Muang Xai is the capital city of Oudomxai Province in Northern Laos. The city is one of the main stops of the Laos-China Railway, which was what brought me there.
Muang Xai isn’t a touristy city, but I wanted to see what it was like and if the railway could change its fortunes. I also like visiting unremarkable provincial cities after being somewhere touristy. I had just come from Luang Prabang, so the contrast was welcome.
Muang Xai Station
The Muang Xai railway station is only 3 km from the city centre, which is more convenient than the Luang Prabang station (16 km) and Vientiane station (about 20 km).
There is no direct road to the city centre, so it is reached by travelling via small back roads, some of which are in poor condition.
The shared tuk-tuk from the train station dropped me off on the main road, and from there my guesthouse search began.
Notes on Muang Xai
There were no guest houses available on the hotel booking sights when I looked. This was another sign that Muang Xai isn’t the most frequently visited place. It was refreshing to have a taste of old-school travel and turn up with some addresses of guest houses marked on my map. I walked to the nearest place and booked a room for 120,000 LAK (about $9.35 USD).
My initial plan was to use Muang Xai as a launchpad to explore the region on motorbike, but as with my experience in Luang Prabang, I was visiting during a fuel shortage. Many of the petrol stations were closed, so riding a motorbike for leisure wasn’t going to be an option.
Muang Xai is basically a highway with a series of unorganised lanes. Looking on the map it was hard to tell where the city centre is.
I looked on Google Maps and picked out some promising restaurants and cafes, and marked out some temples. I used these points as places to walk to.
The Muang Xai map by Hobo Maps is also a helpful map for looking for interesting landmarks.
The Oudomxay Provincial Museum is on a hill in the city centre.
It is worth going up here for the walk through the trees.
Another good walk is up the hill to Phu That Pagoda.
Phu That Pagoda.
There is a good view of Muang Xai from here. The city is in a valley surrounded by mountains, which partly explains the lack of straight roads (not that that’s an excuse for bad urban planning).
Muang Xai has an airport that is in the city centre (see map). I walked there, mainly because how often can you say you can walk to the city airport. If I was a true planespotter I would have looked up the flight timetable and found a good spot to photograph planes. There are not enough flights, so I didn’t bother looking.
Muang Xai might have the distinction of being the first airport in Southeast Asia to have a flight route cancelled due to a new competing train service. The Vientiane to Oudomxay service has been cancelled because it can no longer compete with the railway.
The next day I went out looking for breakfast I and saw some monks doing their morning alms, without the Luang Prabang crowds.
Oudomxai Province has a border with Yunnan Province in China, so it wasn’t surprising to find cars with Chinese number plates in the city.
Electric bikes of the type that you see in Chinese cities are now being sold here. Sales may increase if the fuel crisis becomes a regular occurrence. It’s too bad there aren’t any long-range bikes yet.
Food in Muang Xai
My first order of business upon arrival was to find something to eat. I saw Mrs Khek Noodle on Google Maps so I walked to that. It was a big place with plenty of people inside, so that was a good sign.
A memorable bowl for my first meal in Muang Xai.
I made the most of eating Laos-style Khao Soi while I was here.
There is a night market in the city centre.
There is food court here, and in a town with nothing much else to do its a good place to hang out at night.
After seeing the morning monks I found a Chinese restaurant that had proper Chinese street food breakfast outside.
They had Bbozi (Chinese steamed buns) and scallion pancakes made fresh on the spot.
Cafes in Muang Xai
There are not many cafes here, so that was an adjustment after the multitude of hipster cafes of Luang Prabang. I saw there was a cafe at the President Raysone Library (Kaysone Phomvihane was President and Prime Minister of Laos in his lifetime).
They serve Vietnamese coffee here, so that seemed appropriate to order while in eyeshot of Uncle Ho.
I went to Charming Lao Coffee inside the Charming Lao Hotel. This looked like a nice place to stay, and it was the only place I saw foreigners. They appeared to be NGOs attending a meeting.
The most interesting cafe I saw in my wanders was the Hong Tieng Coffee and Bar. I was lured by the reuse of this beautiful brick building.
I went during the day when it has cafe vibes, and at night it shifts into bar mode.
Tourism in Oudomxai Province
I was wondering how Muang Xai could entice tourists off the train and explore Oudomxai Province. It would be a hard sell to get people to stay in Muang Xai, as the only noticeable visitors I saw here were NGOs and Chinese workers. There are now probably more urban connoisseurs like myself that are getting off the train out of curiosity, but not enough to sustain a tourism industry here. I was here only a month after the country had reopened, so it wasn’t a good time to judge tourism numbers.
What Muang Xai needs to do is to promote its provincial wonders. I noticed a sign at my guesthouse promoting the Namkat Yolapa Resort in the forest outside the city (check rates here). The hotel is about 20 km from the train station, and 40 minutes drive according to Google Maps.
In terms of infrastructure, I would like to see transit hubs built at every train station. The main bus station of the city should be built next to the train station, and have cafes and travel agents there, like there used to be outside Bangkok Hua Lamphong Station (before it moved to Krung Thep Aphiwat Central Terminal).
There is enough space to do this in Muang Xai (here is the view from the station).
If you look at Hobo Maps again, you can see the North Bus Station in the city centre, and the South Bus Station is so far away that I didn’t even bother going to. The North station was closed when I was there, so couldn’t find what bus services were running from Muang Xai.
If Laos wants the railway to benefit the rest of the country, then they need to make better connections from the train stations, otherwise everyone is just going to go to Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng. Make it as easy as possible for people to find other places to go to.
2024 has been designated at Visit Laos Year 2024. The country has practically bankrupted itself on building this railway, yet there is no functioning website to book tickets. I would like to see a functioing website that gives me a list of options of things to do at each station. This is a job for a local travel writer to do. (This is also why AI will never make a useful travel guide, at least for places that aren’t being written about, because it has no previous content to plagiarize.)
Departing (and returning) to Muang Xai
In addition to the old tuk-tuks, there is an electric trolley service that operates from the main road to the train station, so I took that.
My next stop on this train trip across Laos was Boten. It turned out to be a short trip as I couldn’t enter Boten (nore on that next time!), so I came back to Muang Xai on the last train of the day and stayed at Oudomphet Guesthouse. After that I went to Vang Vieng.