Houay Xai (also Huay xai, Houei Sai, etc) is the capital of the Laos province of Bokeo. It lies on the banks of the Mekong river, which forms the border to Thailand.
Geographical position: 20° 16' N 100° 24' E
View over the Mekong to Houay Xay
For most tourists it is seen as a transport stop-over, which is quite a pity. While there is not much to see in this small town, it's a good place to adapt to the Lao lifestyle: sit on the banks of the Mekong, have a Beerlao and watch the river flow past.
Immigration: The Lao immigration office is located 10 km south of town, and issues 30-day Visas-on-Arrival (around 35 USD, depending on nationality, or 1,500 baht. The cost in Euros tends to be the same as the dollar cost, with Lao authorities ignoring exchange rate differentials). A passport-sized photo is needed and this can be obtained in Chiang Khong,Thailand, before crossing the bridge in Chiang Khong 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 there is an extra $1 "weekend-fee" for the visa on arrival. During weekdays after 16.00 pm there is also extra charge of $1, called "overtime fee". It also applies for nationals who dont need lao visa. "Overtime/weekend fee" seems to be official now, with a printed notice on the counter referring to it. Its often possible to avoid this fee by arguing with the officials or just walking out fast once you get your stamp, but at the end of the day it's only $1.
Crossing the border Lao/Thailand
Since December 2013, crossing the border is done via the new friendship bridge 4.
The Lao border control is located 10 km south of town, tuk-tuk are available.
You must take a bus (25B/pax, 40B in weekend and after 4pm) 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 over the friendship bridge. You also have to take a bus, transporting your bike on the bus costs 100B 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 B instead of 125B per person + bicycle). The bicycle will be transported inside the bus.
The Thai border control is located 9 km south of Chiang Khong, tuk-tuk also available.
Tuk-tuk from Lao border control to the Huay Xai bus station/city center should be 10 000 kip but they will try to ask you for 25 000 kip. Walking out of the immigration complex and hitching passing tuk-tuk would return price to normal 10Kkip, but be careful, outside of high season you may be hard-pressed to find another tuk-tuk for miles..
You can drive from Vientiane on the haunting road. If you want to touch how "haunting" it is, you have to drive at night. There will be no buildings and lights, and sometimes with the tall trees on the side (scary when you drive at night).
Houay Xai's tiny airport has service three times a week to/from Vientiane on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. Until November 2010 there was one flight a week to Luang Prabang on Saturdays, but none in the other direction. There is talk that this flight will resume.
There are two bus stations. Keo Champa is somewhat more that 5 km south of the tourist strip. Pet Aloun is maybe 6km south. With another 5km or so further south to the border. A full list of bus times from each station can be seen on the front door of the tourist office in town.
The 9:00am bus from Luang Namtha arrives at the Keo Champa bus station (5 km from the border) at around 1:00pm. Likewise the 12:30pm bus gets in about 4:00pm. Tuk-tuks charge 10,000 kip to the border or guest house of your choice in town. (note - September 2015 Tuk-tuks charge whatever they think they can get away with. Walking to the border is a sweaty option. Most tourists seem happy to pay whatever.)
Upon arriving in Houay Xai, you might 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". The ticket price will be infalted to 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 Houay Xai for at least a day, simply 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 Chiang Rai, take one of the hourly bus from the provincial bus station in town (65B; 2h30; start at 6am), ask to be dropped at the intersection with the road to the friendship bridge, 4km before Chiang Khong, where some tuk-tuk will wait to bring you to the Thai border control (50B/pax; 5 km)
There is a daily sleeper bus Houay Xai to Kunming for 320 yuan, leaving around 9-10 am (Jan 2013) It is not operating for few days during Chinese New Year. It is fast, comfortable and cheap way to get to Kunming.
Ferries crossings between Chiang Khong, Thailand and Houay Xai are no longer available. Crossing occurs via the bridge instead.
By slow boat
The slow boat is mainly used to leave Houay Xai as the journey moving upstream is usually just too long for most people. See GET OUT, below, for details. The pier is 1 km north of town, where the truck-carrying ferry barges also dock.
Read the warning about speedboats first. The speedboat landing is some 5 km south of town.
- The 9:30AM bus from Luang Namtha arrives at the bus station about 2 km out of town at around 2:30PM. The tuk-tuks cost 10,000 kip to the border or any guesthouse in the town. Local tickets can be bought online via Pombai.
You can rent a bicycle from Little Hostel for day or hours.
You can walk the main street. For longer distances take a song thiaw - which is called a tuk-tuk here. A one-way fare to the Chinese morning market should cost 10,000 kip.
View from temple complex in Houay Xai, about 2 miles south of river crossing. Looking downstream.
See sunset over the Mekong river from a riverside restaurant. See the view from the temple tower at the top of the hill on the main street, near the border crossing.
- Pay a visit to the market. This is commonly known locally as the Morning Market and the best time to visit is early morning. The market is in the suburb of Ban Muangkeo. To get there, follow the main road south 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 for directions to make sure you don't take the wrong turning.
- Fort Carnot. On top of one of the hills in the center of the town is the ruins of the French colonial-era Fort Carnot. One of the towers can be climbed up for a good view around. (note:September 2015 the fort is re-opening after being closed, locked and overgrown). You can continue along the road down the other side of the hill to the Muang Keo market above. (20.271874,100.415243) edit
- On main street, there is the office of The Gibbon Experience. This is a forest conservation project that raises its funds through taking guests into the Bokeo Nature Reserve. Every other day there is a truck covering the 3.5 hours to the last village, where you start your hike to the project. Accommodation is provided in terrific treehouses which are constructed on giant trees over 40 m high. To access the houses, you glide on a cable from the surrounding hill range. There is an extensive cable network being set up to explore the canopy, providing breathtaking views of the scenery and probably due to its increasing popularity prices have recently increased.
- Also on the main road, is the office of New Challenge Discovery . A team of young Lao people organizing day trips in Bokeo Province (kayak, trekking, cycling, etc.). All the fund raised are used to help and support the children in Huay Xai countryside, providing opportunities to study English. Future plans include forest protection and education. If you come for the Gibbon Experience, then spend one day more with New Challenge Discovery.
- Visit Daauw Village, located right at the city center next to the Temple. Getting off the beaten track, doing something original, leaving something behind for the local Lao people, at Daauw Village you also easily adapt to the traditional way of Lao Life and will get a deeper understanding of the Lao Culture by being part of their welcoming community. At Daauw you can join the locals around the campfire and have traditional foods in the evenings, teach English in the afternoons or join one of the many local workshops this place offers to the Lao people in the mountains. There is a Restaurant and Lounge Cafe, called Daauw Home. You can choose to do Daauw Volunteering and Daauw Trips to the villages where you will join the Team doing Creative Workshops. There is also a Woman Empowerment Shop and Workplace. If you want to have a unique experience and want to avoid the typical tourist trek, you should not skip visiting Daauw Village, owned and run by the poorest people of this area in the mountains. All profits of their activities go straight to the Lao people of the mountains.
- Visit sauna, which belongs to "Red Cross" and has quite a low ticket price (something like 2 or 3$). Massage service is provided in the sauna building (not expensive) and herbal teas. To find the sauna walk by the main road (along the river) from the village center (Lao-Thai ferry and Wat Chomkao Manilat) to the North and after crossing a bridge over a stream look at the left. Coordinates must be 20.2815, 100.4095. Don't be confused with the "Red Cross" itself, located at a different place.
The most important thing to buy is something to eat & drink for the slow-boat journey to Luang Prabang, although nowadays snacks and drinks are available on most boats. Food is not great but acceptable, expect crisps, beer, soft drink and water on all slowboats. The restaurants in Pakbeng are all open by 6am and can provide fresh baguettes and bakery goods prior to boarding the final journey to Luang Prabang.
- Money: There's a small bank office offering change for cash and travellers' cheques just next to the immigration office. It has no commission and good rates, the best rates can be found opposite . 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, especially if you can obtain an Aeon ATM (nearest: Chiang Rai) which is the only bank in Thailand not having the extra THB150 withdrawal fee.(Aeon banks charge now 150THB withdrawal fees May 17th 2014) . There's an ATM in the main road down south just in front of the Lao PDR party administration where is it possible to withdraw more than 1 million kipp, it's the red one (there are two).
Most of the guest houses also provide simple meals. The restaurant next door to the Gibbon Experience office is home of the ex-pat crowd in town. It has a nice garden restaurant and terrace overlooking the Mekong river.
Along the water, on the main road, about 1km south of border check there is an 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.
- Daauw home, (at the crossing to the passenger pier halfway up the temple stairs, go left for about 100m and it is on your right side). Terrace overlooking the Mekong river with Campfire right on the terrace; bar and restaurant run by Kajsiab Initiative that seeks to empower the Mountain People in Bokeo Province. Dinner 15,000-50,000 you can adjust the menu according to your own taste and budget; beer, herbal teas and Fresh Mojilaos available in the drinks department. Nice setting around the fire or on the verandah, very relaxing atmosphere. They also have bungalows and a shelter for the mountainpeople. There are volunteering possibilities and there is a Woman Empowerment Shop edit
- Dream Bakery, (from ferry pier down to right on main street). Bakery and cafe, nice brownies and good bread! The iced chocolate is really good. edit
- Khongvab Duck BBQ, (20m further past Sabaydee Guesthouse on the opposite side.). From 14:00 to 17:00. For all those tired of chicken and pork. Popular with locals and delicious! Evening only. When the Duck is on the BBQ you can't miss it. edit
- The Latsuly Return. Restaurant overlooking the slow boat wharf and truck ferry - a nice place to watch the world go by. edit
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.
Bar How on the main road offers nice surrounds, good food and a reasonable array of cocktails and spirits if you're looking for something beyond the ubiquitous Beer Lao.
Daauw Home, halfway up the templestairs to the left, is just a 5 minute walk to feel and breathe in nature and mountain atmosphere with a beautiful verandah overlooking the Mekong, nice relaxing music and passionate efforts to empower the mountain people of northern Laos.
- BAP Guesthouse. Funny owner speaking a little of every language. They have from the basic accommodation (300bath/80000kip) to nice wooden rooms (500bath/130kip), all with private bathroom. Wi-Fi available. Minivan to Luan Namtha for 90000kip each from the guesthouse.
- Friendship Guesthouse (dont confuse with Friendship Guesthouse2 150m further south) is a family run guesthouse located in the central strip of town. Rooms are available as double or single and all have private bath with hot water. The building's tiled rooftop balcony provides panoramic views of the city and neighbouring Chiang Khong across the Mekong River. Room rates 50000-60000 kip/night.
- Manirath Guesthouse right next to the soi that goes to the ferryboat to Thailand. Doubles with attached Bathroom from 160 Baht/40000 Kip. Clean and good value. note: as of September 2015 no trace of this Guesthouse.
- Gateway Villa Hotel, (On the right, at the top of the hill leading up from immigration). free WiFi for hotel or restaurant customer. Coordinates: N20° 16.601 E100° 24.689 from USD 10. (20.276689,100.41147709) edit
- Oudomphone Guesthouse 2. has double-bed rooms with spotlessly clean floors and hot-water showers /night. It's a 3-minute walk north of the BAP guesthouse, on the right-hand side of the road. There is a good, cheap restaurant and a small convenience/souvenir shop. Coordinates: N20° 16.686 E100° 24.671 from USD 10. (20.2781,100.411183) edit
- Sabaydee Guest House, (After getting off the Laos - Thai Border Cross Ferry walk up to the main street and turn left and walk 170m). Opposite Oudomphone Guest House and of a good standard, fan and/or air-con, double/twin bed rooms available. Make sure about room rates or pay in advance. Wifi as irreliable as to be expected in small Lao town, when it works you can use it in lobby, first and second floor roadside areas. Coordinates: N20° 16.688 E100° 24.651 (Update 2011-12) 90,000 Kip during high season, 70-80,000 Kip during low season. 90,000 Kip. (20.278139119,100.410854819) edit
- Daauw Home, (at the crossing to the passenger pier halfway up the temple stairs, go left for about 100m and it is on your right side), ☎ +856 309041296, . 3 beautiful wooden bungalows whit shower and toilet inside and a balcony with hammock. Also 1 tent is available. The attached restaurant has a relaxing terrace overlooking the Mekong River. Because it is halfway up only a five minute walk but just above the increasingly busy main street you feel you have actually arrived in the valleys and mountains of Laos. All profits go to their Woman Empowerment Activities for the Ethnic Minorities in the Mountains of Laos. Coordinates: N20° 16.675 E100° 24.702 (Update 2013-05) 60,000 to 80,000 kip. (20.27792084,100.41170577) edit
Houay Xai Rip Off to Pak Beng
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.In fact, although paying premium prices at this Houay Xai "Customs" office for a room in Pak Beng, rooms may have no windows and/or no water. There are many many guest houses in Pak Beng. Carry your own gear from the wharf and check out the rooms (and the water) before you commit.
2 days slow boat from Houay Xai to Luang Prabang through Pak Beng
A scam that consist saying everybody that the boat leaves at 11am from Pakbeng while the boat leaves around 9am makes a few people missing the boat. There is then a possibility to take another boat at 11am for 200 000 kip, this money goes to the scammer while the boat driver is paid normaly. Make sure saying everybody the slowboat leaves around 9am and publicly contradict the liar in the boat.
Internet and phone
There are now numerous "high-speed" Internet cafés in town. The cost is around 5,000 kip for 20 minutes.
At Gateway Villa hotel, they charge 5,000 kip for one hour. It's pre-paid by the hour so don't forget to sign out of your e-mail and bank accounts or else the next person can access them.
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, you must call 101 to register your SIM and then again afterwards to activate the data service. Unitel 64K is a popular SIM sold in electronic shops but is not 3G-capable, look for mPhone/Lao Telecom 3G which costs 10,000 Kip and includes 10,000 Kip free credit upon activation. APN: ltcnet
- Long boat ferry across the river to Chiang Khong in Thailand is no longer available. Crossing to Chiang Khong can only be done overland through new immigration office/bridge 10 KM south of town. From Huay Xai town or bus station a songthaw/minibus to the border is 10,000/15,000 kip. Once you pass Laos Immigration you can take a shuttle bus the 2KM to Thai immigration for 20 Baht. From Laos immigration a tuk tuk to Chiang Kong is 50 Baht with min 4 people, more for less than 4 people. A ticket counter is also selling border to downtown for white songteow for 60B per person.
- A two day (slow) boat ride to Luang Prabang. Arrive early to avoid being stuck in the incredibly loud (think: conversation hardly possible) engine room or don't get a seat on the overcrowded ride. It takes 8 hours plus ride to the half way point at Pakbeng. As of April 2013 the fare Hooay Xai to Pakbeng is 110,000 kip, and 220,000 kip to Luang Prabang when bought at the boat port. Buying tickets from travel agents in the town will generally cost you considerably more (approx 950 baht or 250,000 kip) to Luang Prabang, though the Dream Bakery advertises tickets for 220,000 kip/normal price. Typical slow boats have a capacity of 75 seats not including engine room and rear kitchen/smokers room. The slowboat to Laung Prabang from Pakbeng no longer stops in the city center/Cross River Ferry (since July 2013) disembarking 7.5km North of Luang Prabang, government ticket officers charge 20,000 Kip per person for drivers to take you to the city center, there is no group discount. Best advice is to be dropped off at city center (Kitsalat Road and Chao Fa Nhum Road) near hostels, guesthouses and resorts.
- in Chiang Khong: 850 baht incl. 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. Houay Xay - Luang Prabang is fixed price of 220,000 Kip or 900 baht. The price from Luang Prabang is at least 250,000 kip, which is a bargain for one of the most scenic trips in the world.
- Mekong Smile Cruise offers a special two day slow boat trip from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang and also from Luang Prabang to Houay Xai. We make a stop to visit Khmu and Hmong villages and the Pak Ou Caves with thousands of Buddha images. Thirty people are allowed per boat so arrive early. Accomodation and food is provided. Prices are between $150 and $165, with discount for children.
- Speedboat to Luang Prabang. There seems to be a real 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", is repeated a lot. If you are in a hurry use your money to kick things into a higher gear and make demands that you leave. 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. Keep in mind, recently the speed boats have been pulling a scam where you are dropped off 10km 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 as much as $US15, but you should not need to pay $US5 for everyone, however bear in mind he ia the only ride into town.
- A special boat ride for Luang Namtha is also available for around 1,500,000 kip / 6,000 baht for the whole charter. It can carry between 6 - 10 people, but fewer in the end of the dry season when the river is low.
- Buses from Houay Xai international bus station: Chiang Khong 08:00, 09:00, 16:00, 17:00, 8000 kip. The driver will not go into Chiang Khong town but will hand you your luggage before Thai Immigration; Chiang Rai 08:00, 09:00, 16:00, 17:00, 57000 kip (same bus as per Chiang Khong/Chiang Rai); Mengla 08:30, 120000 kip; Jinghong 09:00, 190000 kip; Kunming 10:30, 420000 kip; Dien Bien Phu 19:30 212000 kip; Hanoi 16:00, 450000 kip (schedule from 01/2014)
International bus station is about 1 km from normal bus station, 15 min walking. Both of the bus stations are half way between the city center and international bridge, about 5 km to each.
- From Houay Xai to Chiang Khong you can use international buses Houay Xay - Chiang Rai, it will bring you to immigration on the Thai side for just 8000 kip or 30B, but only 4 trips per day(8am, 9am, 4pm, 5pm). If you've missed this, you need to take tuk-tuk to the border (not more than 10000 kip/person), shuttle bus across the bridge (10000 kip) and tuk-tuk / hitchhike to Chiang Khong. Alternatively right after Thai immigration point, there is a counter selling songteow ticket 60B to downtown Chiang Khong. The international bus are jointly operated by both countries. You can take these international buses all the way on to Chiang Rai, but its more expensive (225B or 57000kip) than local non-aircon bus Chiang Khong to Chiang Rai that are around 65B. For changing to non-aircon bus, you need to get to the main road (2 km from immigration) and wait passing local red bus there.
- There's a local bus to Luang Prabang, US$14, 12-15 hours. The bus station is 7km from the town. However, if you buy the ticket at the bus station rather than through your guesthouse or agent then the price is 110000 kip (around $12US). You're likely be told the journey is 10 hours, but be warned that it can be more than 15 hours. Buses leave 9 am & 2 pm, wih a VIP bus at 5pm.
- Buses to Luang Namtha leave in the morning 9:00AM and 12:30PM. 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 198km and now takes around 4 hours on the local bus (only stopping when somebody makes it clear to the driver that they can't hold it longer). As at July 2012 the entire route was a well sealed, two lane road the entire way, (with no sign of previously mentioned damage from trucks) but still very windy.
- A VIP bus leaves at 5pm, for 90,000 kip from ticket agents in town, including tuk-tuk ride to the bus station. The ticket price is 75,000 kip at the bus station. It arrives in Luang Namtha around 9:30pm .
- There is a direct bus to Jinghong in China at 8AM, 150,000 kip at the bus station.
- Bus to Muang Xay leaves at 8:30AM, 85,000 kip for the distance of 330km.
- Luang Prabang buses leave at 8:30 (160,000 kip), 10:00 (145,000 kip) and 18:00 from the international bus station (information as of March 2016), distance 505km, travel time is around 12 hours. Tickets for the 18:00 bus might be sold out if you plan to buy them right before traveling.
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/environmental awareness and economic viability for mahouts.
- Vientiane one bus at 11:30AM, 230,000 kip to cover the 900km.
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