Crossing the Mekong at Thailand’s Chiang Kong to Huay Xai, Bokeo province Laos, is a casual experience. Checkout of Thailand, hand 20 baht to the sampan pilot, putter across, and check into Laos. It’s hard to believe you’ve also just made it through two international customs points.

It seems few travellers want to hang around Huay Xai, preferring instead to jump on the slowboat to Luang Prabang, or the truck to Luang Nam Tha. With its laid-back ambience and great view of the Mekong, however, Huay Xai is a great place to relax for a day or two while you ease yourself into Laotian life. It also forms a base for a day trip to Ban Nam Keung Kao, a half hour’s speed boat ride upriver, worth visiting for its hot springs and a waterfall.

Huay Xai appears to be a richer-than-average Laotian town, probably due to its proximity to neighbouring Thailand. Indeed, there was an intriguing mix of fans, refrigerators and other electrical appliances on sale at one of the restaurants we frequented. Nevertheless, in the dusty streets that criss-cross behind the main thoroughfare, modern housing gradually gives way to traditional Lao thatched bungalows. Pastel-coloured French colonial buildings, several now crumbling, give the town an overall eclectic mix of architecture.

While wandering around, check out the town’s temple, Wat Jorm Khao Manilat, situated at the top of a long flight of naga steps. With vivid, almost gaudy coloured murals decorating both the interior and exterior walls, the temple is redolent of Vietnamese Cao Dai. A little bewilderingly, they encompass the names of various American cities in Roman script. The late afternoon sun illuminated the interior murals especially beguilingly while we were there. While taking a peek at the tiny individual monks’ quarters located directly behind the temple, keep an eye out for a mischievous monkey that leaps and scratches and makes faces on a perch nearby.

One habit that’s essential to pick up while you’re in Laos is that of caffeine – so you may as well start in Huay Xai. Ubiquitous Lao coffee is addictive: usually served with two fingers of sweetened condensed milk languishing on the bottom, the brew is bitter but tempered to perfection by the saccharine milk. Do, however, remember to ask for ‘Lao karfae’, otherwise you will be served strong instant Nescafe – a very poor substitute. The arabica and robusta coffee beans grown on Laos’s Bolaven Plateau are sold for some of the highest prices on the world coffee market. Within Laos, however, you can expect to pay about 300 to 500 kip a glass.

Food, on the other hand, can be tricky to find in Huay Xai. The noodle shop opposite the Hotel Houei Sai, despite lowered awnings, does serve good food all through the day, while the Nutpop Muang Meau restaurant, a short walk away from the main street and recognisable by its thatched bungalow booths and fairy lights, is worth searching out. It serves a tantalising spicy beef laap.

There are a number of accommodation options. We stayed at the imaginatively named Hotel Houei Sai, located a block south of the temple, in a small and shabby room – the stunning vista from our window of the sunset over the Mekong, however, made it a pleasant choice. Later we discovered the excellent Arimid Guesthouse, situated across the road from the slowboat pier. With clean and spacious bungalows, it may go beyond being the best place in town and actually keep you there for longer than you expected. As an added bonus, the English- and French-speaking management are a veritable wealth of information.

From Huay Xai, charter a speedboat for the half hour ride to Ban Nam Keung Kao. Catching one is an experience in itself, as the boat slices and skates across the water, dodging precarious rocky outcrops and reaching speeds of up to eighty kilometres an hour. While motorcycle helmets are worn by some passengers, they are not always provided.

From Ban Nam Keung Kao we had heard it was possible to see some hot springs and a waterfall. Our boat pilot shook his head in consternation when we arrived there, however, telling us that it was a two hour return walk – far too long to spend in the escalating heat of the day. We headed up to the village anyway, where our pilot spotted a tractor. Within minutes, he had negotiated with the owner to take us there and back for a small sum.

A bumpy ride through laneways brightened by the vermillion of poinsettias, followed by a lengthy walk through yellowing post-harvest rice fields, and we were suddenly confronted with a strong sulfuric odour. The farmer pointed out the springs apologetically to us: as it was dry season, they were all of three, rather green, centimetres deep! Perhaps to show us things really were exciting afterall around Ban Nam Keung Kao, the boat pilot spotted a two-metre snake alongside a paddy wall. A few hair-raising minutes later, it was dead and neatly wrapped in a large leaf, ready to be taken home for dinner.

Another half hour trek and the farmer found the gushing waterfall in an isolated spot. More impressive than the waterfall, however, were the men who had floated thick logs of firewood from further upriver, heading for the village. They tossed the great chunks of wood over the cataract, before scaling the rocks and plunging in themselves to guide the chunks along.

As the sun slipped steadily behind the mountainous bank and shadows lengthened, we declined the hospitable offer of snake for dinner: the speedboats were thrilling enough during the day, let alone under a cover of darkness. With ‘Chok dees!’ all round, we headed back downriver to our guesthouse, where we savoured what had turned out to be an intriguing introduction to Laos.


Getting There: There are regular buses in Thailand from both Bangkok and Chiang Mai to Chiang Khong, from where you cross the river into Huay Xai.
Getting Away: Slowboats leave for Pak Beng daily between 8:30 and 10:00 am.
Accommodation: The Huay Xai Hotel has double rooms for 180 baht, while the Arimid Guesthouse has doubles with cold water for 8000 kip, or with hot water for 10000 kip. There is no accommodation at Ban Nam Keung Kao.

/ Travel