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.
Our 833 km/577 mile journey from Khong Chiam to Chiang Khan in my newly acquired Thai built MG5 seems quite modest in comparison and accounts for only 17% of the mighty Mekong’s overall length and contrary to my expectations, there were very few sections where the road actually followed the river bank other than in the towns and on the final section between Sangkhom and Chiang Khan, but it was a road trip full of interest as I hope the following images testify.
And it is a trip I certainly look forward to repeating sooner rather than later with some extended stays at some of the great locations and riverside towns that we discovered along the way.
Khong Chiam June 20 -23 2021
After four days in Ampai’s village we headed to Khong Chiam, which lies an hour east of Ubon Ratchathani close to the border crossing on the important route between Ubon Ratchathani in Thailand and Pakse in Laos.
I had twice previously visited the Khong Chiam area, which is located at the confluence of two great rivers – the Mun and Mekong and the differing coloured sediment from each results in a two colour river description that attracts plenty of tourists in normal times.
There is a lot to see within close proximity of the town, notably the Temples of Wat Tham Kuha Sawan in the town itself and Wat Sirindhorn Wararam about 40 minutes away and the two National Parks at Pha Team and Kaeng Tana. The Parks were closed at the time of our visit due to the pandemic but fortunately I had visited both previously.
Khong Chiam Orchard Resort
For the writer Khong Chiam’s biggest attraction is the Khong Chiam Orchard Resort, a small 6 unit resort owned by a German butcher (which explains the wide range of steaks and sausages on offer!) and his charming Thai wife. The small resort is situated on a spectacular riverbank location as fine as one will find anywhere along the Mekong in Thailand, with Laotian river islets less than 50 metres off shore!
Wat Tham Kuha Sawan
Wat Tham Kuha Sawan is distinguished by a graceful golden chedi and a giant gong that can be seen from miles around. The temple affords great views over Khong Chiam and the Mekong.
The sleepy village at Otop was located a few kilometers from the Khong Chiam Orchid Resort.
Wat Sirindhorn Wararam
This charming temple on a hill overlooking the Thai Lao border mainly attracts visitors in the evening when the phosphorescent paintings on the ground and temple exterior appear to illuminate.
Khong Chiam to Sam Phan Bok June 23 2021
A drive north from Khong Chiam to Sam Phan Bok would normally be interrupted with a visit to the Pha Team National Park with dramatic shale cliffs, prehistoric paintings and the Sioe Sawan Waterfall but because of Covid-19 the park was closed to visitors at the time of our visit.
Wat Pa Phu Pang
It is easy to miss the interesting roadside monastery at Wat Pa Phu Pang.
Sam Phan Bok June 23 2021
This area of distinctive riverine landforms can be visited as a day trip from Khong Chiam but is one best visited if one is driving between Khong Chiam and Mukdahan. The Mekong and its currents have carved out almost 3,000 holes along the rocky shoreline, leaving it resembling a lunar landscape in the dry season when the Mekong is barely 50 metres wide. In non Covid times you can hire longboats from the locals for extensive exploration, but at the time of our visit, although no boats were available and every food stall was long since closed, we could still access many of the distinctive formations on foot.
Mukdahan June 23 – 25 2021
As well as boasting one of the most evocative names of any settlement on the Mekong, Mukdahan had the feel of a real ‘working’ town and offers a famous market, some colourful temples, a giant Buddha affording a wide ranging panorama as well as a delightful riverside promenade and a bridge into Laos.
The giant Buddha at Phu Manorom offers expansive views over Mukdahan and across the Mekong into Laos.
The Indochine Market
Handicrafts, clothes, and an unrivalled collection of Buddhas of all shapes and sizes as well as a variety of goods from Laos, Vietnam and China are in plentiful supply at the Indochine market.
Songkhon June 25 2021
Songkhon is notable for the shrine to the Seven Blessed Martyrs of Songkhon, which is a somewhat of an oddity in Buddhist Thailand. The shrine, which is found on the banks of the Mekong north of Mukdahan, commemorates seven Catholic Thais including three teenage children who were executed in 1940, as they were believed to be French spies. They were beatified in 1989 and Songkhon is the largest Catholic shrine in South East Asia and provides a stark contrast to the decorative temples found throughout Thailand.
That Phanom June 25 2021
That Phanom is located between Mukdahan and Nakhon Phanom and is notable for the spire of the great Chedi at Wat Phra That Phanom which is one of the most important religious monuments in Thailand. There is also an attractive historic quarter adjacent to the Mekong where we visited the riverside Temple of Wat Hua Wiang Rangsi.
Wat Phra That Phanom
There are six royal temples in Thailand and Wat Phra That Phanom is one of only two to be located outside of Bangkok and in normal times the temple attracts devotees from all over Thailand and neighbouring Laos. The site dates back over 1200 years (with many rebuilds including most recently in 1979!) and the temple site now also contains an impressive museum. The spire is one of Isaan’s most emblematic symbols and rises 43 metres to dominate the town. The grounds also contain a giant drum and gong.
Wat Hua Wiang Rangsi
The riverside temple of Wat Hua Wiang Rangsi is notable for some outstanding murals and a giant standing Buddha.
Nakhon Phanom June 25 – 26 2021
The ‘City of Mountains’ is characterised by an extensive riverfront promenade and views of the distinctively shaped limestone mountains across the Mekong in Laos. If one has access to a vehicle there are a number of interesting attractions in and around the town, including a former home of Ho Chi Minh as well another Friendship bridge to Laos.
Wat Si Thep Pradittharam
As far as decoration and colour are concerned, for me this was one of the most impressive temples we visited during our two weeks following the Mekong. The wall murals depicting scenes from the life of Buddha were magnificent and there was a never ending collection of Tep (Angels) around the temple exterior.
Wat Okat is an atttractive and interesting riverside temple in Nakhon Phanom.
St Anna’s Church
St Anna’s church located on the banks of the Mekong at Nakhon Phanom reflects the historic influence of Catholic immigrants from Vietnam only 100 miles away. Note the walkway between the two towers.
Phu Tok June 27 2021
Phu Tok is one of the outstanding attractions of northeastern Thailand and quite unlike any other temple complex in Thailand, due to its unique location. A series of what look to be precarious wooden walkways, platforms and rickety staircases are somehow attached to a large and isolated sandstone outcrop and provide outstanding vistas. The complex was built by a famous meditation Monk Ajahn Juan who subsequently died in a plane crash and his remains are enshrined in the grounds at the foot of the outcrop. Some of the caves and niches alongside the walkways are now adorned with shrines.
Everything is quite safe as long as visitors walk with care and attention. The 5th and 6th levels afford spectacular views whilst visitors are advised to avoid the overgrown and forested summit (the 7th level) due to the possibility of snakes. I would certainly recommend a visit with the only proviso being to take care descending the staircases and to avoid visiting at rainy times.
Pak Khat June 27 – 28 2021
We were originally planning to stay at Bueng Khan but Pak Khat, with a friendly riverside budget hotel with an informative signpost (!), proved to be a convenient overnight stop between Phu Tok and Nong Khai.
Nong Khai June 28 – June 30 2021
We spent two nights in Nong Khai, one of the most visited locations in northeastern Thailand and saw more expatriates here than anywhere else on our trip. Many expatriates are initially drawn here as it is an easy jumping off spot to leave Thailand for a short visit to Vientienne, capital of Laos in order to renew their Thai visa. I suspect many find Nong Khai to be a more than pleasant location and decide to make it their base in Thailand. Nong Khai offers some great riverside eating options, an expansive riverside promenade, easy access to outstanding scenery and a very quirky sculpture park, mirroring its twin across the river in Laos.
Sala Kaew Ku
This sculpture Park has attracted a range of definitions including ‘fantastic’, ‘weird’, ‘enigmatic’, ‘bizarre’ and ‘quirky’ but certainly offers an impressive array of over 100 giant sculptures with some over 20 metres in height and depicting a range of Animist, Hindu and Buddhist imagery. The park was designed and built by Luang Pu, a Laotian national who has been described as part Yogi, part Priest and part Shaman. Luang Pu originally built a park across the Mekong in his native Laos but, after the 1975 Communist takeover of Laos, fled across the river to replicate and expand his efforts in Thailand. The multi floored main shrine building is full of a neverending collection of Buddhas together with photos of Luang Pu and his embalmed corpse ringed by flashing lights!
Wat Pho Chai
Wat Pho Chai is Non Khai’s largest and most important temple and the Bronze Buddha image has a solid gold head. As did Holy Relics in European cathedrals, the statue attracts many visitors because of the miracles attributed to it! However it is the outstanding wall murals that capture the attention of most non-Thai visitors.
Nong Khai to Pak Chom June 30 2021
This 142km section of our journey along the Mekong was packed full of interesting sights and destinations to visit with temples, riverside promenades and spectacular viewpoints overlooking the Mekong and Laos. For the first time on our trip, as we approached the attractive mountain Province of Loei, the road followed the banks of the Mekong, which was a magnet continually appealing for just one more evening landscape photo!
Wat Ong Tue
The temple located between Nong Khai and Si Chiang Mai is one of the most important in Nong Khai Province and contains a magnificent black image of Buddha dating from 1562.
Sri Chiang Mai
Sri Chiang Mai faces Vientienne, the capital of Laos across the Mekong but the main crossing to Vientienne is via the Friendship Bridge at Nong Khai.
Wat Hin Mak Peng
Wat Hin Mak Peng is a forest temple located at one of the narrowest sections of the Mekong where it is possible to watch fishermen on the far riverbank. A glass platform provides wonderful views in both directions at a location which is the very definition of tranquillity.
Wat Pha Tak Seua
The hilltop forest temple at Pha Tak Seua has capitalised on its location which affords spectacular and far reaching views over the Mekong and into Laos by building a Skywalk with a transparent glass floor.
The riverside village of Sangkhorn is popular with backpackers in normal times.
Sangkhorn to Pak Chom
This stretch of our journey was the first time the road pretty much followed the Mekong, which gave many opportunities to stop and appreciate the magnificent scenery as we approached the mountain province of Loei.
Pak Chom June 30 – July 1 2021
Ampai’s favourite brother (she has seven!) Deeow lives near Pak Chom and joined us for dinner with his family. The following day, after enjoying the views over the Mekong, we made a short excursion south from the Mekong to visit Deeow’s home and look at some land he has bought where he plans to grow rubber in the years ahead.
Pak Chom to Chiang Khan July 1 2021
The road continued to follow the Mekong closely, which made for a very pleasant drive and as were now in Loei, the Mekong was now flowing through more hilly terrain.
Chiang Khan July 2 – 4 2021
Chiang Khan was to be the final destination of our 14 day sojourn on the Mekong. This historic town has been discovered big time by Thais in recent years and is famed for its plethora of historic timber properties, many of which have now had their ground floors converted to trendy boutiques and restaurants. However, because of Covid-19, that counted for nothing in 2021 and there were only a handful of visitors, so Chiang Khan had very much reverted to being a laid back riverside town.
Chiang Khan easily justifies a two night stay with several small temples to explore, two notable viewpoints not far out of town at Phra Yai and (another) Phu Tok as well as a dedicated river beach area with an abundance of restaurants just 12km away at Nang Khoi.
The viewpoints and beach were closed because of Covid or at least the access roads to Phra Yai and Phu Tok were closed. However we parked at the barriers and walked uphill for the final mile on both occasions and were rewarded with spectacular views.
Khaeng Khut Khu
We stayed at a famous bend in the Mekong at Khaeng Khut Khu 5km to the west of Chiang Khan where it is normally possible to hire boats for Mekong cruises. The location is famous for its attractive views and a great range of inexpensive food options.
Wat Tha Khok
Wat Tha Kok dates from 1852 and has a very aesthetically pleasing appearance.
Wat Sri Khun Mueng
The viewpoint at Phra Yai overlooks the confluence of the Hueng River with the Mekong and from this point onwards the Mekong is wholly flowing out of Laos and no longer forms the border between Thailand and Laos. A giant 19 metre Buddha and a glass skywalk adorn the high hilltop some 20km west of Chiang Khan.
Phu Tok (not to be confused with the Phu Tok we visited on June 27)
Another viewpoint only 5km from Chiang Khan but further away from the Mekong and the access road was again closed because of Covid. However this was not a problem and if you walk the last 1.5km you will be rewarded with fine views of the mountainous terrain that characterises the Province of Loei.
Wat Mahathat dates from 1654 and is Chiang Khan’s oldest temple.
Wat Pa Klang
Because of the danger of river erosion, in 1923 Wat Pa Klang was moved from its riverbank location and rebuilt in the centre of Chiang Khan in a prominent position beside the busy main road.
Congratulations indeed for getting this far!
The Mekong is indeed one of the world’s great rivers and has inspired both conflict and cooperation among Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam. It has been estimated that sixty million people depend directly upon this river for their livelihoods and perhaps as many as 300 million depend upon what is produced within the Mekong River basin.
Our 14 day journey along barely 600 miles or just under 20% of its length was somewhat modest but it provided a wealth of interesting and rewarding destinations to visit. I have been lucky to find myself restricted to Thailand for most of the time since the Covid -19 pandemic has impacted our lives and one benefit to myself personally is to have used the time to make four extended road trips in the north of Thailand. And this has reinforced to me the incredible number of interesting destinations and attractions that the country has to offer beyond the sun and sand image that is the main association for so many of its visitors and indeed expatriate residents.
I strongly recommend a trip along the Mekong to anyone who wants to spend a week or two off the beaten tourist track in Thailand and I am already planning a return visit for sooner rather than later with a heap of books and extended stays in Khong Chiam, Mukdahan, Nakhon Phanom, Nong Khai and Chiang Khan.
And of course in ‘normal times’, whenever they occur, it will be possible to combine the same with some cross border excursions into Laos.
If you would like to see images from the earlier road trips I made in Thailand just click below!
© Michael Bromfield