Ban Houayxay, also Huoeisay, Houei Sai or Huay Xai and, is the capital of the Lao province of Bokèo, on the border with Thailand. The town lies on the Mekong River opposite Chiang Khong in Thailand.
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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. Welcome to Laos!Welcome to Laos!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.Cool off.Cool off.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. Sunset moments.Sunset moments.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. Rounding out another day.Rounding out another day. 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.