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Surprise: an untouched piece of Thailand Add to ...

If Chiang Khan's courtly teak dwellings, huddled along a quiet bend of the Mekong River, seem to call up a reverent "Once upon a time in Southeast Asia," the newest wave of young visitors may add an "Awesome, dude."

But trend watchers looking for the next hot Thai tour destination will have to wait a few years. This northern town is too far from the nearest large airport - five hours over narrow roads from Udon Thani - to be tomorrow's Phuket. It's also still too set in its rural ways to become a boho magnet like Pai, the town 350 kilometres north along the Laos border that started drawing backpackers in the mid-1990s when it was linked to Chiang Mai by road.

Chiang Khan stepped into the modern world only about 15 years ago, says Nick Ascot, owner of the local travel outfitter North by North East. "That's when electricity came ... and locals entered the cash economy."

The infrastructure has been improving steadily ever since, but this tranquil community of 4,100 still occupies the independent traveller's sweet spot. It may not have Westernized food or high-end spas, but it is a place where footloose types can roll in without reservations and land river-view lodgings for about $15 a night - even through the November-to-March high season.

A large part of Chiang Khan's laid-back appeal is the chance to stay in small guest houses where the owners attempt to provide services geared to foreign travellers without breaking the spell of northern Thailand's rural ambience.

For example, Thanaporn (Pim) Mongkata, who owns Chiang Khan Guest House with her Dutch husband, Huub, can arrange dinners with traditional music and dance. Countryside cottages can be rented from Pascal Rimpault, a French expatriate who arrived years ago and found it difficult to leave and now owns the garden-style Rimkong Pub. At Sam's Guest House, a recently upgraded 60-year-old teak house, the most dramatic room is a glass-walled aerie jutting over the Mekong. It rents for $17 a night, albeit with a shared bath in the hall.

The largest hotel in town is Suk Som Boon, offering 17 wood-panelled rooms carved out of a rambling old riverside house. It's hospitable, but non-English-speaking owners spend most evenings in the courtyard, wrapping sausage in rice and banana leaf for the morning market.

And while Loogmai Guesthouse lines its walls with modern art, there's still no flush toilets or air conditioning, just fans and a river breeze. Here, the joys of a Thai breakfast at a riverside picnic table and indolent afternoons in a hammock come with an equally authentic Thai-style mattress and pillow that feel like they're filled with river rocks cushioned by uncooked rice.

Yet, even with the recent influx of foreigners, Chiang Khan has yet to cross what I call the "Muesli border," a cultural tipping point that prompts local restaurants to serve the iconic Swiss breakfast cereal instead of local noodles. Indeed, so few travellers know about this old settlement in the hills of Loei Province, where wine grapes and wildflowers flourish in an uncommonly cool clime, that the day's rowdiest gathering may be the procession of monks filing through town at sunrise.

At the first rose streaks of dawn, sacred melodies from surrounding wats seep into town, a rousting call for elderly women bearing tureens of stewed vegetables and rice - morning sustenance for the monks.

Guest-house visitors looking for nearby diversions can follow the lead of locals and head four kilometres down the Mekong to Kaeng Khut Khu Beach, where a rocky promontory kicks up rushing rapids between Thailand and Laos.

Some charter one of the bulky wooden riverboats at the end of the rocky beach for a picnic, while others graze on boardwalk fare such as char-grilled Kai Yang chicken and lacy shrimp pancakes. Most diners, however, spend the day reclining Riviera-style on thatch-roof platforms, calling to the adjacent open-air kitchens for platters of Plaa pao gleua, salt-crusted Mekong River fish stuffed with lemongrass, and mounds of the chili-laced meat salad laab, made from beef, fish, chicken, pork, duck or any other nearby creature.

Residents are charmed when visitors bypass utensils and eat local style, scooping up salads or meats with a palm full of sticky rice, but do throw a wrap over that bikini: Swimming attire for these modest Thais is a T-shirt and shorts, and Chiang Khan is still a side road off the tourist trail.

***

Pack your bags

GETTING THERE

Chiang Khan is located 150

kilometres west of Nongkhai,

on the Mekong River.

WHERE TO STAY

Loogmai Guesthouse Chiang Khan Road, Soi 5, Chiang Khan, Loei 42110; 042-822-334; 5 rooms.

Sam's Guesthouse Chiang Khan Road, Soi 20, Chiang Khan District, Loei Province 42110; 0066-42-821041; http://www.sams-guesthouse.com; 9 rooms.

Suk Som Boon Hotel 243/2 Chiang Khan; 042-821 004;

17 rooms, some with bath.

FOOD AND DRINK

An Restaurant Soi 9, off Chiang Khan Road. We returned repeatedly to this friendly side-street stall serving Mekong River fish with curry and black pepper, Tom Yam and morning noodles.

Rimkong Pub & Guesthouse 294 Chiang Khan Rd.; 660-42821125; rimkhong.free.fr. Pop music emanates from this pub run by an expat Frenchman and his Thai wife, who also rent rooms and cottages.

WHAT DO TO

Baan Pan Thai Spa On Chiang Khan Road, across from Sam's Guesthouse near Soi 20. Put yourself in the hands of powerful middle-aged masseuses who are qualified through the six-month course offered by the government hygiene department.

Kaeng Khut Khu Beach This Mekong resort about four kilometres from Chiang Khan is famous for its multicoloured rocks that nearly connect Laos and Thailand.

 

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