A Mekong Promenade - The Isan Rim


Oct 23, 2009
Excerpt: The Mekong was the leading thread, the theme of my trip. I followed it, in Thailand and Laos, as close as possible on (mostly) paved roads, and on a four thousand four hundred kilometers relaxed journey.

A Mekong Promenade

Part 1 – The Isan Rim

First (1st) part: The Isan Rim (A Mekong Promenade - The Isan Rim)
Second (2nd) part: South Laos (A Mekong Promenade Part 2 – South Laos)
Third (3rd) part: Vientiane to Luang Prabang (A Mekong Promenade, Part 3 – Vientiane to Luang Prabang)
Fourth (4th) part: In memoriam of some Mekong explorers (A Mekong Promenade - part 4: In memoriam of some Mekong explorers)
Fifth (5th) part: Xayaboury, Laos west of the Mekong (A Mekong Promenade - Part 5: Xayaboury, Laos west of the Mekong)
Fifth B (5B) part: Pak Lai stopover (A Mekong Promenade - Part 5b: Pak Lai stopover)
Sixth (6th) part: Chiang Khong (A Mekong Promenade - Part 6 : Chiang Khong)
Seventh (7th) part: Along the Golden Triangle (A Mekong Promenade - Part 7: Along the Golden Triangle)

Eighth (8th) part: Cruising down the Mekong river (To be published next

1. Preamble

“Through it all the Mekong has remained wild and free, moving to immemorial rhythms: the monsoon, the flood, the giving of its waters to nourish the lands and people along it. For all its length, it has spawned only one metropolis, one dam, few bridges, and no industrial complex” (From National Geographic, February 1993, vol 183/2).

My first encounter with the “Mother River Kong”[1] was on a boat; a sensible way to meet a large waterway. In March 1989, a couple of dry weeks had greatly lowered the river’s level in Sop Ruak, the Thai apex of the Golden Triangle. On the opposite side, the Laos' border was a steep sand bank, a wall several meters high were hamlets denizens had carved slippery stairs. Peeking into secluded countries' life was enthralling; a short cruise on a pirogue also opened the view towards Burma - as Myanmar was called at that time – or, at least, to a reed barrier belonging to it.


This first experience fascinated me, as I fantasized about the most mysterious and exotic river that I could envision. Big water-flows exist in Europe, and the Mekong is not superlative; its length ranks number twelve [2] in the world; still three times more than the Rhine and nearly five times the Rhone. Its enigmatic borders with Indochina, a region long secluded by wars and communist isolation, also exacerbated my curiosity.

From Thailand’s welcoming stage, my imagination sailed over former kingdoms only visited by adventurous explorers and colonial forces. From its secretive sources, in the Tibetan Himalaya, through Yunnan and Sip Song Panna, the 'Turbulent River' becomes the 'Mighty Mekong', an untamed and unhindered water course, without – at that moment - significant bridges and without a single dam.

Even the burgeoning human activity, on the Lao rim, was a novelty, as described by Milton Osborne in his book “Mekong” [3]:

“In the mid 1980s it was possible to stand and look across the Mekong to the Lao side of the river from locations such as Chiang Saen and Chiang Khong and see absolutely no sign of human activity. Fearful of foreign interference, the secretive Lao authorities have simply moved the population of river towns such as Huay Xai to interior locations, leaving only empty buildings to be observed from the opposite bank of the river”

A year after my first trip, I visited the Golden Triangle again and also traveled to the 'Nine Dragons', the Mekong’s delta in Vietnam. On another boat, this time crossing the powerful rainy season’s stream, I was able to appreciate a part of Indochina's second war’s main battleground, a wide area just opened to tourists.


Over the years, I met the Mekong on several occasions, in Thailand, Laos, and on a recently opened “Friendship Bridge”. This first concrete link marked the beginning of a taming process, the commercial exploitation of the 'Turbulent River'. Soon, a network of highways would jump over its waters and an impressive series of dams would transform the flow in a gigantic escalator, cleaned from boulders and navigated by large barges.

Eventually, I settled down in Chiangmai with more opportunities to meeting my dream river. Encounters became even more frequent when I rambled around the region on a motorcycle and, soon, I had journeyed along most paved stretches, loosely following the course of the Mekong in Thailand and Laos. By patching several segments together, I reckoned that I could describe a virtual loop all along the river.

While I was devising another motorcycle tour, I stumbled upon three new enticing maps depicting the “ Greater Mekong Sub-region” (see [4] GT-Rider sourcing). These well illustrated documents gave me the incentive for a new promenade along the 'Big River', a trip on (mostly) paved roads, loosely following the Mekong's Thai and Lao rims.

2. A Departure with Rainy Perspectives

On the first of October, I took Route 11 to Lampang and Uttaradit, on a fresh and dry journey. I had, however, packed water-resistant clothes, as tornado Gaemi was dancing around the South China Sea with an eye on Vietnam, Laos and Thailand. A precise weather map allowed me to follow its progression, but I had no alternative to my decision to head towards the South.


My trip started as an enjoyable journey, uneventful however for dwellers of Chiangmai. I reached Isan's door after 380 kilometers; it is heralded by a giant 'Phi Ta Khon' mask, reminding about - otherwise humdrum - Dansai's yearly colorful ghost festival.


The road ascending Pu Rua mountain is the main link to Loei. Just after the summit, however, a signboard also points to Luang Prabang, at a distance of 400 kilometers. Unfortunately the rough and dusty conditions of this Route make it dreary, particularly for road bikes.


The itinerary down to Tha Li and to the friendship bridge on the Hueang river - Route 2399 - is a smooth and exhilarating roller coaster. During a former trip, I found the (scenic) stretch along the river’s rim worn out and decided to cut straight toward Chiang Khan. Despite a couple of enjoyable moments, the pavement on that itinerary is, however, only marginally better.



Route 2399 and 2195 eventually lead to Ban Tha Mi Di and a location called “Maenam Song Si” (Bi-colored River), the confluence of the Hueang waters and the Mekong. There, on Phu Khok Ngio hill, a large Buddha statue (Phra Phuttha Nawaminthara Mongkhon) watches, in a blessing mudra, the 'Mother River’s' return to Thailand; colonial history had her escape, to Laos' royal Luang Prabang.

From the hill's vantage point, the view reaches toward mountains, rivers and to the plains of Laos.



Drawing the border again, the 'Big River' looks full and round like a pregnant woman engrossed by the flows of its 'Beng' and 'Ou' tributaries. Fishermen, though, commented that the water had already dropped more than two meters, in the last month, to a level lower than the seasonal average.


Just before Chian Khan, a bridge crosses the elegant Loei River, another Mekong's tributary.



Without a planned accommodation, I rambled around Chiang Khan and, eventually, settled down in ‘Rabian Khong’ guesthouse, located at the river's rim and with a parking space at the entrance. The room rates are 650 THB on the road’s side and 800 THB with a view and a pleasant balcony on the Mekong.



Chiang Khan and it’s neighborhood offer several tourist attractions. For a short stopover, however, the main draw is the river, with it's fishermen's activities, the life along its rim and the pastel colorations of its waters, when the late afternoon sun fades into the haze.



The town itself, with the majestic Wat Mahathat, right in the center and its quiet twilight market, lined up with old wooden constructions, is a serene and charming place.




The trip from Chiangmai to the rim of the Mekong had put 532 kilometers on my odometer and I was happy to conk out near to the 'Big River'.

I woke up at dawn, and, in the morning twilight, rambled around empty streets. Monks were already walking for alms, but, in this sleepy town, it was too early for breakfast.


In the early lights, the Mekong was dressed in fog, enveloped in a mysterious black and white veil. Fishermen enjoyed the fresh hours, cruising the rapids on frail pirogues in their quest for a daily catch. Fisheries provide a livelihood to sixty millions peoples along the 'Big River' [5], an essential protein contribution to the riparians' diet.





Most research papers dealing with the Mekong's fish conservation have similar worrisome conclusions. This is, as an example, a citation of IUCN/SSC, a fauna conservation agency:

«The Mekong River Basin is the richest river basin, by area, for fish biodiversity on the planet, fostering more fish species per catchment unit area than even the Amazon River. The Mekong is estimated to house at least 1,100 species of fish, including the Mekong giant catfish. One of the largest freshwater fish in the world the critically endangered Mekong giant catfish is endemic to the Mekong river system and is an indicator for the health of the ecosystem of the Mekong » [6]

Local fishermen confirmed episodic encounters with adult “Pla Bueng”, on a scale, however, which pointed to a bleak future. The scheduled man-made developments along the 'Big River' and its tributaries, will change its ecosystem, with probable deadly strokes on a fish stock already wrecked by overfishing and water level irregular fluctuations.


Route 211, between Chiang Khan and Nong Kai is arguably one of the most enjoyable link along the Mekong’s rim. The river can usually be seen while driving a vehicle, and a couple of view points afford exquisite panoramas, well worth a break.


Curiosity and serendipity often drive me to explore side roads, and a signboard pointing to a temple on a hill attracted me to the “Golden Mount” (Phu Thong). While I enjoyed the gorgeous panorama, a monk beckoned me to the peak of a rock and led me to a cave. After a creepy and slippery way down, he showed me some glittering earth. Apparently this is a former gold mine, exploited, a couple of thousand years ago, by the civilization of Ban Chiang [7]. The devout man gave me a piece of sparkling sandstone as a souvenir, and I still wonder about the metal’s real composition.





“Ok Pansa” the full moon of the eleventh lunar month and the end of the Buddhist Lent, were just a couple of weeks away. The monk explained that during that time the mysterious “Naga fireballs” (bang fai phaya nak ) could also be observed in front of the temple, albeit only in a limited scope, as small light sparkles. The climax of this spectacle is near Nong Khai where thousands of people flock to witness the glowing balls. Apart from being a manifestation of the “Naga king”, people speculate that the phenomenon is natural or due to tracer bullets, maybe even both together. Some years ago, an ITV television channel aired a controversial footage showing Lao soldier shooting in the air at night. The broadcaster was accused of destroying local culture, and its interpretation of the appearances could also never be proven [8]

After my temple visit, I went back on Route 211, continuing my journey toward Nong Khai.


The small town of Sri Chiangmai is just opposite Vientiane. I like to stop there for a peek into Laos’ capital. Some years ago, in a dull evening mood, I glanced in the other direction, longing for Thailand's colors and dancing lights. The size of the constructions and a totally remodeled waterfront already point to the neighbor’s modernization. As for the night life, the hype is now in the other camp, on the other side of the river.



Villages, populated by dwellers sharing similar roots and languages, punctuate the Mekong's rims. In the past, the river was a mean of transportation and communication, and it did not separate the inhabitants of its sides. Nowadays, a multitude of pirogues still criss-cross the waterway, attesting the trade's vivacity between the neighboring countries. The size and nature of the border, however, complicate the exchanges and smugglings' regulations [9]. Another concern, for the local collectivities and authorities, is the traffic in illegal drugs. When controls were reinforced in the Golden triangle, the merchandises, particularly methamphetamines, flew down the Laos side to more porous border crossings [10].

While I was searching for another view of the Mekong, a lucky star guided me through a maze of small paths along a swamp and, finally, to a temple's compound. 'Wat Si Chompu Ong Tue' actually hosts one of the region's most famous Buddha images. The large Phrachao Yai Ong Tue's bronze cast, in subduing Mara mudra, is a four meter high Lan Chang style statue. It is made out of brass, gold and silver and dates back to the construction of the temple, in 1607, when the region was ruled by a Lan Chang king.





Further down, I drove another side-loop, away from Route 211, for a glimpse at the "Thai Lao Friendship Bridge", the first arch build on the lower Mekong (an old bridge had been built in Xidang, on the upper Mekong). This is an important piece in the Asian Highway system, on road AH12, a link between Lao and Thai highways. My first trip over this bridge was in July 1994, just after its inauguration, in April of the same year. At that time, the traffic toward Laos was restricted, and I had to fly to Vientiane before crossing it on my journey back to Thailand.

Some limitations were eased over the years, but a ban remains, prohibiting Thai registered motorcycles to traverse the bridge into Laos. This measure was probably deemed to contain an overflow of youngsters driving from the Thai side to party in Vientiane. The Lao culture, however, is certainly more affected by open TV windows, than by a couple of small bikes.

The bridge's center lane is a railway, ready for a future development: the train connection linking Bangkok to Vientiane.



My usual shack, in Nong Khai, is 'Mutmee Guesthouse' (room at 550 THB), where I checked in again during this trip. The day's itinerary, from Chiang Khan, including side-trips, covered 227 kilometers.


In relaxed Nong Khai, people enjoy evening walks along the river or a sunset cruise. In that region the Mekong flows from the west, offering a large stage for the sundown’s pageantry and the changing hues of the twilight.



After a 'Mutmee' breakfast, I started my journey along the Mekong's rim toward the white temple, a landmark glowing like a lighthouse at the eastern end of the promenade. Phra That La Nong is a replica of a collapsed temple whose chedi points out of the river in the dry season. During my visit, the water was still completely hiding the submerged edifice.


After Nong Khai, my drive to the Lao border became a straight story, kilometers of rectilinear trails punctuated by short side kicks. It is, however, one of Isan's most gorgeous landscapes, featuring the greeneries of the fertile Mekong's valley, at the Korat plateau's feet.



Another side trip took me to Wat Ahong Silawat, a compound located amidst boulders at the rim of the Mekong. Impressive Naga images adorn and protect the stairs to this temple, a reminder of the regional ubiquitous importance of this mythological creature.

In the Buddhist cosmology, the Naga is a dweller of the underworld, particularly of aquatic realms like lakes and rivers. He is also the bodyguard of the Buddha and, in his seven heads iconography, protects the holy man from rain storms. To recall the time when the 'Serpent King' shortly entered monkhood, candidates to ordination are also called 'Nag' while dressed in white clothes.

In Northern Laos and Thailand, the link and worshiping of this fabulous creature is even more meaningful, as highlighted in the book 'The Enduring Sacred Landscape of The Naga':

“A folktale about the many rivers, lakes and swamps extending from the Nam U river in today's Laos to the Mekong River south of the U says that these rivers are the accidental result of a stubborn fight between two chief naga … the naga's bodies raked the earth, digging the rivers, ponds and lakes of the Central Mekong region.”[11]

Mysterious disappearance attributed to this mythological creature and the 'Ok Pansa' fireball phenomenon are examples of the Mekong's population's traditional beliefs. The nagas are highly respected and worshiped in the region and their names are linked to numerous geographic and historic places.




Nowadays, PT gas stations, frequently host an ‘Amazon Café’. They are my favorite stops for compulsions like filling the bike's tank, getting a shot of black water and shortly connecting to the worldwide network.


My coffee break was in Bueng Kan, a town with a ferry crossing to Paxan in Laos. As I had no desire to switch to the opposite rim, I was only interested in meeting the Mekong. Its low water level unveiled a large and fertile garden, ready for cultivation. All along the course of the ‘Big River’ floods are a mixed blessing. Unusual inundations destroy constructions and cultures but, on the other hand, the loess deposited by the flows is an essential fertilizer for the region's agriculture. Arguments in favor of dam constructions include the regulation of the water levels. This might rather be a disadvantage, if land used for cultivation is no longer irrigated and regenerated, and if the minerals are retained on the reservoirs' bottoms.


Bueng Kan is actually a large pond and I took time to lose my way on small secondary roads and to ramble along it through ricefields.



For a time, Route 212 runs closer to the Mekong, and I stopped again at Ban Phaeng, another place with numerous small boats ready for fishing and trailing merchandises between both sides of the river.


Exactly when my bike's odometer marked '1000 kilometers' - since my departure from Chiangmai - I crossed the 77 kilometer milestone to Nakon Phanom. I was now near to my day’s stopover, but had only covered less than one quarter of my total Mekong journey.


Under a forest shade, on a straight road stretch, I spotted a small stall selling strange creatures. After stopping my bike, I walked back to the stand where a cheerful Isan family was selling eels. Some of these delicacies were kept alive in water filled plastic bags, others were hanging dried, ready for consumption. I had no urgency for a snack, and, after a chat with the friendly vendors, drove on.




Further down Route 212, in Chaiburi, a bridge crosses the Maenam Songkhram, a Mekong tributary. The confluence of these rivers is also called “Maenam Song Si” (Bi-colored River), as the shades of their waters vary from brown to blue.



Ta Uthen, the next town on the itinerary, is well known for it’s Thai Lao market and a white chedi temple.


Albeit set up in in a smaller compound, Wat Phra Tat Tha Uthen, is similar to Phra That Phanom, located further down the road. It's prominent pagoda, built in Vientiane style, contains a Buddha’s disciple's relic, brought over from Yangon.






On the chedi's wall, graphic bas-reliefs illustrate the chastisement awaiting sinners trespassing the five Buddhist precepts.



Just before Nakon Phanom, a third “Thai–Lao Friendship Bridge” (Saphan Mitraphab) has been inaugurated on the auspicious day of November 11th 2011. I had no intention to cross to Tha Khek over this new link, but was curious to inquire about the possibilities to ride my bike to Laos.

Friendly and helpful officials, at the Thai immigration, confirmed that Laos customs prohibits Thai registered bikes' passage, unless they are part of an authorized caravan. -





In Nakhon Phanom, I checked in to 'View Kong' hotel, a large riverside building where I stayed in the past.


A small mechanic shop had fixed my bike during another trip. This time, I took an opportunity to have my chain conveniently serviced.


Nakhon Phanom, is the city of hills, but the mountains are on the Laos side. It is, however, a fancy stopover, with a Mekong promenade hosting a door to the nagas' realm, evening river cruises, interesting temples and a variety of eateries.




During that day, from Nong Khai to Nakon Phanom, I had covered 340 kilometers.

An early breakfast, and I was gliding down ninety kilometers, on Route 212, to the town of That Phanom, where I called at its elegant temple. Apparently, Wat Phra That Phanom's white plaster chedi contains the breastbone of Lord Buddha, making it one of the most holy places in Thailand. All believers should visit it at least once in their life and, for people born in the year of the monkey – like me – it is the main shrine linked to their Chinese zodiac sign.





Paintings, along the temple’s wall, illustrate Thai proverbs or warn about wrongdoings and intoxicants:




As I approached Mukdahan, I stopped at another bridge over the Mekong. Jumping to charming Savannaket, the second “Thai Lao Friendship bridge”, officially opened in January 2007, is an important piece in the Asian Highway network. Part of the East-West Economic Corridor it connects the Andaman coast to the South China Sea.


After Mukdahan, Route 2034 begins with a stretch in excellent shape, but later down the road, all types of destructions punctuate the way.


For a change and a coup d'oeil to the river, I followed agricultural Route 4017 which led to unpaved trails and bridges over small tributaries of the Mekong.





Back on Route 2242, I stopped in Don Tan Ngoen and Bahn Phaeng. All along the 'Big River' small boats are part of the landscape. A large signboard warning about the death penalty for drug trafficking might lack efficiency to control the flow of merchandise between the Mekong's riparian communities.



Before Khemmarat , Route 2112 displays all types of surfaces and is a mixed blessing. The city itself, on the rim of the Mekong, provides another river's observation point.




In the year 2015, the ASEAN countries will make an important step in their integration process toward a single market. The agreement should foster and speed up the exchanges, increase competitiveness and attract foreign investments to the region. As half of the member states are Mekong riparians, the 'Big River' will play an important role it that community. Sometimes facilitating, sometimes hindering the flow of merchandise, it remains an important source of nutrients and might soon become the power house of many countries.
(ASEAN includes: Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Lao PDR, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Myanmar and Viet Nam).

ASEAN banners are already floating all along the river, announcing this important integration process [12].


Route 2112 has again a variety of pavements, with a couple of attractive stretches and other places heavily deteriorated.








While crossing the bridge over the Mun river I peeked toward its confluence with the 'Mother River'. This point is again called “Maenam Song Si” (Bi-colored River), the most popular of the three places bearing this name. I had visited it during other trips and, this time, I bypassed the short loop down to the viewpoint.

Five kilometers upriver, along the “Maenam Mun” a controversial dam was built in 1994. The concerns were the impacts on fish migration and stocks, insufficient compensation for displaced populations, harsh crushing of opponents' manifestations and, finally, a failure to produce the expected electricity output. Some points have now been taken care of, but similar arguments will have to be addressed in Laos, before the seventy planned dams on the Mekong's tributaries are completed [13]

The international community's immediate worry, however, is the official inauguration of the Xayaburi dam; the first construction on the lower Mekong. After a period of uncertainty, the fate of the project has now been clearly announced, by the Lao government, on October 30th[14]

Meanwhile, the five commissioned dams in the Chinese Yunnan province are hardly mentioned. They are probably as threatening for the river's ecosystem than Xayaburi, but who would dare to stand up against this 'super power' [15]?


Traversing the Thai and Lao borders in Chong Mek, without a river crossing or a prohibited bridge, is uneventful and takes less than one hour. This includes a visit to the LVI insurance booth, next to the Lao customs building. I always prepare three photocopies of my passport and bike's green book, in addition to the bunch of documents downloaded from GT-Rider's site [16] some of them are often unnecessary, but it is worth to have the information ready.

Amazingly, this time, I got a fourteen day visa and only a twelve days insurance. To remain on the safe side, though, I bought an additional insurance week, toward the end of the trip.



Paxe city is less than fifty kilometers away from the border, on Route 16W. Upon arrival I checked in to my favorite accommodation in that town, the relaxed 'Paxe Hotel'.

The journey from Nakon Phanom to the border, added 340 kilometers to my odometer; the total day's journey covered 384 kilometers.



This concludes the first part of my Mekong ballade story.

Next chapter: Part 2 - South Laos

For more information about the Mekong river:
Introduction - Save the Mekong


[1] Mekong - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Mekong - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
The Mekong is known under different names in different countries.

[2] List of rivers by length - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
“There are many factors, such as the source, the identification or the definition of the mouth, and the scale of measurement of the river length between source and mouth, that determine the precise meaning of "river length". As a result, the length measurements of many rivers are only approximations”

[3] The Mekong. Turbulent past, uncertain future
Milton Osborne
Allen&Unwin 2000, revised edition 2006

[4] References and sourcing of three interesting Mekong maps:

[5] The Tiger Rally 2012.

[6] The Tiger Rally 2012.
Mekong giant catfish - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Giant Catfish, Giant Catfish Profile, Facts, Information, Photos, Pictures, Sounds, Habitats, Reports, News - National Geographic
Pangasianodon gigas (Giant Catfish, Mekong Giant Catfish)

[7] Pictures of Ban Chiang excavation in another trip report :
A cultural trip in Isan - Udon Thani to Mukdahan

[8] The Mystrery of the Naga Fireball
Ounkeo Souksavanh
Exploring Borders – Reportage from Our Mekong
Inter Press Service (IPS) Asia-Pacific, Thailand, 2004

[9] More Open Borders, Easier Smugggling
Bouaninh Luangphinith
Crossing Borders – Reportage from Our Mekong
Inter Press Service (IPS) Asia-Pacific, Thailand, 2006

[10] Drug Trade Find A Way
Anucha Charoenpro
Crossing Borders – Reportage from Our Mekong
Inter Press Service (IPS) Asia-Pacific, Thailand, 2006

[11] The Enduring Sacred Landscape of The Naga
Mayoury & Pheuiphanh Ngaosrivathana
Mekong press, 2009

Association of Southeast Asian Nations - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

[13]The New
Thailand Case Study: Pak Mun Dam - Executive Summary
Pak Mun Dam



[16] Full Set of Thai Border Documents
Last edited by a moderator:


Nov 21, 2010
Thanks for the beautiful & informative trip report (I am a bit lazy for the last part)

Chang Noi


Dec 27, 2007
Beautiful pictures a wealth of information and a wonderful writing style- always a pleasure to read Jurgen's ride reports!!


Mar 30, 2010
Another great report with fantastic pictures.

Certainly glad we have you and Rod to write these reports with all the history and other informative information provided.
It certainly helps understand the places in more detail we have been or are going to ride through next.



Staff member
Jan 16, 2003
Chiang Khong
Superb Jurgen. A fantastic read full of lots of info & brilliant photos.
I know I & many others always look forward to your amazing trip reports. Bring 'em on. we love your reports. Even for me there is always something new & interesting that makes me want to go back out there those the places, just because you've provided another interesting insightful perspective.