Thailand: The Chiang Khan Walking Street
Chiang Khan will not be on the radar for most Western visitors to Thailand. The reason is that the town lies in a remote region in the north, right on the banks of the River Mekong and just across the river from the border with Laos. The only westerners who will commonly pass through this part of Thailand are the backpackers and travellers en route to Laos and maybe to other countries in southeast Asia.
But Chiang Khan is very well known to Thai nationals as a popular place to visit for a domestic, culturally interesting vacation. Perhaps its closest equivalent for Brits would be a weekend break in an old heritage town such as historic Stratford-upon-Avon; and for Americans, a short break in colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, or some such place. But in truth perhaps there is no direct comparison.
Chiang Khan is the place Thais go to see old Thailand - not the historic ruins of great temples and palaces, but traditional style dwellings. Not great royal festivals, but arts and crafts. Together with souvenir shops, restaurants and bars, and local excursions to the countryside and river trips along the Mekong, these are the things which draw large numbers of visitors each year to Chiang Khan from all corners of the nation. And there is one particular street where they congregate - the 'Walking Street'.
N.B: Please note, all of my articles are best read on desktops and laptops
All photos on this page were taken by the author on two visits to Chiang Khan in 2016 - a day trip in January, and a weekend break in November.
The Location of Chiang Khan on the Thai-Laos Border
The History of Chiang Khan
Chiang Khan is both the name of a district in the Thai Province of Loei, and also the name of the principal town of the district. As a border town (the actual border lies mid-stream in the Mekong river), a close association has always existed between the land of the Thais and the land of the Laotians to the north. Indeed, Laos was very much instrumental in the foundation of the town as we see it today.
There was actually a settlement here long far the past, a part of the Lan Xiang Kingdom which once occupied much of present day Laos and North Thailand. But in the 18th century, Lan Xiang and the outpost town of Chiang Khan were in conflict with many other regional powers. Ultimately, the Kingdom fell, and Chiang Khan was destroyed by Haw warriors invading from the Yunnan region of China. The town never fully recovered from this, until ironically in the late 19th century a further period of conflict breathed new life into the region. France was then establishing its colonial interests in southeast Asia, and specifically in Laos, and at a time of great social upheaval, migrants came flooding across the Mekong to seek refuge. They built new homes on the Loei side of the river, and the town of Chiang Khan was reborn.
Dwellings largely made of teakwood - the most traditional of building styles in this region - sprang up, mostly around the riverfront. The main road in those early days was Chai Khong Street, which ran parallel to the river. As political tensions briefly settled in the region, the location allowed Chiang Khan to flourish. It became an important trading hub with Laos and China to the north, and via the Mekong with Cambodia, Vietnam and the South China Sea - everything from rubber trading and agriculture to the more dubious practices of the opium trade. Fishing predictably also became a very important source of income. And with this success, the town began to expand backwards away from the riverbank, with the construction of new buildings and new roads - wider roads to take modern, motorised traffic. As a result, narrow Chai Khong Street began to gradually diminish in importance. Nobody bothered to replace existing structures and rebuild here. What might have been the absolute death knell for the street came in 1975, when the whole region suffered another serious setback - the Communist Pathet Lao seized power in Laos and trade with Thailand came to an abrupt halt. Coupled with this, fishing stocks at this time were declining in the Mekong. Chiang Khan became something of a backwater, and many residents moved away. And as for the original main street of Chai Khong, some of the houses were abandoned, and the street took on an air of dereliction for the next two decades - indeed, right up until the early years of the 21st century..
The Revival of Chiang Khan
But recently, Chiang Khan has seen one more big and rather surprising revival. In a new era of peace, the borders finally reopened, and the town found new fortune through tourism. City dwelling Thais, nostalgically in search of their cultural past, began to rediscover Chiang Khan and most of all, the old main street of Chai Khong. And they fell in love with its teakwood buildings - run down but still standing as one of the finest, most extensive ranges of 19th to early 20th century rural buildings in Thailand. Western backpackers travelling through this country to Laos, began stopping over, and they also embraced the traditional style of Chai Khong Street.
Knowledge of the town and its old yet unspoiled waterside street rapidly spread, such that within very few years there were tour buses arriving every day and notably at the weekends. Many other Thais and backpackers began making their own way to this isolated location, 580 km from Bangkok. Some would travel overnight by bus or train, or by aeroplane to the provincial capital Loei Town, followed by taxis, buses or other local forms of transport to get them to Chiang Khan.
The municipality saw this as an opportunity, and set out to develop the infrastructure to cater for this lucrative new influx of visitors. But there were conflicting interests here - too much development of course would kill the goose which laid the golden egg. The old buildings had to be preserved without excessive restoration in order to attract the tourists. As a result, many of the buildings were registered for architectural protection, whilst others were renovated to serve as smart looking boutique hotels.
Today the town has a resident population of about 10,000 citizens, but a further 650,000 visit each year. Much of Chiang Khan away from the river is typical of towns everywhere with busy traffic-filled streets, a hospital, banks, schools, a bus station and all other necessary institutions. But that part of town will remain unknown to most visitors because all tourist attention is focused on just one road. That is the old street which runs parallel to the Mekong. Still it is officially called Chai Khong Street, but everyone who visits now knows it as the 'Walking Street'.
The Author's Visits
I made two visits to Chiang Khan in 2016. The first in January was a short day trip by car with friends from the Province of Udon Thani. We spent a few hours on the Walking Street during the afternoon and the early evening. The second longer visit involved an overnight air-conditioned bus ride from Bangkok, and a weekend booking in a small hostel at the far eastern end of the Walking Street, and included excursions into the local countryside - the subject of another article linked to at the end of this page.
The Chiang Khan Walking Street - An Overview
The Walking Street is a narrow road a little under 2 km long, lined with small guesthouses and hotels, restaurants, bars and shops. On the south side, about 20 side streets lead off towards the rest of Chiang Khan Town where most of the more conventional shops, other businesses and administrative buildings are to be found, as well as the homes of most of the local people. Some of these side streets are worth investigating for quaint little shops and quieter bars.
On the north side, the guesthouses, stores and restaurants separate the street from a promenade which runs alongside the Mekong, offering splendid views of the opposite Laotian riverbank. and this promenade today is part of the draw which attracts people here.
Despite the name, cars are permitted on the Walking Street, but not many will be seen - progress is slow, especially in the evenings when the street is crowded with pedestrians and there really is no value in driving down it unless it is traders making deliveries to the shops and guesthouses. The rest of the town is for cars - the Walking Street is for walking.
Wooden Houses and Shops
The most solid, 'concrete' appeal for the tourists who come here are the buildings. And yes, there are a few concrete buildings here, but the old Walking Street is characterised by wooden structures - teakwood builds and teak framed wattle and daub dwellings - the original two-storey houses and shops built in traditional Thai style, more than 100 years ago. They are in varying states of repair, and these days, some merely form the backdrop to street market stalls. But many are still lived in, usually by the owners of the shops which occupy the ground floor. Houses like this can still be seen in rural villages. But there are few streets like Chai Khong where almost all the buildings are of this kind - of sentimental appeal to the Thais.
Whilst there is more substantial and luxurious accomodation in hotels elsewhere in town and further along the river away from the town, most backpackers and Thai locals will stay in small guesthouses on the Walking Street itself - not five star modern buildings but unsophisticated hostels with accommodation for a handful of guests. Facilities may be fairly simple, but en suite bathrooms, free wi-fi and basic refreshments are easy to come by. And the necessity of attracting guests and making them feel welcome ensures that these are by far the best preserved and renovated buildings on the street.
Staff in Chiang Khan seemingly are generally very friendly and welcoming. On the occasion of the author's visit, our accomodation at the Chic Chiangkhan Hotel was not yet ready due to our early arrival in the town. But another hostel down the road offered us a place to wait, and free use of their facilities, including two bicycles to explore the town whilst we waited.
The Chiang Khan Walking Street After Nightfall
Chiang Khan's Walking Street is busy in the daytime, but it is after darkness falls that it really comes to life. As soon as the sun goes down, the street begins to rapidly fill with people, not for the most part walking with any purpose, but strolling aimlessly from one end to the other, snacking on street food, and buying trinkets from souvenir stalls. Cars are even fewer on the street at this time - there's just no room for them. If you can only visit for a couple of hours, then this is very much the time to take to the Street.
The night time temperature may be a little bit cooler, but the atmosphere becomes distinctly warmer. All senses become engaged as we shall see in the later sections about culture, food and entertainment, and now the street lights cast an attractive amber glow over the wood plank fronted buildings - a glow which is then refected back on to the entire Walking Street. This is also the best time to appreciate the special nature of this road in relation to the town as a whole - if you want solitude, then just turn down one of the side streets, and within ten metres the drop off in human traffic from the hustle and bustle of Chai Khong will be hugely marked, as the real town of Chiang Khan - a quiet provincial town - asserts itself.
Somewhat incongrously the emblem of Chiang Khan - the icon one sees almost everywhere on Walking Street, is nothing to do with walking, nor even anything to do with the famous teak houses which draw the Thai people to this town. It's the bicycle. I guess it's the way to get quickly from A to B in a street crowded with people, and hiring a cycle is certainly the cheapest way for Thai tourists and backpackers to get out and explore the surrounding countryside. Most hostels hire them out, and if you buy a coffee mug or a set of coasters or a T-shirt souvenir of Chiang Khan, the chances are that it will carry a bicycle illustration. Check out all the photos on this page, and you'll see numerous bicycles.
The Walking Street Culture - Shops, Arts and Crafts
Pretty much everything on the street these days caters to the tourist trade, and what's on offer is a very mixed bag. Some have worries about Chiang Khan, and whether the tourist market, which has burgeoned in recent years, will kill the authentic traditional culture which attracted visitors here in the first place. Certainly many of the stalls which line the street now sell the kind of tacky souvenirs and kitsch trinkets which you could pick up just as easily in a Bangkok street market. Many of these will not have been made locally.
But mindful of the need to maintain a certain level of traditional charm and decorum, one won't find the more dubious tourist attractions here. There are no glitzy nightclubs, raucous bars or go-go clubs, unlike many Thai destinations which cater more to farangs (foreigners) than to Thai nationals. And among all the formulaic, mass-produced souvenirs, the need to satisfy those seeking the unusual, the curious or the authentic local produce, is recognised. There are still some gems to be found here. Local hand woven cotton goods and nostalgic 20th century memorabilia are on sale, while many of the guesthouses have their own little display cabinets featuring local crafts. The two stores featured in photos here are representative of the more interesting retailers The dual split photo below shows my favourite shop on the street, an arts and crafts shop which specialises in turning plastic bottlles into lamp shades of beauty, carefully carved and painted on site by the proprietor.
The Walking Street Culture - Food and Drink
No one can walk down the Walking Street without sampling some of the local food. There are restaurants here (mostly small, open-air places - any 'air-conditioning' comes from a ceiling fan or a natural breeze!) But it is the street food stalls - as in any town in this country - which offer the most typically Thai dining experience. And in Chiang Khan these contribute much to the atmosphere of the place. The sounds of sizzling barbeques and bubbling woks and the smells of a hundred different ingredients, together with the crowds congregating around these stalls, are what really brings the street to life.
For the Western visitor there will be the familiar fare - tender chicken and pork on skewers, soups, prawns, noodles and rice - but also many local delicacies and desserts prepared in front of you on the side of the street. The preparation of desserts can be particularly interesting to watch, as many are quite unlike anything you may see in the West. A favourite of the author is khanom krok, which is a hot coconut milk pudding made in special moulds and illustrated here.
(I have written two articles about Thai street food, and many of the meals and desserts featured can be found on the Chai Khong Walking Street. Follow the links to find these articles).
The Walking Street Culture - Music .....
You don't have to walk very far down the road before you start hearing the sound of music. Buskers line the Walking Street at discrete intervals (so they don't compete with each other), performing every conceivable kind of music from modern Western sounds and Thai pop, to more traditional folk employing the most obscure of Thai or Laotian instruments.
The range of musical instruments and styles may vary - so, it must be said, does the talent. Some who perform for pennies here may be lucky to get pennies. Others have genuine talent. All however, contribute to the vibrant and colourful atmosphere of Chiang Khan's Walking Street.
..... and Dance
Tourists to a street renouned for its historic culture will also attract cultural entertainers from around the country, including dance troupes such as the one photographed here - a small group of traditionally attired children from Petchabun Province. Another photograph of some very colourfully dressed dancers can be found at the bottom of this page.
Giving Alms to the Monks
There is one daily ritual which is very much associated with Chiang Khan, and many Thai visitors participate in it. Each morning before the break of day, people will start to gather at one end of the Walking Street. Each will have purchased a bowl or basket of various foods and drinks and each will sit or kneel on the pavement and wait. And before long Buddhist monks from all the local temples begin to arrive, and they slowly process along the long line of devotees to receive the gifts - a charity upon which they depend for their food and drink.
In truth this is a custom which is more associated with Laotian Buddhism than with Thai culture - a further sign of the link to this part of Thailand's past relationship with its neighbour across the river. The occasion is not too formal, even though giving of alms is a solemn undertaking. Photography even with flash is permitted, although obviously one should not get in the way. The ceremony continues into daylight, and makes for an interesting spectacle, which you are unlikely to see anywhere else.
The downstream end of the Chiang Khan Walking Street
The monks' procession along the road as described in the previous section, begins at the eastern, downstream end of the Chiang Khan Walking Street, where the wooden buildings come to an end and the road opens up into a wide pathway with a grassy bank leading down to the Mekong. Coaches park up here bringing the tourists, and when people are not walking the street, this is where they tend to hang out - both locals and tourists, and most of all teenagers and groups of school children. It's a nice place to relax with a nice view of the Mekong. There's also a very attractive Buddhist temple here, called Wat Tha Khrok, which is worth visiting.
The Riverside Promenade
From the pathway at the downstream end, one can easily access a much narrower promenade which runs alongside the water's edge behind the guesthouses and shops on the river side of the Walking Street. There are also small alleyways between the buildings which will also take you to this promenade from the street.
Though it's not technically part of the Walking Street, I include mention of this promenade here, because it'll take less than one minute to reach it from the Walking Street. So whatever the length of one's stay in Chiang Khan, there really is no excuse for missing the memorable view which this location offers of the river and the Laotian border.
(The guesthouse in which I stayed was on this side of Chiang Khan Walking Street, and one could walk right through from the front entrance to the back, with the view which can be seen below).
One wooden shuttered shop front on the street always attracts attention. Covered in graffiti (which was not removed in the ten months between my two visits), people love to pose here for photos. Not sure why - just one of the curiosities of the Walking Street
So this is the Chiang Khan Walking Street - a place almost exclusively the haunt of Thai tourists, school parties and Western backpackers. The street itself is undoubtedly the main draw for those who come to Chiang Khan, and many of them travel many hundreds of kilometres to get here.
It must be said that much to be seen on a brief visit is not authentic local culture, and many of the vendors and guesthouse owners are 'immigrants' from other parts of Thailand who are prepared to pay the high price for the riverside location of this increasingly profitable venue. But one can root out genuinely interesting discoveries among the souvenir stalls, and if one can stand in the street and imagine it without the crowds and the trinkets so that just the teak wood buildings - and the bicycles - remain, then the Chiang Khan Walking Street still conjures up an evocative vision of the past world of rural Thailand, and that will create warm memories of a visit here.
On a short half-day visit to Chiang Khan, the Walking Street and the Promenade may be all one has time to see - a stroll along the road, a sampling of the food, shopping for curios and other souvenirs, and then as dusk falls - a chance to sit by the banks of the Mekong to watch a rich orange sunset over the forested hills of northern Thailand and southern Laos. It's a few hours well spent.
(My thanks to Fern Butsawa, Cheewa Ruangsawang and Wanna Sonkunha for accompanying me on my visits to Chiang Khan)
Chiang Khan Culture, Countryside and Riverside
But if one can spend a weekend here, there is more to see and do in and around Chiang Khan than to merely walk down this one street. Anyone who visits for two or three days will want to explore the surrounding countryside, seek out the many local temples, see more of the local culture - perhaps more genuinely authentic than some of that on the Street - and take a boat trip on the legendary Mekong. These and other attractions will all be covered in the second part of this photoessay about the town of Chiang Khan. Chiang Khan Culture, Countryside and Riverside
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