If entering Laos from Northern Thailand, intending to make your way to Luang Prabang by way of the Mekong River, then Huay Xai will be your first glimpse of the country. This busy little port, which sits frantically on the banks of the river, is at the crossroads of three countries and is also the capital of the province of Bokeo.
Mule caravans used to pass through here on their way from Yunnan Province in southern China to the northern Siamese capital of Chiang Mai, laden with opium and tea. Nowadays the town serves two purposes – whilst many travelers simply transit through heading directly on a Luang Prabang-bound boat down the Mekong, for the surrounding villages Huay Xai’s market is the main draw. Often very busy, there are many ethnic minority groups living nearby, dressing still in traditional styles and practicing religions that have been passed down from their ancestors. Consequently, Huay Xai is worth lingering in. With the Mekong in front of you and the rugged hills at your back, you are immediately in the heart of rural Laos. From Huay Xai you can make day trips to ethnic Lantaen villages, where the production of traditional saa paper and other crafts can be seen.
The village (rapidly becoming a town) of Pak Beng is the most common overnight stop on the river route from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang. However, if you are staying in the Luang Say Lodge it is easy to miss the centre, as the lodge is a walk away. This would be a mistake, as Pak Beng has a pretty riverside ambiance with quite a bit of buzz. In recent years a number of guesthouses and restaurants have sprung up and in the morning, as you make your way down to the pier for your onward journey, the early opening restaurants serve an amazing Lao coffee and the streets are lined by stalls selling local sweets and pastries. Rise early and take a walk further up to find the morning market full of produce; everything from scorpions, frogs on sticks, and, the local treat, buffalo skin.
Pak Beng is set in a particularly scenic spot, at the confluence of the Nam Beng and Mekong Rivers (Pak means mouth, and Beng is the name of the river). Electricity is relatively new to the region and can be somewhat erratic – it is sourced from a hydroelectric dam and therefore blackouts are frequent during the dry season. For visitors with more time, there is some excellent elephant trekking to be enjoyed in the region and in nearby Hongsa, but this will require a minimum of one extra night in Pak Beng.