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02 January 2006

flagged down by a mindreader

another day of transport to another chiang, khong, a small town on the thai side of the mekong river across from the laotian town of huay xai... an overland border crossing portal between the two countries. i woke up early and checked out of the mae kok villa and walked downtown to grab some breakfast. the guidebook indicated that buses ran frequently between chiang rai and chiang khong. i made my way over to the nearby bus station and scanned all of the signs looking for the words 'chiang' and 'khong'... nothing. in the bus stands outside i was flagged down by a mindreader.

'you are going to chiang khong,' he said.

'uh... yes... i am.'

he pointed at the windshield of the bus directly in front of me... giant letters... 'CHIANG KHONG' [the eighth wonder of the world]. 54 baht. he loaded my backpack into the cargo hold beneath the bus and told me it would be departing in 15 minutes. i ran over to the local 7-eleven clone and grabbed some snacks for the journey. i said thank you in thai to the checkout clerk and my words surprised him...

'you speak thai?' he asked eagerly.

ha! not even close. chiang rai was a typical stop for all travelers heading to the border crossing at chiang khong... certainly at least a few of those foreigners had muttered a few words of the local language. i recited the thai phrases i knew... 'hello', 'thank you', 'goodbye'. that's it, sir.

the bus wasn't quite as nice as the bus from mai to rai, but it was fairly empty and i had a seat to myself for the entire four hour journey. more beautiful scenery, more blue sky, more lovely country.

we arrived in chiang khong at about 1600 and after a quick scan of the area and a short discussion with a couple of danes who had been on the same bus, i made a quick decision to just continue right into laos. i typically don't make these types of decisions without at least a bit of research, but i was feeling lucky and with the clock ticking on my vietnam visa (valid only in january), i decided it would be best to keep moving. i waved down a tuk tuk and was off to the river where i'd catch a boat to laos. i knew laos issued visas on arrival for 30 usd... i had the tuk tuk driver pull over at an atm so i could withdraw 1500 baht for the visa.

passed through thai immigration... quick departure stamp... then down to the river to catch a 20 baht boat across the mekong... and pow! i was in laos.

the laos visa was payable either as 30 us dollars or 1500 thai baht (which, given the current exchange rate, worked out to be 37.5 usd). i've been carrying 50 usd cash in my money belt since i left, but i wanted to hang onto it for an emergency situation and this didn't qualify. i completed some paperwork, handed over a small passport picture, paid the 1500 baht, and a few minutes later i had a laos visa and an entry stamp in my passport. i was official.

i walked up the hill from immigration, was 'directed' to the friendship guesthouse, checked in, paid in baht, and was out to explore huay xai. it took all of ten minutes to fully explore the metropolis. again, i hadn't been sure about my travel plans... whether or not i was going to spend a few nights in huay xai or just continue on the next day... but after the ten minute tour i knew i'd be departing tomorrow. i walked back to the guesthouse and discussed boat options with the guy at the desk.

. slow boat to luang prabang: 800 baht. two day journey down the mekong with an overnight stop in pakbeng.

. fast boat to luang prabang: 1300 baht. six hour journey down the mekong, life vests and crash helmets provided.

i opted for the slow scenic two day journey. unfortunately i didn't have 800 baht on me... i'd need to hit an atm before i could pay him. back out to the street. a few minutes later i was at the far end of the town and hadn't seen a bank. i passed a couple of travelers on the street and asked them if they'd seen an atm in town.

'there are no international atm's in laos.' they told me.

[alert] the words hung in the air... no. international. atm's. in. laos.

shit. what an idiot. how could i have missed that in the guidebook? no freaking atm's in the entire country? that couldn't be possible.

i contemplated a trip back across the river into thailand where there were an abundance of atm's. what a pain. i decided it was time to try out my american express gift checks. i'd received several amex gift checks before i'd left for the trip and had always hoped that i wouldn't need to use them... they weren't exactly 'traveler's checks' per se... but they operated in the same way (i hoped)... sign, countersign, replaceable if lost. unfortunately the one currency exchange bank in town was closed for the day... i'd have to go back the next morning.

i ate dinner in the restaurant of another guesthouse and after i'd finished eating, the woman running the place asked me what i was doing tomorrow.

'slow boat to luang prabang,' i told her.

'have you bought your ticket yet?' she asked.

'well, i reserved a ticket at my guesthouse, but i haven't paid yet. i need to exchange money tomorrow morning.'

'how much did you pay?' she asked.

'800 baht.'

she seemed surprised.

'800 baht? i can't believe someone is charging you 800 baht. you can reserve the same boat here for 750 baht.'

i felt a little bad about backing out of the 'deal' with the man at my guesthouse, but he had obviously added a special tax for the ticket. i reserved a ticket with the woman.

'tomorrow... be here at 0800 for breakfast. truck will take you to the boat at 0830.'

i thanked her, hit one of the two internet cafes in town, met danielle [usa] and courtney [can], and then retired for the night.

chiang khong, thailand, as seen from huay xai, laos. darkness.

posted by paul on Mon 02 Jan 2006 at 00:00:00 est (-05:00)

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