Two enthusiastic 26-year-olds roll into town looking for a room. They’d heard of a place that also served Mexican food so this was where their compass pointed. Room secured, it was up to the restaurant deck, which overlooked the Mekong River, Laos on the other side. And just as their minds drifted to beer, they were offered a large one, by what looked like one of the funkiest and coolest guys they’d met during their then very short tenure in the Kingdom. In time they came to learn he indeed was.
“We’re going to start a travel business”, we proudly declared, the Beer Chang-effect having firmly settled in, and our overconfidence no doubt evident. He smiled, affirming it was perhaps a good plan, and offered “cheers” to the venture ahead. Looking back, he’d no doubt heard hundreds of similarly lofty business schemes pitched by ‘farang’ (foreigners) over the years, but sure didn’t show it. Over the course of our (delicious) Mexican meals and evening, he smiled, listened, offered advice, and wholeheartedly welcomed us. We also quickly learned you never go thirsty when in the presence of Khun Jib Saweepats, owner of Bamboo Riverside (with his wife Khun Daew).
My business partner Daniel and I soon became regulars at ‘Bamboo’, and within one-year of that first meeting, we were bringing guests from our travel business there for the final night of their northern Thailand adventure. In large part because Khun Jib graciously shared Chiang Khong’s many hidden gems.
He taught us that the magic is in the moment. On the surface, to many misinformed travelers, Chiang Khong is just a sleepy border town, whose sole purpose is to facilitate quick passage between two countries. But he took the time to introduce us to its many characters, foremost himself, and began to co-create and orchestrate countless memorable experiences, which hundreds of our guests from around the world went on to enjoy. From Songkrans (Thai New Year) spent puttering through rice fields on a clunky ‘Etan’ truck (flatbed powered by a small Japanese motor) sipping ‘Lao Khao’ (rice whiskey), to watching the sun set behind nearby mountains from the back of an old pickup (Khun Jib lent us his), to riding tire tubes down the Mekong River, and of course those early morning Mekong picnics. He was THE reason to visit.
The grand finale of most trips was spent nursing unplanned hangovers with way-too-early beers on a small, sandy Mekong island. The crew grilled fish, fried bamboo worms, Khun Jib strummed his guitar, belting out world-famous choruses, and everyone relished in a moment and place that was so very far from their homes. Khun Jib provided much of the inspiration for our travel ethos, but also taught me so much about being a wiser man.
As the years went by, and we got to know one another better, he proved to be an amazing judge of character. Whether we were trying to arrange kayaks for a trip, or thinking about buying land, he always shared the real deal about the players, but always in a highly considerate manner. He let you know who-was-who, but never disparaged anyone. And most everyone seemed to know he was this sort of person. What you saw is what you got with Khun Jib. Including fair judgement of your character.
He was also a master of situational analysis, steering us toward or away from countless situations and people over the years. Often we weren’t immediately sure why, but he’d always find a meaningful way to let us know, never pushing, instead letting us wrestle with the facts and come to our best decision.
And he was always a supreme host. You arrived and were enthusiastically welcomed. A seat on the balcony was cleared, beer put in hand, stories told, songs strummed on his guitar, and when things were busy, politely reminded that “Quality takes time when Thailand meets Mexico,” as the sign in their comfy restaurant declared.
Some memories that regularly come to mind and put a smile on my face:
- Art in the Men’s toilet, curated by Khun Jib.
- The time he fashioned a necklace medallion of sorts, featuring an Oreo cookie.
- Enjoying the herbal sauna and staying at his home in Lampang.
- Being entrusted to take care of the guesthouse for a few days while they vacationed.
- Kayaking together on the Mekong River.
- Countless evenings at the old Teepee Bar, sipping whiskey, Khun Jib playing guitar.
Few become legends, but Khun Jib of #BambooRiverside #ChiangKhong was. And in his own time. Thank you for your friendship and may your next journey be a musical one.
Tunes in the key of Jib:
- Father and Son
- Let it Be
- I Shot the Sheriff
- Wild World
- Let it Bleed
- The Weight
- Old Man
- Fun Bai (and Thee Chaiyadej in general)
- The magic is in the moment.
- Become an amazing judge of character.
- Master situational analysis.
- Be a supreme host.
RIP my friend.