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|Saturday morning, day 216 of our adventure, February 3rd, we walked across the border from Vietnam into Laos.
The customs and immigration agents on the Vietnam side were surprised to see us. We could definitely tell that not many Westerners used this border crossing. Thankfully our visas clearly specified Kaew Neua Pass as our exit point from Vietnam. Without this we never would have gotten through. Nobody spoke a word of English, but with hand gesters and the language section of the guidebook we were eventually able to get our physical bodies through immigration and our possesions through customs.
The walk between the two customs and immigration checkpoints was surreal. A thick layer of fog covered everything as we tramped down a muddy road. We couldn't see more than about 50 feet down the road, so we didn't really now where the heck we were heading. The jungle seemed to be closing in all around us. "How far do you think it is to the Laos checkpoint?", Lisa whispered. "Your guess is as good as mine.", responded Joel. We just put our heads down and kept moving forward.
Eventually the Laos checkpoint appeared out of the mist. The Laos customs and immigration agents were just as surprised to see us as their Vietnamese counter parts. As we handed them our passports you could tell they didn't expect to see the proper and necessary visa all ready to go. It definitely paid off to get all the necessary paper work done before we arrived. There would have been no way to make anyone understand what we needed.
Once out of Laos customs and immigration we noticed a money changer. We handed him about $30.00 U.S. worth of Vietnamese dong and asked for Laos official currency -- the kip. The kip is a very unstable currency and it is in a constant state of flux. Our guidebook, which was only one year old, stated the exchange rate at about 3,700 kip to the dollar. The exchange rate when we arrived was over double that, in our favor, at 8,190 kip to the dollar. Until very recently, the highest denomination kip bill in circulation was the 1,000 kip note, a bill only worth about $0.12 U.S.. The Laos government has recently added a 2,000 kip and 5,000 kip note, but there are not very many of them in circulation yet. As a result we received a huge wad of 1,000 kip notes in exchange for our dong. Fortunately only about 33% of the currency floating around Laos is the kip, approximately another 33% is the Thai baht and approximately 33% is the U.S. dollar. It's a good idea, when traveling in Laos, to have some of each currency. If all you had was kip, you would have to carry around a huge suitcase just to carry your cash.
We stashed our wad of kip and headed out of the Laos customs and immigration complex to look for a ride. This was about 9:00 A.M. We really had no idea how we were going to get across Laos, or how far we would get in one day, for that matter. We were pleased to find a songthaew driver willing to drive us as far as Kham Keut village, or at least that is what we thought he meant, it was hard to tell, which was about 40km away. (Those of you who have kept up with our journal know that a songthaew is a small bed pickup truck, with two rows of passenger seats running along the side boards, covered by a tin roof.)
We were on our way. Our eventual goal was to get all the way to Vientiane. This would require a long trek through Bolikhamsai province. This province is one of the most isolated places in all of Laos. It rarely sees any foreign vistors -- we definitley didn't see any -- which meant finding transport was going to be difficult at best. This sense of being out there, all alone, really added to the excitement of the moment. The land traveling we did in Cambodia, particularly between the Thai-Cambodia border and Siem Reap, was physically more demanding. But in Cambodia we were with other Westerners all the time. Our trip through Laos was much different. We were all alone. We would have to adapt to any situation that arose and depend on our own resources, and nothing else, to get us through.
We arrived in Kham Keut about 10:00 A.M.. As we pulled into this hot, dusty, unimpressive looking hamlet, we didn't expect anything exciting to happen. Little did we know that our short one hour stay here would end up being the highlight of our brief stay in Laos.
As soon as we got off the songthaew, we were immediately surrounded by dozens of Lao people. They were totally amazed to see us! The looked at us like we were alien beings from another world. An older Lao gentleman was particularly astownded. As he tried to speak to us, unsucessfully of course, he poked Joel (to see if he was real we guess) and stared at Lisa with bulging eyes.
Our presense created a huge stir. Children ran around us, laughing and playing. Men and women of all ages came in for a look. We were just as stunned by their reaction as they were by our presense, but once we regained our composure, we got the idea to get out the digital camera. As Lisa got the older Lao gentleman to pose for a picture with Joel, the entire village started to laugh in amazement. This reaction was nothing compared to their response to being able to see images of themselves on the LED screen of the digital camera. Their amazement brought us tremendous joy. It was just so cool to bring such excitement to them. Everyone was laughing and smiling. It was a great feeling to be a part of it. What wonderful people.
With the villagers acting as enthusiastic teachers, and the lauguage section of the guidebook open, we learned how to say "hello", "goodbye" and "thank you very much" in Lao. We even got the old Lao gentleman to write down what we think was his address. We tried to make him understand, and we think he did, that once we reached Vientiane we would print out a copy of the picture of himself and Joel, and we would send it to him. Man did he seem to get a kick out of that idea.
During our wonderful one hour visit, we were able to make another songthaew driver understand the direction we wanted to head. He seemed to be saying that he would drive us further west, to a point where we could catch a bus to Vientiane. Unfortunately, it seemed like he was anxious to get going, so we were forced to say goodbye to our new freinds. We will always remember our short visit to Kham Keut, as we are sure they will. What a wonderful experience.
The songthaew we bordered ended up taking us through about half of Bolikhamsi province to the crossroads of Highway 8A and Highway 13. Of course we had no idea this is were we would end up when we left, and the entire drive we kept wondering if we were even going in the right direction. This portion of the trip was physically demanding, specifically for Lisa. She was crammed deep inside the songthaew, surrounded by 16 Lao people (the songthaew was designed to carry 8 people max). One guy fell asleep on her shoulder and a poor young girl on her other side was sick and vomiting the entire time. Jammed inside the hot songathew Lisa couldn't see a thing, which was unfortunate, because the scenery was amazing.
We know this to be true because Joel's riding position was a bit different than Lisa's. Joel had to stand on the back bumper the entire 2 hour drive. The songthaew was so packed that Joel and four other Lao men were forced to stand on the back bumper, and hang onto the top of the roof for dear life. The amazing scenery more than made up for any discomfort Joel felt by standing. (There was also 7 guys on the roof.)
Huge limestone cliffs, dense, lush jungle, mountains and panoramic vistas were the order of the day. Joel just wishes Lisa would have been outside with him to enjoy it. Sometimes when you are traveling like this you get a flash of your macro prespective. You see yourself from above -- your global position. The remoteness of the current locale and how tough it was to get there and how few other of you peers ever have been or ever will be in exactly in the same place. It's an exhilirating feeling.
Once we finally reached the junction of Highway 8A and Highway 13, we pulled our weary and cramped bodies over to the road side. We had no food or water (good planning huh), but thankfully some Lao villagers (who were almost as equally amazed as the Kham Keut villagers were to see us, saw our plight and offered us some water and corn on the cob. Yummy!
We really didn't know what to expect at this point. The songthaew had disappeared and we really didn't even know where we were. Dazed and confused we laid back in the grass and relinguished ourselves to the Travel Gods. Whatever was going to happen, was going to happen.
Amazing, after a short 30 minute nap, before we could even start to think about what to do next, a bus came barrelling down Highway 13. Some local villagers ran from their road side shacks and flagged it down. To our pleasant surprise we found a welcoming word spread across the window of the bus -- Vientiane. We smiled at each other and exactly at the same time we splurted out, "Here we go!".
We jumped on the bus, paid the porter a huge wad of kip, and tried to position ourselves for the journey. The porter, who definitely had a tough job, had to walk on the armrests of the seats from the front of the bus to the back in order to collect people's money. This leg of the trip wasn't going to be easy. Every seat was filled and even the center aisle was a mass of people. Everyone was literally crawling all over each other trying to lodge themselves somewhere in the bus. Lisa found a spot on top of a huge sack of rice and Joel stood jammed in the back of the bus. It was going to be a long ride. If we were correct about where we thought we were, which was definitely not certain, we estimated the ride should take about 6 hours.
Eventually everyone kind of settled in. Lisa used her pack as a backrest and worked a mold in the sack of rice for her butt. Joel had to stand most of the way, but eventually was forced to sit, partially on top of a poor young Laos man. Joel tried to make him understand that he could sit on Joel's lap, but he would have none of that, so when Joel couldn't stands no more, he kind of gradually slid down on top of the other man. Now this is traveling!!!
Mercifully we pulled into Vientiane around 7:00 P.M.. Wow, what a journey! We were battered and bruised, but amazingly we were strangely energized. The sense of accomplishment was very real. We had done it! We had traveled from Vinh, Vietnam to Vientiane, Laos in one 13 hour shot. We had traveled over terrain that very few Westerners had ever ventured into. We had just paid our dues as travelers. After this experience we both felt that there was practically nowhere in the world we couldn't travel to. For that matter, after you accomplish something like this, you feel like you could do almost anything!
We slept like babies that night at the Tai-Pan Hotel.
Sunday, February 4th, day 217 of our adventure, we explored the capital of Laos, Vientiane. There are many amazing Wats scattered throughout the city. We were luckily enough to have a fascinating conversation with a buddist monk.
Monday, February 5th, day 218 of our adventure, we continued our exploration of Vientiane. Besides visiting more Wats, we worked our way through the huge Morning Market, where Lisa picked up another rare find for the Around The World Art Gallery, and then we mailed a laminated print out of the picture we took of Joel to the old Lao gentleman from Kham Keut village.
Tuesday, February 6th, day 219 of our adventure, we jumped on a jumbo (the same thing as a Thai tuk-tuk) and headed to the Friendship Bridge -- the connection between Laos and Thailand.
We got through Laos customs and immigration no problem, jumped on a bus, and cruised over the huge bridge that spans the Mekong River, between Vientiane, Laos and Nong Khai, Thailand.