Capital of Bokeo province and the northern gateway to Laos, Huay Xai is the most popular entry point to the country from northern Thailand. 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 is known as the Chiang Khong/Huay Xai crossing and the two towns face each other across the Mekong. Travellers once crossed between the two countries by boat but since 2013, the Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge 4 located 10 kilometres from town is the official border; it is no longer possible for foreigners to ferry across. Many people choose to stay overnight in Chiang Khong on the Thai side, but Huay Xai is a good enough spot for a night and makes catching the slow boat a little less stressful. 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. The border is open from 06:00 to 22:00, the mandatory shuttle bus across the bridge starts at 07:30 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 traveller tastes and many have information about travelling through northern Laos. Their main pre-occupation however is trying to sell you a ticket on the slow boat to Luang Prabang since the vast majority of people who cross into Laos at Huay Xai leave as soon as they can.
One reason to stay though is The Gibbon Experience, an environmental protection programme and heart-stopping ecotourism experience. Not to be confused with the “Flight of the Gibbon” chain of zip-lining tours found all over Thailand, The Gibbon Experience includes hiking into Nam Kan National Park, flying through and over the forest canopy via a series of cables, sleeping in tree houses and spotting wildlife like the namesake black crested gibbons. The two- or three-day adventure is often considered a traveller’s top highlight of their time in Laos and even their entire trip in Southeast Asia.
There’s not really all that much to “do” in the town of Huay Xai itself. Fort Carnot, perched atop the hill, was built by French forces around 1900 and is the best-preserved colonial military building in Laos (it never saw much military action).
Then there is the requisite wat in the centre of town – spend any amount of time in Laos and you’ll likely see more than a few. This one is nice enough but only worth a visit if you are particularly curious about temples. Pop out to the street at dawn and you’ll see monks and novices collecting morning alms. And being on this side of the Mekong has its advantages: you’ll get a lovely sunset view and a sundowner on the river acts as an excellent introduction or a memorable farewell to the country.
There are plenty of opportunities for more adventurous travellers to explore Bokeo. The province may be small but 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 several places worth investigating.
Even the Golden Triangle, an area synonymous with illegal drug trafficking, is trying to attract foreign tourists these days – namely Chinese and Thai – with a bubble called the Special Economic Zone, a dodgy land development deal with Chinese companies which includes the gaudy Kings Romans Casino and Done Sao Island market. “Macau on the Mekong” is a laughable tagline, but the place does manage to draw crowds.
We obviously recommend the cultural and natural side of Bokeo. A couple of travel agencies in town offer day trips to local ethnic minority villages but there is also scope for roll-your-own explorations, like to ethnic Lanten village Ban Nam Chan. 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 it is more a slow, do-it-yourself affair as passengers are few and speedboats rarely make the journey. The best bet is to head to Ban Mom by road and take a boat from there, or try your luck waiting at the slow boat dock’s immigration office for a passing cargo vessel heading upriver.
Despite all this, the majority of travellers crossing into Laos at Huay Xai immediately journey down the Mekong River by slow boat to Luang Prabang via Pakbeng, or jump on a bus to head up Route 3 to Luang Nam Tha and beyond. Whatever you choose to do, Huay Xai will sort you out.
The main street/tourist drag centres around the now obsolete passenger boat crossing/immigration.
Most hotels and restaurants accept Thai baht. There are moneychangers and ATMs, including BCEL which has international networks. Most ATMs have a 1,000,000 kip limit per withdrawal. It is a good idea to have kip for your slow boat journey.
The Tourism Information Office (Monday to Friday, 08:00-12:00; 13:30-16:00) is located beside Friendship Guesthouse. Despite the fact that they rarely get visitors, the staff are impatient and not keen to help. There are maps on the walls, informative posters about the different ethnic groups found in the province and a few brochures.
Huay Xai has a small pharmacy-type shop but bottom line: you should be arriving to Laos with any medication you may need during your entire stay.
By Cindy Fan.
Last updated on 12th October, 2016.