Introducing The Middle Mekong
The mighty Mekong threads together the provinces of Bokeo and Sainyabuli, along with Pak Beng in southern Udomxai. For many tourists the region is seen merely in passing between Thailand and Luang Prabang – typically on the two-day slowboat route from Huay Xai via Pak Beng – but there's plenty to interest the more adventurous traveller. Bokeo, meaning 'Gem Mine', takes its name from the sapphire deposits in Huay Xai district, and the province harbours 34 ethnicities despite a particularly sparse population. Sainyabuli Province is synonymous with working elephants and there is an excellent new Elephant Conservation Center just outside the eponymous capital. Other than in Huay Xai and Pak Beng you'll need a decent phrasebook wherever you go. Western Sainyabuli remains particularly far off the traveller radar but if you want to be way ahead of the crowds, places like dramatic Khop district are 'last frontiers' with a complex ethnic mix and reputedly high proportion of still-pristine forests.