This is a very long post so settle in for a good read.
We recently had a friend from Canberra (Phillip) visit us for a few days and I planned a roadtrip to shown him a few of the sights away from our home base. The timing was perfect because we had bought a new pickup the week before and I was dying for a chance to try it out on a trip. You can read about our large purchase HERE.
One of the best varied drives in the area is from a small town on the Mekong River called Chiang Khan following the Mekong as it heads east (right on a map) ending up at a town called Nong Khai (or of course doing it in reverse). This is a drive I thoroughly recommend.
For us this drive is a perfect loop. In the map above you can see our home town of Si Bun Ruang under Nong Bua Lamphu towards the bottom. If you can see highway 210 then head west, join the 201, go up and it ends on the banks of the Mekong River at Chiang Khan. Stage two is if you then follow that red and white dotted line to the right, which is the border between Thailand and Laos as defined by the Mekong (the road number is 211), until you reach Nong Khai. In our case we return on highway 2 as it drops down (south) to Udon Thani. We then rejoin the 210 back to Nong Bua Lamphu and south to Si Bun Ruang. It is a 500 km round trip.
I have covered our last visit to Chiang Khan HERE and several visits to Nong Khai in previous blogs, the latest being HERE, so I am not going to repeat it all again. However I found some new sights this time around and of course each trip has it’s own flavour so I have focussed on the new and tried not to repeat myself too much. Even if you follow my posts you will find most of this is new.
The best way to comfortably see everything on this drive is to stay a night in Chiang Khan and one in Nong Khai and that’s what we did this time (obviously you can reverse the trip and have your second day in Chiang Khan – whatever works for you).
From Si Bun Ruang our more obvious route is to take the 210 as it goes through the town of Nong Bua Lamphu and then turn right onto the 201 and end up in Chiang Khan as I mentioned above. However the 210 from Nong Bua is a rubbish road. They are doing a lot of roadworks on it, so it will improve over time but it is mostly single lane, very busy and the roadworks often bring things to a crawl. There’s nothing much to see along the way although Tham (= cave in Thai) Erawan as marked on the map is worth the climb if you are feeling fit. My blog post HERE.
I decided to give the 210 a miss and change the point where we joined the 201 by firstly heading south from Si Bun Ruang (down) and then cutting across country to find the 201 at the very bottom left of the map above. We would then just stay on that road until it arrived in Chiang Khan.
The backroads on the first part of the trip were in reasonable condition although the countryside is pretty dull this time of year at the end of the dry season. Once the rice gets planted in June it will become more picture postcard Thai tropical looking. In the middle of nowhere we stopped off at a local temple that had been built at the bottom of a small hill. I am always optimistic about the potential quality of the sights here and am usually disappointed. In respect to wats they are usually funded by the local villages they represent, who don’t have much money, and on the whole are very basic and often not maintained because of a lack of enthusiasm or money or both. This one fell into that category but it did have a bat cave so that made it worthwhile 🙂 Whatever the outcome as a result of taking time out from a planned trip the good thing is that these are useful opportunities to have a break from driving and take a few photos.
Back on the road shortly after this side trip we joined the 201 and headed north towards our destination. I have to say that this road isn’t much better than the 210. It is also single lane although there maybe more overtaking opportunities. Heaps of trucks going both ways and scenically nothing special. However it made a change from our usual route and might become our norm if heading to Loei and beyond in the future.
On the other side of the provincial capital of Loei (refer to the map above) I spotted a feature I wanted to explore called Buddha Hill. You will see the signposts well before the turn so it is easy to find just off the road on the right. If you use a GPS these coords will find it 17°36’20.46″N 101°42’56.94″E.
Buddha Hill is inside an Army base, the main entrance of which is just before this one, so you will come to a checkpoint but just drive through. We got a smart salute, which was probably the soldier’s only activity for the day and helped break his boredom. Just past the entry turn right and then almost immediately left. The road climbs steeply to two parking areas one lower than the other. The final run to the upper parking is very steep and it gave the turbo diesel of our new truck the chance to show off. The only other visitors had left their car at the lower carpark!
Buddha Hill is well worth a stop so do add it to your schedule if heading to or from Chiang Khan. It is a very new structure, beautifully maintained so far and maybe it will continue to be as it comes under the control of the army. It has good views over the surrounding countryside and the Buddha statue itself is impressive and very serene looking.
We timed our arrival in Chiang Khan for mid afternoon as there is not much to do there until the night markets kick off starting around 6.00 pm. Do read my previous post on this town via the link above if you are visiting. It might help you make the most of your stay, which in my opinion has a lot to do with timing. I am only going to write about new things so here we go.
The main attraction of Chiang Khan are the wooden buildings alongside the Mekong River and the evening markets that happen there. Because you are locked into seeing the markets it follows you are also stuck with staying the night there, which is a challenge on the accommodation side of things. I have yet to find a decent place by my standards (although I have only been twice) so can’t make any recommendations.
The first time we stayed at a wooden guesthouse right on walking street called the The Husband & Wife Guesthouse HERE (the wife seems to be missing) and found it pretty ordinary. A traditional wooden house sounds romantic but they are noisy because everything is timber and you will end up getting to know your neighbours better than you wanted to. Also in our case the room was very small and I believe other wooden places suffer the same fate and bathrooms are often shared.
This time I decided to move away from the walking street and we booked into a highly rated new resort called Baan Suan La Moon just outside the central area HERE. I am never sure how places get their ratings on the booking sites but this one is given an Excellent 8.9 by Booking.com. It was all pretty standard resort Thai. Newly built but falling apart already, maintenance a mystery and a shower that aimed water everywhere except where you wanted it. It was OK but a 7.0 would be a more realistic rating.
Next time I might give Chic Chiangkhan Hotel a try HERE. A lot more expensive but I wouldn’t mind because these expeditions are like a holiday to me and blow the cost (well under A$80.00 anyway) and if I could just find somewhere that came close to meeting expectations I would be prepared to pay extra. Chic looked very nice right on the waterfront but slightly away from the night market (quieter) at the far end of the walking street.
Warning Chiang Khan is very much a Thai tourist destination so the prices for accommodation reflect this and it does get busy on weekends I believe. “Dead as” during the week both times we have been, almost too quiet.
Now you’d expect in a western sense that a riverside path like this fronted with lots of guesthouses and hotels would be a mecca for quality bars, restaurants and cafes but you will be disappointed with Chiang Khan. There are a few but certainly during the week (it may be different on a weekend) nothing was happening. Many didn’t even seem to be open and there are very few decent places (or even indecent places!) to sit, have a cold drink and take in the river, the passing traffic and view Laos.
Moving away from the waterfront we decided to have a late lunch at the number one restaurant in Chiang Khan according to Trip Advisor – a pizza place 🙂 Oh dear. Anyway I often have the urge for western food so no complaints from me. I actually recommend Slinks HERE on a small soi (street) just off the walking street.
Because I am just writing about new things and not giving you a flowing account of our time in Chiang Khan I will jump straight to massage. My friend from Canberra wanted a massage so we picked this place.
The massage was reported as a success so I pass that on for what its worth if you ever find yourself in the town. The usual 200 baht (A$8.00) for one hour although for Thai you can often find them for 150 baht. On the way to the massage place we passed a small, very standard wat on the main road with a difference.
And a couple of photos from a previous post just to give you an idea of how the night markets look:
Day 2 we called back to Slink for breakfast (the food wasn’t bad but the coffee was the worst cup of something supposed to be approximating coffee I have ever had) and as the only parking for a large pickup is in the temple grounds we were lucky to pass a wedding photo session that was underway.
Although this looks like the post wedding photo session it is actually only for the wedding invitation cards. Thias have a full dress affair so that they have a photo to go on the formal invitation and also a large print to stand at the entrance of the wedding ceremony when that happens. It can be quite a cost before you even start on the “real” aspects of the wedding. Gaun and I went through the same thing and our large photo is framed on a wall in our house. Unfortunately there was such a demand for the invitations (true) that I don’t have a copy 🙁
Driving out of Chiang Khan on highway 211, which follows the Mekong to Nong Khai, our first stop was not far at a wat in the hills called Wat Phra Buddhabaht Phu Kwai.
Chiang Khan itself is pretty light-on with quality temples so it was a pleasure to find this newly constructed chedi hidden away a few minutes off the main road. I missed it on our last trip so can include it as a new item in this post with a recommendation you drop in as part of your explore of the area.
Don’t just stop at the chedi. There is more to see. Climb the steps and follow the path around and you will come across this very stylish Buddha statue.
And of course you must feed the rabbits!!!!!!! Some temples have a theme but this is the first one I have come across that was stocked with rabbits, which are seen as a good luck animal in Thailand.
Don’t stop because there is still more to see even though it isn’t clear that there is.
The guy in the middle is an Indian hermit called Ruesi and you will come across him in many temples or just in single shrines in the countryside everywhere here. Keep your eye out and you will be surprised how often he shows up.
Ruesi is nothing to do with Buddhism. Thailand is a wonderful mix of beliefs and superstitions. You can read more about Ruesi HERE. Funnily recently we passed a small festival happening outside Nong Bua Lamphu, close to where we live and stopped of course to see what was going on.
Part of the ritual in progress was the “ordination” of someone as Ruesi, which was a first for me. I haven’t seen that done before.
OK, back to topic. The reason you are following that arrow is that there is a great view at the top of the hill at the back of the wat. A shame it was so misty but as you can see it is a short walk that is worth the effort.
Things like views are very much a farang obsession and Gaun is far more interested in her favourite aspect of life (next to food and her lovely farang husband of course) flowers:
Back on the road our next couple of stops were at places I have covered before in my previous posts so I won’t do more than touch on them. Good luck comes in all sorts of shapes and sizes in Thailand and your next stop maybe 10 minutes drive from the temple once you get back on the 211 heading east to Nong Khai is no exception:
A lunch stop next and I recommend this place, which you can’t miss because it sort of stands out. Decent food, plenty of it and at local rather than tourist prices. A nice change from Chiang Khan.
Here are a few photos from their website and I have included the itinerary here Pandaw. Maybe my lottery ticket will come in soon.
And the final scenic stop for day 2 was a must if travelling this route – the Nong Khai Skywalk. Once again the weather spoiled the full potential of this unusual temple attraction but it was still worth the detour.
The skywalk is attached to a wat called Pha Tak Suea and I can’t work out how that fits into Buddhist teachings.A huge income earner though and you can see the benefits for the temple by the ongoing construction happening on the hill. Whatever the philosophy (or lack of) the skywalk is worth a visit so add it to your list.
Although it is called the Nong Khai Skywalk it is located about an hour’s drive from the town and the remainder of the trip is pretty Thai ordinary with increasing development as you drive into Nong Khai itself.
If you are staying overnight in Nong Khai, which we did for our second night away from home, then I strongly recommend Mut Mee Guesthouse (no kickback involved although I am open to offers). It is a wonderful peaceful oasis set right on the Mekong. Great rooms, not expensive and beautifully maintained under the ownership of Jerome an English guy.
For parking the laneway to the guesthouse is VERY narrow and not recommended. There is almost no parking at the end anyway. Instead aim for the street to the right of the guesthouse as marked on the map above 17°52’59.90″N 102°44’35.92″E where there is plenty of space. Mut Mee can be easily accessed from the public walkway at the top of the street next to the river.
I recommend Mut Mee for a variety of reasons. Firstly it is owned by a farang who runs the place to farang standards. Maintenance seems to be carried out and things like the taps falling out of the basin, windows that won’t close, doors that won’t open, showers that dribble water at a pressure to make wetting your toothbrush a challenge etc just don’t seem to be on the agenda. The rooms have been furnished with items of decoration that make them attractive not just a concrete firm bed, see-through curtains and a fluorescent tube light.
Mut Mee is beautifully located literally right on the Mekong River. There is a public walkway immediately in front of the guesthouse but it doesn’t intrude at all.
The grounds have been established to provide for a relaxing environment. You could spend your entire time just within the gardens and never leave. Seriously my next break from village life will be at Mut Mee with a couple of good books.
Mut Mee is self contained in that there is a good in-house restaurant at very reasonable prices and basic drinks including alcohol works on an honour system. Take what you want from the fridge and record it against your room, something I have never seen in operation before. There’s also a massage service and a bookstore.
The rooms are well priced in my opinion. The various quotes we had when enquiring were:
(Prices are per night excluding breakfast)
Room 4: Double bed with mosquito nets & fan, shared bathroom outside with hot shower. Price 350 Baht, which is next to…
Room 5: Twin beds with mosquito nets & fan, shared bathroom outside with hot shower. Price 350 Baht
Room 12: Double bed with mosquito net, air con & fan, private bathroom with hot shower and veranda. Price 650 Baht, which is next to…
Room BW: Double bed with mosquito net, air con & fan, private bathroom with hot shower and veranda. Price 650 Baht
In The New Building…
Room Chaba: Double bed, fan and air con, private bathroom with hot shower, Cable TV, Fridge, Kettle. Room is set back but has balcony looking towards Mekong River. Price: 850 Baht, which is next to…
Room Garuda: Double bed, fan and air con, private bathroom with hot shower, Cable TV, Fridge, Kettle. Room is set back but has balcony looking towards Mekong River. Price: 850 Baht
Room Esarn: Double bed, fan and air con, private bathroom with hot shower, Cable TV, Fridge, Kettle. A balcony looking towards garden and Mekong River. Price: 850 Baht, which is next to…
Room Dharuni: Downstairs, Double Bed, veranda over the Mekong River, Private Bathroom with Hot Shower, Air con, Cable TV, Fridge, Kettle. This is the 2nd Best Room in the House. 1000 Baht
Enough free promotion for Mut Mee. Leaving the guesthouse to find the car I had to capture this image:
Day 3 our first stop for the morning in Nong Khai was a sculpture park I have written about several times before called Sala Kukaew or Sala Kaew Ku or Sala Keoku, covered recently HERE so won’t again. It is one of THE attractions in the area so read my post and see if it would interest you.
This was followed by a visit to what I regard as the best temple in Nong Khai and it isn’t Wat Pho Chai, which is rated number two in Nong Khai attractions by Trip Advisor. You will probably be the only person at this temple Wat Noen Panao Wanaram rather than the crowds at the Pho Chai. They are close to each other so do them both for contrast. Wat Noen is one of my favourites in Thailand and you will find it here GPS 17°53’5.40″N 102°45’52.72″E.
There are lots of great photo opportunities at this wat so don’t get caught at the first group of buildings but have a wander throughout the grounds and you will be surprised at the number of structures and quality of the presentation. High class and I have seen a few! I will give you a selection of photos just to give you a taste of what is on offer.
The markets adjacent to the Mekong were next before we headed home but that’s an old story that I won’t repeat. See my last link in this post if you want more.
This was a super enjoyable couple of days on the road and as you can see if you add in all the attractions I have written about in previous posts to this one it can be a varied and interesting round trip. I do recommend it as one of the best road explores you can easily do if you find yourself in the north east of Thailand with transport and a few days free.
Thanks for reading.