Getting there and away
Huay Xai has an airport five kilometres from town. Lao Airlines flights to/from Vientiane are limited and it’s best to check with any Lao Airlines office to see if there any scheduled flights – don’t rely on the website for information. The Bokeo Lao Airlines office (T: (084) 211 026) is located across the road from Friendship Guesthouse.
Huay Xai is also referred to as Bokeo on bus schedules.
There are a number of options from Huay Xai’s Keo Champa bus terminal. Tickets can be bought at travel agencies and guesthouses or directly at the bus station, located about five kilometres south of town. A tuk tuk will take you for about 15,000 kip, or more if you're travelling alone and no one else is heading in that direction.
This station is better run than most in Laos. Buses usually depart on time and there’s even a whiteboard confirming the day’s schedule, sometimes with added departures not on the set schedule.
Buses leave throughout the day and most can drop off enroute in places such as Luang Nam Tha and Udomxai. Sample destinations and fares include:
Luang Nam Tha: departs at 09:00 and 12:30, 187 km, takes 3.5 hours and costs 60,000 kip.
Luang Prabang: departs at 10:00 and 16:00, 505 km, takes 12 hours and costs 130,000 kip.
Udomxai: departs at 09:30, 320 km, takes 7 hours and costs 90,000 kip.
Vientiane: departs at 11:30, 900 km, takes 23 hours and costs 230,000 kip.
Agents and guesthouses in town also sell tickets for the minibus to Chiang Mai for 100,000 kip, including transfer to the border and the shuttle bus across the bridge. This service departs at 08:30 & 16:00. After crossing the river and clearing immigration, the minibus leaves from the Thai side of the border. In theory it's a four-hour journey to Chiang Mai. In reality, there is a wait before departure, the minibus stops for a bathroom break and lunch. We departed Huay Xai at 08:30 and finally arrived in Chiang Mai at 16:30! However, the service does drop you right in the heart of the old town and the van is air-con and comfortable.
Alternatively, you can get yourself to Chiang Khong and take local Green Bus Co. to Chiang Mai. There are several departures from Chiang Khong daily but the 07:15 and 09:45 via Chiang Rai is the most efficient. Takes fives hours, 290 baht.
Buses from Huay Xai to Chiang Rai’s Bus Terminal 2 depart from the international bus station which is six kilometres south of town and not far from the Keo Champa bus station. There are departures at 09:00 and 16:30, ticket costs 60,000 kip or 225 baht. The bus takes you across the border and will wait for passengers to clear immigration. There is also an agent for Thailand’s Green Bus at the station if you want to purchase your onward ticket from Chiang Rai.
There is no longer passenger ferry service across the Mekong and foreigners must use the Friendship Bridge 10 kilometres south of town.
The most popular transit route to and from Huay Xai is by public slow boat down the Mekong. Tickets can be bought at the slow boat pier for 110,000 kip to Pakbeng, 220,000 kip to Luang Prabang or in travel agencies and guesthouses around town for between 10,000 and 30,000 kip extra, some including a tuk tuk ride to the boat dock and some not. The slow boat pier is a kilometre upriver from town. Tickets can also be bought in Chiang Khong at an inflated rate from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang. It may, however, include transfers.
Locals are understandably upset that the Thais are catching tourists before they arrive. There is absolutely no reason to buy your ticket in advance. You can buy your ticket at the slow boat pier. Despite what you might be told in Thailand, boats will never refuse passengers because they are full and the walk is not difficult. Boats are scheduled to depart at 11:00, but you are advised to arrive half an hour early to reserve a seat. Some arrive at around 10:00 to get the very best seats near the front, but this is a bit of overkill.
The journey is gorgeous, but the quality of the boats can differ wildly as local boat drivers use their own boats and take it in turns to do the run. Sometimes 80 or more people and a few motorbikes are packed onto one boat, which can make for a crowded and uncomfortable journey – we continue to hear reports of people having to make do without seats on particularly busy days despite there being two and sometimes three boat departures. Make sure you bring a baguette sandwich or two as there is usually nothing substantial to purchase. Drinks are generally available on board and you'll often see groups of locals and tourists alike sinking beers and sharing snacks to pass the time away.
Luangsay Cruise offer the deluxe version of this journey: two days on a comfortable boat, a night at the luxurious Luangsay Lodge, all meals, stops at a few sights including Pak Ou Caves, border transfers and an English speaking guide. All these comforts come with a price tag. Cost depends on the season, but ranges between $396 and $490 with a single supplement. They have an office on the main street in Huay Xai and Luang Prabang.
T: (084) 212 092
Shompoo Cruise aims for the midmarket. Their slow boats have lounge-style seating and they cap it at a maximum of 40 passengers. Downriver to Luang Prabang is US$145; the reverse trip upriver Luang Prabang to Huay Xai is slightly cheaper at US$130. Price includes transfers, lunches, a local guide and stops at some tourist sites. It does not include accommodation though you have the option of adding it in.
T: (071) 213 189
18/02 Ounkham Road (on the Mekong River), Luang Prabang
We haven’t received any feedback on this company based in Huay Xai. Their office is 400 metres from the slow boat pier. The prices are comparable to Shompoo Cruise.
Mekong Smile Cruise
T: 30 537 8170 / 20 5664 9094
It is also possible to travel down the Mekong to Pak Beng and Luang Prabang by rocket boat, the extremely noisy speedboats. Each leg, from Huay Xai to Pak Beng and Pak Beng to Luang Prabang, takes 2.5 to 3.5 hours. The noise can be intolerable and travellers have reported temporary hearing loss, as well as a number of other catastrophes due to boat troubles and inexperienced drivers. It is advisable to wear the supplied life jacket and helmet both for safety and to cut down noise and exposure to the elements. Wear long sleeves and long pants so you don't get sunburnt.
That said, on our most recent fast boat rides we found sound levels to be tolerable, speeds to be fast and comfort to be acceptable. It would seem that some people are having different experiences based on the boat and driver they get – some drivers are very experienced and know every bend, rock and rapid. Though the speedboat is always risky (consider how isolated you are should there be an accident), a ride at the height of dry season (December to June) is definitely riskiest as water levels are low and rocks exposed.
Tickets can be booked at any travel agency and most guesthouses in Huay Xai, or at the dock itself 3.5 kilometres downriver from town. The price at the dock is 170,000 kip to Pak Beng and 340,000 kip to Luang Prabang. Speedboats will leave when they are full, which means six foreigners or eight Lao. If there are not enough passengers, you will need to pay for the entire boat. Your best bet is to head to the speedboat dock early, buy a ticket and just wait. It seems that once someone buys a ticket, phone calls are made and drivers can often manage to rustle up a few other passengers. A tuk tuk to the dock costs 10,000 kip per person.
Speedboats going north on the Mekong to Xieng Kok are not possible. The best bet for travel to Xieng Kok by boat is to the catch a songthaew from the market to Ban Mom. In Ban Mom, wait around at the immigration office where all boats must stop and ask for a lift upriver. When we did this, it was a two-day journey with a night on the boat next to buffaloes. Expect to pay 250,000 kip per person from Ban Mom. The journey takes seven hours and the scenery is magnificent.
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