Snaking Along the Mekong - This Time Tomorrow - CycleBlaze

February 4, 2017

Snaking Along the Mekong

Chiang Saen to Chiang Khong, Thailand

Snaking Along the Mekong

Two years ago we rode from Chiang Saen to Chiang Khong on the main road, 1290. Part way I remember eyeing a turnoff onto a smaller road that hugged the Mekong River but we knew it would be longer and instead we held to the main road even though it included a big hill. I’ve never forgotten that hill or the look of that cute little road along the river that we didn’t take. I decided early on that this time I wanted to ride the road along the Mekong.

Chiang Saen Guesthouse
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Leaving the Chiang Saen Guesthouse.
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The Mekong at Chiang Saen, Thailand.
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The only thing we might be missing was an absolutely lovely coffee place near the top of that hill which I have since thought about many times as one of my favorite coffee spots ever.

A young couple had recently built the little place but I think it was mostly the guy’s dream. It was the only thing out there and the woman seemed like an out-of-place city girl. He had cleared the jungle around their knob of the mountain and planted all sorts of interesting plants. The chairs and tables were hand made and the view was astounding. He seemed perfectly happy and excited that he was open for business, that we were there, that the plants were growing and that life was beautiful. His dream was coming true.

I got the impression they hadn’t had many customers yet. The woman seemed to have decided her job was going to be making the coffee probably because she thought it would be a cool thing to do and since she wasn’t into anything remotely associated with the outdoors or country life, it was about all she could contribute to the endeavor.

She seemed nervous about possibly having to understand and speak some English with us but that wasn’t the ultimate problem. We ordered Americanos… with milk! That was the problem.

She looked confused because she had been taught, correctly, that Americanos do not include milk. She was immediately stumped as to how to proceed. She wasn’t hearing incorrectly because we were speaking Thai. She was perturbed and did a Thai version of throwing up her hands and quitting on the spot. But her helpful guy was right there to calm her down and asked her to give the tourists what they wanted no matter how odd it was.

After she made us our Americanos, with milk, she disappeared into the back room. I imagined her on the phone to her friends in the city telling them that she didn’t know if she could stick it out and, “You know what just happened! Two crazy farang just ordered Americanos with milk! I don’t know, I think they are probably Americans. They should know better, right?”

We lounged at a little log table overlooking a stream and pond which the guy had made. The coffee tasted great but the setting was even better. The guy brought us oranges and exotic dried salty Thai things - a fantastic host. I loved it there and didn’t want to leave. That was two years ago.

Now, when we got to the intersection of decision, there was no doubt in my mind which way to go even if it turned out to be a further distance. I had been on that road along the river three times in years past but always in the back of small trucks craning my neck to view the scenery from slot windows. Ever since, I’ve wanted to experience the road slowly - ideally by bicycle.

We were definitely not returning to the perfect little coffee spot perched on the edge of a mountain. Some things can remain good memories. Quick change is prevalent all over Asia and there was a good chance it was not in business anymore. I was pretty sure that the woman had returned to her roots in the city - helped over the edge by two random farang on bikes. I just hope the guy had enough customers to keep his dream alive. We have seen hundreds of hulking remnants of buildings everywhere in Asia - so many people’s dreams dashed.

On the other hand my dream was coming true. I had always thought of the road along the river to be my all-time favorite road anywhere. Seriously, it was that mellow and that beautiful. Plus, it followed right along the banks of my favorite river in the world. Google Maps labels the road simply, “Rural Road”.

"Rural Road" along the Mekong River.
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Beautiful mellow road along the Mekong. Possibly my most favorite road anywhere.
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Rural Road and the Mekong River headed north for a few miles outlining one of Thailand’s most northern lobes. I was surprised how many fields of corn we passed. There was evidence of all sorts of other crops on the fertile slopes leading down to the river. But it was winter, more pronounced this far north, and many fields were waiting to be planted. It was off-season and the quietness proved it. Through the years development along the road has not materialized. If I were a Thai person with any money I would for sure build a winter home in that area. For some reason it hasn’t been discovered yet. Peacefulness along the small road remains and we were soaking it up.

I love this stretch of the Mekong and the small farms alongside.
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The beautiful Mekong River.
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We passed a table filled with ripe bananas for sale and I looped back because I brake for such fruit stands. A young guy came running out to take our pittance. I went a bit overboard and got a huge bunch but then, as the man was putting them into a plastic bag, he added a similar number of bananas. I guess he had too many ripe bananas. The bag weighed at least ten pounds and I strapped it on top of my bags as best I could without turning it into a bag of banana mush. Generous and gentle people live along that road to be sure.

A good buy on bananas. (25 for $1)
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As the river and road slowly swung more to the east, fields gave way to forests on the south side of the road, thus, more coolness. We were basically in heaven, floating along, happy, not a care in the world. We had come to a place in our trip where conversation isn’t important but experiencing the dream, and sharing it with someone else, is. There is always a time on long trips when we inevitably come to the point where neither of us can figure out what day of the week it is. On that road we came to the point where even noticing that we didn’t know didn’t matter.

I like these signs we see everywhere that seem to be fading into nothingness.
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Then we saw a snake. It was a bright green thin snake trying to cross the road opposite from us, coming out from the jungle. We stopped to marvel at its beauty but noticed that it wasn’t able to grip the newly-paved, smooth asphalt. I jumped off my bike and into action. Using my click-stand I tried to scare the snake into trying harder to get across. Even though there was only the occasional vehicle and my enormous fear of snakes, I certainly didn’t want it to be included in my squashed snake count which for Thailand was at 48 so far. The snake scared all right. It froze. I had always been told that very green snakes in Thailand are usually poisonous so I didn’t want to pursue the scare any further. I had tried. I can only hope the snake got a grip and crossed safely. It was one of the most beautiful snakes I’ve ever seen.

That stretch of the Mekong has a lot of jagged rocks and rapids and appears to be more wild - one reason I love that stretch. Across the river is Laos largely forested but with what appeared to be a newer and larger road than the one we were on. Laos is still in the exploitation-of-resources phase of its development and we noticed lots of large trucks dusting along over there. And there were areas of blasted out rock - scars on the landscape and quite visible from Thailand. There were also huge rock grinding machines to make gravel for new roads.

Mekong River - Laos on the other side.
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Blasting and grinding of rock on the Lao side.
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Thais love to have their photos taken in front of signs such as this one.
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Thailand, on the other hand, is in its promenade-building phase of development which doubles as the exploitation of resources. Although that stretch of river is free of such ridiculous projects we eventually came to an area of the river with the biggest promenade operation we have ever seen along the banks of the Mekong.

A major erosion control/promenade project.
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The natural banks of the Mekong are made up of thousands of years of fine sand and it must be high grade sand because it seems to be highly sought after. Either Siam Cement (one of the largest corporations in the world and owned by the Thai Royal Family) wants the sand or it is of such a fine grade it is perfect for use in oil fracking and sold to other countries. There is government corruption involved for sure because why else would there be literally thousands of huge shovels employed in constantly scooping out the sand and trucking it away? All along Thailand’s side of the river we have seen these operations for the past few years.

They replace the sand with large, jagged, (unnatural for the river bank) gray chunks of rock. It’s the perfect government sponsored corruption scheme. They can easily explain to the local people that it’s for erosion control. It’s for their benefit. Aren’t we a great government to be caring for you the lowly rural citizens! But with the Mekong dammed in six places in China there is little possibility that flooding will ever occur again. The river will fluctuate unnaturally as the Chinese need more electricity and let out more water at times but dams are normally quite effective at eliminating disastrous floods and erosion.

Then, to literally top it off, Siam Cement pours a wide promenade along the edge of the jagged rocks, again for the benefit of the rural people. However, there are hundreds of little rivulets flowing into the Mekong and no bridges have been built over them leaving the promenades in isolated segments - promenades to nowhere. If the government actually wanted to help it’s citizens it would actually spend money to build the little bridges connecting all the promenades so that they maybe would be of some use. Instead it’s the land of dead end promenades which fall into disuse. Rocks settle, the cement breaks up and the entire project turns into a colossal eyesore within just a few years. We’ve seen this already.

Walking barefoot along the natural sandy banks of the river where the sand still exists is really nice. I have enjoyed many a sandy beach on the banks of the Mekong but I fear this will eventually be impossible with the large piles of jagged rocks everywhere. For sand to once again cover the rocks would take centuries and only if the river was allowed to flood as it used to do naturally. This whole promenade thing is a pet peeve of mine and I will now stop. I’ve seen a lot of corruption in Thailand so I’m jaded and assume the worst when I see such huge enterprises. Possibly, and hopefully, I’m wrong on these assumptions.

But now that I’ve worked myself into a foul mood I can more aptly describe the rest of our ride to Chiang Khong. We eventually had to link back up with highway 1290 and when we did everything turned to shit. The highway was in the midst of being widened the rest of the way to Chiang Khong which was more than ten miles. There were some enormous hills we had forgotten about and with big trucks driving too fast on loose sand and the removal of all overhanging trees meant that the day had turned into a night and day difference, in a single day!

Construction zone starts as we connect with Highway 1290
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The sun was different too. There was something about the quality of the sun that was blastingly intense, more intense than we had felt on our entire trip. Even the slathering of thick layers of sunscreen repeatedly seemed futile. We simply plugged along hating the scarification of the steep hills on either side of us. And I even wondered what day it was. That’s how different the day had become!

Scorchingly hot and bright.
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It’s not like they were improving the grade of the road at all, just making it wider. With that much heavy equipment I would think that it would be the perfect time to lower the grade. But maybe that makes too much sense or it’s just the opinion of a cyclist. The reason for the widening was to get more tourists from Chiang Saen to Chiang Khong quicker on big buses because, with the new bridge across the Mekong, Chiang Khong has become a major crossing point to Laos and on to China. The good thing is that with the improvement of Highway 1290 the so called “Rural Road” might remain a backwater route perfect for cycling and snakes crossing to the Mekong.

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Widening of Highway 1290.
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Sculptural!
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There were views from the tops of the scarred up hills and my eyes kept locking on the tallest trees on the Lao side. They were as yet leafless but with flame reddish-orange flowers. (Bombax ceiba or silk cotton tree) Their beauty pretty much carried me the rest of the way to Chiang Khong.

Reddish-orange flowers of the silk cotton tree in the distance.
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I have been happy to arrive to Chiang Khong countless times from some pretty rough trips in Lao but never had it felt this good. We more or less coasted down the long main street, which we knew well, all the way to the far end of town to our favorite guest house, Baan Rimtaling, and favorite guest house owner Maleewan. We were thinking it was time for a long rest and it seemed we had arrived at the perfect place to kick back. A place to meet and talk with other travelers, a place to eat good food and sleep as long as we wanted. And a place to certainly forget what day of the week it was.

lovebruce

Green viper possibly a vine snake.
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Today's ride: 40 miles (64 km)
Total: 1,893 miles (3,046 km)

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