Chiang Khan is a gorgeous little town on the Mekong River in Northeast Thailand. Little known by foreigners but super popular with the locals, this place, is a gem of a find. I jumped on the opportunity to see another part of Thailand as everyplace I’ve been so far have been the popular tourist spots of Chiang Mai, Bangkok, Phuket, Koh Tao, Phi Phi and Koh Lanta. I was excited to see a different side of Thailand and have a cultural experience with the locals.
We flew into Loei and took a mini-van to Chiang Khan. The first thing I noticed when driving in was all the gorgeous wooden houses! After checking into my room, I opened my balcony door to have a perfect view of the Mekong River, which was just steps away from the hotel. Since we got in late, we grabbed dinner and walked around the night market.
BICYCLE TOUR OF CHIANG KHAN
The next morning is when the fun began! We did a bike tour of the town stopping along the way to meet local artisans and learn about the history. First stop was Grandpa the paper cutter!
Grandpa The Paper Cutter
Grandpa won an award for the best paper cutter in Chiang Khan. He takes two pieces of tissue paper and makes what looks like a hanging bell. He intricately and precisely cuts into the paper to make these beautiful creations. We even tried our hand at them, but they weren’t as good as his.
We learned that the main draw to Chiang Khan by the locals are the gorgeous wooden houses which are made of teak wood and stretch 1.5 km through town and along the Mekong River. These beautiful homes are over 100 years old and were built on movable wooden planks so that the owners could move the whole house if they needed to. All the homes that are constructed today must follow the town’s rule of keeping with the style of the century-old homes.
Getting Music Lessons
We stopped by a music studio where we watched a performance by the teachers and tried our hand on the various instruments. The teachers are so talented and play all the instruments in the studio, which is over ten different instruments including xylophones, flutes, different string instruments, and a mouth organ. I tried my hand on one of the flutes. They’re not as easy as they look!
One of my favorite stops on the tour was visiting the old cinemas. There are no working theaters in Chiang Khan now, they’ve all been turned into cafes, and one is now a tennis court. All of them have kept the elements and charm from the old cinemas with movie posters and relics still in each of the shops. There was also a movie made after the town “Chiang Khan Story” that was released recently in 2014. It is a Thai romantic comedy about an orphan boy and a beautiful rich girl who have known each other since they were kids then reunite when they are older. You can find it on YouTube.
Wat Si Khun Mueang
This temple is the second oldest temple in Chiang Kahn. Only men are allowed inside the temple. So that the women could be involved too, they painted murals on the outside of the temple walls. The two statues in front are Yakshas who guard the temple door.
Eating Local Food
Of course, our bike tour wouldn’t be complete without eating the local food! We stopped by a few different places to see how they make Naem Moo (fermented pork wrapped in banana leaf) then went across the street to try Mae Haew’s version where she makes an amazing deep fried rice salad with it where you wrap the mixture in leaves and eat. This was by far my favorite dish! The next stop was to try Jum Nua. This glass noodle soup is only made in Chiang Khan and only at one restaurant. The unique ingredients are pork, fermented tofu (which gives it the pink color), morning glory and family spices. It looks a little out of a Dr.Suess book given the color of the fermented tofu, but it’s delicious, and a must try if you find yourself in Chiang Khan! This was just our snacks! For lunch, we were treated to Koong Paen which is deep fried tiny river shrimp mixed into a crispy pancake.
Walking The Night Market
Later in the evening after we finished with our bike tour, we walked the main street which turns into a night market after 7pm. Here you can get hand crafted items and many vendors selling street food treats.
CHIANG KHAN’S LOCAL TRADITIONS
Making Pa Sad Loy Kroh (Banana Castle Floats)
After our bike tour, we were treated to making our own Pad Sad Loi’s to release into the water. The locals make these and release them into the river to get rid of the bad. We made our own from scratch and put a clipping of our hair and fingernail into the float to represent us then our floats were blessed by a Shaman before we boarded the boat to release them into the Mekong River. Before we released them, we said a little prayer then placed them in the water. Right after you look away symbolizing not looking back at all the bad and looking into the future of good. (The picture below is a picture of someone else’s float – I didn’t look back)
Mask Painting – Pri Khon Nam
The most popular time to go to Chiang Khan is during the Ghost Festival ‘Phi Khon Nam’. The festival is annually and occurs right before the farming season begins. The locals paint and wear masks in the festival and dance in a parade to ask the spirits to bring enough rain to grow their crops. The masks have antlers representing the Buffalo, which is their workhorse in the fields and the strings of ribbon hanging down from the antlers represent the rain. We had the local mask maker come to our hotel, and we painted our own masks to take home.
On my last morning in Chiang Khan, I was up early to participate in Almsgiving. Being in Southeast Asia, I have witnessed Almsgiving many mornings, but this was special as I was able to partake in the daily ritual. My guide Patrichat dressed me in a traditional sarong and sash and gave me a basket of warm sticky rice to give out to the monks. Over the years Almsgiving has started to include food and drinks, but the traditional Almsgiving only includes rice. I lined up on the mat with others who lined the streets and waited for the monks to come. After each set of monks received their offerings, they stop to chant a prayer to us before heading off to the next group. Almsgiving is a way for the community to give.
After Almsgiving we went to a market to pick up ingredients to make two local dishes with ‘Auntie Nang’. She taught us how to make a Lap – Spicy Banana Flower Salad and Taro and Pumpkin in Coconut Milk. Both were relatively simple recipes to make. All the locals that make these recipes use the same ingredients but the quantities that they use are to their liking. So there’s really no set measurement, it’s just what the Auntie feels that day when she’s cooking. I eye-balled the ingredients she used for the Banana Flower Salad. This was my favorite dish we made out of the two.
TAI DAM VILLAGE
On the way to the airport, we stopped at Tai Dam (Black Thai) village museum which was started by Dr.Phettabong Paisoon to create awareness and preserve and restore the Tai Dam culture. The Tai Dam people are scattered between Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, and China. They come to Thailand’s cultural center every year for a reunion. We had a chance to hang out with the children who are there to learn their village dances and language. The Tai Dam’s are known as the Black Thai’s because their traditional clothing is black. We had such a great time visiting the center, dressing up and dancing with the kids.