Nearly 6 pm now and I am sitting in the “Bike and Drink” bar in Chiang Khong on the banks of the mighty Mekong River. That is bike as in bicycle – so of course I had to stop. Good decision. They have good American style pale ale (albeit from New Zealand) and they are playing Hotel California!
Chiang Khong long stood as the gateway to Laos from this part of Thailand – just a ferry ride across the Mekong. However, not too long ago the opening of a new “Friendship” bridge across the Mekong a few kilometers south of town caused an economic slow down. Still it’s a pleasant one-road town. Backpacker’s hostels, restaurants, and bars line the main drag, and the town sports the friendly ambiance of a town far, far from Bangkok. Enough about Chiang Khong though, let’s catch up.
My rest day in Chiang Rai turned into 3 rest days. I gained one day when I pushed through to Chiang Rai without stopping at Mae Chan. I gained a second rest day when my friends, who drove up from Chiang Mai to play golf and celebrate a birthday, talked me into staying another day to play golf and celebrate a second night. At first I said no, but then I remembered. I am retired, I can do whatever I want. So I stayed. On the first rest day I did cycle 14 km out to Wat Rong Kuhn aka the White Temple.
While the structure is impressive, the site is a tourist trap with hundreds of Chinese tourists milling about. I had a smoothie and a coffee and cycled back. It was however good to warm up my slightly sore legs after the long day coming from Fang.
I won’t say much about my stay in Chiang Rai – to borrow a phrase, what happens in Chiang Rai stays in Chiang Rai. Suffice it to say that my stay involved a lot of eating and a lot of drinking. Chiang Rai is the poor man’s Las Vegas for us – not because it in anyway resembles the real LV, but because it is not Chiang Mai, our home town where we (mostly) try to behave ourselves. By the time I saddled up my bike this morning, I was feeling quite sluggish and bloated.
I was up early though, and hit the road a little after 7 am – no breakfast, but I still felt full so that was just fine with me. The ride out of town followed the Mae Kok River to the northwest. Although into a slight headwind, the route was flat and fairly fast. A bit further northeast, the route abandoned the river and meandered through
golden plains of ripe rice paddies and low hills covered with lush rubber plantations. Finally, 45 km and 2 hours out of town, I was hungry. Just in time, I came upon that ubiquitous institution that is as much a part of Thailand as red and gold
temples and fiery papaya salad: a 7-eleven. If you have never been to Thailand, you would never believe how many 7-elevens are here. In cities there can be 3 or 4 of them in the same block. I have seen two of them across the street from each other. Some are the size of a small suburban kitchen, others are USA-sized. They are everywhere. Until you go up country. For a village in Thailand, I suspect getting a 7-eleven ranks just behind running water and electricity in the measure of progress. The branch I encountered looked brand-spanking new, with shelves fully stocked with everything that will make the Thais just as fat as Americans. I had my gourmet brunch of nuked ham and cheese croissants and cookies, washed down with a coke while sitting on their front step.
I continued cycling northwestward until I reached the Mekong River. The main road to Chiang Khong diverges from the river and crosses the Phi Pan Nam mountains, a more direct route. I chose to follow the Mekong on a smaller road where the river wraps northward, eventually cutting directly through the mountains as an antecedent stream (nerd alert).
The Mekong existed before the uplift the mountains, and as uplift proceeded, the erosive power of the river out-paced the rising mountains such that the river now cuts east-west through the north-south ridges of the Phi Pan Nam range. Unfortunately, the road did not stay down along the river, but rather rose and fell, constantly hugging the shoulder of the mountains to the south.
Finally about 100 km out from Chiang Rai, I rounded the bend in the river for what I hoped was a smooth run into Chiang Khong. No such luck. The last 20 km wound over even high ridges, and to make it worse, the road was being widened, resulting in several kilometers of cycling up and down steep grades on what amounted to a dusty dirt road. By the time I cruised into town, I was sunburned, dehydrated, and just plain beat. I stopped at the first hotel I saw – a very small room spartanly furnished, but it cost only 400 baht (just over $12). Good enough, and after a shower I was sound a sleep. Woke up an hour later, and here I am sipping my second beer and munching on Lays. Off to find a proper dinner somewhere. Talk to you tomorrow from my next stop, Thoeng.