Houei Xai, Laos

This bustling river port on the Mekong is in a slow and steady state of flux, encouraged by tourist dollars and Thai, Lao and Chinese trade. The crux of town only spans a few hundred metres and the main street is a strip of guesthouses, shops and tour operators. Once you head a kilometre or so in either direction, however, you’ll find yourself in sleepy bâan populated by friendly residents. The rich green hills of Bokeo rise in the background and the mighty Mekong, intrinsic to the town’s character, forms a natural border with Thailand.

Most visitors head here solely for the opportunity to take a slow boat journey on the Mekong, or to head north, but Huay Xai has managed to remain relaxed and to avoid the hassle common to pit stops and border towns. This makes for some pleasant ambling. It’s also a good base for trips into Bokeo Province itself. For centuries Huay Xai was a disembarkation point for Yunnanese caravans led by the Hui (Chinese Muslims) on their way to Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai in ancient Siam; today Chinese barges from Yunnan are able to navigate this far, so there is still a brisk trade in Chinese goods.

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