Apr 28-30, 2016
Exploring Chiang Saen, Thailand
Location: Chiang Saen, Thailand
Going with the Flow
Chiang Saen...just a few days ago, I didn't even know this place existed. My plan was to go to Pai after Myanmar. But somehow, the Flow took me to the Golden Triangle - the spot on the map where the borders of Myanmar, Thailand and Laos meet. First Mae Sai, now Chiang Saen. I'm open to where life takes me. I was curious what's here.
Using my newly discovered techie way of reaching my destination, getting to Chiang Saen from Mae Sae was painless (B50, 1 hour). I knew exactly when to tell the driver to stop. From my research, I checked-in at the cheapest place - Chiangsaen Guest House at B150/night. It's not pretty but I'm a guerrilla traveler and a mountaineer - nothing hurts. At least I didn't have to worry where I sleep that night. Having taken care of that, next step was to rent a bike and go to the better hotels to make a web deal.
Unlike Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai, Chiang Saen is not a familiar destination in the north of Thailand. It's a laid back sleepy town on the bank of the mighty Mekong River. Tourists are few and they only stay for a night to break a long trip into Laos or take the extended tour for the Golden Triangle from Chiang Rai. You get a glimpse of the real Thailand where tourists are welcome but locals don't put on a drama or anything contrite for tourism. The locals seem to be just as happy going about their own ways with or without tourists. This is perhaps the charm of Chiang Saen - the laid-back unpretention. When the sun is down, the river bank 'boardwalk' takes on a new form as vendors line up the promenade with cute low picnic tables and mats for outdoor dining. This is where Chiang Saen's charm becomes evident. On one side of the bank is a group of mostly housewives doing a led group dance and on a pub across the street, the youngsters are having their drinks and fun. The entire scene is wholesome and refreshing. The Thais know how to have fun, and more importantly, they know how to balance work and recreation.
Even though Chiang Saen is now a sleepy town, it wasn't always like that. Around Chiang Saen's perimeter is a fortified city wall. From the stream running along the northern wall, it might even be a moated city like Chiang Mai. From the inscription by the river, there used to be an east wall that has since been taken over by the river. All this gives evidence that Chiang Saen was once the mighty capital of the Lanna Kingdom - long before even Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai were established. But the succession of tribal wars, earthquakes and power struggles obscured an accurate account of Chiang Saen's history. Only the surviving ruins of temples and chedis give a muted statement on the historical backdrop of the place.
In the north of Thailand, the biggest draw is the Golden Triangle - the confluence of the Ruak River and the Mekong where the borders of Thailand, Myanmar and Laos meet. Ironically, there's really not much to it. The opium days that gave rise to the notoriety of the place is now a historical footnote. But yes, during its heyday back in the 1950s, the opium trade in the Golden Triangle generated enough money to fund revolutions and destabilize governments. The name itself conjured images of the CIA, drug lords, opium cartels, mercenaries, money laundering, heroin and anarchy. This romanticized notion is what gives this place a kind of marketing edge.
Chiang Saen is perhaps one place where the highlight for me was the people I met - 2 nights, 4 wonderful souls.
An elegant hotel got my attention - Pak-Ping-Rim-Khong. I thought I could interest the owners to a barter deal. I ended up talking to Sudarat who was representing the family business. She liked the program, but unfortunately, the hotel was fully booked for the days I planned to stay in Chiang Saen. But we got on well, and continued to talk about other things. She invited me to have breakfast the following day and have me savour what they offer in their bed-and-breakfast. I was there the following day lavished by a hearty Thai breakfast with Sudarat across the table as we continued out talk. I enjoyed her company. I only wish we could hang out more, but hotel duties tied her up.
Julie, Edward and Jessie
For a while, we were the only tourists in Chiang Saen. We kept bumping into each other and later discovered we all checked-in at the same place. We started hanging out - morning yoga, alfresco riverside dinner, lakeside naps, etc. They were kind enough to let me tag along on their motorcycle tour of Chiang Saen's tourist attractions, with me riding in tandem with Julie. We somehow resonated having similar tenets and insight about many things. My Chiang Saen experience was exponentially enhanced having met them - it was great fun!
early morning yoga by the mighty Mekong River with Julie, Edward and Jessie
Chiang Saen has numerous compelling Wats, some sit magnificently on a hilltop offering a stunning view of Laos and the Mekong River. Mostly, there are lone chedi ruins scattered across town, interspacing themselves with commercial establishments, parks and residences. A short motorcycle ride can also take you to the Chiang Saen lake - it's easy to get lost since there are no street signs and Thais don't understand what "lake" means. But for me, the main charm of Chiang Saen is alfresco dinner by the river bank.
I often hear from travelers that they want to experience the real culture of the place, away from the maddening tourists. Well, this is it! Chiang Saen. It's almost that kind of neighborhood secret you say in hushed tones 'coz you want to keep it all to yourself.
Chiang Saen, Thailand
- Golden Triangle - ride 10 kms north along route 1290 to Sop Ruak until you see a huge Golden Buddha. The Golden Triangle is where the borders of Thailand, Myanmar and Laos meet. There is the Opium Museum to visit
- Chiang Saen National Museum - located within town, you read more about the role opium played in Thailand's history, the local tribes in Thailand's north and the devotion of the Thais to Buddha
- Wat Pra Dhat Pha-Ngao - sitting atop a hill with a panoramic vista of Mekong River and Laos. Many religious temples here including the Wooden Teak Temple (currently undergoing a facelift)
- Night Dining along the Mekong River - when the stores close around 6pm, the food vendors line-up picnic tables and mats along the 'boardwalk' of the Mekong River. Meals are very reasonably priced and served straight to your table. A must-experience in Chiang Saen!
- the tourist area where most of the hotels, restaurants, ticket offices, tour operators are, is located within the market area close to the T-junction of route 1290 and 1016
- with the exception of 24-hour convenience stores and perhaps a local pub, most establishments (cafes, resto, stores) close between 5pm and 6pm. When they close, the vendors serving dinner and drinks along the riverside take over. They remain open until about 10pm - this will be the only action happening in Chiang Saen during this time
- the money changer, Twelve Victory Exchange, located beside the market/7-11 give good rates
- prices in Chiang Saen are generally lower than Chiang Mai (except bicycles B50 vs B80)
- blue songthaew - B50, 1 hour via Sop Ruak (Golden Triangle) along Route 1290. Blue songthaew waits along the main road corner Thetsaban 8 Alley, just right after KasikornBank and leaves every hour. It will pass through Route 1290 and turn right on the market (Route 1016), its final stop. (my songthaew left Mae Sai at 9:40am and arrived Chiang Saen at 10:35am)
backpacker places (US$1 = Thai Baht 34.92 = Php P47.03 as of May 1, 2016)
- motorcycle - B200/day + gas
- bicycle - B80 daily rental
- downtown Chiang Saen is really a small place - you can walk around it leisurely
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- one Chang bottled beer, big
- 1 liter drinking water in a grocery
- one hour massage
- noodle soup with meat
- hot coffee, add B5 if iced
- songthaew to Chiang Saen
- bed in a fan room, shared toilet incl. breakfast
- bicycle rental, 24 hours
- one day motorcycle rental + gas
Apr 28-30, 2016
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