Recently, I took a trip near the Laos border to travel to the Isaan region of Thailand; I went specifically to Chiang Khan, Loei in Thailand. Loei is a trip for the travelers, I mean the real adventure seekers. Speaking Thai in Loei is pretty much essential here, its a local vibe filled with Esan food and mountains. Come join me for a trip to the mountains on the border of Thailand and Laos. Lets get exploring!
Chiang Khan Loei Trip Recently for my holiday trip in 2021 I visited a border town to Laos as I wanted to experience a new part of Thailand as borders are still shut in South East Asia, except for Cambodia (Cambodia is open). I visited the province of Loei and went to the border town called Chiang Khan and also visited the main part of Loei.
Disclaimer: most people think that Isaan is an area, or like a city to visit, however Isaan is referred to the entire North East part of Thailand. Most of the area here is filled with lush nature, more rural, and a local vibe as it is not targeted for tourism. This is a trip for the travelers, who enjoy culture shock, will attempt some Thai, and get out of their "western" bubble ;)
While I was in Loei on the Mekong River, I was inspired and hit with many realizations; the Mekong is vast; it is large and dirty and is such a significant river in this part of the world. Borders are completely made up, as I was looking across the river to Laos and saw that this land and that land are all apart of each other. That the river has no borders and it just flows. The Mekong was essential for trade during the American Warin Vietnam. The Mekong flows from Tibet all the way to Vietnam, it is vast. No one in Thailand is swimming over to Laos, because the grass isn't greener (metaphorically, because realistically the grass is lush and gorgeous over there), but instead the contrast of Laos and Thailand is stark. It is a contrast of Thailand being developed with having this touristy town on the river with homestays, a beautiful paved bike road, themed cafes on the river, huge night street food markets, endless handmade souvenirs, massage parlors, and a booming local econonomic industry. The city of Chiang Khan on the Thai side is decorated, clean, it has beautiful traditional architecture, is picturesque, and also very popular amongst Thai tourists. The Laos side Xanamkhan, which is a short swim (not recommended at all.. its a joke) or boat ride across the river and you will be met with bamboo huts, forest, large mountains, and little lights if any at all. There even was a part of Thailand where I was standing on a nature farm modern themed café and went down to the river and was standing in both Thailand and Laos, yet the economy is stark on the other side. This is when I realized that Thailand is a power country in South East Asia. It makes sense too, as Thailand was never colonized. But I just stood there face to face with the stark differences in economy and life when standing in the Mekong placed between Laos and Thailand.
Later on, I went to one of the themed cafes in Loei on the Mekong, ate my cake, and drank my butterfly pea tea while pondering life in Thailand and life in Laos. While on the other side of the Mekong, Lao people have a drive, a purpose "to survive", to make a living and continue on with a grit, a resilience. Whereas on the Thai side people are here merely for a holiday to take selfies, photoshoots, and make tik tok reviews of the cafe, of course I am guilty of this trend of tik tok for travel exposure; both polarities are interesting. The thing is I am not judging, it is but only a mere observation of the purpose of travel. I found myself asking "why do I travel", pondering my experience along the way, and whilst in this town it was hard to not realize the two different worlds of Thailand and Laos. Thai people work very hard, they are business owners, entrepreneurs, and have passed on generational wealth. However, it is worth mentioning that due to the circumstances people in Lao and Thailand live a very different life.
How to see Loei as a traveler, not a tourist The main place in Loei is to stay on the Mekong river on the Chiang Khan walking street. I did get my taste of this touristy attraction, having all the Thai food one can manage, and all the things to buy from handmade items, touristy souvenirs, to postcards. This was not the only thing there is to see in Loei. If you already made it over to Loei you might as well step even further out of your comfort zone and see the nature and get a vibe for the local life. While in Loei I stayed in the main part of Loei, spent a random day in between there and Chiang Khan, and spent a few days in Chiang Khan. That is a lot of places you are thinking, and it is... pack light ;). A must see when in Loei is definitely the nature. I wish I had more time to venture out in the nature here. I would have loved to stay in a remote homestay or stay in a national park had I had more time.
It is mountainous here and there are many remote villages, hikes, and national parks in Loei. You can find yourself hiking above the world, swimming in rivers, hot springs, walking through rice paddy fields, and mesmerized by vast waterfalls. When you make it in town you will find that Loei, while rural is filled with people. The walking markets here are more lively than any night market in Chiang Mai.The abundance of vendors, food, and live music was plenty. There even was a cultural center that performs traditional dances, and a traditional mask dance which I was so unaware of the meaning or even what was happening. It was mesmerizing and I could find little information about it. The locals wore "warrior looking masks" and performed more of a warrior type of dance. It was totally my vibe to experience this town. I was enjoying the Isaan culture a lot, the music, and the dances. In Loei, there are delicious new foods to try, called Esan food. I tried the (Viet) Thai Esan food which included, banh mi (french baguette), pan egg, banh xeo (crispy egg omelet), and different papaya salads. There were other surprising things as well, but as I grew up in a rural place it makes sense. The locals would grill up frogs, snakes, rats, and the other "normal" meats such as pork, chicken etc. I was not phased truthfully by this, but I am aware others would find this surprising. While in Loei I went to a few national parks and here is how it went. Rent a motorbike or a mountain bike and go off the beaten path. There is no service out in the mountains on these small roads bear in mind, but trust the path, and find yourself in the mountains. Or I guess download offline maps if you wish. ;) I also "hired" a tuk tuk guide and we enjoyed each others company and had a lovely lunch together on the river. I let him take me to the touristy spots as he was kind and the homestay lady recommended him. I don't really like doing the touristy things, but the price was low and he was nice so I felt comfortable. He jumped for joy when I gave him 250 baht for an entire day trek all over Loei including: temples, walkway, cafe-hopping, river border, small waterfall, and some other lookouts. I was so exhausted doing a touristy day like this. He expected I only pay him 200 baht, but I mean he was so kind and never made me feel uncomfortable. We explored the whole day! I gave him an extra 50 baht and paid for his lunch with me. I decided to return his kindness with kindness. When travelling its best to trust your gut when you are face to face with a person. If they give you an "off vibe" trust that and walk away. It's essential to follow this feeling, to avoid harassment. How to get to Loei Isaan In other words though, for travelling to Loei, Chiang Khan you can fly into the Loei airport about 1 hour 30 from Chiang Khan and take a songtoew (pickup truck bus thing) from the bus station to Chiang Khan. The other option is to take the night bus from wherever you are in Thailand. I easily took a night bus, that was 11 hours from Chiang Mai to Loei. The bus was so pleasant on the way there, airconditioned, new seats, blankets, toilet on board, stops along the way to buy snacks even. Getting back to Chiang Mai was an adventure though of bumps along the way, language barriers, and what was meant to be an only an 11 hour bus ride, turned into a detour. This bus detour, was due to probably a mixture of language barrier or just sold out tickets to Chiang Mai direct. I ended up doing a longer detour trip to a random town in Isaan where I had to wait for the next bus to Chiang Mai for 7 hours. First I left Loei, it was 8 hours maybe on bus to a random town where there was a transfer stop to Chiang Mai, however I was uninformed the transfer wait time was 7 hours long! This detour already was 5 extra hours out of the way as it was a town hidden in the mountains. I ended up then spending an entire daytime in this town, at first it felt like a nightmare as I was tired. I quickly changed my mindset and took it as an opportunity to explore. It turns out I spent a half day in the province of Phitansulok. I found it to be charming, as it had Thai markets, lots of shabu places, authentic Thai karaoke scene, but as it was a traditional Thai town everything by about 9pm closed. For rural areas in Thailand this is the norm, trust me though in these places they have a early rise culture. Luckily, I packed light just a small rucksack and nothing expensive with me either only phone and camera well hidden. Thailand is safe, but its best to keep it hidden to get a feel then see if you can bring out the gear.
I met some solo travelers whilst on this trip and made a friend with my grab motor-taxi person. I don't stand out at all in this country, and easily can blend in. I have that hidden power being Vietnamese and American. Whilst in Phitansulok I tried more Isaan food and went to their local mall as I needed to get out of the sun from my long day and bumpy bus ride. I found that this "small" Isaan town was busier than Chiang Mai really, more lively is a more accurate way to explain it. The place was filled with hot pot, karaoke bars, and walking night markets. There was a lot going on to my surprise in the province of Phitansulok.
After that long detour, I made it back to Chiang Mai at nearly 7 am the next day. I had car sickness and was feeling terrible the whole ride, but also felt just as alive. I am young right? I was thinking to myself while feeling dizzy and sick on some random bus throughout the gorgeous Thai mountains, "fuck, this is really living and smiled whilst admiring the sounds of morning birds and the mountains". I felt exhausted and over this bus ride as gorgeous as it was, but also thankful that Chiang Mai felt like home. Isaan was an adventure and definitely off the beaten path, but worth every moment.