A Little Town on the Mekong

The view from the old French fort…

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.

I booked the Thaveesinh Hotel through Bookings.com for USD 20/night. I opted not to pay any advance and hoped that they will keep my reservation when I arrived. Somehow I think the hotel doesn’t even know about my reservation from Bookings.com based on my interaction with the staff.

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.

On the hotel’s counter was this price list of transport options to various parts of Laos, Thailand and even China. Interesting!
First views of Huay Xai from my hotel room. This is more or less the main street where most of the lodgings and restaurants/bars are located. Groups of backpackers can be seen walking up and down the street as they look for their gueshouses or a restaurant to get a meal.
The main road that leads into town. It’s a mix of Laos and Thai businesses which have set up shop here to cater to the tourist trade. Thai baht is widely accepted here in place of Kips, and my rudimentary grasp of basic Thai also helped me out here.
I did noticed that the people here take good care of their dogs. These furry mutts were getting rides on the back of motorbikes and scooters.
One of the more rustic sights is watching the local populace giving alms to the monks from the temple. The monks will gather to sing a benediction hymn after receiving alms. This feels so much more meaningful than the tourist spectacle in Luang Prabang.

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.

The Naga guarded stairs that lead up to Wat Chomkao Manilat is also the scene of the start of the morning alms giving ceremony. The ceremony here is not tainted by tourism and I was privileged to be the only outsider around to witness this.
The main hall of Wat Chomkao Manilat is at the top of a small hill.
Monks in discussion while overlooking the Mekong River and Thailand which lies across.
The temple also has a very ornate looking drum tower which you can climb to get a better view. The sign at the bottom of the tower says women are not allowed to climb the tower, although I think nobody was there to enforce it.

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.

Cottage industries like this woman making brooms out of bamboo are common here.

Fort Carnot

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.

A fallen tree lies at the entrance of Fort Carnot.
The main entrance used to be sealed to prevent entry but has since been opened. There is an actual Laos army camp just below the hill where the fort is, but nobody was around to ask why I was there.
Entering the fort compound, there is only an empty square overgrown with wild plants. I could hear multiple rustlings in the bushes as I walked across towards the tower. I’m not sure if the rustling came from mice or snakes, and I wasn’t keen to find out.
There is a metal and wooden stairs leading up to the top of the tower. The metal frame still looks and feels sturdy despite it’s rusty condition. But some of the wooden steps have rotted through and you should step carefully unless you want to fall through.
I did get a good view of the fort’s compound. Surrounding the fort now are a couple of new cell phone towers.
Of course I got a good view of Huay Xai itself. On the left is the Mekong River which forms a natural border between Thailand and Laos. Across the river is the Thai town of Chiang Khong.

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.

Wat Keophone Savanthanaram is supposed to be a unique Buddhist temple, because it has murals depicting people being tortured. I decided to satisfy my morbid curiosity as to why a Buddhist temple would have such murals.
The front of the temple seems pretty normal to me…
And so I found the violent murals on the side walls of the temple. Ok, these are actually scenes from the different chambers of Hell as depicted in Chinese mythology, where depending on what crimes you committed in your life, you will get punished accordingly. These images rate as PG13 to me. Come to Haw Par Villa in Singapore to see the M18 version of this.

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.

A bottle of ice cold Beerlao to cool down in the afternoon heat before I headed back to my hotel.
Watching the Sun set behind mountains from the roof top of my hotel was fantastic. The Thais are building a giant Buddha statue in Chiang Khong. Another tourist attraction to cater to the growing stream of tourists coming to this region.

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.

I had my dinner at this local restaurant which served mainly Thai dishes. I guess it’s opened by some Thai businessman. Prices are a bit more expensive here, but you do get a nice view of the Mekong and sunset while having dinner. And I could use my spare Thai baht to settle the bill.
Watching the sunset while having dinner and a cold beer.

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.

One of the well known bars along the street is Bar How? They have a range of flavoured Lao whiskey out on the bar counter. Seeing the jars of fruit and spices marinating in whiskey is kind of fascinating and somehow reminds me of those old Chinese medicine shops in Chinatown.
I decided to try a shot of lychee flavoured whiskey. Verdict: It was sweet with a strong lychee taste. For 10,000 Kips a shot, you can drink the whole night here.

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.

6 thoughts on “A Little Town on the Mekong

  1. Oh my can you imagine if the hotel tells you that not only did they not know about your booking but they also have no room that day😓 your pictures are beautiful and the sunset view from your hotel was simply amazing.

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