| TRAVEL IN THAILAND is so diverse that with each new area you visit, it's almost like crossing a border. The climate changes, the geography varies and even the people are different enough that it's noticeable. Northern Thailand itself offers so many different worlds that travel through this part presents you with a multitude of geographical features and cultural characteristics. The Mae Khong River is one of these features, Thailand sharing a part of this river as its north and northeast border with Laos.
Mae Khong River
.... in the far North
The Mae Khong begins in Tibet, flows down through China, describes a meandering course through northern Laos, and meets the Thai border at the Golden Triangle. It forms a natural border between Thailand and Laos eastward, southward and then east
ward again and then proceeds on its final southerly course through the lower part of Laos, through Kampuchea and finally into southern Vietnam where it flows into the South China Sea from the famous Mae Khong River delta. In parts it is the most treacherous river in the world, in parts it's placid, but throughout it carries a rich heritage and is the only consistent living body in the Southeast Asian region. The border it forms in Thailand's north is an area well worth travelling, from north to south, on the eastern edge of Chiangrai Province. The drive takes you from the Golden Triangle at Chiang Saen to Chiang Khong.
The Golden Triangle is the point at which the Ruag and Mae Khong River meet and where Myanmar, Laos and Thailand come together. The Ruag River is often called the Mae Sai River and it runs between Thailand and Myanmar on Thailand's north. The confluence of the two rivers adds to the beauty and dimension of the three meeting borders and helps put the concept of a triangle in perspective. In the dry season (November to March), there's a sandbar jutting up from the middle of the river, but when the river swells during the rainy season (July to October), it is not visible.
The main town in the Golden Triangle is Sob Ruag. It's a small, quiet picturesque village from which the triangle can be observed. From the village, a 20-minute climb up a hill takes you to a lookout pavilion where the view is even better, and from here another climb takes you to Wat Phra Thart Phukhao, an old temple that overlooks the Golden Triangle.
The next town along the Mae Khong River is Chiang Saen, 10 kilometers south by road or a short long-tail boat ride from the Golden Triangle. This is an old walled town that was once the Lanna Thai capital and is still visibly rich in historic ruins. The present town of Chiang Saen is only a small part of the old town erected with in a wall which runs for 8 kilometers around. Chiang Saen today is an interesting and lively small town. From here you can see not only the Mae Khong River as it passes by, but also a glance to the north gives you an impressive view of the Mae Khong as it comes out of the mountains in Myanmar and descends to the Golden Triangle.
In addition to the town, there are various sights around Chiang Saen. One is a series of ruins known as Ku Tao, Wat Pa Sak, and Wat Phra Thart Chom Kitti. These are all ancient ruins that are well worth a visit and provide for a good walk along narrow paths in the process. From Phra Thart Chom Kitti, which is about 3 kilometers from Wat Pa Sak, the beautiful panoramic view takes in the town of Chiang Saen, the Mae Khong River flowing by, and the surrounding mountains. Around Chiang Saen itself are more temple ruins, and in the town is a fine museum of Buddhist art from the Chiang Saen period, which had a strong influence on Thai Sukhothai art.
From Chiang Saen the Mae Khong River begins to zigzag through a wide valley between steep mountains. The river is broader here and meanders towards the Thai town of Chiang Khong. A trip by boat between Chiang Saen and Chiang Khong is a fantastic journey through natural beauty. The river first moves east through the Chiang Saen plain to the meeting of Chiangrai's Kok River with the Mae Khong. It then cuts north through the mountains for 20 kilometers and swerves back southward. The passage through the mountains is relatively narrow, and the river begins to widen again just north of Chiang Khong at the Laos village of Huay Zai. This is the first village to be seen from the boat and soon thereafter you'll arrive in Chiang Khong.
There are boats that leave Chiang Saen daily for Chiang Khong. The river trip during the rainy season or shortly thereafter, when the river is high, take about 3 hours. In the dry season, when the river is much lower, the trip is rougher and slower. The 20-kilometer stretch through the mountains is an example of the rough power the Mae Khong River produces. There are whirlpools, rapids and frequently large boulders sticking up in the dry season.
The town of Chiang Khong is full of flowers and on the bank, a ferry dock services the daily passage of Thai, Lao and hilltribe merchants travelling back and forth between Thailand and Laos. Chiang Khong is connected with the Lao town of Huay Zai and much trade takes place between the two towns. In addition to the frequent ferries that cross the river many times a day along with the daily boats from Chiang Saen, there is also ferry service from Chiang Khong north to Chiang Saen.
A trip along the Mae Khong River from the Golden Triangle to Chiang Saen and then on to Chiang Khong is one of the most enriching and most spectacular journeys anyone could make in Southeast Asia. The entire area is rich in history, culture, and fantastic beauty. You can experience the awesome power of the Mae Khong River rolling on its majestic journey during your visit to northern Thailand.