Bokeo, meaning ‘gem mine’ is the smallest province in Laos, but one of the most ethnically diverse with over 30 recognized ethnic groups. The Lahu, a Tibeto-Burman speaking people common in northern Myanmar and Thailand are present in Bokeo in significant proportions. The province is located in the heart of the infamous “Golden Triangle” sharing borders with Luang Namtha as well as Myanmar and Thailand. Houay Xay, just across the border from the Thai town of Chiang Kong is a popular starting point for boat trips down the Mekong to Luang Prabang, a two-day journey south.
Since ancient times Huay Xay, the provincial capital, has been the disembarkation point for travellers and traders from Yunnan province in southern China on their way to Thailand. It is still a popular town for trading in Chinese goods. Wat Jom Kao Manilat, a teak Shan-style pagoda built in 1880 houses a stele that dates back to 1458. Fort Carnot, a remnant of the French colonial period is still standing but off limits to visitors, as today the fort is occupied by the Lao army. Just south of the main town it is possible to visit one of the main sapphire-mining areas in Indochina.
For the energetic visitor or for those heading up to Luang Namtha, stop in Vieng Phukha to organize a one, two or three day guided trek to local Khamu, Lahu and Tai Lu villages. In the Nam Kan provincial protected area one of the few remaining populations of Black-cheeked Crested Gibbons can be found, singing their eerie and beautiful early morning songs during the cold season from November – February. If you are interested in archaeology visit the ancient city of Souvannakhomkham near Ton Peung just north of Huay Xay.
River trips to the far north can be arranged from Huay Xay, either on the Mekong or the smaller Namtha. River travel north on the Mekong terminates at Xieng Kok in Luang Namtha, where you can then easily proceed overland to the historic town of Muang Sing. The two-day journey up the Namtha requires an overnight stay in your boatman’s village, a memorable experience for those seeking an off-the-beaten path adventure.
Swimming in the Mekong near Huay Xay is the largest freshwater fish in the world, the famous Mekong catfish known locally as “paa beuk”. This giant grows up to 3m in length and can weigh up to 300 kg. The meat of this enormous but endangered fish is considered a delicacy and brings a high price in markets as far away as Bangkok.