Huay Xai is the capital of Bokeo, which is a province in Laos. It is also known as Houay Xai or Houeo Sai and is located on the banks of the Mekong River. This is also part of the border with Thailand.
The fact is that most visitors to Laos treat Huay Xai as a stopover to other destinations. This is quite unfortunate since there is a lot to experience in this small town in terms of local life in Laos and it’s worth it to try some local beer, relax on the banks of Mekong or simply interact with fellow tourists here.
If you are visiting Huay Xai for the first time here is a list of places you may want to visit to make your trip worthwhile:
A lot of villagers work in the production of rice vermicelli, also known as ‘kanom jeen’ as a means of earning their living. Locals eat a dish made with this kanom jeen mixed with phla raa, which is fermented fish sauce. This recipe, when made in Ban Khao Pun, is exported to Chiang Kong, across the border in Thailand. Other than fish sauce, one can try the kanom jeen dish with various types of sauces.
Ban Tom Lao is a village in Laos which is known for its rice fields and various forms of alcohol that are prepared on it by the villagers. The name of this village roughly translates as ‘brew comes’ which is appropriate since locals prepare a genre of hooch which is legal in Lao, but not permitted for consumption in most other countries. The alcohol level of the various drinks is not always regular, since it depends on the fermentation period. On average, it is at 40%.
Ban Yong Hin is a form of mobile home structure made of wood. Wooden stakes are placed on a stone to create this house. The Thai Lue people are known to build these kinds of structures and although they are known to be mobile homes, the reason for using stone as the base is to prevent destructive termite and moisture erosion in the wood.
This French-style structure is used by Lao troops. The fort is located on top of a hill, which can be seen clearly from the other side of the Mekong River. Unfortunately, visitors are not allowed inside the premises.
The Jom Khao Manilat Temple is designed in the Shan style and was made wholly of teak, way back in 1880. The vibrant colours resemble religious sites and structures of Jakarta making it a must-visit for visitors. Way back in 1548, the Chaing Kong prince of that time contributed a stele-house to the temple, which still stands here. One can take in the views of the town of Huay Xai and overlook the Mekong River from the top of this temple. It is located walking distance from the ferry pier and is the perfect site to watch the sun set.
Restaurants in Huay Xai serve a mix of Lao, Thai, Chinese and Vietnamese dishes along with a range of seafood. The menu served at Riverside Houay Restaurant contains a wide variety of dishes and both Thai and Lao cuisines are prepared here in abundance. Some of the popular choices include fried prawn cakes, curries and tom yam soup at this restaurant overlooking the Mekong River. The Thai music may be too clichéd for some customers, but it serves as a casual distraction for those who come here to relax.
Muang Neur serves Lao cuisine. It is located at Th Saykhong. For only US$1.50-$3 you can try the crispy fried fish prepared with lots of garlic and ginger or the seafood-filled broth made with lemongrass, fǒe and spices at this modest little restaurant. And if you want some lao-lao liquor, this is the perfect bar to come to for it.
Talat Sao is a local market located at Th Saykhong. The market opens in the morning and is the favourite hangout for those interested in indigenous items of art, souvenirs and gifts. Talat Sao is located towards the southern part of Huay Xai, close to the bus stand.
The only difficulty in visiting local spots is that they are hidden away from tourists. Therefore, the only way you can find them is by seeking help from locals.
Ban Nam Keung Kao is a village which does not receive too many tourists.
You can reach Ban Nam Keung Kao within half an hour by a speedboat that leaves Huay Xai from the northern part of the city. You cannot converse with locals in English so make sure you have someone with you to act as a translator. Other than the Nam Yong Waterfall, the hot springs and the local sights and sounds, there is nothing unique here and although the springs are quite ordinary, it is the 20-feet-high waterfall and its majestic appearance makes this experience worth coming to see.
Laos allows travelers a 30-day visa on arrival from the immigration office which is situated very close to the ferry. It costs 35 US dollars and a passport-sized photograph to acquire this temporary tourist visa; however, the cost can vary depending on which country you come from. If you don’t have a photograph, you can get it done at the immigration office in exchange for 40 Thai baht. Other conditions attached to this service are raised prices for the procedure at weekends.
You can fly into Huay Xai from Vientiane on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.
You can take the bus from Luang Namtha at 09:30 to be dropped off two kilometres away from the town of Huay Xai at 14:30 in the afternoon. From there you can take a tuk tuk to the border of Huay Xai or to a specific motel or lodge as directed by you.
If you are smart then stay away from touts that hound unassuming tourists and bully them into buying bus tickets that can take them to Luang Prabang, which is the more preferred destination from Huay Xai. However, these tickets are wildly overpriced. At the bus stand you can find the same ticket for half the price. Most foreigners who don’t know the system are pushed into believing that these tickets are hard to find and are sold out all the time.
The ideal thing to do at Huay Xai is to hire a tuk tuk for the day and buy the bus tickets at the bus stand.
You can travel by ferry between Thailand, Chiang Khong and Huay Xai which will cost you very little including your luggage. As long as you arrive before 18:00 you can get your visa on arrival at the office which is right beside the ferry stand.
Only a handful of people can travel on a single ferry, therefore service is pretty regular here. You probably have to take a tuk tuk from the ferry stand to get to town.
If you want to go out of Huay Xai you can use the slow boat to complete the upstream travel. You’ll find these boats for hire at the ferry dock. Bargain down the original asking price.