While the Mekong River’s flow never stops, some sections along it feel as if time has gone backwards—older villages where an ancient rhythm still holds sway, where tourists can take in old cuisines and cultural practices that hardly exist anymore.
Consider Yunnan’s UNESCO World Heritage site Lijiang Ancient Village: formerly a major trading center between Imperial China, Burma and Tibet, the tea and horses that were Lijiang’s stock in trade have now been replaced by tourists who want to experience the ways of the Naxi ethnic community.
Souvenir stores around the Old Town hawk Naxi embroidery and other handicrafts. The central plaza still holds bonfires nightly, a favorite social activity of the Naxi. Follow the old town’s canals to other sites of interest: the Mu Palace, a former royal home; the Jade Spring Park and its scenic Black Dragon Pool; and the Dongba Cultural Museum.
In Thailand, the old town of Chiang Khan in Loei Province offers a different kind of ancient calm. The laid-back ancient village retains many of its older ways, with some modern twists.
The Old Town’s teakwood row houses have bowed to modern tourism, repurposing themselves into restaurants, shops and boutique hotels. The fun begins on the weekends when Chai Khong Road becomes turns into a Walking Street with kiosks of clothes, souvenirs and street food.
No trip to Chiang Khan is complete without taking a cruise down the Mekong, particularly during the “golden hours” of early morning and late afternoon.
Finally, Pindaya in Myanmar lies some 12 hours by bus from Mandalay in the middle of Shan State. The rolling hills around Pindaya make a great backdrop for a rustic stop in this town, where you can visit a Shan cultural centre that makes and sells traditional Shan paper and bamboo umbrellas; a bee farm; and the Pindaya Caves overlooking the town, where thousands of Buddha images have been contributed by devotees for over 300 years.
Time your visit for March, when the Shwe Oo Min Festival marks the end of the harvest season.
All these ancient villages are “throwbacks” in the best possible way: areas where time has stopped, and where you can take a step back from modern life, if only for a few days.