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Lifestyle Curators for Thailand + Southeast Asia

Driving the mekong

  /  DESTINATIONS   /  Driving the mekong
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Unveiling Thailand’s major river, from the Friendship Highway all the way to Laos.

By Harold Stephens

Laos - view from Pak Ou Caves, Luang PrabangThere’s an expression, you can’t see the forest for the trees. I think it’s much the same with the Mekong River. You can’t really see the river when you’re aboard a boat or on a raft. All you see is water. The real way to see the river is to view it from land, to drive along it by car. That’s what I believed, and then people began saying that’s impossible. Roads don’t follow along the Mekong.

I don’t know about the roads in Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, but I can now vouch for the roads in Thailand. There are roads, unmarked back roads mostly, that follow close to the river. How certain am I? I rented a car from AVIS and covered near a 1,000 kilometers along the river.

I discovered there are not only roads that follow the river, but there’s also a whole field of discovery waiting the adventurer driver. A drive along the Mekong will prove it.

After reaching Nong Khai on the Mekong, via the Friendship Highway, and turning northeast to follow the flow of the river, I discovered the maps I had were useless. A map doesn’t mater. There was little chance of getting lost if we kept the river to the left, and followed any road or trail no matter how small it was, just so it flowed in the general direction of the river, downstream.

Laos - Nam Khan River, Luang PrabangThe road from Nong Khai turns to the northeast before turning south. The Mekong winds and twists in every which way. At the Mutmee Guesthouse where I stayed in Nong Khai, I was told that Phnom Phisai, at the 46-kilometer mark, is a village with a strange phenomenon. People come from all around the countryside to see fireballs rise up from the river and lift skyward. It occurs at night, once a year during full moon. Some say the fireballs are nagas, and others with more scientific minds say they are ethylene gas. And there are those who say they are manmade, to fool the public.

There were no fireballs when I arrived, but I did find a fine view of the Mekong. It appeared a big as a lake, void of activity. No boats, not a ferry, not a fishing craft.

With farmlands bordering the river, irrigation is not a problem; fields are lush and green. As it was the season for planting, farmers and their families were out in the paddies, knee-deep in water planting rice. Unaccustomed to visitors, they looked up and waved when I stopped to take photographs.

The foliage is so dense along the river that the trees overhang the road made it appear at times I was driving through a tunnel. The villages I came across were genuine Thai communities: no cars, no 711s, and where kids turned roadways into playing fields.

At the 123-kilometer mark I reached Paksan, and another magnificent view of river. The traffic now was of a different sort, and quite heavy—chickens on the road. The surface of roads away from the river was mostly concrete, but at times even they turned to gravel. Some were elevated, high above the flood plain.

Laos - Luang Prabang from Phousi HIllAt Ban Hat the road followed so close to the river that one slight turn of the wheel and I would have landed in it. I stopped often to admire the scenery and take photographs. A few kilometers later the Mekong made a vast curve from the northeast to the southeast, separating this remote corner of Thailand from Laos, and led to Nakhon Phanom, a busy riverside town with a clock tower with writing in Vietnamese. One of our guidebooks in this case was helpful. It mentioned that 20,000 Laotians came across the river and settled in the area in the 1960s. They brought with them not only their writing but a miniature replica of their Triumphal Monument as well—the monument like the one in Vientiane—and placed it smack in the middle of town. When you view the monument from a distance, you swear you are in Vientiane.

The town has a promenade along the river that offers a sweeping view of the Mekong. Across the river on the Laotian side, there is a striking background far in the distance, a limestone rock formation that looks like crouching dragons on the horizon.

I spent the night in a small hotel in town, and early the next morning set out to locate a house some six kilometers from town. But this was no ordinary house. It was the house where Ho Chi Minh, the former president of Vietnam, once lived.

Although the house is a new tourist destination, it apparently sees few tourists. It’s a bit far off the track, but certainly worth a visit if you’re interested in history. A dirt road runs for a hundred meters to the house. In the yard are trees with signs noting that Ho Chi Minh planted this coconut tree here and that caramboia tree over there. From a plaque out front you learn than the Vietnamese leader used the house as his residence between 1923 and1929.

It wasn’t long after leaving Ho Chi Minh’s house that I rounded a bend, looking for the river, when I came suddenly upon a bolder the size of a building, marked Rock Ahong Temple. I drove through the grounds, bewildered at the largest rock garden imaginable. There were neither attendants nor anyone else to explain this amazing gigantic rock garden.

My next surprise appeared to be a Roman coliseum, except instead of marble it was constructed of red stone blocks like those in Khmer temples. Maybe it isn’t as large as a coliseum, but it seemed to be. Above the entrance embossed in gold letters was the name “Our Lady of the Martyrs of Thailand Shrine.”

As I traveled further south, the terrain became hillier and rice fields gave way to a forest area. By afternoon I reached Mukdahan, a town with immigration and customs facilities where travelers can cross the Mekong to Savannakhet on the Laotian east bank.

My biggest adventure was still ahead, like the icing on a cake. It was in the Khong Jiam district, where the Mum River flows into the Mekong. They call the place Pha Taem Cave, but it really isn’t a cave at all. It’s a sheer cliff with a towering overhang. Pha Taem is the biggest prehistoric rock-painting site in Thailand. A 500-meter trail descends from the cliff edge to the base. It was here, 3,000 to 4,000 years ago, when Rome was still an outpost of Macedonia, that prehistoric man once tread. And when you look up at the wall of the cliff, you see where early man left his mark.

A kilometer or two down river from the cliff, the Mekong River turns sharply to the east and enters Laos, no longer the boundary between Thailand and Laos. The river turned east, and I turned west, and made my way back to Bangkok, filled with my own private thoughts. What a remarkable drive!