Monday, November 30, 2009

Chiangkhan: Serenity in a weekend…

I took off on a whim this past weekend upon an invitation to visit Chiangkhan. Friday night was our departure date to this mysterious place up to the northeast. The bus trip was trying, and I was smart enough to neglect to pack any sort of warm clothing. On the bus I daresay we were locked in a human fridge of sorts. Furthermore, the neck and every body part become aware of itself and its heaviness. I only actually fell asleep about 15 minutes before arrival.

I would definitely recommend the VIP bus – note: you must book a seat on the bus at least 6 hours prior to departure – but even if you do, keep in mind that the locals may take a more “sabay sabay” attitude toward traveling home. If they see a seat they like, they take it, and the bus driver, feeling shy and not wanting anyone to lose face, will take the “mai pen rai” stance and allow the seats to fill without following assigned seating rules. As a farang inclined to strict Anglo-Saxon rules of assigned seating, this may be frustrating. But then again, when in Rome…

After I had managed one wink of sleep, I woke up in a dream to Chiangkhan. Outside, the air was completely cold. Quite a shock, as ‘Thailand’ and ‘cold’ are two words that I do not associate together. Miracles do occur, I guess. It was warmer outside than inside the refrigerated bus, but not by much. We stepped into a cloud – the 6am fog was heavy, but all my exhaustion faded upon opening my lungs to the cool, mountain air. I felt, for a second, that I was in Colorado in the summertime…

Our group was chilled and was headed for a coffee shop – but made a detour to the fresh morning market, which is completely charming. What they’ve got are local fruits, vegetables, freshly-killed meat, locally-caught fish, and so much more. I sought out the sweatshirts and found local bargains – 180 Baht ($6 USD) for a warm polar fleece zip-up, and 10 Baht ($0.25) for socks, gloves, and etcetera. It is the bargain shopper’s paradise. The happiness circulating in the market – from the local people and ourselves – warmed us up inside, though we still required some hot beverages.

The coffee shop is just down the street, featuring two live roosters outside. The place is dual-function, and is also an antique movie theater, previewing old-school Thai movies for 7 Baht. Downstairs in the café area is an assortment of antiques and all sorts of knick-knacks giving a tint of nostalgia. On the menu is an egg breakfast, circa Vietnam War era when American soldiers stationed in the area introduced their typical egg menu.

Now for the early morning activity: alms-giving to the monks. For the first time, I sat on my knees and warmed my fingers placing sticky rice in the offering jar. The Chiangkhan temple is of interest and we passed it on our way to Loogmai Guesthouse, further down the soi. A most pleasant guesthouse it is indeed – the outside is colonial-style according to the rounded doorways and wide open spaces in the rooms with high ceilings. This place books up quickly, so – same goes as for the bus – reserve in advance. Here you may also rent new bicycles, which we did.

As the fog lifted, a magnificent view spread out – heavenly indeed. The Mekong River lay ahead and Laos was a stone’s throw away, the only thing separating us was the Mighty Mekong, where the early-morning fishing activity was already in action. Goats grazed on the hillside and longboats were winding downstream and I smiled to myself, happy to be upcountry. The day warmed up as the minutes passed. It was bike time.

In December it’s quite easy to get around town via bicycle. A lovely walkway follows the Mekong – so we took this route, heading 6 Km out of town to see an interesting rock formation. The river here is shallower and actually looks as if it’s drying up, for we were able to walk out on the rocks halfway across. My friends were telling me this is due to the large dams they’re building up in China, requiring enormous amounts of water, providing no leftovers to their neighbors to the south. As time passes, this will be a worrying situation for the local people.

After seeing the water – or lack thereof – I was brought back to reality that perhaps for me the weekend was a dream, a getaway to an upcountry town, but for the inhabitants, their life here will soon face a problematic situation of water shortage. Chiangkhan could be one of those places talked about in the news – in documentaries and such. Could it perhaps be a place where an uprising could occur? My imagination sort of took over, and I tried not to make my head explode with ideas.

Getting on the bikes again, we headed back, passing stands selling local goods. We stopped to get some coconut peel – Grade A, Grade B, Grade C. The Grade B batch is harder, crunchier, covered in sugar, and enjoyable to eat, so I bought the 70 Baht bag while my friends all enjoyed Grade A indeed.

We spent the remainder of the day in Chiangkhan itself, savoring the local foods and sipping coffee. The town is so charming like in a fairytale and we were the characters in the tale. We toured the little gift shops whose keepers were not lacking creativity. Each shop had an artistic edge to it although everything for sale was similar: t-shirts, post-cards, scarves and such.

Sunset touched Chiangkhan, the air cooled down, and I felt great. Here things seemed so familiar, though so far away from my home. The people all so friendly – it was if we already had some new friends in town and everyone knew us. Sort of a nice feeling: even though you are a stranger, you can be accepted. I got the same feeling the next day, when it was time for us to head back to Bangkok. As we headed to the bus station, shopkeepers and passers-by wished us good luck and said goodbye.

I am already prepared to say hello to them again, and I miss the place already.

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