We pulled up to Chiang Khong on a crimson dusk and as the dust and debris faded, the Mekong showed its murky face in the foreground of the mountainous silhouettes of Laos. That’s where we were heading, but not until morning.
My three companions and I hastily dumped our bags and broke away from the rest of the convoy; the prospect of the new adventures that were waiting for us on the far side of the river had left us in the mood to celebrate, despite being told by seasoned backpackers that ‘it’s impossible to have a decent night out in Chiang Khong’.
There was only one direction to go, away from the river, so we followed the desolate trail from which we had arrived and walked with the moon’s illumination as our only lantern. The dusty pathway was carved by a cluster of wooden shacks, each decrepit but strangely inviting, as the fronts were completely open for the world to see. In each dwelling families were cooking up aromatic meals with raw fires, playing cards around small makeshift tables and telling stories by candlelight, which for a second, made me quite homesick.
We had been walking for over fifteen minutes and there was still no sign of anything that resembled a bar, so we decided to admit defeat and head back with tails-between- legs, but as we were about to make our non-triumphant u-turn, something caught our collective eye…
A pair of pale green Vespas stood proudly in the moons glow and as scooter fanatics, we ran over to inspect the bikes which immediately alarmed the owners. After a few tense moments, my friend managed to diffuse the situation by offering the universal hand gesture for ‘drink?’ and following some animated laughter and a few thumbs up, we found ourselves cruising further away from the river clutching on for dear life, two on the back of each Vespa.
Finally, after a few terrifying minutes, we arrived at a large open air shack with a withered tin roof and our new friends led us to the end of a never ending bench full of local residents. The roar of hundreds of excitable voices encouraged us to eat and drink as honorary townsmen.
We communicated through gesture, ate authentic Thai broth and drank rice wine long into the night – at that moment, I remembered why I boarded a plane from London in the first place; to actually experience a life far different from my own and not just look at it through the cold comfort of my guide book.
After a while, the sea of heads got up in unison and just like that, half of the bar had disappeared. They’d gone and left us with the bill. Had we experienced something special or simply fallen into an obscure tourist trap?
To this day, I’m still not sure. Can you have a decent night out in Chiang Khong? I’m not sure of that either, but I did keep the bill as a memento.