Crossing the Mekong at Chiang Khong

Backpacking Chiang Khong

The bolt of lightning shot through the sky like branches on a wild tree; a blinding flash, casting shadows across the dimly lit room. The crackle of thunder closely followed, erupting the silence in a burst of rage. The thud of rain grew louder as the storm loomed closer. I sat still in the chair, staring intently at the back of a stranger. He snapped his camera at the action outside, unaware of my presence, until he finally turned, gasping in shock.

Sounds more like the start of a horror movie than an account of someone’s travels, but that’s how I met Thomas, a French artist backpacking around South East Asia. Random, I know. I really need to stop scaring people.

The rain continued to fall well into the evening as we sat, watching the storm unfold, chatting about our travels. Out over the Mekong River stood the small town of Huay Xai, my next destination. The cool thing about it was that it wasn’t in Thailand, it was in Laos!

Backpacking Chiang Khong

Laos, oh beautiful Laos! I’d heard so much about it. How it still remained largely unexplored, with exception to the tubing capital of Vang Vieng of course! Nowhere near as developed as Thailand, and capitalising on tourism as much as possible making it surprisingly more expensive.

I looked over the river infatuated with wonder. How different was the language? Where they as welcoming as the people in Thailand? Where the buildings similar? Was it harder to travel? How did communism affect people’s lives there? One thing was certain; I couldn’t wait to cross over.

My home for the next few days was a huge wooden guest house which stood beside the river. A hammock haven with beautiful views across the water. A captivating owner with her mind rooted in politics and her heart open to the world. Potential to be one of the best guest houses in Thailand, yet completely deserted. It was a strange place, but it felt like home, for a little while anyway.

Backpacking Chiang Khong

I was staying in the small town of Chiang Khong, quite typically used as a stop gap for people entering/leaving Laos. I ended up spending three days there; longer than most, but my style of travelling meant leaving when I felt the urge, however long that may be.

Mornings spent strolling a cobble-stone walk which ran alongside the river; afternoons spent meditating in the local temple; and evenings spent shopping for ingredients to cook back at the guest house, or indulging in food from a tiny restaurant which by far served the best Pad Thai in Thailand. It was a cute little place, and it served as an ideal place to relax and enjoy the simple things in life.

Over the past three months, my motorbike journeys have been the highlight of my time in Thailand, so I decided to make one last epic adventure to celebrate. I rented my bike from a Reggae bar just outside of the guest house. It was a Honda 125; my favourite. My helmet was open faced; with a British flag design; well suited I guess.

Backpacking Chiang Khong

I took the road South, following the Mekong River through old towns dotted around its banks. I parted East after an hour, rising to higher land that rose and fell aside a valley that cut through the hills like an arrow.  The views were outstanding.

After two hours of riding I reached Doi Pha Tang, a steep hill with spectacular views over the Mekong into Laos. You climb to the top of the hill and then ring the bell which echoes out into the valley, it’s probably a reminder to all the Thais that they still have legs to walk and that they don’t always have to use a motorbike.

Backpacking Chiang Khong

After making far too much noise on the bell, I continued south, heading towards Phu Chi Fah. I have very fond memories of riding along the road and looking down into the valley, completely blown away by the whole experience and the pure beauty of it all.

After a while of blissful riding I reached Phu Chi Fah, a forest park with a high mountain peak offering an even higher viewpoint than the last. I could only ride the bike so far up and then I had to get off and hike the rest. As I started the climb I spotted something ahead in the bushes. At first I thought it was a black statue of some sort, but when I got closer I realised it was a dog. It didn’t move; it didn’t blink; it just stared intensely right at me. I was absolutely riddled with fear. I took the risk and continued edging closer towards it until I was within edible reach. It darted from the bush and sprinted past me. Definitely one of the scariest moments of my life.

Backpacking Chiang Khong

Shaken but alive, I continued upwards until I eventually reached the peak. At the cliff’s edge, it dropped dramatically into a landscape lush with forest; a great expanse of land as far as the eye could see, across the border and into the depths of Laos. After a while of pondering thoughts and some interesting small talk with some Thai man with a cowboy hat I decided to call it a day and return home to prepare myself for the morning crossing.

Thomas, who I’d scared the shit out of previously, was also crossing into Laos, but with my eagerness to set off in the morning I left him at the guest house in hope I would meet up with him in Huay Xai.

Backpacking Chiang Khong

The exit stamp thudded down on my passport; I paid my forty baht ticket fee, and then squeezed onto a small, rickety wooden boat on the bank of the Mekong. As I sat and waited for the boat to fill, I reminisced on the three months I’d spent in Thailand. An epic mix of discovery; ancient ruins, camping trips and motorbike journeys, all fuelled by a shit load of rice and noodles.

The engine sprung to life and chugged slowly across the current. With Thailand behind me, I looked ahead, fixing my eyes on the bank of Laos. The adventure was heating up and I was travelling into the unknown where uncertainty lingered at my heels. My heart thudded with excitement; I was more than ready for the journey ahead.

Catch you on the other side,

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5 Responses

  1. chris says:

    Hey JP

    Quite a scary one that!


  2. Rich D says:

    I’m glad you found the emigration huts – I met someone who merrily boarded a boat across to Laos, but was sent back by Laos immigration because they hadn’t stamped out of Thailand! Enjoy Huay Xai (however briefly, cos it’s tiny), and say hello to the Money Sandwich shop – the cutest family runs it.

  3. Robert Smith says:

    Hey mate hope your good just read your post was very good. I loved the beginning I bet the french guy will be watching his back more during storms after you scarying him lol

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