For most tourists it is seen as a transport stop-over, which is a pity. While there is not much to see in this small town, it's a good place to adapt to Lao life: sit on the banks of the Mekong, have a Beerlao and watch the river flow past, or even better, see the hoards of tourists float past.
Border crossing from Thailand to Laos
- 1 New Friendship Bridge 4. This bridge is the border crossing between Thailand and Laos. While the border is open from 06:00 to 22:00, the buses only operate from 08:00 to 18:00 which could leave you stranded. The shuttle bus across the bridge (20 baht/person, 25 baht on the weekend and after 16:00) only travels it has enough passengers, so you might wait up to an hour Thai emigration to cross the bridge.
- The Thai border control is 9 km south of Chiang Khong; tuk-tuk also available. As May 2017, it costs 60 baht for a tuk-tuk from Chiang Khong bus station/center to the Thai border. A cheaper option is to take the red local bus from Chiang Khong bus station can and ask the driver to drop you 5 km before the town for 10 baht, at the junction between the main road and the road to the Thai border. From there, you can get a tuk tuk or walk to the border (40-60 baht, 3-4 km approx).
- You must take a shuttle bus to cross the bridge from the Thai border control to the Lao border control and vice versa. If you are travelling by bicycle please note it is not allowed to cycle (or walk) over the friendship bridge. You also have to take the bus, transporting your bike on the bus costs 100 baht per bike. The price is fixed, but it might be possible that you only pay for the transport of your bicycle without having to pay extra for your own ticket- (so it will be 100 baht instead of 125 baht per person with bicycle). The bicycle will be transported inside the bus.
- The Laos immigration office efficiently issues (when not busy eating) 30-day visas-on-arrival (around USD35 or 1,500 baht, depending on nationality. The cost in euros tends to be the same as the US dollar cost, as the Lao authorities ignore differences in exchange rate). A passport-sized photo is needed and this can be obtained in Chiang Khong before crossing the river or, earlier, near the bus station in Chiang Rai. If you arrive without a passport photo, the official will use a scan of your passport photo for 40 baht. If you arrive on a weekend or after 16:00 on a weekday there is an extra 10,000 kip or USD1 fee for the visa on arrival, even if none of this is the case you will still likely be asked for the extra dollar/40 baht. Its often possible to avoid this fee by arguing with the officials or just walking out fast once you get your stamp.
- Official songthaews from Lao border control to the Huay Xai bus station/city center are 15 000 kip per person, so you don't have to bargain with tuk-tuk. Once you get your stamp and walk away, you’ll see a window where you are able to buy bus tickets for bus station, city center, and many national and international destinations (like the border with China). (Dec 2018)
You can drive from Vientiane on the haunted road. If you want to see how "haunted" it is, drive at night. There will be no buildings or lights, and sometimes with the tall trees on the side (scary when you drive at night).
The Friendship IV Bridge at the border is about 20 km south from Houay Xai.
Houay Xai's tiny airport has service three times a week to/from Vientiane on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.
There are two bus stations around Huay Xai.
- 2 Keo Champa Bus Station (also known as Bokeo Station). About 5 km south of central Huay Xay is the traditional long distance bus terminal.
- 3 Phet Aloune Bus Station. Further south of central Huay Xay. International buses (PLS Company) to China & Thailand leave and arrive at this station.
Upon arriving in Huay Xai, you may be approached by touts asking about your next destination. If you answer Luang Prabang, you will be pressured to reserve a ticket on a VIP bus, because the bus is invariably "sold out". You will be charged around 210,000-260,000 kip, which includes transport to the bus station. Upon arriving at the bus station, you will be handed a ticket with the actual price, 110,000 kip, staring back at you as a stinging reminder of your gullibility. At the bus station you can get a ticket all the way to Vientiane for 210,000 kip, which should give some indication of how much of a rip-off the touts in town are trying to pull on you.
If you're going to be in Huay Xai for at least a day, take a tuk-tuk to the bus station for 10,000 kip and buy your ticket for the day you plan to leave. The extra money you spend on tuk-tuks is more than offset by the 100,000-150,000 you'll save on your bus ticket.
From Luang Namtha
The 09:30 bus arrives at the Bokeo bus station at around 14:30. The fare is 60,000 kip (Sep 2016). Tuk-tuks charge 10-25,000 kip to the border or guesthouse of your choice in town.
From Chiang Rai
There are four daily buses from Chiang Rai directly into Phet Aloune Station, which wait at the border. Price is 220 baht. PLS Company buses depart at 10:00 & 16:30 every day from Bus Station 2 in Chiang Rai. It goes over the Mekong bridge and thru immigration at both sides into Laos at Bokeo. A cheaper option is the cross the border by yourself: red local buses travel every hour between Chiang Rai and Chiang Khong (60 baht - May 2017). If you attempt to cross directly the border to Huay Xai, you can ask the driver to drop you 5 km before the town for 10 baht, at the junction between the main road and the road to the Thai border. From there, you can get a tuk tuk or walk to the border (40-60 baht, 3-4 km approx).
The ferry service is apparently still working but only for Thai and Lao.
By slow boat
- 4 Slow Boat Pier (1 km north of town, where the truck-carrying ferry barges also dock). The slow boat is mainly used to leave Houay Xai as the journey moving upstream is usually just too long for most people. The boat ride from Luang Prabang is divided into two days via Pakbeng and done by different boat drivers. It is advise to stop overnight in Pakbeng. The slow boat from Pakbeng arrives in Huay Xai at around 17:30 which leaves just about enough time to cross the border to Chiang Khong. You can stay overnight in Huay Xai to avoid a stressful border crossing. See Go Next, below, for details on the journey to Luang Prabang.
Read the warning about speedboats first. The speedboat landing is 5 km south of town.
You can walk the main street. For longer distances take a bike taxi. A one-way fare to the Chinese morning market should cost 10,000 kip.
- 1 Fort Carnot. On top of the hill, dominating the Mekong, the French colonial-era Fort Carnot era has undergone some conservation work, but it is still quite dilapidated. One of the towers can be climbed, providing a good view of the Mekong (in June 2018 the tower was not accessible due to much scrub). Though not spectacular at all, it's a good way to start one's travel in Laos and remember that the country has been a favorite playground of Western powers for decades.
- See the view from the temple tower at the top of the hill on the main street, near the border crossing.
- 1 The Gibbon Experience, main street, Houay Xai, ✉ email@example.com. A forest conservation project that raises funds by taking guests into the Bokeo Nature Reserve, home to the Laotian black crested gibbon. Once thought extinct, it is now known that up to 400 individuals live in this forest. The Reserve is mostly primary monsoon dry deciduous forest, but also contains some lowland slash-and-burn agriculture. The Gibbon Experience is the only way to visit the Reserve. Every other day there is a truck covering the 3½ hours to the last village, where you start your hike to the project. Accommodation is provided in terrific tree houses in giant trees over 40 m high. To access the houses, you glide on a cable from a surrounding hilltop. There is an extensive cable network set up to explore the canopy, providing breathtaking views of the scenery. You can book at their office in Huay Xai or by emailing them. 2 days/1 night: 1,400,000 kip, 3 days/2 nights: 2,450,000 kip.
- 2 Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone (Mid-way between Houay Xay and Tachileik, Myanmar). The provincial economy is now dominated by the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone (GT SEZ). In 2007, the Chinese-owned Kings Romans Group entered into a 99-year lease for 10,000 hectares on the banks of the Mekong. The company was granted 3,000 of these hectares as a duty-free zone, now the SEZ. As gambling is illegal in China, and the SEZ is only a two-hour journey by road from China, casinos and hotels catering to a Chinese clientele were built. As an unintended consequence, a robust industry involving trafficking in endangered animals has grown up around the Chinese tourist trade. Several restaurants in the SEZ serve exotic meats: tiger, pangolin, bear cub and python. Menus openly include such fare as bear paw, monitor lizards, geckos, snakes and turtles. Tiger bone wine is also frequently served. Shops in the SEZ sell animal parts, stuffed animals and ivory, all in contravention of the CITES treaty to which Laos is a party. Has to be seen to be believed — and lamented.
- Morning Market (in the suburb of Ban Muangkeo; follow the main road S along the Mekong, after passing a hill, there is a turn-off to the left, which you should follow until you reach the place; ask people as you go, to make sure you don't take the wrong turn). Pay a visit to the market. The best time to visit is early morning.
The most important thing to buy is something to eat & drink for the slow-boat journey to Luang Prabang, although nowadays food and drinks are available on most boats. Food is not great, but acceptable.
- Money: There's a small bank office offering change for cash and travellers' cheques next to the immigration office. It has no commission and good rates, better than in the town. Most guest houses and restaurants in town deal in baht, kip, and US dollars at decent rates. There are ATMs on the main road straight up the hill from the immigration office with a maximum withdrawal per transaction of 1,000,000 kip. It is better to get baht from Thailand and exchange them here because of the higher limits in Thailand. The official money exchange counter within the border building complex on the Lao side of the bridge has very good exchange rates (less than 2% added to baht rate and less than 1% added to euro rate compared to the exchange rates published by a bank, as of May 2015).
Most of the guest houses provide simple meals.
Watch the sunset over the Mekong river from a riverside restaurant.
- The restaurant next door to the Gibbon Experience office is home to the expat crowd in town. It has a nice garden restaurant and terrace overlooking the Mekong.
- Daauw Home (go up the steps to the temple and take the first dirt road on the left, you'll see it on the right side). Small bar and restaurant run by Project Kajsiab (a non-profit organisation that seeks to improve the health of the Lao people in Bokeo Province). Dinner 70,000-100,000 kip for two; beer, teas and Mojilaos available in the drinks department. Nice setting and chilled vibes around the fire or on the verandah.
- Khongvab Duck BBQ (20 m past Sabaydee Guesthouse on the opposite side). Evenings only. For all those tired of chicken and pork. Popular with locals and delicious. From 14:00 to 17:00 when the duck is on the BBQ you can't miss it.
- Latsuly Return. Restaurant overlooks the slow boat wharf and truck ferry and is a nice place to watch the world go by.
- No Name (on the water, on the main road, about 1 km south of old border checkpoint). Outdoor restaurant with a big terrace built on the banks of the Mekong. It offers Lao barbecue, a tasty combination of Japanese shabu-shabu and Korean BBQ, i.e., you grill and stew up your own meats and veggies.
There is not much nightlife in town. To have a beer, simply visit a restaurant or get your own stocks of Beerlao at one of the shops.
- BAP Guesthouse. Somewhat of a travellers' hangout. The rates are not the cheapest in town and staff are unfriendly and have a reputation for overcharging. Not only overcharging occurs here, there is a real effort by the management to get as much money out of you as possible. Booking a bus here to Chiang Mai may very well leave you stranded in Chiang Khong overnight. 60,000 kip for a double (2017).
- Friendship Guesthouse (In the central strip of town). A great family-run guesthouse. Rooms are available as double or single and all have private bath with hot water. The building's tiled roof top balcony provides panoramic views of the city and neighboring Chiang Khong across the Mekong River, making for a great place to read a book during the day or have a cup of tea at night and watch life pass by, albeit slowly. Make sure that you book a room that is close to the street front as the rear rooms lack natural light. No Internet/Wi-Fi. Make sure you're clear about the rate. For example, at least one traveller reported expecting to get a 10,000 kip key deposit back when checking out, but being told suddenly that there is no key deposit. From 70,000 kip.
- Gateway Villas (on the right, at the top of the hill leading up from immigration). Free Wi-Fi for hotel or restaurant customers. From USD10.
- Manirath Guesthouse (next to the soi that goes to the ferry). Clean and good value. 160 baht/40,000 kip.
- Oudomphone Guesthouse 2 (a 3-min walk north of the BAP Guesthouse, on the right side of the road). Has double bedrooms with spotlessly clean floors and hot showers. There is a good, cheap restaurant and a small convenience/souvenir store on the premises. 80,000 kip.
- 1 Sabaydee Guesthouse (opposite Oudomphone Guesthouse). Good value. 90,000 kip twin with fan, 120,000 kip twin with AC (2018).
At the Houay Xai border crossing a tourist agent offers to help fill out visa forms and make arrangements for the slow boat and hotel in Pak Beng. However, he overcharges (asking 1,100 baht for the boat only) and does not really make the reservations he promises. Although you are paying premium prices at this "Customs" office for a room in Pak Beng, the rooms may have no windows and/or no water. There are many guest houses in Pak Beng. Carry your own gear from the wharf and check out the rooms (and the water) before you commit.
Internet and phone
There are now numerous "high-speed" Internet cafés in town. The going rate is 5,000 kip for 20 minutes.
If you have a Thai SIM card and have activated some of their Internet packages you can use this service. The signals of all Thai GSM networks reach across the Mekong and the locals often use a Thai number phone number in preference to a Lao one. There are many offerings of the Lao telecoms for data SIMs as well. Lao Telecom (M phone) has one offer for 1GB costing 50,000 kip that has to be used within a month.
- Long boat ferry across the river to Chiang Khong in Thailand is 10,000 kip. The boat guys are among the most pleasant transport providers in Laos. Be nice to them so it continues.
- A two-day (slow) boat ride to Luang Prabang. Arrive early to avoid being stuck in the engine room for the 8-hour ride. The official fare is announced at Immigration as being 70,000 kip but what you pay will depend on where you book:
- in Chiang Khong: 850 baht including transport to the ferry pier, ferry to Houay Xay, and transport to the slow boat pier
- near the ferry pier in Houay Xay: 800 baht
- at the slow boat pier: 760 baht (depending on your bargaining skills)
- In May 2017, at the slow boat pier, Houay Xay-Pakbeng-Luang Prabang is 215,000 kip which is a bargain for one of the most scenic trips in the world. There is no need to book ahead a 2-day ticket all the way to Luang Prabang in Huay Xay. You are better off just buying a ticket to Pakbeng (110,00 kip) and buy the next ticket to Luang Prabang when you get on the boat in Pakbeng (105,000 kip). See the Pakbeng page for more information on the slowboats.
- Speedboat to Luang Prabang. There seems to be a reluctance to take foreigners on the speedboat. You sit there watching as speedboat after speedboat leaves without you on them. The phrases "come back tomorrow" and "just wait, wait", are repeated a lot. If you are in a hurry, an extra payment may encourage an earlier departure. This is definitely not a means of transport to be relied on. It is a good idea to work out with your fellow boat passengers to remove the seat dividers in the fast boat which allow you more space to move around as long as you don't mind a bit of contact. It will be better than being jammed in one place for the whole trip. The speed boats have been pulling a scam where you are dropped off 10 km outside of Luang Prabang at a small bamboo dock. Refuse to get off here and force them to take you two minutes further down river to the Luang Prabang boat dock. If you are forced to get off before Luang Prabang, the tuk-tuk driver may demand up to USD15 per person. The cost should not be more than USD5 for everyone in your party, but the tuk-tuk is your only option into town.
- Mekong Cruises offers a 2-day slow boat cruise to and from Luang Prabang with overnight accommodation at Luang Say Lodge and a French and English speaking guide on board. The boat leaves Houay Xai from Oct to April on M, Th, F and Su, in May and Sept on M and F. There is no service in June. The boat leaves Houei Sai pier at 09:30. A stop is made to observe rural life along the Mekong and observe minorities. The journey to Pakbeng takes 7 to 8 hours, arriving in Pakbeng before sunset. On the secnd day the boat leaves at 08:00. A short stop is made to visit a hilltribe village where you can watch the traditional process of Lao whisky production. After lunch the boat stops at Pak Ou village at the mouth of the Nam Ou River, where you visit the Tam Thing Caves of a Thousand Buddhas. The boat arrives at Luang Prabang between 16:00 and 17:00. The upstream journey leaves Luang Prabang from Oct to Apr on Tu, W and Sa, in May and Sep on W and Sa. There is no service in June. The boat leaves Luang Prabang at 07:00 and arrives Houay Xai on the second day at 17:00, so that you can proceed to Chiang Ray on the same day. The cruise price is US$530 from Nov to Apr, US$450 in Jul, Aug and Oct, US$425 in May and Sept (2015).
- A special boat ride for Luang Namtha is also available for around 1,500,000 kip or 6,000 baht for the whole charter and can carry between 6-10 people (the boat carries fewer people at the end of the dry season, when the river is low).
- Buses to Luang Namtha leave in the morning at 09:00 and 12:30. The bus costs 60,000 kip if you get your ticket at the bus station. From BAP guest house for around 95,000 kip/350 baht you can get a ticket which includes a 10 min tuk-tuk ride from the guest house. The journey is 198 km and now takes 5-6 hours with one stop for lunch on the way. The road is now completely sealed (except for big sections in the middle which have been churned up by the trucks, this adds time to any journey). However, unexpected obstacles may still occur.
A VIP bus leaves at 17:00, for 90,000 kip from ticket agents in town, including tuk-tuk ride to the bus station. The ticket price is 60,000 kip at the bus station. It arrives in Luang Namtha around 21:30 (including nearly an hour delayed start, so could be quicker).
- There is a direct bus to Jinghong in China at 08:00, 150,000 kip at the bus station.
- Bus to Muang Xay leaves at 08:30, 85,000 kip for the distance of 330 km.
- Luang Prabang buses leave at 14:00 (120,000 kip) and 17:00 (145,000 kip since its a VIP bus); distance of 505 km. There's a local bus to Luang Prabang, USD14, 12-15 hours. The bus station is 7 km from the town. However, if you buy the ticket at the bus station rather than through your guesthouse or agent then the price is 110,000 kip. You are told the journey is 10 hours but can be 15 hours or more. Buses leave at 09:00, 14:00.
On the way to Luang Prabang, make a stop over at Hongsa in Sayaboury Province for an elephant ride. Elephant Adventures have 2-5 day elephant trekking on retrained logging elephants. These treks are supported by ElefantAsia NGO, focussed on elephant veterinary care, educational and environmental awareness, and economic viability for mahouts.
- Vientiane: one bus at 11:30, 230,000 kip to cover the 900 km.