Holding your breath for the breathtaking view
A new glass skyway is drawing visitors to Loei's Chiang Khan district
The gold Buddha sculpture stands handsomely on top of Phu Khok Ngio (also spelled Phu Khok Ngiew) hill in Loei's Chiang Khan district. Before the image is a newly-built glass-floored skywalk, set up on a bank of the confluence of the Hueang and Mekong rivers.
The skyway is the latest attraction in the province. It is located about 23km west of the old town of Chiang Khan. Since it was soft-launched around the middle of this year, the site welcomes a couple of thousand visitors a day.
"The number of visitors surges to about 5,000 a day during weekends and long holidays," said an officer at the ticket booth. Traffic congestion will soon become a familiar scene for locals in this agricultural area. Last Saturday, our vans were stuck in traffic for a couple of hundred metres before we reached the site.
Facing the newly-opened skywalk, Phra Yai Phu Khok Ngio is the standing Buddha image in a blessing posture. The 15m-tall image was built to celebrate the 72nd birthday of the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej.
The view of the Mekong River from the skywalk.
Phiphat Ratchakitprakarn, Tourism and Sports minister, right, congratulates Chiang Khan district chief Phuriwat Chotinobpharat, centre, and Chiang Khan Municipality deputy mayor Chugraphan Saaiychan, left, for winning the “2020 Sustainable Top 100 Destinations” award. The award was announced on Oct 6 by Green Destinations, a Netherlandsbased non-profit foundation. Nan Old City in the North joined Chiang Khan as the only Thai towns on the list. The aim of the award is to showcase the sustainability and good practices of destinations. The minister expects Chiang Khan to welcome more tourists, especially expats, to spend time in the city.
Before going to the hilltop, every visitor is required to wear a mask and pass a body temperature check at a Covid-screening checkpoint. A songthaew shuttle is available as private cars are not allowed to the hilltop where space is limited. The ride is quite short because the distance is only 850m.
When arriving at the top, each visitor has to take a queue tag, about 50 tags for one group. A volunteer handed us a pair of shoe covers so we wouldn't leave any marks on the glass surface. A queue number is called out every 10-15 minutes, allowing visitors to enter the skywalk group by group.
When I saw so many tourists on the skyway, I asked staff about the structural capacity.
"It can handle 50 people," he replied.
"Don't you think more than 50 people are walking out there?" I asked.
"You don't have to worry. It can handle 50 people at one point. Get a move on if you want to come in," he said and gestured at me to pass him. From time to time, I heard him via a speaker telling people to move.
I slowly took my first steps. The first part of the structure is a steel grating surface that connects to the glass floor. Although each glass panel is 4cm thick and can handle up to 500kg per square metre, I tried not to walk in the middle. Many visitors including elders and kids slowly walked on the sides and held tightly to the handrails. Some kids even refused to move. Their parents had to hold them up.
Wat Sri Khun Muang is one of the sacred temples in Chiang Khan. The temple houses several old wooden structures and wooden Buddha images made in 1834, the same year when its ordination hall was built. The images are kept in the hall of the Cultural Centre located in the temple. The hall also exhibits other items related to the way of life of people in Loei including the ghost mask festival and handicraft products.
It is for sure a bit scary for those who are afraid of heights. The skywalk is 19m tall. When we walked on the structure, it was like we were walking on the rooftop of a 30-storey building. While looking down at the murky Mekong River, a fishing boat looked tiny. If you don't mind walking on the glass floor, you will love the pleasant view of green mountain ranges that stretch out as far as your eyes can see along both sides of the Mekong.
From the skywalk, we headed to the new weekend walking street in Ban Na Pa Nad in tambon Khao Kaeo, a 45-minute drive from Phu Khok Ngio. Opened about a month ago, the walking street is a mini version of Chiang Khan weekend walking street.
Ban Na Pa Nad is home to the Tai Dam ethnic group. Their ancestors migrated from Muang Thaeng (which is the present Dien Bien Phu in the northwestern part of Vietnam) in Sip Song Chu Tai during the 1880s when their town was attacked by Chinese Haw rebels from Yunnan, according to Thavorn Paisoon, president of Tai Dam Cultural Centre.
They settled in Ban Na Pa Nad around 1907. The villagers still believe in spirits although the majority of them are Buddhist and some are Christian. They have a compound of village shrines for their four guardians whom they believe to protect them from harm. The first guardian is Chao Tai Dam, or their ancestor spirit. The second is Chao Anouvong who gave them a safe passage to Siam. The third is Chao Phu Kaeo, the spirit of Kaeo mountain which gives them a freshwater supply. The last guardian is Chao Phu Huat, or the spirit of Huat hill, who makes the land fertile.
The alms offering to monks is one of the popular activities for tourists when they visit Chiang Khan. On Chai Khong Road, vendors lay down mats and put dry food and snacks for visitors to buy and offer to monks. It used to be a simple and beautiful culture where you could observe locals offer a handful of sticky rice in a bowl. Today the offerings are changed to not only sticky rice but also packaged snacks, instant noodles, canned food and sweets.
Phasat is the name of an object that locals in Loei float on the Mekong to cast away bad omens or sickness. The object is made of biodegradable items including fresh banana trunk, wooden sticks and wooden skewers, and decorated with waxed flowers called dok phung. The size of the phasat is about 20cm in width and height. Before floating our phasat, we had to cut some fingernails and a few hairs and put them in one of the dok phung. Then we lit three incense sticks and a candle before mo phram (a spiritual leader) named Prasit started praying. Before floating, Prasit told us to state our names and make a wish that the Mekong will carry away our bad luck. After floating the phasat, we were instructed not to look back. Otherwise, the bad luck will return because looking back shows an attachment. Those with a serious illness float a 1m-tall phasat with nine offerings. A workshop for making phasat is organised in Ban Pa Nang (Aunty Nang’s House) located in Chai Khong 8.
Handmade blankets are a popular souvenir from Chiang Khan. The thick blankets are made of natural cotton. At Niyom Thai shop, visitors will have a chance to see how a blanket is made. The shop is located on Chai Khong Road between sois 13 and 14. It also offers soft cushions and pillows.
A wooden walkway is built along a concrete lane on the bank of the Mekong. There are also large wooden platforms extended from the walkway for people to have a better view of the river during sunrise and sunset.
Chai Khong Road is turned into a walking street on weekends from the late afternoon to around 9pm. Choices of food and snacks are plenty including grilled crabs, grilled hoi na (black snail), fried river shrimp and deep-fried insects. In the morning, visitors often rent a bicycle (50 baht a day) or an electric scooter (100 baht an hour) to ride along the street. You can find countless coffee and souvenir shops. One of the highlights is a century-old two-storey house located at the corner of Soi 14. The second floor was damaged by time and lack of maintenance. It reveals how people made their houses in the old days by using woven bamboo walls coated with mud.
Most of the villagers are farmers. They have opened the village to welcome tourists as an extra source of income for almost a decade. With the help of the Designated Areas for Sustainable Tourism Administration, they highlight their culture as a tourism magnet. Tourists have a chance to explore the Tai Dam museum to observe traditional houses, items used in their daily life or traditional costumes. The villagers can organise workshops for making colourful mobiles called tum nok tum nu or set up lunch or dinner of Tai Dam food for visitors.
"During the early Covid epidemic, we were afraid of welcoming strangers. We closed our village from outsiders until last month. We introduced the weekend walking street so that when visitors come to our village they can stay longer and spend more," he said.
The walking street is quite bright with 3,000 decorative lightbulbs. The village expects to expand the site from the existing 300m to cover the whole 700m street and plans to decorate it with 7,000 lightbulbs in the future.
From the village, we headed to the old town of Chiang Khan to spend the night. Our hotel was facing the Mekong. Although it was a scenic and peaceful view, the current of the river was strong. Perhaps it is like the fast development in Chiang Khan that has changed a once-sleepy town more than a decade ago to one of the country's top tourism destinations. I only wish that the town can sustain its charms and the change will be for the better.
Located about a 30-minute drive from the old town of Chiang Khan, the Tai Dam community of Ban Na Pa Nad still preserves their simple way of living, culture and language which they teach in school. The community recently welcomed the Tourism and Sports minister Phiphat Ratchakitprakarn with a dance performance at the cultural centre. The community also houses a Tai Dam museum where visitors can learn how to make dok mai Tai Dam. The objects are also known as tum nok tum nu. They are made of bamboo sticks and colourful yarns. Theyhave six designs including a house shape, a cube shape and a heart shape representing good fortune and goodwill. The villagers use tum nok tum nu to decorate their homes. To promote the weekend market, they decorate trees and the main street with lightbulbs.
- To visit the skywalk, visitors need to ride a shuttle at a foothill of Phu Khok Ngio. The entrance fee is 40 baht. The price includes the shuttle service and a pair of reusable shoe covers. The site is open daily from 7am-6pm.
- To make phasat, the fee is 150 baht per person plus an additional fee of 500 baht per group for the service of a mo phram (a spiritual leader). Contact Amon Narongsak (or Pa Nang) at 086-231-5335.
- Ban Na Pa Nad is open daily. There is no entrance fee. The community offers homestays, which can accommodate up to 300 visitors. Contact 099-201-8441, 088-731-0028 or 084-925-0771.
- For more information, visit the website of the Designated Areas for Sustainable Tourism Administration at dasta.or.th, its Loei Facebook page at facebook.com/dasta5loei or call the Loei office on 042-861-116–8.