After breakfast and as much tourism as we dared squeeze in, we hustled over to the bus terminal and (as it turned out) only barely caught the next bus to Chiang Khong. If we’d missed that bus, I’m not sure we could have caught another one that same day—the Chiang Khong district checkpoint was only 71 miles from Chiang Rai, and according to my photo timestamp the trip took about an hour and a half, between express bus and tuk-tuk, so… sure, maybe we could’ve hung out longer in Chiang Rai, but why chance it? Hindsight is 20/20, and looking back I know how much time we could have had, but in a worst-case scenario we would have spent another night in Chiang Rai and I’m not sure that would have been necessary. If that had happened, I would’ve had plenty of time to camp out in a café and update my travel journal, because we’d already seen what the night life had to offer and the place is pretty dead in the daytime.
The bus ride to Chiang Khong afforded plenty of view of the rustic, rural life in northern Thailand, a lot of it resembling any part of the U.S., really. (I mean, aside from the rice paddies everywhere, the language on billboards and road signs that we couldn’t begin to decipher, and now and again a larger-than-life shrine to the King.) There were municipal shacks on the sides of the road. There were dirt roads that led into little villages, outside which children wheeled around lazily on bicycles. There were gas stations, active and abandoned, and we stopped at a bus depot in the middle of nowhere for refueling, and that meant gas for the bus and snacks and soda for us. Yes, I’m afraid we didn’t eat very healthfully over there, but our mindset had altered slightly. Once we got past the stigma of consuming plastic bottles for potable water, it seems we felt little compunction to stay away from junk food. And frankly, food of any kind is important to me when I’m traveling, even the chocolate-like bars and the eclectic-flavored potato chips at every convenience store. I’m totally open to the international experience, from the high culture right down to the streets. Absolutely. So we hunkered down with our strange snack foods and rode out the bus ride in wondrous anticipation of tomorrow.
The bus dropped us off in Chiang Khong, and it was no trick to hire a tuk-tuk to hustle us to, I believe, the only guesthouse that handled tourists preparing to check out of Thailand and ship over to Lao P.D.R. (I know we, as a nation, refer to it as “Laos,” but there they call it Lao P.D.R. and that’s what I’m adopting for my personal writing style.) Our driver was a brusque but helpful man wearing a white satin Budweiser jacket. Any time we saw people in other countries wearing some iconography from our nation, it just tickled us, though we shouldn’t have been surprised by it: we do the same thing. Our citizens like to get “mystical” and “significant” tattoos in Chinese characters (often with hilarious results), and I’ve been known to venerate artifacts from Europe and Asia, just because there is some alien aspect to them that piques my imagination. Other nations do the same: some people in other nations highly value anything American, while others find it fashionable to snub us (while still indulging in our merchandise)… but I digress.
I’m sure other guesthouses on the main strip also house tourists, but the town did not seem to be overburdened with travelers and there was room at the inn, so to speak, so we checked in at the Ruan-Thai Sophaphan Guesthouse (please do not confuse with the similarly named Ruan Thai Guesthouse in Nong Khai).
I thought this place was lovely. I read reviews of it much later and half of them described it as adequate, half talked about about personal travesties like a peeping tom or laundry being stolen (the lesson for the latter case being: don’t travel with your most expensive wardrobe, brah). The first thing we noticed upon entering the grounds was the sheer size of this multilevel construction; the second thing was the beautiful, glowing, polished woodwork every-freakin’-where. Some of the reviews stated Ruan-Thai was their second choice after some other place was full, but I do not recall spotting from the street any building as lovely as the Ruan-Thai G.H. We had to sign a semi-elaborate contract for the room, even if it was just for one night, because people only ever check in here if they’re going to leave the country. The staff offered to initiate our paperwork for transfer into Lao P.D.R., for a modest fee of course, which service we declined. They asked us if we needed laundry (we didn’t) or breakfast—I agreed to breakfast, looking to Rebecca for confirmation but she was preoccupied with tallying exchange rates for what all this would cost us. I don’t have these recorded, but it must have been pricey to give her pause.
At any rate, we hauled our oversized and overpacked bags to our room, rested our feet and soaked in the environment. Rebecca actually requested a few minutes alone, and not just ‘cos she was sick of me. She wanted to sit at a table with her laptop, maybe read some news, but the most important thing was to be very present and soak in whatever she was getting from the Mekong River. The Ruan-Thai G.H. overlooks it, the same way the top floor of a building overlooks the sidewalk: from the balcony on which she chilled out, it was a drop-off directly into a steep bank of jungle that rolled into the Mekong. I respected that: it was a beautiful, wide, slow-moving river that lent itself to contemplation; further, Rebecca had been put to physical limits what with running around last night and this morning, and this evening was only a foreshadowing of the chaos that would come tomorrow, when we crossed the river to in-process at Lao P.D.R.
We took some time out for ourselves—I probably read some more P.G. Wodehouse and checked the room for mosquitos as well as measures to keep mosquitos out—before wandering out of the building in search of dinner. I’m sure Ruan-Thai G.H. provided dinner, but we may have missed our window for ordering something or else we just felt like getting out and seeing the town.
Of which, there was not much to see: it appeared to be one long avenue with shops and open homes on either side of the street. I apologize for my blurry photos, I was not taking the requisite time to set up my Canon for night shots, but then again, there wasn’t much to see. Everything looked cramped and thrown together at the last second, or else just gathered up without a mind toward organization. It was just a small town on the northern border that only attracted people because it was a gateway to Lao P.D.R.
Rebecca and I walked up the length of the street, just to see what could be seen, which wasn’t much. It reminded me of the midwest in America, actually, as people sat outside on lawn furniture and half-interestedly watched the street activity. An attractive young woman in a leather bomber jacket and jeans zipped up the street and strolled up to a café like she owned the place. So even this tiny town had its jaded residents marking time and its young super-heroes burning off their restlessness while they waited for some indefinite thing to happen that would actualize their latent greatness and pull them out of this town. That was my impression, anyway: it could easily have been that everyone was comfortable with the rhythm and flow of the town, as slow and impenetrable as the Mekong.
We got to the end of the street—the pavement continued, but the buildings did not—looked at each other, shrugged, said “I guess that’s it, then,” and turned back toward town. There weren’t many options for restaurants at this time of night, not really, but we found one place that was still serving. It looked like a nice café on the outside, like a coffee shop that some fun and precious young adults would start up, but once inside it became a little more surreal. The interior deco was Western-themed, in the Wild West sense, with lassoes arrange on a section of wall, paintings framed in driftwood, and staff in colorful cowboy hats. Well, who couldn’t be charmed or even flattered by that? The staff were very friendly, and we had a nice little dinner while the place started gearing up for live music. We did not stick around for this, however, as we were quite exhausted and just wanted to return to the guesthouse and rest up. This, at only 8 p.m.! But the sky had darkened an hour before this, and we were ragged from the road, so we dragged ourselves back to Ruan-Thai.
Not that it was terribly restful: our beds were pretty hard, being a dense mattress atop something related to a wooden pallet, and I remember being a bit chilly that night. I was grateful I had a wife to curl up with, and the temperature motivated her reciprocity in this, so it wasn’t a total wash.