Travel the Rivers of the North of Thailand
The main rivers in the north of Thailand are the Ping in Chiang Mai, the Mae Kok in Chiang Rai, and the largest of them all, the Mae Khong ( Mekong) in Chiang Saen. All are navigable, but here we look at the rivers to the north east, around Chiang Rai and Chiang Saen.
Travelers who enjoy the peace of a river trip will thoroughly enjoy the boat journey from Chiang Rai to Tha ton. The boat takes around three to four hours and passes by the dense tropical forest which cannot be seen from the road – not that there are too many roads going this way. The trip goes west and ends in the small community of Tha ton the river bank. As there is no return journey until the next day at 12.30 pm the options are really down to choosing a hotel and staying overnight. But this is one of the more relaxing ways to spend a day and although is taken on the noisy long tail boat, there are times when the boat man will cut the engines to view the bank, and possibly see groups of elephants in the forest. The boats leave from the dock near the Dusit Hotel in Chiang Rai at 7 am and the cost is 300 Baht each way.
This river ‘port’ is close to the area known as Chiang Rai Beach. It’s something of an oddity that a city located some 1,000 kilometers from the sea should have a beach. But there it is. This is a favorite park and picnic spot down by the river, and good for a day relaxing with a few goodies and a drink. Vendors and small eating cabins line the park where the dishes are almost exclusively Thai. The reason for it being named ‘beach’ is that there is sand on the banks of the Mae Kok at this point, so with a little imagination it could be conceived to be a beach, of sorts!
Of all the rivers in the region there is the one which is regarded as the lifeblood of communities from the Vietnamese Delta where it pours into the South China Sea through to the point where it flows towards Myanmar and Laos in the north. That distance is some 4,900 kilometers and makes the river the tenth longest in the world. This is the Mae Khong and at the meeting point of Laos, Myanmar and Thailand it is known as the Golden Triangle. Famed for once being the raw drugs (opium) trading centre of the world, the Triangle is more of a tourist attraction these days. The CIA and the law enforcement agencies have moved on to other parts, and the five star hotels have moved in to give the area an air of respectability.
But the Mae Khong and a boat remains the best form of transport to take travelers south towards Luang Prabang and Laos. There are boats going downstream just to Chiang Khong, where the majority of the longer distance craft to Laos depart. First stop from this river port is the immigration point across the river at Huay Xia, in Laos. As there are lots of organized tours, there can be lengthy queues at the passport control, which can be frustrating for independent travelers. If possible the free minded person will try to avoid the times when all the tour groups get there by checking the itineraries of the trips from the local travel agencies. The next part of the adventure can be taken on a fast speedboat or on a more leisurely craft which takes two days and involves an overnight stop. Stories abound about the fast boat hitting debris and turning over, but travelers tales are often embellished. Whilst it surely has happened, it is not a regular occurrence. However it is the case that in the rainy season there are large pieces of tree debris floating around the rivers, so the hope is that the boat man has noticed them. For a slow boat or a long tail this is not really a problem as they simply go round the piece of wood, but a high speed craft may just do as the worriers say.
An alternative and more direct route is from Chiang Rai to Chiang Khong by local bus and they leave from the old bus station, (Number 1) in the centre of town. The buses to look for are the red ones, which like all the other local buses look as though they need a spot of paint and attention. If in doubt, there are notices around the bus station with the destinations in English. If it hasn’t fallen off, there will be a card placed in the window of the bus offering the service to Chiang Khong. The best place for the larger traveler is on the back seat where there is some legroom, but you may have to share the space with a number of boxes, luggage and maybe some fruit or kitchen utensils. The fare is around 60 Baht and takes two hours.
In Chiang Saen the boats are more local affairs and will take visitors out for trips around the sand banks which make up the Triangle where the three countries meet. The costs are negotiable but 200 to 300 Baht is the most common price. This is actually the Ruak river confluence with the Mekong, not the major river itself. There is a large gold colored Buddha and temple residing gloriously next to the river, and nearby there is the House of Opium. This museum is two kilometers north of town and displays a history of the opium trade, the effects of the drug and the ways in which it has been eradicated in Thailand. The museum is open from 8.30 am to 4.30 pm daily except Monday, with an entrance fee of 200 Baht, which goes to the Royal Doi Tung charity.
So Chiang Saen is another good excursion from Chiang Rai and one which can be taken on the bus, by a rental car or a motorcycle. The route is north towards Mai Sai, along the superhighway and then right at the traffic lights just after the large Tesco store. That gets you onto the Highway 1016 and then it is a straight drive of around 30 minutes to Chiang Saen and the Mae Khong River.