In a nutshell
For many tourists, Houay Xai is basically known as a place to stop off when traveling across the country. Most travellers stay in Houay Xai overnight having crossed over the border from Thailand, and then take a bus or a boat from the town to other destinations in Laos like Luang Prabang. This is a great shame however as although the town is relatively small, this is also a great place to relax and learn more about local life in Laos.
Why go to Houay Xai
The town is located on the leafy banks of the might Mekong River, and with that in mind it makes the ideal spot to kick back for a few days, have a few cold beers, and watch the world float by. Another great reason to linger longer in the area is to go to the Bokeo Nature Reserve and meet the gibbons as part of the Gibbon Experience, or you can spend time visiting the local villages on the outskirts of town.
When to go to Houay Xai
Compared with many other climates in Southeast Asia, Laos has two fairly distinct seasons. The first is the dry season which runs from October to April and the wet season which lasts from May to September. That said, there is no coastline in Laos to make the rainy season worse, so you can pretty much visit all year round without worrying about the weather too much. If you do visit from May to September however, then it may rain every day although showers are usually heavy and sharp, meaning that they rarely last more than a few hours.
Where to stay in Houay Xai
Despite the fact that Houay Xai is not really a tourist destination in its own right, it does have a lot of visitors traveling through it. For that reason, there is quite a good selection of accommodation in town, but this is most budget choices and local guesthouses.
You can easily get a room here for USD 10 per night in a hostel and in the low season some guesthouses have beds in dorm rooms for as low as USD 5. If you are looking for luxury or high end accommodation however then you may want to consider staying elsewhere as there is not much choice in Houay Xai. Most guesthouses, even the simple ones, usually have small cafes attached and come with hot water and Wi-Fi.
Where to eat in Houay Xai
You won’t find a huge selection of food choices in Houay Xai although most hotels and guesthouses also have small restaurants. Another good place to dine is along the river and the main road through town as there are a number of restaurants here that specialize in Lao Barbecue. This entails grilling and stewing your own meat and vegetables to make delicious barbecued bites mixed with a kind of hot pot. Barbecue is a big delicacy in town and in particular you should make sure not to miss out on the grilled duck which is served in a number of restaurants across Houay Xai.
When it comes to nightlife, there is not exactly a great party scene in Houay Xai but you will be able to find a number of bars and beer gardens here where you can get a few cold bottles of Beer Lao, or a cocktail at the end of a day’s sightseeing.
How to get around Houai Xai
If you are only going to explore the centre of town in Houay Xai then you can easily walk around on foot, especially along the river. If you want to venture a little further afield, then you can rent a bicycle from most hostels and guesthouses and get around that way. Another option when you are in town is to take a motorized trishaw known as a tuk-tuk which is a good choice if you want to visit areas on the edges of the town.
How to get to and from Houay Xai
Times when getting to Houay Xai from Thailand was an adventure in itself – you had to cross the Mekong River in a small wooden boat – are gone. Now most people get to Houay Xai by crossing over the Thai border using Friendship Bridge 4. To do this you can take a bus in Chiang Rai or the border town of Chiang Khong, and while some time ago it was possible to cycle across the bridge, this is now longer allowed. From the border, you can then take a motorized trishaw called a tuk-tuk to the main bus station in Houay Xai. Buses from Chiang Rai in Thailand run to Houay Xai four times daily at a cost of THB 220.
There is also an overnight sleeper bus from Houay Xai to Kunming and this is one of the most affordable ways to travel to China from Laos.
You can also get to Houay Xai by road from Vientiane, or you can take a bus. Keep in mind however that you may want to travel in the daytime as the road is mostly unlit in many areas and there are few buildings along the way which mean that you could be stranded overnight if there is a breakdown.
There is also a very small airport in Houay Xai which has flights from Vientiane three times a week.
Many people also choose to move on from Houay Xai with a trip to Luang Prabang using the slow boat which takes around two days. You can also take a boat to Pak Beng which takes around 8 hours and is the midway point between Houay Xai and Luang Prabang.
Is Houay Xai a safe place to visit?
There are a number of safety issues and scams at the border between Laos and Thailand that you need to be aware of. At the border crossing in Houay Xai you may find tourist agents (who are not official visa agents) who will help you fill out visa forms and ask you if you want to take a slow boat to Pak Beng. These agents however run a scam and will overcharge you for the boat fare.
Other issues include your luggage going missing when an agent offers to transfer it to the boat for you, so this is best avoided and you should go down to the main wharf and book a ticket yourself from one of the boat companies that operate here.