Foreigners can get thirty-day Lao visas on arrival in Houayxai. As paying in baht is so unfavourable, gold shops (where the rates are often best), guesthouses and banks in Chiang Khong sell dollars. Hua Wiang pier, at the north end of town, is the departure point for frequent passenger ferries to Houayxai. These cross-river ferries are likely to be phased out when the new Mekong bridge, 8km downstream from Chiang Khong, is constructed. However, the project has experienced serious delays, so completion may still be some way off by the time you read this.
From Houayxai, there are buses to Luang Prabang, Vientiane, Luang Namtha and Oudomxai, but by far the most popular option is to catch a passenger boat to Luang Prabang. Usually departing between 10am and noon every morning, these glide down the scenic Mekong in two days, with an overnight and a change of boat at Pakbeng. The alternative is to take one of the cramped, noisy and dangerous speedboats, on which passengers should be provided with helmets and life jackets. These cover the same stretch in six to seven hours. From Houayxai’s cross-river pier, tuk-tuks will take you to the regular passenger-boat pier or the speedboat pier.
It’s easy to sort all of this out yourself and there’s really no need to pay commission to a Thai or Lao travel agent to book in advance.