If you’ve been following my series of posts on Laos, I have traveled from Luang Prabang to the border town of Huay Xai in the northwest of Laos. You’d probably never heard of Huay Xai, but this small backwater town is rather significant as it serves as the main entry point from Thailand’s northern region into Laos, and at the same time is also one of the gateways into the Golden Triangle.
For most travelers, Huay Xai is only a footnote in their journeys around South East Asia. It’s basically a backpackers’ town, and serves as a transit point between getting from Laos to the cities of Chiangmai or Chiangrai in Thailand. From the other direction, travelers from Thailand come to Huay Xai as this is the start point of the slow boat cruises on the Mekong towards Luang Prabang. And for some other visitors, they come here to join in The Gibbon Experience which is an ecotourism venture in Laos. Most travelers stay 1-2 nights just to pass time to catch the next bus or slow boat onto their next destination.
From my previous post on taking the overnight bus from Luang Prabang to Huay Xai, I now found myself dropped off in front of my hotel very early in the morning at 6.30am. A surly front desk staff came to attend to me. He looked like he had just woken up and wasn’t happy about a guest checking in during the early dawn hours.
Nevertheless, I told him about my booking which he didn’t bother to check, but he let me check in after I paid him USD 60 for 3 nights stay. Obviously, the hotel wasn’t full, since this was considered one of the more upscale lodgings. Most backpackers stay at the various guesthouses which cost less than USD 10/night, but you have to make do with no air-conditioning and shared toilets/baths.
My booking with The Gibbon Experience was for the next day, so I had the whole day to explore Huay Xai. But before that, I had some time to get breakfast and a quick nap to make up for the lack of sleep that I got on the overnight bus.
Catering more to the transient traveler than trying to become a proper attraction itself, there’s not much to see in Huay Xai. But if you bother to dig deeper, there are some gems to be found.
Wat Chomkao Manilat
This is the main temple of the town and on top of a small hill behind my hotel. There is a nice view of the Mekong River and Thailand from the temple and it’s drum tower.
From Wat Chomkao Manilat, there is a wooden hand written sign that points the way to Fort Carnot. This is the other main attraction in Huay Xai, so I decided to follow the sign’s direction.
If you are wondering, this fort has a French name and it was built by the French in 1900 after Laos became part of French Indochina. The fort never saw action and housed a small regiment of 30 French officers and Laos troops. The Laos army took over the fort after Laos became independent in 1954. But it has been abandoned for some time and only ruins remain. Fort Carnot is thought to be one of the best preserved colonial forts in Laos, as most others have been destroyed.
When I visited Fart Carnot I was the only visitor there, and it can be rather eerie even in the blazing bright afternoon Sun. From what I read, it’s haunted, and at times the hairs on my arm were standing on end. So, best not to come here alone, and only if you are interested in abandoned places.
From Fort Carnot, it’s a downhill walk back towards town. Along the way I decided to stop at another temple that was mentioned in an online guide.
Well, that’s more or less what you can do in Huay Xai. I decided to skip the morning market, since I have already seen something similar in Luang Prabang, and didn’t want to wake up early just for it.
Getting Something to Eat
You won’t go hungry in Huay Xai despite it’s backwater status. There are numerous mom and pop restaurants catering to the backpacker crowd, so you can easily find cheap food here. All of them will serve Laos, Thai and Western dishes.
One of the local specialties that you can try is the local moonshine known as Lao Lao. It’s fermented rice wine similar to the Chinese Bai Jiu. But here in Huay Xai, they have infused the spirit with fruit and spice flavours.
That’s my first impression of Huay Xai. It’s rustic and the whole town basically shuts down by 9.00pm. For most people, they would find this really boring. But culturally, I found it interesting as it truly reflected the local life and culture, and was not tainted by mass tourism.