The Warmth of Familiarity - This Time Tomorrow - CycleBlaze

February 5, 2017

The Warmth of Familiarity

Two Weeks in Chiang Khong, Thailand - February 5-18

The Warmth of Familiarity

Two Weeks in Chiang Khong, Thailand

February 5 - 18

As we rode into Chiang Khong, one of our favorite towns in Thailand, the warm feeling of familiarity immediately started to erase the scorchingly hot - blazingly bright tiring day we had. For the past few days we have been discussing taking a break from cycling and by the time we had ridden the long length of main street to our favorite guest house at the east end of town, we were pretty sure we’d be staying awhile.

For years I enjoyed exploring Laos always exiting through Huay Xai, directly across the Mekong River from Chiang Khong. I’ve lost track how many times I arrived in Huay Xai on the day my Lao visa was expiring. Travel and food was rougher in Laos and I always looked forward to relaxing in Chiang Khong: writing, refreshing friendships and eating great food.

From the Huay Xai boat landing I’d rush to the tiny Lao immigration office situated halfway up the steep, narrow lane in the middle of town. It perched on the stairs leading down to the Mekong. I loved how quaint and easy the immigration and crossing procedures were at Huay Xai. I’d get into the little wooden boat, pay the driver twenty baht and five minutes later be in what I always considered the perfect Thai town - no reason to rush off as most tourists did.

So, we are relieved to be back in lovely Chiang Khong. I sit here on our beautiful bungalow porch overlooking the Mekong and the Lao hills. I hear the off-pitch twangs of Lao karaoke as it wafts across the water, grateful for the diminished decibel levels. Thais jog on top of the new promenade along the river and chickens climb a low slung tree in the yard below us.

Mekong River looking over to Huay Xai, Laos.
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Little gardens are planted on the banks of the Mekong in the dry season as the river drops.
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Throughout history Chiang Khong has been a crossroads. To this day traders bustle in and out of town quickly and, more recently, tourists pass through on their way to seemingly more important places. There are now buses that can transport you all the way to Bangkok overnight. Few stay in Chiang Khong longer than one short night. It’s odd, therefore, that I have always thought of Chiang Khong as a great place to stay awhile. I’ve always found it to be the perfect mellow place to slow down and contemplate where I have just traveled. This daily flitting back and forth of humanity across the Mekong has never disturbed my enjoyment of just being in Chiang Khong enjoying its peacefulness.

Buddhist nun.
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Applying new-fangled scales to this creature which is always portrayed swallowing a Naga serpent. They are on either side of entrances to Thai Buddhist temples.
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Old and new architecture.
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The fish species of the Mekong River in the Chiang Khong area.
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And now we’ve already been here two weeks! On all of my travels in S.E. Asia in the past 20 years I have never stayed anywhere for two whole weeks. Am I getting old and slowing down? Yes, of course I am, but there are definite advantages to spending time in one place too.

For instance, the past two weeks have allowed us to discover the rhythm of the Chiang Khong food scene. On two separate evenings every week two different streets are blocked off from motorized traffic and are transformed into friendly neighborhood “Walking Streets” lined with stands selling food and crafts. There is live music and traditional dancing and lots of townspeople talking with one another. They are like block parties every week.

On two other evenings of the week there are two sites where major markets spring up. And finally, every other Friday there is an enormous market called the “Hmong Market”. It features clothes, farm implements, music and household supplies which the Hmong hilltribers use. There is of course food as well. The stalls and booths spill from the designated site out to the main street lining both sides and making the town both festive, colorful and congested. The Hmong, having traveled from their hillside villages on both sides of the Mekong, wear their traditional clothing. It’s always a big plus to be in town when the Hmong Market is happening.

One of the evening food scenes once a week in Chiang Khong.
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Food everywhere.
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The evening "Walking Street" very near to our guest house every Wednesday.
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Thais love little dogs as pets now days.
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Often the Walking Streets provide musicians playing traditional music.
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That means that nearly every day of the week there is something special foodwise happening in Chiang Khong. But even if nothing special ever happened there are many wonderful cheap restaurants. And everyday we have found a nice, big, ripe papaya for sale on a wooden table in front of a house or store. Making our own papaya/muesli breakfasts on our lovely porch has become standard. A sweet guest house cat usually joins us in the warm morning sun.

Our bungalow's porch.
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"Our" cat.
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The breakfasts we normally ate which consisted of a huge papaya, muesli, dried plums from our tree back home and soy milk which is available in small containers in any little food store.
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We’ve experienced several guest houses in the past in Chiang Khong but now we wouldn’t consider staying anywhere other than Baan Rimtaling Guest House. We like its funkiness but largely what really makes the place is Maleewan, its cheerful owner. She welcomed us as if we were returning home.

The rambling wood guest house is a warren of rooms and staircases stepped down the big bank of the river. On top is the all-teak dining area from which one has a fantastic view of the Mekong and Laos and has such peacefulness that a person can easily linger there from one meal to the next. There is no need to leave the guest house to have an interesting time. You can have conversations with travelers from a different country or continent every day. Sit and watch the Mekong River flow and the world comes to talk to you.

Baan Rimtaling which means something like; House on the banks of the river.
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I’m sure this is one reason Maleewan enjoys the life she has made for herself. She lived and worked in busy Bangkok for many years and says she misses certain aspects of the big city. But I can tell that she really loves her guest house which doubles as her home. She has a couple of employees but she accomplishes a lot of the constant demands herself. She doesn’t complain and runs up and down a lot of stairs every day.

At 8:20 every evening Maleewan jumps in her pick-up truck and rushes over to where the Green Bus stops. She speaks English better than just about anyone in town and with her effusive, fun-loving personality it isn’t hard for her to fill her pick up with backpackers. She returns with another night’s worth of paying guests and then she cooks them dinner as well. From our bungalow room two floors below we hear Maleewan laughing and telling stories with travelers well into the night. She loves her bit of paradise on the Mekong. Her happiness is infectious to all who stay here.

One night, talking with Maleewan alone, I told her I had never seen her so content. She had just come home from Chiang Rai proudly gripping her Master’s Degree certificate. I told her she was a self-made woman, a success in both business and education. She looked surprised. Thais don’t talk frankly or directly, especially a man congratulating a woman on her success. She was speechless and just beamed.

We could have eaten very good food at our guest house but there are many intriguing restaurants in town. We tried several of them but often gravitated to a very humble affair in the center of town. It seemed to be a father-daughter team; the daughter doing the cooking. There was a young boy there at times which made the place feel even more like a home. They seemed poor and maybe hadn’t had the restaurant long. We were always warmly welcomed.

We know that tourists eating in a humble-looking, local food restaurant will draw in other tourists off the street. We hoped we were making this happen because we really liked the owners. They were kind and generous. From the size of the portions to little extras as well as their unbelievably low prices; we were spoiled. When it was just the three of them and the two of us and the heat of mid-afternoon we felt as if we were all family in their home even though communication with them was difficult. Instead, we all directed much attention to the little boy. We were never treated like outsiders.

The man looked so familiar that I was certain he had served me food in another restaurant, in another part of town, another year in the past. He has seen thousands of tourists so I’m sure he didn’t recognize me but I don’t forget faces. It could be that shyness and communication on both our parts blocked any sort of reacquaintance but I rather like the silent warmth of familiarity and leave it at that.

Soup
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One of our favorite things to do in Chiang Khong is to eat breakfast at Bamboo Restaurant owned by an old Thai hippie couple. The woman makes the best bread in all of Asia, in our opinion. She makes it daily and two, thick, seed-filled slices come with breakfast. And now her husband has been researching the intricacies of roasting and brewing coffee. The already great breakfast now has a great finishing touch with some of the best coffee we’ve had in Thailand.

Bamboo Restaurant - Some of the best homemade bread in S.E. Asia.
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Our relationship with the couple at Bamboo goes way back to the days when they owned Bamboo Guest House on the banks of the Mekong River. It was a wonderful cheap guest house with many artistically designed bungalows. There was a huge open air dining area that was my favorite place to sit and write all day long.

We talked to them about those days when their elderly dog had so many aches and pains that they made a sign to warn tourists, “Don’t touch the OLD dog”, meaning the younger one would not bite you if you touched him. We laughed together as old friends. The memory of the dog and the sign seems to be slipping into a distant memory but to revive it with them was precious to all of us and bonds us in the present. It reminds us that we have lived interesting lives and are still here laughing together. I have always been sad their lease was not renewed on the guest house but they are philosophic about it and point out how much work it was, that prices for rooms haven’t changed much and how tied down they were. Now, if they want to go on a little trip all they have to do is close the restaurant for a few days. They are more free to travel and discover their own country. They have moved on from being guest house owners.

Chiang Khong has a lot of transient traders and travelers as I have mentioned but it also has its fair share of expat residents. One of them is Alan Bate who, until recently, held the record time for riding a bicycle around the globe - 106 days. He has slowed down and owns a hostel/bike museum/bar just a block from Bamboo Restaurant. He is quite a character and interesting to talk with. He also made us one of the tastiest drinks I’ve ever had - no idea what was in it.

This man made old style Thai coffee in a motorbike portable stand at certain times on certain days but always in the same spot. At 30 cents it was quite the bargain. We gave him a lot of business.
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We loved our bungalow room so much that we wanted to lounge in it and the same sized outdoor porch most of the past two weeks. We needed to catch up on our journal and to rest. Occasionally we went up to the dining area where inevitably we met interesting travelers.

We spent a lot of time on our lovely porch.
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This is Lorenzo from the Basque region of Spain. He's been riding his bicycle all over the world for the last 24 years! He spent one night in our guest house and then was off to cross into Laos.
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Our porch
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One day we were up there working on our journal when I heard a distinctly New England American accent. An American man was complaining to an Aussie man about how difficult it had become to renew his visa for Thailand. He said it had taken hours. He seemed fed up.

Eventually the Aussie man left. After a while I looked over at the American. He was sitting silently, seemingly deep in thought. I don’t know why but I felt I needed to go talk with him. I approached and introduced myself as a fellow American. His first words were, “I was just sitting here thinking - What am I doing here?”

We talked. His wife had died young, 50, cancer, in the year 2000 and I think he had done a lot of wandering since. But just moments earlier, he had finally, “hit a wall”, as he described. He needed to go home. He had grandkids that needed to know who their grandfather was. It seemed it was one of those times when you come to a ’T’ in the road and make a life decision. I encouraged him to go home. He wasn’t getting younger and his grandkids and kids were only getting older. I liked this man a lot. I thought it was rather amazing that I was there when he hit the wall or came to the ’T’ in the road. I like to think that I helped him. I especially liked that he was able to tell me, a complete stranger, his deepest thoughts.

Cafe de Lao - A new, really nice, coffee place in Chiang Khong which we loved.
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I’m glad we stopped here for two weeks. Yes, I love cycling but in addition to riding many miles day after day I believe we should occasionally slow down and even stop to take note of where we are and also to reflect on where we have been. I believe the best part about cycling is the freedom a bicycle affords. It gets us places we might not ordinarily be able to travel to. But I believe once we are in such remote places we might want to stay awhile to figure out what makes that place tick. In the process we might understand a little better what makes ourselves tick.

We’ve come a long way from where we started our trip. I think we needed this time to reflect on it all. But maybe we lingered because from here we turn south, pointing at the finish line way down in Bangkok. Maybe we don’t want our trip to end. But from Bangkok we go home and, from what we have seen in Chiang Khong, home is not at all a bad thing.

lovebruce

Just before we ended our two week stay and headed south.
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