Chiang Khan: Plastic junk and paranoid monks

Chiang Khan: Plastic junk and paranoid monks

When Buddhist monks worry about being assassinated and people pose with their heads inside old hairdryers, you know you're in a town with an identity crisis
Chiang Khan
Sunset on the Mekong River, viewed from a guest house in Chiang Khan.

Buddhist monks paranoid about being assassinated. Hilarious posing in front of weird kitsch items. Warnings that the town is doomed to become a tacky tourist magnet on the Mekong. Chiang Khan is a place to visit before it's too late. 

The town has already gathered up anything vaguely retro -- mid-20th century radios, television sets, Thai household products, wind-up mechanical toys and other jetsam from the jet age -- and carefully arranged it all on virtually every shelf in nearly every shop on Chai Khong Road, the riverside walking street.

Chiang KhanThe town has gathered up anything vaguely retro, including mid-20th century radios, and arranged the stuff in shops on the riverside walking street.As a result, the town's previous catatonic vibe is now that of a exuberant theme park on the Mekong River, with a childhood storybook feel where nothing is real, as if they tried to recreate imagery from Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds, by using any available props. 

The silly displays can be kind of romantic, and lots of Thai tourists love the scene, repeatedly posing for photographs in front of each exhibited item, sticking their heads into huge luminous hairdryer helmets from extinct beauty parlors, vamping in front of old advertisement signs and gleefully flashing a thrilled “V” sign wherever an out-of-date product appears.

Only a handful of foreigners can be seen, but they too are eventually seduced by the amusing toy-town gloss. Many of the Thai tourists carry extremely expensive digital cameras, with long lenses and heavy tripods while they stalk the walking street, documenting it pixel by pixel, seemingly awed by a world that existed in forgotten pieces.

Chiang Khan chose bicycles as one of their town's logos, so bicycles are intentionally parked everywhere as if they are profound icons, irresistibly luring tourists to obsessively photograph any bike they see standing.

Chai Khong RoadChiang Khan's charm lies in is its rustic wooden architecture, including these along Chai Khong Road.

Cashing in on nostalgia

Displays of vinyl-covered furniture, dial telephones, record album covers, old illustrated books, and other rescued items get the same non-stop absurd treatment and are continuously surrounded by enthusiastic visitors contorting in theatrical poses.

Wat Santi features a mix of architectural styles, including Lao and French influences.Chiang Khan's old movie theater, which was torn down years ago, has been surgically cannibalized and its hulking steampunk-looking projectors and other equipment, dating back to 1937, are also on display.

A cluster of elderly people, hoping to cash in on the rush of nostalgia, sit in a circle playing traditional xylophone and stringed instruments while inviting people to cherish Thailand's musical roots and donate spare change. 

Chiang Khan's charm is its rustic wooden architecture of humble homes and shops, which give the town a quaintness that apparently inspired the back-to-the-past commercialism.

Some red brick and white plaster buildings -- painted a fading mustard color -- were constructed before World War II when French colonialists ruled much of Indochina, including some who settled in Chiang Khan to exploit its riverside potential.

Beyond the kitsch

Today, a budding boom along the Mekong River reveals carpenters and painters making the outer walls of newly constructed buildings look diseased and distressed to mimic age and use. Paint is partially stripped and edges are sanded to delete sharp lines, while wooden planks that are gouged and insect-eaten are also introduced.

Chiang KhanPhotographing Chiang Khan's many retro artifacts is a popular past-time for tourists. Fortunately, the theme park ambiance is mostly confined to the walking street, because Chiang Khan also boasts graceful Buddhist temples, including some built with European-style columns, thanks to France's colonial influence.

Quiet neighborhoods allow easy wandering amid timber houses to ponder the nuances of life in northeast Thailand, 220 kilometers west of the Lao capital Vientiane which is further downriver.

From the balcony of any 400-baht guest house perched along the Mekong, you can see Laos across the water and, in the evenings, occasionally hear Laotians playing music in their clusters of small dwellings and tall trees.

Chiang Khan's cafes also serve food along the river which offers a long cement boardwalk allowing tranquil strolls. 

Chiang KhanChiang Khan chose bicycles as one of their town's logos, luring tourists to obsessively photograph any bike they see.

‘Are you here to kill me?’

In one main Buddhist temple, however, a senior monk expresses fear for Chiang Khan's future -- and his own vulnerable mortal coil -- because he clashed with some money-minded locals.

"Are you here to kill me?" he asked this writer with a nervous twitch when suddenly approached, nervously hitching his saffron robe onto his shoulder.

After being assured he was not about to be murdered, the monk whispered, "The reason I said that is because I think some people in Chiang Khan want to poison me.

Wat ThakhokChiang Khan has graceful Buddhist temples such as Wat Thakhok, which overlooks the Mekong River."When I go out on my morning rounds to collect alms, I always have to check if the donated food isn't poisoned.

"Some people here are angry with me because they want to develop the town and use temple property for their businesses, like make a parking lot on the area in front of our temple.

"I don't think it is good that more tourists are coming here, because now more people are arriving to do business, prices for food and everything else has gone up, and soon we'll have prostitutes and drugs and other problems.

"I am afraid Chiang Khan is going to be the next Pai," the Buddhist monk says, echoing a pessimism expressed by other residents and visitors.

Pai is frequently needled by Thais and foreigners as a formerly delightful rural town overrun by tourists and resorts, spoiling its earlier essence.

Pai may have suffered because it is conveniently linked by a winding road from the nearby tourist-packed city of Chiang Mai, while most travelers still don't go to relatively isolated Chiang Khan.

"But some shopkeepers from Pai have been moving to Chiang Khan, because this is the new tourist site and business is better," one merchant says, pointing to souvenirs on sale that were not made locally.

Click to the next page for more photos of Chiang Khan.


Chiang KhanSome buildings, painted a fading mustard color, were constructed before World War II when French colonialists ruled much of Indochina.

Chiang KhanWat Pa Klang is about 100 years old and displays paintings depicting Buddha's life, which began in a palace when he was born as a prince.

Chiang KhanThis 1960 calendar's illustration is still on the wall, recreating a world that existed in forgotten pieces.

Chai Khong RoadChai Khong Road, the riverside walking street.

Luminous hairdryer helmets from extinct beauty parlors, displayed for tourists to use as a prop for photographs, add to the town's back-to-the-past vibe.

Chiang Khan guest houseFrom the balcony of any 400 baht guest house perched along the Mekong, you can see Laos across the water.

Chiang KhanA woman cooks a circular piece of dough, for sale as a snack in the Municipal Market.


Richard S. Ehrlich is from San Francisco, California. He has reported news for international media from Asia since 1978, based in Hong Kong, New Delhi and now Bangkok.

Read more about Richard S. Ehrlich