Situated in northeastern Thailand, surrounded by mountainous landscapes on the banks of the Mekong River, time stands still in Chiang Khan.
As a sleepy yet spellbinding place, there’s something very special about Chiang Khan as it’s one of Isaan’s best-preserved historic towns – it’s full of charm and offers a unique window into the region’s fascinating past. We’ve loved it enough to spend the past two months here, as the town’s nostalgic pull is immense. There’s just no other place in Thailand that has retained this level of backwater authenticity, given the town’s historical importance as a river trading port with Laos.
That said, no matter how many times people ask us which Thai city is our favorite… the answer will always be the same: sleepy ol’ Chiang Khan.
Every morning in Chiang Khan, an ancient tradition unfolds. At the crack of dawn, saffron-clad monks will begin to silently wander the dimly-lit streets. Like clockwork, each monk will be barefoot and carrying a big lidded bowl hanging by a strap over their shoulders.
This ancient tradition, known as the daily almsgiving ceremony, has remained unchanged throughout Chiang Khan’s shifting history. With each day’s sunrise, dozens of Buddhist monks will appear from the temples and walk down the roads to collect their daily sustenance.
The tradition of this ceremony dates back to the 13th century, when Theravada Buddhism was officially accepted as a way of life by the first Tai empire, the Kingdom of Sukhothai.
For hundreds of years, almsgiving has been a critical part of the religious ecosystem between the monks and the local townspeople. Symbiotically, the monks rely on these offerings for food and the locals rely on the alms to achieve spiritual redemption through merit.
As a predominantly Theravada Buddhist country, with 93.5% of Thailand’s 70 million people identifying as Buddhists, the kingdom is home to ~40,000 temples that house ~300,000 monks. That means almsgiving takes place throughout the whole of the country, but Chiang Khan is still one of the best places to experience this special tradition.
Most tourists watch the almsgiving ceremony from Chai Kong road and as a result, this area can get noisy and overcrowded. For a more authentic experience, it’s best to head to one of the little side streets as they are much quieter and more peaceful. Just make sure to purchase a pre-made almsgiving bowl from one of the hoteliers on Chai Kong for 60-100 baht.
Even though Phu Lam Duan’s panoramic view is only 368 meters above sea level, it’s truly scenic in all directions. As far as your eye can see, there are karst mountains jutting out from the Mekong River and its sea of fog. In contrast to Chiang Khan’s overly-crowded Phu Tok, Phu Lam Duan is worth the ~45 minute drive to Pak Chom – it’s much less touristy and the view is significantly better.
To get to the mountaintop, you’ll need to hire an e-tan (a unique tractor-like vehicle) for 300 baht and it takes ~15 minutes to lug your way to the top.
Atop the mountain, there’s a picturesque wooden walkway that curves with the hills, rising and falling with numerous twists and turns. The walkway itself is vast, as it expands across the entire range of the mountaintop and features stunning views all along its path with many viewpoints to stop and take beautiful photos.
After exploring Phu Lam Duan and enjoying the views, the e-tan will take you back down the mountainside so you can explore some of Pak Chom’s other notable sites.
Seven kilometers down the road from Phu Lam Duan is the Phaya Anantara Nakathibodi (พญาอนันตรนาคาธิบดี) or the 9-headed Naga. Standing prominently over the Mekong River, this statue is considered to be one of the most beautiful religious landmarks in northeastern Thailand.
Based on art from the Rattanakosin period, the Phaya Anantara Nakathibodi is coated with bronze and white pearls in effort to pay homage to the revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Given this statue is only a 10 minute drive from Phu Lam Duan, it’s definitely worthy of a stop.
The primary tourist area in Chiang Khan is Chai Kong, which is aptly known as Walking Street – it’s a narrow 1 km road that’s lined with century-old, two-story teak shophouses.
Every evening, Walking Street transforms into a bustling open-air mall full of vintage outfitters and A-grade hawkers.
The main thing to do on Walking Street is the same as Thailand’s #1 national past time: eating finger lickin’ good food.
Once dusk falls over, Walking Street it becomes a street food paradise that offers a heavenly array of food. While most of the dishes being made are local delicacies that you can’t find elsewhere in Thailand, general Isaan fanfare is readily available for consumption. Our top recommendations are:
If the idea of street food doesn’t make your mouth water, don’t worry… there are plenty of high-quality and clean restaurants along Walking Street that’ll cater to your needs. Most even have seats near the road so you can still people watch as you eat. Our favorites are: Heon Luang Prabang (a Lao-Isaan hybrid joint with a view of the Mekong), เวียงเวียต (an authentic Vietnamese shop with savory pho), and ซุปจักรพรรดิb (a chill spot that serves emperor soup and dim sum).
Occasionally, pop-up restaurants are set up at the far end of Walking Street and tend to serve a mix of central and southern Thai dishes – the fried rice is surprisingly good.
In the morning (after the almsgiving ceremony), Walking Street calms down and there’s a few restaurants open for business. For breakfast, we recommend going to ซอยซาวอาหารเช้า and getting a bowl of Chiang Khan’s best congee or even some noodle soup.
After filling your belly, you can take a stroll down the road to With a View Cafe to enjoy a cup of coffee while overlooking the Mekong River. And with some caffeine in your system, you can explore some of the nearby temples (such as: Wat Si Khun Muang and Wat Tha Kok).
Whether you find them frightful, exciting, or a combination of the two, glass bridges defy appearance with their astonishing strength and serve as a quick thrill for any traveler.
Constructed in 2020, the Chiang Khan Skywalk is a horseshoe-shaped bridge with a 100 meter glass walkway that towers 80 meters above a confluence of the Mekong and Hueang rivers. It’s much more grand than Nong Khai’s skywalk and is even adorned with the pristine Phra Yai Phu Kok Ngio – a massive Buddha image standing in a blessing posture.
Even though the skywalk’s surrounding landscape imparts a beautiful view of the lush green mountains, this is one scenic route that’ll you want to traverse while gazing downward. With crystal clear glass beneath your feet, you’ll get a unique vantage point of the dense foliage covering the jungle-clad hillside underneath.
The Chiang Khan Skywalk is located in Pak Tom (~23 kilometers from town) and costs 60 baht per person for entry (the price includes a round-trip ride to the mountaintop and the required shoe covers to walk on the glass). To escape Thailand’s mid-day oppressive heat, we recommend getting to the skywalk around 5:00 pm. While you won’t be able to view sunset here (since the skywalk closes at 6:00pm), you’ll still get some gorgeous golden hues in the evening sky.
On the far reaches of town, Kaeng Khut Ku is an area that stretches itself languorously along the Mekong River. And thanks to a recently built promenade that runs the length of the riverbank, Kaeng Khut Ku is now a great spot to stroll during one of Chiang Khan’s dramatic sunsets, cloudy high noon or when the cool breeze of the morning rolls over the Mekong’s thick sea of fog.
Everyday of the week, boat trips can be arranged at any of Kaeng Khut Ku’s ports – it costs 800 baht for a private one-hour cruise, 1,500 baht for a two hour trip upstream, or 50 baht per person for a pre-scheduled group tour.
Throughout the day, you’ll see fishermen in longtail boats cruising along the river or casting their homemade nets into the murky water below.
When exploring Chiang Khan, there’s a good chance that you’ll come across a monk ordination ritual. In accordance with tradition, the monk-to-be must completely shave his head, eyebrows and facial hair. He must then bathe as chanting monks pour water over his head in a symbolic act of cleansing – after which, he’ll be cloaked in a white robe that symbolizes his newfound purity.
The monk-to-be is then transported to his chosen monastery in an over-the-top joyous procession. You’ll see his family members dancing in unison on the street as he rides in the back of a pickup truck – his feet are not allowed to touch the ground until he reaches the temple.
Upon arrival at the monastery, the monk-to-be and his family show their respect to Buddha and seek good luck by circling the main temple three times in a clockwise direction. Once completed, the monk-to-be then meets with the abbot in order to be ordained into the Sangha (Thailand’s Buddhist monastic order).
As long as you’re respectful, the monk ordination ritual is a fascinating tradition to experience – just make sure that the monk-to-be’s family approves of your presence.
Often described as a rural temple town, Chiang Khan’s eight wats might not be as grand as those found in northern Thailand but they each hold historical significance and contain a unique mix of influences (from Loatian to Vietnamese to French colonial). There are also immaculately-finished pagodas and larger-than-life Buddha images scattered all over town – so many that you could easily spend a full day admiring the beautiful architecture and art of each one.
As a quick rundown, our favorite temples in Chiang Khan are:
Throughout town there are a variety of rental shops that offer bicycles and motorbikes for daily use (250 baht per day). To properly explore all the sights within Chiang Khan district, you’ll need to rent a motorbike or a car (which can be rented at Loei Airport).
As for taxis, they’re practically non-existent within Chiang Khan and Grab can be hit or miss here (securing a ride isn’t a reliable option). However, tuk-tuks can be found in abundance and most will be willing to take you to the main attractions nearby. Pricing for tuk-tuks varies drastically, but as a general rule-of-thumb… tuk-tuks are overpriced and slow. In Chiang Khan, it’s best to rent a motorbike or a car unless you only plan on visiting Walking Street and Kaeng Khut Khu.
By Bus: Direct travel to Chiang Khan can be found at Bangkok’s Mochit station and the journey takes ~9.5 hours (Air Mueang Loei is the top choice). From elsewhere in the country, you can book routes to Mueang Loei and then take a shared minivan or private taxi to Chiang Khan from the bus station. To check bus route timetables and prices online, we recommend using 12go.
By Plane: Thai Air Asia has direct flights from Bangkok to Loei multiple times per week. From the airport, you can either rent a car (800 baht per day minimum) or take a fixed-rate taxi to Chiang Khan which is ~45 minutes away.
By Car: Chiang Khan is less than a 9 hour drive from central Bangkok, ~8 hours from Chiang Mai, and ~4 hours from Khon Kaen. In regards to the quality of the roads, the main highways of Loei are some of the best-kept and easiest to navigate within Thailand. If you plan on coming by car, then we highly recommend adding on Nong Khai and/or Bueng Kan to your roadtrip.
Where to Stay in Chiang Khan: For a wallet-friendly holiday, we recommend staying at the Capsule Hostel (budget option) or the With A View Hotel (mid-range option) – both hotels are on walking street. Alternatively if you’re seeking hotel grounds with a more secluded feel and luxury amenities, the best options are the Riverside Chiang Khan Resort or the River Tree Resort.
When To Visit Chiang Khan: attractions are open and worth visiting year-round – just know that the rainiest months of the year are August and September. It’s also worth noting that in March and April, you can expect hazy skies due to Isaan’s sugar cane burning season. In all honesty, the rainy season is likely the best time to visit Chiang Khan – you’ll escape the crowds and the inflated prices of the cold season (October – February) and you’ll still get good enough weather to see all of the sites with minimal haze.
Tip #1: We intentionally left the Thai Dam Village off of this list as the handicrafts market there has been closed since the early days of COVID. However, the Thai Dam historical museum has remained open and there’s also a sweet elderly woman (who lives right next to the closed-down market) that still sells locally-weaved scarves and shirts.
Tip #2: Be sure to take a walk along the riverside promenade in the evening to view one of Chiang Khan’s epic sunsets. The promenade is adjacent to Walking Street and there are multiple lookout points where you can snap some beautiful photos.
Tip #3: Chiang Khan is a small town that’s brimming with delicious food. For some grub, you’re options are not limited to the choicess on Walking Street as there are hawkers located all over town. We recommend checking out Banchef, Home Cafe, and ร้านป้าบัวหวาน ข้าวปุ้นน้ำแจ่ว.
Tip #4: English here is very limited and there’s not much in the way of international tourists. Even though Chiang Khan is primarily a domestic vacation spot for Thais, you shouldn’t have any trouble getting around with some pragmatic use of Google translate and Google images.