The little place of Xieng Kok in the northwest of Laos, consisting of mostly wooden houses and simple shacks, is over parts of the year a 'dead end' for travelling. Coming from Muang Sing on the only passable road to Xieng Kok via Muang Long, the boats on the Mekong River don't run in the dry season. The water levels are too low then, except if the Chinese dam operators in Yunnan flood the river - than the boats can go.
The Mekong River at Xieng Kok. In the last years the boulders in the water got blasted all the way down to the new port in Chiang Saen, to allow the carrier boats to pass the river easier. Nevertheless, here it looks still untouched, at least on the first glance. But the river as well as the surrounding mountains suffer industrial impact. Slash and burn is the least, the big plantations do a great harm for the forests. The bare slopes on the hills are all the work of people. Besides, the whole region suffers an annual heavy air pollution over several months in the dry season.
Image by Asienreisender, 4/2010
Xieng Kok, situated at the river banks of the magnificient Mekong River, is bordering Burma/Myanmar on the other side of the stream. There is a bordercrossing here, but exclusively for Laotians and Burmese. Coming to the immigration office, a few Laotian officers were sitting at a table and playing cards, drinking. They were unwilling to talk and made a sinister impression.
Besides, it's drug gang territory, and the area is defenitely not too safe. At least not when leaving the village; inside of Xieng Kok there shouldn't be a problem.
However, in 2011 there was a big incident on this stretch of the Mekong in which two Chinese carrier boats got raided and a couple of Chinese boatsmen killed. Although the police took action and a notorious Burmese drug lord was captured, sued and executed in China, crime seems to go on here. News from 2012 told that speedboats are under a particular risk of being raided, so that the Laotian boatsmen are often reluctant to carry tourists. Xieng Kok is a border village in the core of the Golden Triangle, one of the world's most notorious drug production centers.
Missing person: a 29 years old American got 'lost' around Xieng Kok and wasn't seen again. I found the poster a few days after at the American embassy in Vientiane and it was still there in December. The incident happened just two weeks before my visit to Xieng Kok. Image by Asienreisender, 2010
Anyway, when I came to Xieng Kok, I was actually looking for an opportunity going riverdownwards on a boat to Houayxay. But then, in April, the Mekong's water level was so low that no boat went at all. The only way out is then the same way back via Muang Sing, Luang Namtha and from there either on the next bus from Oudomxay to Houayxay or to anywhere else in Laos via Oudomxay. With the boat one would anyway only reach Muang Mom, a (speed-)boat pier at the Golden Triangle, and to continue from there on a songtheaw to Houayxay. Ton Pheung is another destination opposite Chiang Saen, just a few more kilometers downstream from Muang Mom. The carriers are known to charge high prices ($US 100 - 150) for the relatively short trips. On the other hand it's a big shortcut, because the trip on the road is a wide detour. One has to be careful then not to be dropped on the 'wrong side' of the river in another country, for one 'needs' always these funny stamps in the passport.
In the rainy season, though, there must be more activities here. Goods from Thailand and particularly from China are brought and carried away on lorries who approach the river banks as close as possible to take their freight from the river boats.
So, what to do then in Xieng Kok? A village stroll along the main road, to and fro. There are not many sideroads, so Xieng Kok is quickly explored. The surroundings are coined by green hills and mountains, rainforest or plantations. Many of the surrounding villages are inhabited by Akha people, who make the local majority. In difference to many of the villages around Xieng Kok is connected to the power net and has electricity around the clock.
So, after all, Xieng Kok is a great place to hang out for a few days and take it all easy. With a guide it's possible to explore the surroundings and follow the tracks to neighbouring places. But, again, one could encounter dangerous people here outside the villages.
Twice a month Xieng Kok is also a market place, where the local tribal people come to buy things they need and to sell their products. Traders from China, Burma, Thailand and from Laos join the market spectacle. No need to tell that much smuggling happens here also.