The Middle Mekong

Overview

The region surrounding the middle stretch of the Mekong River is usually only seen by foreigners from the river itself, as they travel through on slow boats between Thailand and Luang Prabang, but should you decide to stop here, there is plenty to see and do.

The area consists of two provinces. Bokeo (meaning “Gem Mine”, so named for its sapphire deposits), is sparsely populated but even so is home to as many as 34 ethnicities. Sainyabuli on the other hand, is famous for being the “Elephant Capital” of Laos and it’s here that you can pay a visit to the Elephant Conservation Centre, easily the province’s primary attraction.

Bokeo Laos
The tree houses of the Gibbon Experience make for a very unique style of accommodation.
 
Travellers should bear in mind that outside of Huay Xai and Pak Beng, English levels are not the best, so a Lao phrase book may come in handy. For particularly adventurous travellers, Laos’ “final frontier” lies in the western reaches of Sainyabuli, waiting for you to explore it.
 
See and Do

Situated on the Mekong and subsequently the Thai border like it is, Huay Xai is many travellers’ first look at Laos. While the town itself may seem uninteresting, at night it comes to life with fairly lights and street food vendors lining the streets. There are also a collection of temples you can visit here, namely Wat Thasuvanna Phakham, Wat Khonekeo Xaiyaram and finally Wat Keophone Savanthanaram, where notably you can see depictions of gruesome torture scenes on the north wall.

Huay Xai Laos
The Mekong is the lifeblood of Laos.
 
Additionally, you can pay a visit to Fort Carnot, an old colonial stronghold constructed by the French. Unfortunately, not much remains of the fort, but two towers and the gateway are still standing and it’s an interesting reminder of Laos’ colonial history.

The main reason anyone visits Huay Xai beyond transiting through, is the famous Gibbon Experience. Consisting of a series of ziplines through the lush jungle treetops, visitors get to play Tarzan for either 2 or 3 days. While visitors opting for the 2-day Express option are unlikely to see any wild gibbons, the 3 day experience offers accommodation in tree houses built close to where the Gibbons make their home. These idyllic little tree houses are constructed with ample space between them, ensuring an isolated vibe as you round out the day.

ziplines Huay Xai Laos
Active travellers can enjoy flying through the branches at the Gibbon Experience.
 
The Gibbon Experience has also become a model around the world for ecologically and socially responsible tourism. It’s run by local people in the area who used to see the jungle as a hunting ground, who were then convinced to pivot their lifestyle into becoming the guardians of the forest instead. Despite making such a radical change to their way of life, the villagers now actually make far more money to take home to their families and communities than they ever did hunting in the fragile ecosystem.

Venturing into the countryside around Huay Xai, you can witness two polar opposite extremes. First are the ruins of Souvannakhomkharn, an ancient city refounded in the 1560’s. While it can be difficult to get to due to access roads in frustratingly bad condition, and there’s not a whole lot that remains of the city, the ruins still provide a peaceful and magical atmosphere that you can’t help but get caught up in.

Golden Triangle
The Las Vegas of Laos.
 
For the other end of the spectrum, you have the Golden Triangle, the Las Vegas of Laos a few kilometres to the north of Ton Pheung. Here the otherwise unremarkable route 3 resembles a facsimile of the Vegas Strip, sporting hotels, casinos, and even a miniature Big Ben. This gargantuan entertainment complex is not yet finished, but is still an incredibly odd sight set in the Laotian countryside.

Mostly known as the stopping point for the slow boat journey between Luang Prabang and Thailand, Pak Beng is a charming little town where you can enjoy some time disconnected from the rest of the world, as the towns power supply is shut down at 9pm every night. Wat Sin Jong Jaeng, a temple overlooking the Mekong, was built in the early colonial period, and on a mural on one of its walls, you can spot a depiction of a moustached man with a hat, umbrella and big nose, presumably one of the early European visitors to the area.

The Middle Mekong
Boat trips on the Mekong are unavoidable but very enjoyable.
 
Sainyabuli, known as the “Elephant capital” of Laos, is a surprisingly urban place for the region, and the town itself has little to offer to travellers outside of their yearly elephant festival. However, a mere 9km southwest lays the serene Nam Tien lake, a great place to enjoy the sunset.

The lake is also home to the Elephant Conservation Centre, which to many is the real reason they come to Sainyabuli. The centre offers 2 and 3 day experiences, where you get to participate in numerous activities with the elephants ranging from feeding them to observing them bathe and socialize from unseen viewing stations. The experience also includes a tour of the facilities, including the elephant hospital where you can see a veterinarian giving a routine check-up to one of their charges. The information centre offers some particularly depressing statistics. Only 400 elephants remain in the wild in Laos, with an additional 450 surviving in captivity, usually used for tourism and logging. Neither existence is something to envy, as the ones in the wild spend their whole lives fleeing poachers, while captive elephants are overworked, often forced to do up to 20 treks a day carrying tourists on their back. Even worse, out of 10 elephants born in Laos, only 2 survive to old age.

Elephant Conservation Centre
The Elephant Conservation Centre is an excellent way to interact with elephants ethically.
 
It’s these facts that inspired the Centre in the first place, and they pay mahouts (the elephant’s human handlers, a life-long relationship almost akin to a marriage) the equivalent of three years salary to allow their female elephants to breed at the centre and stay for two years of “maternity leave”.

If you’re making your way between Sainyabuli and Loei in Thailand, you are almost guaranteed to make a stop in Pak Lai. While there’s not a lot to see in the town in terms of attractions, you can observe elderly Buddhist monks at Wat Sisavang, as well as some interesting colonial architecture along the town’s main road.
 
Culture & Arts

A good way to experience the local culture is a visit to the Sainyabuli Night Market, but at the end of the day, the regions culture is intimately entwined with elephants. For those with an interest in elephants, or simply a wish to get a more intimate look at Lao lifestyle, the Elephant Conservation Centre offers a 7 day volunteering experience, where you live and eat with the local mahouts and staff which besides letting you help these magnificent and threatened creatures, also gives you plenty of insight into how the people there live their lives.

Hmong villages Laos
A H’mong family.
 
In Pak Beng, you can head out of town and visit one of the many Hmong villages in the area, either on your own with a motorbike, or with a guide.
 
Food and Drink

Hmong food can be found in several restaurants in Huay Xai, often produced organically. Exotic foods like frogs and fried crocodile are also available for those with a strong stomach or exotic tastes. Should you be in the mood for drinking, stop by Daauw for its signature “Laojitos”, which are mojitos made from Lao-Lao whiskey.

Hmong food
A H’mong girl eating noodles.
 
While Pak Beng may be a small village nestled against the Mekong, there are surprising amount of Indian restaurants, and Indian/Lao fusion like Buffalo Masala is a must-try while you’re there.

In Sainyabuli there are a plethora of local snacks to try. From traditional sweets known as Khanom, to more esoteric ones like fried crickets, wasps and bamboo worms.

Khanom
Khanom, a traditional sweet.
 
Festivals and Events

Every year in mid February, an Elephant festival is held in Sainyabuli. Lasting for two days, you can observe elephant parades and demonstrations, as well as music and theatre. There are also numerous beer tents for you to sit down in and enjoy a Lao beer should you feel the need.

 Elephant festival is held in Sainyabuli
The Elephant Festival is held annually in Sainyabuli.
 
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