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The view through to the Mekong and Laos. Pictures: John Borthwick

Across the Mekong River, the low blue hills of Laos fade as a firestorm dusk dials down to pitch blackness. The beer is cold and my fish, fried with ginger and garlic, is crisp, tangy and cheap. A few hours later I fall asleep in a classic old Indochine mansion. Come morning in Chiang Khan, I awake to a hullabaloo of gossip and chanting monks in the street outside.

It could all be 100 years ago but it's not. This old river trading port in north-east Thailand has become the town that time remembered. Perched on the banks of the Mae Nam Khong, 580km north of Bangkok, Chiang Khan was until recently an unremarkable settlement whose glory days - if any - of the rubber trade, opium smuggling and cross-river spats with colonial French or communist Laos, were well behind it. Like a Mekong-moated Brigadoon, its riverfront road, Chai Khong and its kilometre of century-old, two-storey teak shophouses were slipping into a picturesque irrelevance.

And then the joker of tourism stumbled into town. Starting with a trickle of savvy Bangkokians in search of something more authentically Thai than mega-malls and traffic jams, the word spread that here was a piece of Thai heritage that still looked like itself - that hadn't yet been slam-dunked with T-shirt stalls, night markets and kitsch.

"Yes, the town has much history," a local woman tells me, "but it is written in Thai. I can read, but have not." It's hard to get many hard facts about Chiang Khan, other than the fact it has a handful of fine, old Buddhist temples. There is, perhaps, a population of about 10,000 people and the town celebrated its centenary in 2009. Searching, I find a Thai language website that, via a translator app, describes the town with the sort of fantastic cut-up poetics that William Burroughs would applaud and that I can't beat: "Chiang Khan, the beauty of diamonds coconut long glass, she was as silk to the island and curry source of culture."

By luck I have booked online a riverfront room in a building that itself is history, a cache of period, Siamese-Lao memory. The Loogmai Guesthouse, its manager Khun Neng tells me, was the first concrete building in town. She guesses it is "about 60 years old" (although I might add another 20 to that) and was built by Vietnamese craftsmen for a local Thai-Chinese-Lao family in the style of French Indochinese villas - two storeys, 20cm teak plank flooring, archways, louvred shutters, high ceiling fans and a steep stairway leading from the ground floor trading area to family quarters above. My upstairs room is an airy, whitewashed cube with a bed and no wardrobe but perfect wi-fi. Very Thai.

The town stretches languorously along the Mekong's south shore like a cat on a couch. Sensibly, Chiang Khan's citizens long ago constructed a promenade that runs the length of the riverbank. This is where you stroll those lavish sunsets, the burning noon or occasional morning mists. On the river below, fishermen in pirogues net the eternal Mekong tides that slip past heading from Tibet to the South China Sea. From the far bank I can hear Lao music - the zither-like khim or bouncy Isaan jigs - and see kids splashing on sandy river beaches.

Chiang Khan has boomed in the past four years, and even more so in the last two. It has been well and truly "discovered" by urban Thais (although not yet by farang), many of them drawn to a nostalgic past that they never had: Buddhist monks at dawn receiving alms and sticky rice, those rambling family homes made of ancient teak on streets of almost no vehicles, and local specialties like hand-sewn quilts and maphrao kaew (sugar-coated dried coconut) snacks.

What visitors don't come here for and don't yet get are banana boats, go-go bars, day spas and elephant rides. In lieu of all that, I have a simple choice of bicycle hire (50 baht, or $1.70, a day) or motorcycle (150 baht), Buddhist wats, foot massage, stroll, read, drink by the river, eat by the river and a few more wats. Or coffee. Some of the most illuminating conversations I have here are with cafe owners.

On the trendy Soi Nine sidestreet off Chai Khong, two well-off escapees from Bangkok's Big Mango, husband- and-wife team Em and Arm, tell me how they visited Chiang Khan 18 months ago, "fell in love" with the place, bought a run-down shophouse and transformed it into the "See I 249" coffee and music shop.

Farther east along Chai Khong - now designated paradoxically as both a "cultural street" and "walking street" - I drink at the Ganga Guesthouse, a beautifully restored teak structure that bristles with antiques and curios (plus the family SUV parked in the front room). The middle-aged proprietors, also ex-Bangkokians, tell a story that is, as Thais joke, "same-same but different". Having settled here just four years ago in their quest for a quiet, creative retirement, they are considering moving on, due, ironically, to the changes they were harbingers of.

Those changes now see the old, meandering, wooden, Mekong-side way of Chai Khong Road transformed each evening into an open-air mall of logo T-shirts ("I love Chiang Khan", etc), trinket stalls and snack carts. The irony is that much of the tourist booty for sale here is no longer locally made but the mass-produced wares visitors can buy in any Thai market from Chiang Mai to Bangkok to Koh Chang.

Some 619 out of 2317 vintage shophouses on Chai Khong Road and its adjacent alleys have been registered with the municipality's architectural campaign. I doubt that offers any protection from "progress". My own lodgings, Loogmai Guesthouse - worthy of national heritage listing - is now being extensively redeveloped into something hip, chic and boutique. Same-same not different, so to speak.

I hop on my bike and ride through a cool morning, south along the river towards one of Chiang Khan's main attractions, the Kaeng Khut Khu rapids. I've read that "the shiny rocks here are supposed to be very beautiful". Like me, the writer didn't actually see the reefs or their rapids because the water flow was too high. No worry. Instead I get birdsong, an old wat, a bit of exercise and the endless Mekong flowing on like time.

FACT FILE

Chiang Khan, Loei Province, is 580km (seven hours drive) north of Bangkok and 50km north of Loei city. Nok Air flies daily from Don Muang Airport to Loei, nokair.com. From there, Nakhonchai Line buses connect to Chiang Khan.

John Borthwick travelled courtesy of the Tourism Authority of Thailand.