If you’ve found yourself in Huay Xai, Laos, you’ve most probably crossed over the border from Thailand and you’re just beginning your Lao adventure. If that’s the case, don’t jump on a slow boat bound for Luang Prabang just yet. Take a couple of days (or more) to explore the Huay Xai area – there is fun to be had!
The first thing you need to do it look up MJ and the crew at New Challenge Discovery, a little local tour outfit organising kayaking, trekking, and village experiences. Find them at the bottom of the temple stairs.
We spent only a couple of days in Huay Xai, but could have stayed longer. Here are our top five things to do when in Huay Xai, Laos:
1. Teach an English class
I have written all about this in my previous post, so which you can read here. To sum it up for you, MJ from New Challenge has built a little classroom out the back of his parents’ house in their village, and here he delivers English classes several nights each week. The kids come along voluntarily to learn, and MJ teaches them because he believes education has the power to lift the local people out of poverty. MJ gladly brings travellers along to help teach the class. We had so much fun talking to these beautiful children and watching them learn. This has been an absolute highlight of our trip!
2. Kayaking on the Mekong River
That’s right – you can go kayaking right out in the middle of the mighty Mekong River! We were surprised by how quiet the river was north of Huay Xai. Apart from a few small fishing boats which putt by intermittently, the river is quiet and tranquil. That said, the water is moving – there is quite a current. We started 10km north of town and drifted with the flow.
The river has a particular life to it – it swirls into little eddies and whirlpools as the current flows over submerged rocks and around rocky outcrops and islands in the stream. This is from further downriver, but it gives a bit of an idea of the landscape. Up here, only shallow-hulled boats can navigate.
There are little sections of rapids for the more daring, or New Challenge will take you up some much trickier rivers on their bigger kayaking adventures.
We had a little stop on the island in the middle of the river facing Huay Xai.
It was a hit!
The best thing? Apart from the fishermen, there was no one else on the river. There were no hordes of tubers or tourists. I asked MJ where everyone else was, and he said no one else runs kayak tours in Huay Xai. So, my tip: head to Huay Xai and jump in a kayak before everyone catches on.
3. Experience a traditional Lao picnic at a waterfall
The other half of our day was spent at Nam Nyon Waterfall, about an hour’s meander outside Huay Xai by tuk tuk (more of a ute with a roof here in Laos – like a Thai songthiaw), along some dusty country roads and through a series of villages.
The rice paddies were empty as the farmers await the wet season to plant, and the countryside was very dry, but the valley was beautiful nonetheless.
Once there, crossing a couple of shaky suspension bridges is part of the fun.
Nam Nyon Waterfall was once a spectacular cascade, but has been reduced to little more than a trickle by a hydroelectric plant on the hill above.
Despite its loss of former glory, it was a sweet spot to take a dip on a hot day. And we had the place to ourselves.
The highlight was definitely MJ’s Lao picnic lunch, which he served on some banana leaves sliced fresh from the tree: barbecued fish with basil and dill, chewy beef, pork crackling, sticky rice, and a mass of fresh fruit.
We were very lucky to have met MJ – he was a fantastic source of information about the Huay Xai area, and a passionate and inspiring advocate for social justice. Make sure you look him up if you’re in town.
4. Climb the steps to Wat Jom Khao Manilat
Constructed in 1880, the Wat sits on the hill overlooking the town. Follow the colourful naga (the mythical Lao serpent that climbs the steps) to the top.
5. Help out the local community and stay at Daauw Home
Daauw Home Guesthouse and Restaurant is part of Project Kajsiab, which gives women from local villages the opportunity to sell their handmade products, and takes on interns from local mountain villages to help them learn the hospitality industry. There are very basic bungalows to rent, and proceeds go to the initiative.
Did I mention there are cats to play with?
The wooden bungalows have a good-sized double bed (be prepared – ours was very hard) with a mosquito net, and a bathroom with a toilet (no flush – a water scoop) and shower nozzle.
The hot water in our shower wasn’t working, so the kids had a cold bath in the water bin.
They survived. It’s hard to complain when many people here in Laos never have access to hot water.
The bungalows are about AU$20 per night.
6. BONUS THING: The Gibbon Experience
I probably should also mention the Gibbon Experience zipline treehouse adventure. We probably would have done that, too, if not for the littlies. It’s the main attraction round here, but there are many equally cool things to do.
So there you have it, five (plus one) things to do in Huay Xai.
Don’t forget to look up MJ and New Challenge Discovery when you’re there!