It has been quite some time (at least ten years) since I was last in Huay Xai and I was surprised by just how little it had changed — at least from a traveller’s perspective. The hilltop wat still has a bunch of monkeys — including one on a lease that the monks were getting to fight with a dog — and the main drag is still home to a gaggle of guesthouses, travel agents and hole in the wall eateries.
In comparison, the boat trip hasn’t changed one iota — costs a bit more now (30B per person and another 10B if you have luggage — dare I ask who doesn’t?) but it’s otherwise the same old one minute spin across the Mekong’s waters. Immigration is open from 08:00 to 18:00 and it is worth getting there early if you want to avoid long queues at the visa on arrival counter.
I’d neglected to get a visa beforehand and regretted it as soon as I tried to, well, get one on arrival. Despite being the first arrival of the day it still took a good 45 minutes to get that sorted out — if you can, get your Lao visa beforehand — and make sure you have the US cash (US$30 for most nationalities) as if you pay in Baht you get a very special exchange rate — special for the immigration staff — not at all special for you.
Once through I took a wander up the main drag and found a handy little soup stand just after the Lao Airlines office for a steaming morning breakfast. The lady that whipped it up was friendly enough, but she then sat opposite me for most of the meal eating chillies and baby tomatoes, while spitting on the floor and smiling at me. Odd.
I’m hanging out in Huay Xai rather than moving on as am hoping to meetup with M this afternoon fresh out of the monkey-project, so another wander up and down the drag found me some very comfortable lodgings at the Guesthouse Sabaydee. A top floor room with hot water (so they say) TV and a view over the river for 400B — certainly not the cheapest in town, but very very clean and they seem to be a friendly enough bunch. Only thing missing is the WiFi!
Down checking email I heard on the Twitter-vine that one of the slowboats from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang had sunk yesterday — furthermore all the boats were now cancelled. It seemed odd as when I wandered by earlier it appeared backpackers were being rustled up for the boats, but, after further enquiries it did appear one of the boats — a flasher offering than the standard backpacker boats — had had some issues. I asked a couple of travel agents — both said no more boats — heading north (to Xieng Kok) or south (to Pakbeng and Luang Prabang), while regarding the particular happening, one said that yes the boat had sunk, while the other just that it was “broken” — which brought to mind the thought, how does a broken boat float? A further comment on Twitter, that the boat had snapped in half, answered the question — it doesn’t.
Anyway, importantly, the swirling rumour-pool suggested that while there were some injuries, there were no fatalities. Further discussions with yet another travel agent (who, by the way, happily volunteered that there is absolutely nothing to do in Huay Xai), suggested that it was still possible to do the boat trip but that a boat change at each set of rapids was required and that the trip may take “more days” — rather glad I’m heading north.
Rounding off what was a pretty eventful morning by Huay Xaian standards, I went for a great lunch at the oddly named “BarHow?” vaguely reminiscent of Angkor What? in Siem Reap but similarities aside, the food is great. My very generously-sized chicken larp and sticky rice at 30,000 kip wasn’t the cheapest in town, but was nevertheless very good. And they’ve got a winelist — difficult to fault.
So what does the afternoon hold? Not a lot. A bit more walking and from Chiang Khong there looked to be a large restaurant with a terrace down the other side of town that I’ll go search for once the heat backs off as it could be an ideal place for a couple of afternoon BeerLaos. Then an earlyish evening and off to Luang Nam Tha tomorrow.
Parting comments — don’t listen to the touts in Thailand — don’t make the mistake of buying your Lao bus or boat tickets in Thailand — they’re around 200B cheaper on this side of the border and stories of lack of availability are rubbish.