In a nutshell
It's more of a stopover than a destination in its own right, but enjoy the local wat, have a sauna and massage at the local Red Cross and head out on a day trip to visit minority villages. Come sunset, the drill is to sip a BeerLao on the Mekong and watch the boats come and go.
Capital of Bokeo province and the northern gateway to Laos, Huay Xai is the most popular entry point to Laos from northern Thailand. Once a big opium shipment centre for the Americans during the war, the town now busies itself moving people rather than narcotics -- and what a fine job it does.
The border crossing is officially known as the Chiang Khong/Huay Xai crossing and the two towns face each other across the Mekong's waters, with travellers crossing between the two countries by boat. Many people choose to stay overnight in Chiang Khong on the Thai side, but Huay Xai is a good enough spot for a night. It's also a good place to ease yourself into Laos, particularly if Pakbeng is to be your next stop.
If you're concerned about missing the slow boat if you sleep in Chiang Khong and cross the border in the morning, don't worry -- as long as you drag yourself out of bed at a reasonable hour, you'll be fine as the border opens early and the slow boat may leave as late at 11:30.
Huay Xai has a bunch of guesthouses and some restaurants that more than adequately cater to tourists' tastes and many have information about travelling through northern Laos. However their main pre-occupation is trying to sell you a ticket on the slow boat to Luang Prabang -- because the vast majority of people who cross into Laos at Huay Xai leave as soon as they can.
It's not that there's anything wrong with the place, but there's not really all that much to "do" in town itself. Fort Carnot is on the hill -- it was built to house the French Foreign Legion, but during our last visit was under renovation after a period of time as a Lao army barracks. Then there is the mandatory wat in the centre of town which is nice enough but only worth a visit if you are particularly curious about temples.
However, if you choose to hang around, there are plenty of opportunities for more adventurous travellers to explore Bokeo. While the province may be small it is mountainous, and for much of its border these mountains run into the Mekong River -- the scenery is spectacular -- and it makes up for its diminutive size with more than a couple of places worth investigating.
A couple of travel agencies in town also offer day trips visiting local ethnic minority villages, but there is also scope for roll-your-own explorations. The riverside villages of Pak Tha, and Pak Hat to the south (both on the Nam Tha River) and Nam Nyon waterfall to the north are all worth a peek if you have the time -- and have a good phrasebook packed.
More intrepid travellers may want to consider a jeep trip from Pak Hat to Pha Udom which passes through some spectacular scenery. It's also possible to travel from Huay Xai upriver to Xieng Kok, but in recent years it has been a more do-it-yourself affair as speedboats have been refusing to carry passengers due to some shootings. The best bet is to wait at the slow boat dock's immigration office for a passing cargo vessel heading up river.
Then there's the Gibbon Experience -- an environmental protection programme with a difference -- it forms the highlight of many traveller's time in Laos.
Despite all this, the majority of travellers crossing into Laos at Huay Xai head down the Mekong River to Luang Prabang via Pakbeng, or jump on transport to head up Route 3 to Luang Nam Tha and beyond -- whatever you choose to do, Huay Xai will sort you out.
Text and/or map last updated on 13th April, 2013.
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