Top Thai Restaurants in Chiang Mai

Good Thai, bad Thai, Australian suburbs all have at least one local Thai restaurant. Most Australians are familiar with the more common dishes on a Thai menu. We assume that when we travel to Thailand, the food will automatically be much better, more authentic and spicy. This is not always the case. You can read Trip Advisor or similar sites for clues. In Thailand, these recommendations are often written by people staying in 5 star Western hotels who are happy to pay 5 star prices for food, or backpackers who hang around cafes and juice bars who are more interested in the ‘chill’ factor than taste. During my last trip to Chiang Mai in the north of Thailand, I found another clue to bad Thai food in restaurants- simply look at the clientele. If a place is full of tourists of any age, you will most likely eat bland, over priced, ordinary food masquerading as Thai. There are exceptions of course, but choosing a restaurant on the basis of a sea of Western diners will usually lead to disappointment. Thai food will be better in your local suburban Thai at home. Watch where the Thais eat. They know where the food is good so just follow their lead.

Here are two of my favourites. They both happen to be vegetarian. The first, Ming Kwan Vegetarian restaurant, is one is frequented by locals from early morning until they finish (around 5 pm). Some brave tourists like ourselves love this place. Little English is spoken. You just point to the things that look good, then ask for a plate of rice, which happens to be wholesome red rice. The cost per plate is between 20 and 30 Thai Bhat ( AU$1.14 or less). The water is free. Favourite dish: the iconic Khao Soi soup, made with a curry sauce and coconut milk base, with some added textured soy meat, a handful of yellow egg noodles and topped with deep-fried crispy egg noodles, pickled mustard greens, shallots, coriander, a squeeze of lime and some ground chillies fried in oil.

A bowl of Khao Soi at Ming Kwan, Chiang Mai
One. Start with the soup
Two. Then add the toppings

My second favourite is Taste from Heaven. This place is frequented by tourists, expats and some locals. ( thus breaking the rule I espoused above). Nan has now opened two more branches in the Moon Muang area but I’ve only eaten at her original branch. The serves here are generous. The menu is in English. Beer, Wine and WiFi  are available as well as things like Vegan brownies, all being tourists draw cards. The food is sensational and medium priced. Most dishes are around 70 – 90 Bhat per plate, (AU $3 or so), and choosing is agony. I want it all. Return visits are a necessity. Favourite dish: Tempura battered morning glory vine with cashews, tofu and peanut sauce and the charred eggplant with chilled tofu salad. The sate of mixed mushrooms with peanut sauce is hard to pass by also. Hungry now?

Ming Kwan Vegetarian Restaurant. 98 Rachadamnoen Rd Soi 4, Tambon Si Phum, Amphoe Mueang Chiang Mai, Chang Wat Chiang Mai 50200, Thailand

Taste from Heaven. 34/1 Ratmakka road (opposite soi 1) Prasing Muang Chiang Mai 50200, Thailand

Next post. Old Hong Kong.

Of Songthaews and Temples

This post is ridiculously long, rambling and raw, and so, dear reader, you are excused if you choose to jump down to the nice temple photos at the end of the post.

Another day, another songthaew.

Despite all the planning, some days just go awry when travelling in a foreign land, and more so when you’ve been too lazy to learn the language, other than good morning and thank you, two courtesies that are obligatory to learn in any country you might visit. I have never got my head around the Thai language: I promised myself to learn more this year. Maybe it’s the tropical heat dulling my brain or the insanely difficult Thai script, a syllabic alphabet based on the Brahmi script. Here’s a basic sample below, which looks like one of those children’s activities, ‘spot the difference’. But note, this is the easy part. You get to add extra squiggly marks to add vowel sounds to these letters and after that come the tones. I give up.

Getting back to my very bad day. Things started well. We hailed a songthaew – a Hilux van converted into a bus with two side seats in the back for passengers. Called rot si daeng or red car in Chiang Mai, we paid our 50 bhat each and headed over to my favourite market, the monster and largely untouristed Worawat. I love getting about in Songtheows. The semi open sides and open back door give you enough cheap thrills en route, welcome fresh breezes, as well as more views of the ancient walls and moat which enclose this ancient city. Songthaews travel slowly. The traffic in Chiang Mai is orderly and the drivers are polite, both on the road and to their customers. This is where a courteous thank you, Kob kun krub” or “Kob kun ka“( ขอขอบคุณ for those of you who read Thai) is all important, which is always reciprocated, often with a wai.

Philosophy found in Buddhist temples.

The day was progressing as planned. We spent a few hours meandering around that cavernous market until lunch called. Songthaews get busy at lunchtime and many drivers aren’t so keen to leave the market precinct when they can pick up a load of passengers at a time and not two insane tourists who want to go across town. After some time negotiating with the perennially polite drivers, we arrived at our favourite temple, Wat Suan Dok. Our main mission was to eat at the renowned slow food restaurant behind the temple, Pun Pun Vegetarian Restaurant. A sign earlier in the week promised a re-opening on August 4th and today was that auspicious day. With heightened anticipation and growing hunger, we made our way past all the lovely white wats to Pun Pun, to be greeted by this sign:

Noooo!
The next shot was taken by my camera inadvertently after reading the sign above. It conveys my feelings of frustration and disappointment perfectly.

My favourite Chiang Mai restaurant closed again? Oh well, there would be plenty more fine restaurants a red truck ride away. Re-entering the busy suburban Suthep road in search of another Songthaew, the sun and heat now unbearable, we noticed something very odd. The street was full of policemen and army personnel who were clearing the road of bikes, traffic and old non-Thai speaking pedestrians. We were shooed off the pavements. Something momentous was about to happen. From the long explanation given to us in Thai by one of those heavily uniformed young men, we caught one word in English- King! The king is revered in Thailand, though this new young king hasn’t yet earned the status of his father. We walked some more and waited for the royal cavalcade. Some of the banked up traffic was let through, and then the roads were closed and cleared again. Was the king in the nearby hospital? Would he appear in a black tinted car, making the wait a total waste of time? Did we just imagine we heard them say King? Our hunger and impatience increasing, we decided to walk four kilometres to our next dining option.

I’m a songthaew cowboy. Mr T rides again.

After a late afternoon sleep and a dose of Netflix, we decided on a pizza dinner, something I need to eat from time to time. We called up a little tuk- tuk and headed into the unlit back lanes of the Moon Muang district. The pizza place was packed. After a wait of 10 minutes or so, the kind waitress found us a small, uncomfortable spot on top of some other would be diners, the loud techno music growing increasingly annoying. We were then informed that the wait for our pizza would be at least one hour. We left. After more walking, I lost my appetite. Some days just go like this.

Tuk Tuks, the other means of transport, useful when needing to find places in little lanes off lanes.

I include these photos of Wat Suan Dok as a reminder that life on the road really is an adventure and that I tend to dwell on food a little too much for my own good.

Wat Suan Dok, Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Wat Suan Dok, Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Wat Suan Dok

Sunday Walking Street Market, Chiang Mai

A visit to Chiang Mai, Thailand, never seems complete without attending the famous Sunday Walking Street Market. The market takes over four streets in the centre of the old city, beginning at the Tha Pae Gate at one end and running down the one kilometer length of Ratchadamnoen Road and spilling into nearby side streets. The area is closed to traffic from 4 pm until midnight. The market is popular with locals and tourists and is packed, especially round dinner time.

Fresh fruit shakes ready to be blended. 30 Bhat.

On one side, just after sunset, a lone singer appears dressed in a policeman’s uniform. This year he is a serious looking young man: he sings a mournful ballad in Thai. In previous years, that same spot was occupied by an older policeman with an Elvis slick back hairstyle and dark sunglasses, who only sang Elvis Presley songs. Sometimes his 8-year-old daughter performed alongside him. Bring back the Elvis cop. But are they really policemen? I’ll never know. I’m not sure who to ask in this crowded, stall filled corner.

Sunday walking market, Chiang Mai, ’17

Nearby stands the Thai musical instrument stall. Late at night, a troupe of elderly musicians will sit gracefully on a tiny platform and play traditional Lan Na music that is so haunting, it usually makes me cry. The instruments look and sound foreign to the untrained ear.

Ancient Thai instruments.

Midst this crowd, a troupe of blind singers suddenly appears. They move slowly holding a lamp: the crowds step aside as they make their way courageously through the throng, singing melodic Thai tunes in harmony.

Stalls with paper lanterns, stalls with far too much colour, handmade items are a feature of this market. The kitsch nestles side by side with the tasteful. Soft leather wallets and hand-made shoes, artistic etched calico shopping bags, carved psychedelic soaps and interesting fish patterned ceramics, hand printed t-shirts and indigo dyed clothing, home-made cakes, biscuits and sweets, and an abundance of street food stalls, the latter nestled into the front courtyards of temples, it’s a big night out for Thai families. Junk food abounds: there are deep-fried insects and grilled air- dried squid, Thai sausages and pad thai, mango sticky rice, and kôw soy, sweet tropical fruit drinks and some based on tinned Carnation milk. Dotted throughout are small areas offering massage for foot and leg or shoulder and neck. After walking slowly and hesitantly for two or three kilometers in a crowd, you may need one.

The annual Chiang Mai T-shirt purchase. One with a guitar please.

Feeling exhausted and slightly deranged, we wander back to our hotel near Wat Phra Singh and down a large bottle of Chang beer. The market’s sensory overload takes its toll but I wouldn’t miss it for Bhat.

Wats of Northern Thailand.

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Visiting the wats of Northern Thailand can be overwhelming at first, given the density and opulence of the Lan Na decor: colourful glass mosaic inlay and mulberry painted wooden beams and doorways, quivering golden prayer flags hung from heavy beams above, Jade Buddhas and mummified monks too real to believe. These images were taken at various wats around Chiang Mai and Lampang, around 100 kms north-east of Chiang Mai and other smaller towns of the old Lan Na kingdom. The wats are beginning to blur. Chiang Mai calls.

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Jade Buddha
Decoration is overwhelming
Lan Na Style decor
Buddha hands
Lan Na Lotus
Mummified monks

Thursday is now the day to indulge in travel memories, courtesy of the photographic prompts from wordpress. Today’s prompt is Dense.

Nostalgia in Northern Thailand

The tiny town of Chiang Khan is built along the Mekong River in northern Thailand, facing Laos on the other side. In the last few years, the city has embraced its heritage: all the old teak shops are now being restored, with financial encouragement from the Thai government.

During the week, the town is quiet. Come Friday night, Thai tourists arrive from Bangkok hoping to stay in a restored teak hotel along the river or sip tea amidst a sea of retro antiques. It is this sense of nostalgia for the past and loss of old Thailand that draws them here.

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View from a restored tea house. Drinks along the mighty Mekong river.
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Another beautifully restored hotel.
Streetscape, Chiang Khan
Streetscape, Chiang Khan

More about Chiang Khan from a previous post.  https://almostitalian.wordpress.com/2015/09/03/the-town-that-turned-retro/

The Road to Indigo

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Fabric speaks to me. I collect it, stash it, feel it. Antique European linens, worn Irish cloth, functional and timeless, faded Ikat from Java, Sumatra and Flores, woven wall hangings from Myanmar, mid-century Japanese Kimono sprinkled with shibori, or little fabric offcuts featuring sacred cranes, plush velvet Italian betrothal bedspreads, alive with colour and kitsch cherubin, or hand worked pillow cases and curtains from the antique market in Arezzo in Italy, embroidered table cloths, ancient filet crochet edging with worked in stories, words or historical events, crocheted jug covers featuring Dolly-Varden shells and beaded weights, Indian silk saris and long dupatta scarves, visiting every floor of a Sari shop in India: fabric hunting is a central part of my journey. It is often the history of women’s work, or a window into a culture, or one that is about to become obsolete, that appeals so much.

indigo 4

Hand dyed indigo fabric is a recent addition to my textile addiction. I discovered some wonderful indigo fabrics at the Chatuchak ( Cha-Cha) Market in Bangkok in 2013. The following year, I toured an indigo factory in Dali, on the banks of Erhai Lake, Yunnan, China. And this year, I found another small producer of hand died indigo clothing on the banks of the Mekong River, in Chiang Khan, Thailand, as well as some lovely long lengths of deep indigo died linen in the back streets of the Warorot market, in Chiang Mai.

My next step is to learn this ancient art and dye my own cloth. I envisage drifts of indigo muslin, irregular in colour, floating in the summer breeze.Thanks Ailsa for this week’s travel theme, Fabric, at Where’s My Backpack. If I dug out all the representatives of my fabric collection, this post might fill a book.

Taste from Heaven

I haven’t adjusted to the cold of Melbourne’s Spring weather. Spring is so overrated: there isn’t much difference between the first month of Spring and Winter, except for the presence of daffodils. Unlike Wordsworth, daffodils don’t make me feel gay or jocund, nor do I have time to lie on the couch “in vacant or in pensive mood” thinking about them!  A bunch or two of nodding yellow flowers improves the decor, but hardly makes up for the perennial grey of sky that seeps into the dark recesses of the psyche.

To counter this dullness of season and mood, I’m mentally returning to Thailand to complete some unfinished business. Let me introduce Nan, the proprietor of Taste from Heaven restaurant, in Chiang Mai.

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Nan, of Taste of Heaven, Chiang Mai, Thailand

Nan owned a Thai restaurant in the Gold Coast, Australia for many years before returning to her home town to open Taste  from Heaven some years ago. She is a gracious front of house, keeping a careful eye on the flow of customers, engaging pleasantly with them, as well as being involved in the daily running of the restaurant. I returned to Nan’s “Heaven” at least 7 times whilst in Chiang Mai. To be truthful, I really didn’t want to go anywhere else.

If you are in need of sunshine, warmth or a metaphorical daffodil, these lovely dishes might offer consolation.

Grilled mushoom skewers, great with a Chang Beer
Grilled mushroom skewers, marinated with coconut oil, Indian curry powder, turmeric powder,milk and coconut milk served with peanut sauce. 85 Baht

We tried so many dishes from the menu and usually ordered far too much. The size of the dishes at ‘Heaven’ are larger than the usual Thai offerings. Often as a starter, to go with a chilled beer, we ordered Grilled Mushrooms with Peanut sauce. I never asked Nan about the mushroom species but they were large and ‘meaty’. The deep-fried Angel mushrooms   (below) were also rather ‘moreish’.

Deep Fried Mushrooms in a seasoned sesame seed tempura batter served with sweet chilli sauce. 75 Baht
Angel mushrooms deep-fried in a seasoned sesame seed tempura batter served with sweet chilli sauce. 75 Baht

We usually shared two or three mains after one entrée, along with rice. At ‘Heaven’ you choose between steamed jasmine rice, in white, brown or black. They are all good. Below, I have featured a few of the sensational dishes we tried. More can be found on my post here.

sirr frieed eggplant with garrlic, tofu, spring onons, chilli soya bean sauce and seet basil leaves. 75 Baht
Stir fried eggplant with garlic, tofu, spring onions, chilli soya bean sauce and sweet basil leaves. 75 Baht
Mushroom Larb- chopped angel mushroom, stemp mushroom with special sauce, mint, red onion, chilli powder, chopped tofu, roasted rice and lime juice.
Mushroom Larb- chopped angel mushroom, stemp mushroom with special sauce, mint, red onion, chilli powder, chopped tofu, roasted rice and lime juice.
Pad Se-Ew noodle, with garlic, textured soy protein,carrot, cauliflower and Chinese broccoli. 75baht.
Pad Se-Ew noodle, with garlic, textured soy protein,carrot, cauliflower and Chinese broccoli. 75baht.
Massaman curry, complete with deep exotic middle eastern flavous.
Massaman curry, potato, textured soy protein, root vegetables complete with deep exotic Indian flavours, such as whole cardamom pods.
Thai Green curry. Hmmmmm.
Thai green curry. Mmmmm.
Thai style eggplant salad, with tofu, oniion, chili, garlic topped with mint and served with boiled egg.
Thai style eggplant salad, with tofu, onion, chili, garlic topped with mint and served with boiled egg.

The eggplant salad was my favourite. I remember the first time I tasted this dish in Narathiwat in 1995; the taste has lingered all these years. The key element is the smoked Thai baby eggplant which are then skinned and lightly mashed, retaining their smoky juices which blend so well with the lime juice and herbal elements. I mentioned to Nan that this dish is slowly disappearing from Thai menus, or if it does turn up, it lacks the oomph provided by the smoke, raw garlic and mint.

Heavenly food from Taste from Heaven.
Heavenly food from Taste from Heaven.
Another smiling staff member form Taste From Heaven
Another smiling staff member from Taste From Heaven
  • They also run a cookery school, three hours, for 100o baht pp. Sadly, Nan’s assistant was away for a month and so I missed out. Next time for sure.
  •  At the time of writing, the exchange rate was around 25 Baht to the Australian dollar. Most plates cost around $3-4, with rice at around $1.

Thank you Nan for the delightful food memories.

Taste from Heaven Vegetarian Restaurant

34/1 Ratmakka Road,
T. Prasinhg A. Muang,
Chiang Mai 5020

Open every day from 9am to 10pm
(except Wednesday 9am to 9pm)

http://taste-from-heaven.com/Taste_From_Heaven/Home.html

The Town that Turned Retro

The main thing you will notice when strolling down the main street of the small village of Chiang Khan, Northern Thailand, is that the town has turned retro! The street running parallel to the Mekong River, is lined with teak buildings that have been beautifully restored, and most of these – shops, guest houses, restaurants and tea houses- proudly display an eclectic collection of retro decor. The era is mostly 60s and totally kitsch. Open any of the photos below and delight in retro madness.

The municipality won the year 2010 architectural conservation award from Architect Council of Thailand. Since that year, more than 2000 old teak houses and shops along the main road, Thanon Chai Khong and nearby lanes, have been registered with the municipality’s architectural campaign, with over 600 receiving grants to renovate. This, in the era of the uniform concrete block house, is delightful to see. The young and well-heeled from Bangkok swarm here on the weekends, to stay in ‘original’ old houses with matching decor. The young are embracing Thai architectural history they barely remember, the old teak house, which is now missing from big cities.

Original guesthouse facing onto the Mekong river at Chiang Khan, Thailand.
Original guesthouse facing onto the Mekong river at Chiang Khan, Thailand.

During the day, the town is sleepy, with only a few restaurants and coffee houses open for business. In the late afternoon, the main street transforms into a walking market, although the number of stalls vastly increases on Friday and Saturday nights when the young city folk arrive in mini buses from down south.

The other welcome feature is that the main street and series of  20 or so perpendicular lanes, are devoid of through traffic. Here the bicycle rules and has become the town logo.

You won’t find backpacker travellers here or westernised food, no pancakes or pizzas, and very little spoken English. If you go, take your Thai phrase book. There are a couple of great restaurants in town that do offer a menu in English, the best being Faikam, which does wonderful versions of most Thai favourites. The average cost for a double room, with aircon and bathroom, facing the Mekong River starts at around 600 Baht per night ( AU $24.00).

How to get there. Fly into Loei, with Air Asia, from various big cities in Thailand, then take a mini van from the airport to Chiang Khan. Or, go, as we did, along the Mekong river by car, from Nong Khai to Chiang Khan, one of the great road trips of Asia.

Chiang Khan or Inner city Melbourne?
Chiang Khan or Inner city Melbourne?

In My Kitchen, September 2015

Today I went to the market in Nong Khai and bought some treasure for my kitchen back home in Australia. I tried very hard to exercise restraint but some things have found their way into my luggage. I am sure they are weightless.

Ka tip Khao or rice steamer.
Ka tip khao or rice steamer.

I bought this little rice steamer from an 82 year old woman who pointed to her stomach, then to mine, and told me that I needed to exercise, like her. What, am I that fat? Must be the Chang beer or maybe the Pad See Ew. After we mimed our way through this funny episode, she handed me some change, a little local and unasked for discount! I loved this Ka Tip Khao so much, I went and bought another from the Sadet market. The young folk working in the kitchen ware shops laughed hysterically, seeing it draped over my shoulder like a handbag. Why? Another crazy conversation in Thai followed. You have to laugh.

Rice serving bowl.
Rice serving bowl.

I then bought a lovely rice serving bowl for a few dollars. It’s very light weight, and I can always shove my undies inside it for the journey home. One can always justify some purchases! Like these cute little blue cups below, just two for a dollar, which can fit inside the rice bowl.

Cute little tea cups
Cute little tea cups

I found a shop dedicated to painted rooster ware. It’s nice to specialise!

Painted rooster ware pottery.
Painted rooster ware pottery.

I purchased this little saucer for my kitchen for 30 cents and now regret not buying a few more for small gifts.

Irresistable.
irresistable rooster bowl

Thai, and Asian markets in general, always remind me of my intense desire to set up an outside Warung, or small street kitchen, back at home. I’ve had this desire since 1979, the first time I went to Indonesia and the feeling just gets stronger. I gazed longingly at these wok burners on stands, and have about 50 photos of them, all different models. Heaven on a stand. I am sure I can pick one up in Melbourne although at a cost! My Warung will be made in time for this summer.

Big wok burner on a stand.
Big wok burner on a stand.

Then these little beauties caught my eye. They are the heavy metal Darth Vader model of charcoal burners. You may have seen these in the past: they came as cement filled buckets or in terracotta forms. I want one badly.

Charcoal BBQs
Small Charcoal BBQs

It is great to see that Thailand is still making these highly decorated kitsch enamel ware plates. They are not in the same street as the old, collectable Chinese ones, Nancy, but they do wear nicely and gather a bit of patina. I didn’t buy any- now how’s that for discipline!

Still made in Thailand. Enamel ware trays.
Still made in Thailand. Enamel ware trays.

This In My Kitchen post comes directly from Nong Khai, in the North East of Thailand, a small town that stretches along the banks of the Mekong river facing Laos, a parallel universe across the bank. But now I’m in my last few days here, and I long for my home kitchen, and a Pizza would go down very nicely too.

Thanks Celia, the hostess with the mostess, for this enjoyable monthly event.  Head to Fig Jam an Lime Cordial for further kitchen inspiration.

The Mekong and its Ancient Lands.

The Mekong river flows steadily below my veranda, muddy and expansive, treacherous and mesmerizing.  In the warm mists of early morning, a lone fisherman balances on the deck of his long tailed boat, a giant rod held horizontally as nets are cast. He drifts with the fast moving current. 

Morning view of Laos, from Chiang Khan, Thailand.
Morning view across the Mekong to Laos. Chiang Khan, Thailand

The day opens gently in Chiang Khan: the oppressive heat of the afternoon is a distant thought. In the teak guest house next door, the sounds of Thai opera waft across the deck, and a man lounging on a daybed sings along. We are close to a Wat: the early morning prayer and response is suitably soporific. Over the way lies Laos, so close and yet, at this point in the river, so different from Thailand. The village on the opposite bank is enclosed by dense jungle and hills: shanty villages with early morning cooking smoke rising above the trees, and the familiar pointed roof of a Wat just visible in the distance.

Thailand to Laos. view from Chang Khan.
Thailand to Laos. view from Chang Khan.

At this point, crossings to Laos are not possible: there are few signs that the locals bother either, although locals with border passes may do so. International tourists require a visa: from this part of Northern Thailand, obtainable at Nong Khai to Vientiane or further west at Chong Mek to Vang Tao.

I have always yearned to take the great travel adventure of a lifetime, travelling on all forms of river transport down the length of the mighty Mekong through five countries, but I suspect that time has run out.

The busy port at Nong Khai: goods are loaded for a river crossing into Laos.
The busy port at Nong Khai: goods are loaded for a river crossing into Laos.

Ten years ago we spent time on the Mekong in Luang Prabang, one of the finest spots in Laos, and then travelled by long tailed boat for two days up the Nam Ou river, a tributary of the Mekong, then stayed for a week in the village of Mung Ngoi in simple bamboo huts by the river. I hear that life is still the same in that lush, tropical valley, where young men travel up stream in the dark, watching for the glow of tiger eyes along the banks.

Sunset on the Mekong from Nong Khai
Mekong Sunset, Nong Khai to Laos.

On that journey, we also caught up with the Mekong at Phnom Penh in Cambodia, a town that has changed for the better over the last ten years. My photos of this era have sadly been lost.

A place to write beside the Mekong.
A place to write beside the Mekong.

If I had ‘world enough and time’, I would chase that Mekong river from its source in Tibet, down through five countries, to its wide delta in Vietnam, but I doubt that this will happen; I am content with the river running by me now.