Dancing shrimps from the Mekong River

The Mekong – one of the great rivers

Dancing shrimps from the Mekong River. Sounds different. We’re making day trip from Lom Kao in Phetchabun to the town of Chiang Khan on the banks of the Mekong River.

This is an interesting drive through an area of Thailand not often visited by foreigners. It’s a part of the country with steep mountains, dense jungle, beautiful river valleys and charming villages. And some interesting food including dancing shrimps.

We’re setting out by car on a hot, wet and humid morning on the road up the broad Pa Sak river basin valley. After the rolling hills of Lom Kao the route winds  up through the mountains to the town of Dan Sai in the Loei province.

Looking down on the town of Dan Sai

Dan Sai – nestled in the green hills

Dan Sai, a picturesque town nestled among steep hills and surrounded by rugged jungle, is famous in Thailand for its ghost festival and its masks. They adorn buildings, sold in shops and stalls and I see them on statues throughout the town.

Centuries ago they were created to ward off ghosts (of which Thais have a strong belief) and they’re still very much taken seriously today.

Every year they hold the Phi Ta Khon or Ghost Festival and people come from all over Thailand to take part in this famous event. Dan Sai is also quite popular with Thai people year-round a place to relax and chill out. The climate is significantly cooler and less humid than the plains to the south. Frosts common are in the cool season.

A quick hong nam stop. A few curious looks from the locals reminds me they probably don’t get many overseas (farang) travellers. I resist the urge to add a ghost mask to the list of souvenirs I shouldn’t have bought over the years.

Winding through the mountains

Then I’m driving eastwards through the hills on a road that winds and twists over the mountains. Passing bright green rice-fields and colourful little villages, the road descends to the provincial capital, Loei City.

The power of the Mekong River

A change of direction to the north and three hours after leaving Lom Kao and driving around a sweeping bend, there it was. One of the world’s greatest rivers– the Mekong and it was in full flood.

Mekong river flowing bank to bank

Known to Thai people as Mae Nam Khong, the Mekong is at any time an impressive river but to see this raging torrent in the wet season is astonishing.

The sheer power of the river is immense. Flowing from bank to bank, the volume of water forces a swift and turbulent current, generating large pressure waves. Vegetation, including massive trees, are being carried rapidly downstream.

All boats were securely tied up

Normally the Mekong is teeming with boat traffic of all shapes and sizes, carrying both passenger and cargo. But today the river is in supreme control and no vessels venture out on it. A truly magnificent sight.

One of the small villages

Chiang Khan. A town with character

After a short stop to take in the sheer majesty of the scene, the road leads into the small picturesque town of Chiang Khan. It had been three hours since I left Lom Kao and it’s time for lunch in a traditional Thai style riverside restaurant.

Every Thai meal is a festival

To eat Thai food in rural destinations is a delight and the locally sourced food that the province is renowned for is a treat. Inexpensive, fresh and interesting dishes that have been prepared to perfection. Delicious.

Bring on the Dancing Shrimps

There is one dish that appeared to be particularly interesting.

Goong Ten. Shrimps that dance

Goong Ten which loosely translates as “Dancing Shrimp” are small translucent shrimps that are eaten live. They are literally dancing around your mouth as you crunch their juicy little bodies with your teeth. Then chew them up and swallow them.

Lime juice and other seasonings are added to the dish just before serving which helps to get them jumping.

The plate they’re served on normally has a lid as the shrimps have a tendency to try and escape. I eat a large spoonful and immediately there are live shrimps exploding inside my mouth. The taste is predominantly nutty and sour, with a touch of spiciness.

It’s definitely one of those dishes that tastes better than it looks. I’m not very adventurous. Once is enough for me..

Stroll around the town of Chiang-Khan

Lunch over and a wander around Chiang Khan. It’s a pretty little town where most of the buildings are old teak shop houses. There are several accommodation places and restaurants with views of the river. It’s an easy town to walk around and of course there are nearby temples to visit.

In the small Lao town across the river, daily life continues but again no boats are venturing out. When the river decides, river life will restart.

Across the river is Laos

By now its mid-afternoon. Time to depart and retrace the route to Lom Kao and the end of a memorable day out.

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