This morning Paul and Urai drove us to Nong Khai, which is the town on the Thai side of the Friendship Bridge spanning the Mekong River. On the other side is Laos. They took us directly to the bus station where buses run every few minutes to the Thai immigration check point and then over the bridge to the Laotian immigration. We don't know how much the bus costs because Urai bought the tickets for us and wouldn't let us repay her. Paul said it was only a few baht. They have been wonderful hosts. We will repay them, with interest, when they come to our house. We said our goodbyes and boarded the bus.
It was only a short distance to the Thai immigration station but the queue there was long. Before we could get our exit stamps the bus, with all of our luggage, took off for Laos without us. That was a little frightening but a clerk told us it would be waiting for us on the other side
. And it was. The Thai exit fee was B10 per person. We got on the next bus over the bridge. The line for the Laos immigration was almost as long but ran faster. The Laos immigration officer cheerfully stamped our American passports, even though our air force had dropped more ordinance on his country than the Allies dropped on Germany during the entire WWII. After passing immigration we got a taxi into Vientiane (B300). The taxi took us directly to the Vayakorn guest House ($18/night), which is the Lonely Planet author's choice for Vientiane. Luckily we were in time to get the last room, which gave us a chance to chuckle at the less fortunate travelers who arrived after us. They had taken the cheaper bus from the boarder which dropped them off blocks away. While our room was being made ready we sat out on the portico with a couple tall cold Beer Laos, and as the late arrivals came trudging up to the entrance, hot and sweaty under heavy back packs we'd greet them with a cordial "no rooms left." Their moans of anguish gave us smug pleasure. We feel like seasoned travelers now.
May 28, 2007
Vientiane is more like a provincial town than a nation's capital. The population is about 700,000 compared to 10 million in Bangkok. It also has that slow provincial pace of life. So little traffic you could almost cross the main street with your eyes shut. But it has some great little restaurants specializing in Lao, Indian, Chinese, German, Scandinavian, and of course French foods
. This was another of the French colonies like Cambodia. But here they know how to make the traditional two foot long baguettes. There's also a "Morning Market" which is open until evening and lots of shops selling authentic Lao handicrafts. We picked up a few silk weavings and some hand carved opium pipes. The Lao are quite proud of their opium connection and their one-third share in the golden triangle with China and Myanmar. Arvid bought one pipe which the shop keeper insisted was an antique used in the golden triangle. We sniffed it but since we've never even seen opium we wouldn't know what burnt opium smelled like anyway.
May 29, 2007
The Laotian currency is the kip, but they also accept the Thai baht and the US dollar. Hotels and vendors often quote prices in dollars. They will take baht at the current exchange rate. But have standardized the value of the dollar on the street at $1 to 10,000 Lao kip. Presently the current interbank exchange rate is about $1 to 9,650 Lao kip. So if we actually had physical dollars in our pockets we'd benefit. But since we can only get kip from the ATMs we take a hit of about 3.5 cents every time we pay 10,000 kip for something that costs $1. The lesson we should learn is to ask for dollars at the bank. But the ATMs are so much more convenient.
Today we went to the Vietnam Embassy to get our visas
. We weren't sure where it was so we asked a tuk-tuk driver to take us there for 60,000 kip round trip. Our 30 day Vietnam visas cost $20 each plus another $10 each for express service. Ordinarily it would take 2-3 days to get the visa but if you pay extra they will immediately stamp the visa in your passport and hand it back to you. We don't like to confess our mistakes but we're trying to help people avoid them, so we should say that, in our case, express service was not necessary since it turned out we did not leave town for another four days. We did save the tuk-tuk fee to go back and pick up our visas, but once we found out where the embassy was we could have walked there with not much trouble. One other thing you have to be prepared for is that you have to declare ahead of time when you want our 30 day visa period to start. We hadn't really thought this out and just decided to give ourselves three weeks to get to the Vietnam border. This was not such a good idea either, since now we cannot enter Vietnam until the 18th of the month. What are we going to do for 3 weeks in Laos?