A little frontier town consisting primarily of wooden houses and bamboo shacks along the Mekong, Xieng Kok is as out there as it gets for a foreign traveller in Laos. Across the river is Myanmar’s Shan State and though Xieng Kok feels nothing more than a sleepy outpost, the remote river border between Laos and Myanmar is a well-known drug trade route operated by armed groups.
Banditry, Burmese drug lords, rebel insurgents and other people up to no good – no wonder many foreign offices warn to exercise caution in this specific area. In March 2006, independent traveller Ryan Chicovsky went missing in Xieng Kok in mysterious circumstances -- his body was never found. Be sensible like the locals and stay off the river at night, and don’t venture upriver from Xieng Kok in search of the heart of darkness. For the town itself, it’s largely business as usual.
Xieng Kok is a relatively important river port for cargo boats comings down from China and there’s a constant flow of cargo, people and livestock chugging between Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and China. The town has a border checkpoint and immigration stand but it is not open to foreigner tourists so it is not possible for foreigners to cross into Myanmar from Xieng Kok – yet.
Xieng Kok will be put on the map when the new Mekong bridge and border crossing to Myanmar is completed. Located 14 kilometres north of town, the bridge is the first of its kind between the two countries and it will link Xieng Kok, Luang Nam Tha Province to Kenglap in Shan State. It is slated to officially open May 2015 but when we were there earlier in the year, the passport control building and new road to town were still heavily under construction. Sometime in the second half of 2015 is a fair estimate.
Strategically, this bridge creates a transport route from China to Burma and eventually Thailand as well; there are plans to build a road south from Xieng Kok to the Thai border at Huay Xai within two years. We were told by several local officials that this new border checkpoint at Xieng Kok would be open to foreigners but we will all have to wait and see. Locals across Luang Nam Tha province are hopeful that the bridge will bring more tourists.
But until then Xieng Kok’s existence remains dependent upon the river. Its small boat landing bustles with activity and it’s entertaining to watch the huge trucks load and unload their goods – particularly when they need to be winched up from the river banks when they get stuck in the mud. A crowd gathers to watch and direct the action. The landing is where to go to find a boat that will take you downriver to Ban Mom, or Ton Pheung near the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone/Kings Roman Casino. From here you can travel by road to Huay Xai. The journey on the upper Mekong is truly beautiful and off the beaten tourist track, and it promises to be a memorable adventure.
Few stay in Xieng Kok. Those who do come here hope to just pass through on their way to Muang Long, Muang Sing or Huay Xai. There’s not a lot to do once you've wandered around town, chatted with the locals and given your two-cents on how to haul the trucks out of the sludge. However, the Mekong scenery here is a treat and the town has electricity nowadays so it’s an ok spot for an overnight stay. There is a selection of budget accommodation available.
The restaurant at Khemkhong Guesthouse is probably the best place to eat in Xieng Kok. The menu is not extensive, but the food is tasty and ingredients depend on what is available at the market at the time. The food has a Chinese influence as is common in northern Laos, so the dishes are of the 'stir-fried meat and a vegetable' variety. They also do decent fried rice and a few breakfast items, but there is no bread in Xieng Kok so toast is off the menu.
We poked our head into Xieng Kok Resort’s restaurant kitchen and it was a larder for the most unappealing array of ingredients we have ever seen: bowls heaped with organs, larvae, weird river creatures, jungle meat and insects. They were certainly catering to local and Chinese taste. Not for everyone.
The road to Muang Long and Muang Sing is unpaved and bumpy with incredibly lush and pretty scenery. It carries on through the valley passing small rivers, plantations and villages that will remind you that Luang Nam Tha province is one of the most ethnically diverse areas in Laos. The Akha tribe are in the majority in the region and you will no doubt see women wearing their traditional black clothing and elaborate headdress adorned with silver baubles and coins. The women never take the headdress off and will work and sleep in it.
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Text and/or map last updated on 11th May, 2015.
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