HOUAYXAI, sandwiched between the Mekong and a range of hills, is for many visitors their first introduction to Laos, lying across the river from Thailand. It was long an important crossroads for Chinese merchants from Yunnan, who, driving caravans of pack-ponies laden with tea, silk and opium, would pass through Houayxai on their way south to Chiang Mai, and again on the return north with their loads of gold, silver and ivory. Today, Chinese goods are still much in evidence, but exotic cargoes of silks and opium have been replaced by dirt-cheap hand tools and brittle plastic wares that are floated down the Mekong by the barge-load.
Houayxai’s only real sight is Wat Chom Khao Manilat, situated atop a hill, and reached by stairs across the road from the ferry landing. The gaudy modern sim is barely worth doing a lap around, but the adjacent, tall, Shan-style building, which was originally a sim but is now being used as a classroom for novice monks, is made of picturesquely weathered teak. Behind the modern sim is a collection of heuan pha, literally “cloth houses”, built to store belongings of the dead. Originally, these homes for the spirits were fashioned from cloth or mulberry paper, but nowadays many are constructed from plywood – a practice unique to parts of northern Laos and northern Thailand. The top of the stairway leading up to the monastery from the main road is a perfect place to watch the sun set.
There’s a traditional Lao herbal sauna run by the Red Cross, located just past the wooden bridge as you go north up the main road.
Most tourists hurry through Houayxai, either rushing through to Thailand at the end of their visas or entering from Chiang Khong and immediately heading downriver by slow boat. Despite being a border town, it’s not completely devoid of charm, though the main reason to stop here now is to take part in the acclaimed Gibbon Experience.Read More
The Gibbon Experience
The Gibbon Experience
One of the country’s pioneering eco-tourism projects takes place just outside of Houayxai in Bokeo Nature Reserve, a pristine area of jungle that had previously been unexplored by tourists. The acclaimed Gibbon Experience (t084/212021, wwww.gibbonexperience.org) is unlike anything else on offer in Laos, and has quickly become a must-do among backpackers (and others), despite its rather high price tag. Groups of no more than eight spend two nights in the reserve, on one of two trips – “Waterfall”, which involves two to three hours of trekking a day and thus gets you further into the reserve, and “Classic” which is a little more relaxed, with only an hour of walking. Each tour runs on alternate days.
Regardless of which tour you do, days are spent zip-lining through the forest canopy (an exhilarating experience) and exploring the reserve (with guides), while nights are spent in the specially crafted tree houses. Guides can be a little hit and miss, but most people say that the overall experience makes up for this. Don’t expect to see the eponymous gibbons, however, though you may hear them calling in the early morning.
Bookings should be made by telephone or in person at the Houayxai office (on the main street); the price includes all meals, accommodation, local guides and transportation to and from Houayxai.
Down the Mekong
Down the Mekong
Originally, the Mekong’s slow boats (heua sa) were primarily for cargo and the occasional Lao passengers who relied on them for trade and transport in a part of Laos where roads are sometimes impassable. Since the Lao government eased travel restrictions allowing foreigners to ride these antiquated diesel-powered boats, thousands of tourists have made the two-day journey between Houayxai and Luang Prabang (and vice versa), stopping overnight at the village of Pakbeng.
Many travellers agree that the journey is one of those definitive Southeast Asian experiences. The riverbanks along the Mekong are sparsely populated, though the forest is not as pristine as one might imagine. Logging and decades of slash-and-burn agriculture have left their mark, and, on the more accessible slopes and summits, trees have been supplanted by rows of corn stalks and banana plants. Of as much interest are the glimpses into local village life. Fisher-folk utilizing bamboo fish-traps and prospectors panning for gold can be seen among the sandbars and jagged rocks that make this stretch of the Mekong a treacherous obstacle course. Along the way, boats often call briefly at tiny villages situated at confluences, and the villagers take the opportunity to hawk fish, game and other local products to passengers and crew.
The boats usually carry far more passengers than there are seats – take a cushion with you if possible, which will really make a difference on the long journey, as well as plenty of drinks and snacks. Turn up at the boat landing as early as you can – you may need to sign up in advance so check locally what the situation is.
A couple of luxury tourist boats also make the journey up the Mekong, the pick of which is Luang Say (wwww.luangsay.com), run by the same company as Luang Say Lodge in Pakbeng. The price includes overnight accommodation in Pakbeng, meals and drinks, plus stops at Pak Ou Buddha Cave and minority villages along the way. If you can afford the splurge, its definitely worth it to do this wonderful journey in more comfortable surroundings.
You’d be foolish to risk your life travelling the river in one of the speedboats (heua wai) which also make the journey from Houayxai to Pakbeng (4hr) and Luang Prabang (6hr); crash helmets and life-vests are supposed to be provided, and don’t forget to bring earplugs.
Note that in February 2010, water levels in the Mekong were so low that boats were suspended for a few weeks – those that did run often ended up with tourists having to camp on riverbanks and in nearby villages when the boat couldn’t make it as far as Pakbeng for the night. There seems to be no clear answer about whether it was due to low rainfall or Chinese dams further up the river limiting the flow, so it could certainly happen again. If it does, your best option is to take the bus back to Luang Prabang, rather than risk a very slow, uncomfortable and potentially dangerous journey.