Getting there and away
Daily flights are scheduled between Huay Xai and Vientiane. One way costs 895,000 kip. The Lao Airlines office is located across the road from Friendship Guesthouse.
There are a number of bus options from Huay Xai. Tickets can be bought in travel agencies and guesthouses or directly from the bus station. The bus station is about six kilometres south of town. You can walk, but a songthaew or tuk tuk will take you for about 10,000 kip or more if you're travelling alone and no one else is heading in that direction.
Buses leave throughout the day and most can drop off enroute in places such as Luang Nam Tha and Udomxai.
Luang Nam Tha: departs at 09:30 & 12:30, takes 6 hours and costs 70,000 kip.
Luang Prabang: departs at 14:00 & 17:00, takes 13 hours and costs 120,000 kip.
Udomxai: departs at 09:00, takes 9 hours and costs 85,000 kip.
Vientiane: departs at 11:30, takes 23 hours and costs 230,000 kip
Bus tickets can also be bought for the minibus to Chiang Mai for 85,000 kip, including transfers across the border. The minibus leaves from the Thai side of the border -- after crossing the river and clearing immigration, it's a four-hour journey to Chiang Mai. This service departs at 08:30 & 16:00.
Small boats cross between the Thai and Lao border checkpoints, and cost 40 baht per person. The crossing only takes a couple of minutes, but there are no life jackets on board and the river can be quite deep. Immigration on the Lao side closes at about 16:00, so make sure you arrive early if you want to stay in Huay Xai for the night.
The most popular transit route to and from Huay Xai is by 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 with some including a tuk tuk ride to the boat dock and some not. Tickets can also be bought in Chiang Khong at an inflated rate from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang. It includes however pick up from your Chiang Khong guesthouse and transfer across the borders and to the pier.
Locals are understandably upset that the Thais are catching tourists before they arrive. If you don't mind walking upriver for 1.2 kilometres to the slow boat dock, there is absolutely no reason to buy your ticket in advance. Boats will never refuse passengers because they are full and the walk is not difficult despite what you might be told as you cross the border from Thailand. Boats depart at 11:30, 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, 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 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 or two as there are usually no stops to purchase anything. Drinks are generally available on board and you'll often see groups of locals and tourists alike sinking beers to pass the time away.
Luangsay Cruises offer the deluxe version of this journey: two days on a luxury boat, a night at the Luangsay Lodge, all meals, entry to Pak Ou Caves, border transfers and an English speaking guide. Cost depends on the season, but ranges between $393 and $491.
T: (084) 212 092, http://www.luangsay.com/
It is also possible to travel down the Mekong to Pak Beng and Luang Prabang by rocket boat, the extremely noisy speedboats that make each leg from Huay Xai to Pak Beng and Pak Beng to Luang Prabang in 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.
That said, on our most recent fast boat rides we have found sound levels to be quite low, 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. Whatever the case, wear long sleeves and long pants so you don't get sunburnt.
Tickets can be booked at any travel agency and most guesthouses in Huay Xai with the official price at the fast boat dock south of town 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 fast boat 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. The speedboat dock is 3.5 kilometres south of town and a tuk tuk to here costs 10,000 kip per person.
Speedboats used to go north to Xieng Kok but a massacre in recent years and reports of firings at boats from the Burmese side have stopped fast boats heading that way. The best bet for travel to Xieng Kok is 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 recently did this, it was a two-day journey with a night on the boat next to moaning buffaloes – a true Lao experience. 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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