We've journeyed to Luang Prabang a few times, but never by boat -- which I suppose explains why we'd never been to Chiang Khong before our diversion north from Chiang Mai last month. You see, Chiang Khong sits right across the Mekong River from the Laotian town of Huay Xai, from which boats depart south. So to most travelers it's little more than a way station.
But in less than 24 hours we found a few reasons to view Chiang Khong as more than a pitstop.
We drove into town on a Sunday afternoon, famished. Bypassing main street's row of empty cafes advertising Western fare and espresso beverages, we headed downhill to the river. Before long we spotted a restaurant serving a small group of middle-aged Thais -- a good enough reason as any to stop.
We climbed a flight of stairs to a covered porch overlooking the Mekong. Presented with English menus listing central Thai and Isaan standards like tom yam gong, yam woonsen, and [shudder] fried rice, we set them aside and surveyed our neighbors' table instead. Two dishes in particularly beckoned.
When our dishes appeared from the kitchen they went straight to the Thais' table, only to be refused (they'd pretty much finished eating by the time we started), then ferried around the small dining area in search of another group of Thais. We waved our arms and smiled beseechingly, and the finally laid before us. We had an audience as we ate.
The deep-fried tiny fish called bplaa naa oon (opening photo), our waitress told us, had been plucked from the river that morning. Fried with a hillock of garlic shards, they were crispy enough to be eaten heads, bones, and all, and so sweetly caramelized that the chili sauce served alongside was superfluous. We finished our first serving in record time and promtply ordered another. And 5 hours later, we returned for another, to gobble down with a few ice-cold Singha beers.
The second dish, plaa khao phad chaa, is one of the most heavenly fish preparations we've ever eaten in Thailand. Bplaa khao is a white-fleshed, meaty, and not-too-bony river fish. It had been cut into generous chunks, deep-fried, and then incorporated into a stir-fry with yellow bell pepper, heaps of ginger matchsticks, fiery green chilies, sprigs of fresh green peppercorn, and basil sprigs. The chilies and fresh peppercorns lent a searing kick and low pleasure-pain quotient. Every bite of this dish literally hurt, but it was so delicious we couldn't bring ourselves to stop.
By the end of lunch we were smitten with Chiang Khong. After dropping our bags at a nearby guesthouse we explored the "port" below, where bottles of Fanta and cartons of instant noodles bound for Laos are loaded into boats that have just disgorged onto the beach fresh vegetables, twine-tied stacks of used cardboard, and bundles of cloth. We joined locals having an evening stroll on a strip of river promenade closed to cars, and wondered how on earth so many guesthouses, bars, and restaurants catering to tourists survive when there didn't seem to be any tourists about. And as the sun set we watched activity on the watery wind down from our balcony, over glasses of Sang Som and soda.
Around 8pm our sleepy guesthouse became a hubbub of activity as low-budget tour group arrived. Doors slammed, backpacks hit the floor, beer bottles clinked, a rush of orders were put in at the guesthouse's cafe, and a singalong -- accompanied by really, really bad guitar playing -- ensued. We imagined similar scenes playing out at every one of the empty guesthouses and cafes we'd scene on our walk earlier that evening.
When we headed out fpr a stroll the next morning around sunrise we passed a few farang nursing hot cups of Nescafe in the cafe. On the main street, busy now with Chiang Khong-ians on their way to work and school, farang pitched forward under the weight of backpacks made their way to the port and the bus station. Others kicked back in tuk-tuks and pick-up trucks.
We ducked down a sidestreet in search of breakfast, and found a woman dishing up kao soi Tai Lua from the front of her old timber house. And afterwards, when we returned to Chiang Khong's "city center", we found it .... empty.
Once again we had Chiang Khong to ourselves, and we would have gladly lingered a day or two had we not been expected back in Chiang Mai that evening. Our last meal was had just a few steps from our first, at cute little corner house with a sweet view of the river from its front dining area.
When we arrived around half past eleven the place was all but empty. But once again the culinary gods were smiling upon us. We'd unknowingly stumbled upon a lunchtime hot spot; 30 minutes later there was a wait for empty seats.
A delicious kanom jeen nam ngiaow (fine rice vermicelli with meat-and-tomato 'gravy', a northern Thai specialty) -- super spicy, but neither as tomato-y as versions served in Chiang Mai, nor as fishy bplaa raa-heavy as those eaten in Chiang Rai -- is what's served here. Unlike any version we'd eaten before it featured nicely bouncy fish balls, as well as pork.
We finished our lunch with a house specialty that disappeared shortly after we snapped up our own two bowls' worth: khao tom, banana-stuffed pillows of steamed sticky rice,topped with crushed peanuts, gratings of moist fresh coconut meat, white sugar, and ground black sesame seeds. This sweet alone would have prompted us to linger another night if we'd had the time.
Delicious fish at the restaurant next to Rimnan Guesthouse (forgive us, we did not note the name), one block in from the river.
In the wooden house on the corner of the same block, find superb kanom jeen nam ngiaow and khao tom. Around 11am till they run out. Closed in the evenings.
Kao soi Tai Lua, Tedsaban Soi 8 (green-painted flower shop on the corner, Tedsaban is the main road -- it's a small town, there's just one main road), about 1.5 blocks up from Tedsaban. Served from the front of a small wooden house on your left as you're heading away from the main road.