Hidden Treasures: A Bend in the Mekong

Joel Carillet's picture


The world's great rivers have an allure about them, even in their names.  The Yangtze and Nile Rivers bring to mind millennia of human toil and civilization.  The Mississippi, which shaped the mind and narratives of one of America's greatest writers, Mark Twain, elicits thoughts of Huckleberry Finn and Jim (one of the greatest travel stories ever told) and of a young nation's westward expansion.  And the Amazon can't be mentioned without picturing thick rain forests and muddy water.

Then there's the Mekong, Southeast Asia's greatest waterway, which to the American mind often evokes images of war.  

Joel Carillet

The bus to Chiang Khong 

While staying on a small tributary of the Mekong in the Thai town of Mae Sai, I rented a motorbike and spent part of a day exploring the Golden Triangle, where Thailand, Burma, and Laos meet.  I was completely taken by the countryside, particularly stretches along the Mekong where almost nobody lived.  There is a high that comes when you feel you have a mighty river to yourself.

Joel Carillet 

My transport from the bus station to the Bamboo Guesthouse


The next day I caught a bus to Chiang Khong, where I checked into the Bamboo Guesthouse for $2.50.   I chose this place not only because it was cheap but also because it straddled the Mekong.  The open-air restaurant at the restaurant looked out over the river, on the far side of which was Laos.   Tomorrow I would board a boat, cross the river, and for two weeks travel through that country.  But on this final day in Thailand, I simply wanted to sit and watch the river flow.

The section of the Mekong visible from the guesthouse wasn't one of the prettier spots along the river.  Hundreds of miles to the north the Mekong swept through Tibetan canyons and past the high mountains of Yunnan.  Even only a few miles from Chiang Khong, to both the north and south, the river twisted through scenic countryside.  Here, however, it merely streamed past a town's bland riverfront.

But that was alright; the river was beautiful anyway.  It was beautiful because I knew the Mekong was more than the several-hundred yard stretch I could see while sipping my coffee.  It was beautiful because I remembered what I had seen just twenty miles to the north in the heart of the Golden Triangle, and I had seen pictures and heard stories of its beauty elsewhere too (such as in Luang Prabang, my next destination).  In my few weeks in the region I wanted to know the Mekong as well as I could, which meant I wanted to know its less scenic segments as well as its photogenic segments.   To do otherwise, I felt, would be akin to telling someone that you liked them and wanted to be with them but that, instead of embracing their entirety, you would only gaze upon that which you easily found pretty.


Joel Carillet

 View from the Bamboo Guesthouse


From my temporary perch at the Bamboo, I looked out at the world's twelfth longest river (the eighth largest in flow).   And what I saw made me think not of war but of time--its slow but firm flow, its ripples and eddies, its movement from and to places we may never fully see or understand.  The world's great rivers have shaped entire civilizations.  They may also shape the traveler who sits still beside them.



Joel Carillet, chief editor of wanderingeducators.com, is a freelance writer and photographer based in Tennessee. He is the author of 30 Reasons to Travel: Photographs and Reflections from Southeast Asia. To learn more about him, visit www.joelcarillet.com.