Geographical position: 20° 16' N 100° 24' E
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.
Immigration: The immigration office is just a few metres from the ferry on the right and efficiently issues 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 USD1 fee for the visa on arrival.
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 new "Friendship IV Bridge" opened in 2014 and now you can drive by car from Thailand. The bridge is located 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. 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.
The 09:30 bus from Luang Namtha arrives at the bus station 2 km out of town at around 14:30. Tuk-tuks charge 10,000 kip to the border or guesthouse of your choice in town.
Upon arriving in Houay 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 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.
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 Go Next, 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 09:30 bus from Luang Namtha arrives at the bus station about 2 km out of town at around 14:30. Tuk-tuks charge 10,000 kip to the border or guesthouse of your choice in 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.
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.
- Fort Carnot. On top of the hill, dominating the Mekong, the French colonial-era Fort Carnot era has undergone some conservation work. One of the tower can be climbed, providing a good view on the Mekong. 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 favourite playground of western powers for decades.
- The Gibbon Experience (On main street). A forest conservation project that raises funds by 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 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. Due to its increasing popularity prices have recently increased. 2 days/1 night: 1,400,000 kip, 3 days/2 nights: 2,300,000 kip.
- 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. To get there, 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 turning). 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 Austrian bank, as of May 2015)
Most of the guest houses also provide simple meals. 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 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 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. Unfortunately, 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.
- 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. 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. USD10+.
- Manirath Guesthouse (Next to the soi that goes to the ferry). Clean and good value. 160 baht/40,000 kip.
- Oudomphone Guesthouse 2 (It's 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. USD10+.
- Sabaydee Guesthouse (Opposite Oudomphone Guesthouse). Good value. 90,000 kip.
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. Although you are paying premium prices at this Houay Xai "Customs" office for a room in Pak Beng, the 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.
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 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)
- In Sep 2011, prices seem to be up: at the slow boat pier, Houay Xay-Luang Prabang is 220,000 kip or 900 baht. In Jan 2012 the price from Luang Prabang was at least 250,000 kip (about €25) which is a bargain for one of the most scenic trips in the world.
- 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", is 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. Keep in mind, recently 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 keep in mind 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 Englsih speaking guide on board. The boat leaves Houay Xai from Oct to April on Mon, Thu, Fri and Sun, in May and Sept on Mon and Fri. There is no service in June. The boat leaves Houei Sai pier at 9.30am. 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 Tue, Wed and Sat, in May and Sep on Wed and Sat. 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).
- 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 (around USD12). You are told the journey is 10 hours but can be 15 hours or more, so be prepared. Buses leave at 09:00, 14:00 and a VIP bus at 17:00 (135,000 kip).
- A special boat ride for Luang Namtha is also available for around 1,500,000 kip /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 75,000 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.
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.