Chiang Khan – A Nostalgic Village in Thailand Under Rapid Changes
“Chiang Khan is a beautiful town in memory. In the eyes of tourists, Chiang Khan is a small, peaceful district adjacent to the Mekong River. It is an old town with old houses, where tourists stroll the long path along the Mekong River. Chiang Khan people still maintain a strong sense of identity and a history of more than 100 years. They arrived here with their ways of living and culture, which were inherited by their descendants and posterity hence. At present, there are guesthouses, restaurants and sightseeing boat services in Chiang Khan. The two streets along the Mekong River continue to sell souvenirs that remind us of this famous town,” writes Chiang Khan municipality (2012) in one of its latest promotional leaflets (translated).
Left: map of Thailand, with Loei province highlighted in red; right: map of Loei province, with Chiang Khan highlighted in red.
Bordering on Laos by the Mekong River, Chiang Khan in northern Loei province of Isan (northeastern Thailand located on Khorat Plateau) is a sparsely-populated district. Two main roads in the district center spanning around 2 km and running parallel to the River are connected by more than 20 inner streets, with rows of one- or two-storey houses stand on the waysides.
Chiang Khan is construed as living in little attention until around 2010, when it started to observe a sudden surge in popularity for being “nostalgic”. Touted as one of the must-visit upcountry destinations, it is frequented by national and international tourists during the winter season and especially by the former during such public holidays as Thai festivals and weekends.
Indeed, Chiang Khan is ostensibly reminiscent of the rustic charms and pleasures of a countryside lifestyle that is believed to be once led by the antecedents of modern city-dwellers.
Here in Chai Khong Road the walking street, juxtaposition of nostalgic motifs and their ambience are evoking sensate experiences. “Relics” include but are not limited to illustrated books, posters of classic singers, record album covers, candy boxes, mechanical toys, household appliances such as dial telephones, mid-20th-century transistor radios, television sets, be it décor or design suggestive of a past.
Bicycle tourism comes with such sentimentalism. Apart from buying T-shirts printed with bicycle graphics and the words “Chiang Khan”, renting and riding a bicycle is indicated as one of the best ways to sightsee and remember the town.
Limned as adjoining a meandering stretch of the Mekong, Chiang Khan is also depicted to be surrounded by mountain ranges with summits seasonally covered in fog. The natural environment and its agreeable weather are tagged as attractions for travelers.
An array of photogenic images of sunrise above the sea of fog and sunset near the Mekong River, rice farms, guesthouses, resorts, restaurants, cafés, boutiques, shops selling hand-crafted products, timber houses, temples, storefront glows at night, etc. all seem to delineate an idyllic life in a small town of tranquility.
The featured ambience and quiescence of local denizens suggestively serve as living proof.
Chiang Khan is claimed to constitute the ancient essence of Thailand, the quintessential Thai-ness, the yearning for slow, quiet and peaceful life, and pristine environment in the sense that its people still maintain such Thai traditions as harmonious relations with the nature and each other.
It is where people can presumptively find their rural roots and the lost that is assumed to be forgotten relative to the remembered cityscapes, other tourist destinations and developed areas in Thailand.
Meanwhile, a desolated house standing reticently at Srichiang Kan Soi 14 is one of the few existent old houses in Chiang Khan that are relatively “untouched”. Constructed with sloping roofs and wattle and daub, it is representative of the traditional teak-plank houses that were once prevalent in the area. Its compositional red bricks and white plaster walls painted with a fading mustard color also imply French architectural influence.
Besides weathering and other natural threats to their architectural structures, the old houses in Chiang Khan are believed to be facing their biggest threat – “nostalgia tourism”. The remaining few are often pictured as a tourist attraction after their counterparts were renewed or removed.
Insofar as tourists crave or are taught to crave for “nostalgia”, Chiang Khan locals also live in nostalgic reminiscences about their “lost” home. Most of them can remember that they used to reside in a community without the hail of resorts, guesthouses, etc., and recall “the past” by looking at the “old” photos taken 2 to 3 years ago.