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03 January 2006

through this strange green other world

the land of laos, separated from thailand in the north by the narrow mekong... i could already sense the differences between the two countries after only one night. the morning was a bit chaotic, the first chaotic morning i can remember since arriving in southeast asia, the thai mornings all a calming chill. i was at the bap guesthouse a little after 0800, as requested, for breakfast. i should have made a point of finding my guesthouse man to tell him i wouldn't be booking the inflated price slow boat ticket with him but my heavy morning eyes weren't ready for searching.

no international atm's in laos. i needed to get down to the bank to exchange one 100 usd amex check; should that fail my backup plan would be to try to stretch my current stock of cash which included 68 us dollars, 25 euro, 40 swiss francs, and a random assortment of eastern european and indian currency which would most likely be useless. at 0830 the bank, scheduled to open at 0830, was still dark inside; i ran back and fourth three times between the guesthouse (waiting for my food to arrive) and the bank (waiting for an employee to arrive) before a random told me that the bank would only be opening in the afternoon, half day due to a banking holiday. blick. i'd be operating on current cash until i arrived in luang prabang tomorrow evening and could attempt the exchange there.

back to the bap guesthouse; still no food. the woman had told me the previous night that a truck would be taking us down to the dock to get the boat at 0830, but as the crowd in the guesthouse common area grew, it became obvious that she'd given that time out to others in order to get everyone up and ready early (and eating breakfast at her guesthouse). the food finally arrived, i finished it and then paid for my breakfast with my remaining thai baht and then bought my slow boat ticket for 20 usd. the currency situation in laos is interesting. research in my guidebook (which should have been done _before_ i arrived) revealed that there are essentially three currencies in play in laos: laotian kip, thai baht, and american dollars. it didn't take much common sense to realize that if you used thai baht or american dollars to buy anything, you would most certainly be getting screwed on the exchange rate. and yes [sigh], the exchange rate... between 10,000 and 10,750 kip for each american dollar and between 250 and 260 kip per thai baht. it looked like calculators were a way of life in huay xai and assumedly all of laos.

chaos chaos chaos. finally, a truck came to pick us up a little after 1000. the waiting of us jumped in, bags on top, looking for absent courtney's canadian flag, a short ride down to the boat, a long wait for our driver to purchase the tickets for boat 056, this boat this boat same same, we walked the plank to the other and courtney and i found a seat. i was pleasantly surprised when i saw the cushions on the seats, but after more than a half hour of waiting for other passengers to pile in, i realized that the cushions wouldn't be as surprisingly pleasant as i'd hoped. the boat finally pulled out a little after 1100 and despite the long wait and morning chaos, i was smiling and happy and the weather was warm, the boat cut smoothly through the water, laos on our left and thailand on our right and i was in another world and felt like a real traveler.

the water was brown and muddy, the boat chugging through this strange green other world. unexpected grey rough rocks jutting out on the sides of the river sometimes in the middle. waving to villagers, stopping occasionally to pick up locals (and their speaker cabinets?) although the boat was heavy in the water with more than 90% foreigners, packed but not overpacked. i tried to read a bit but didn't want to miss the scenery although after several hours the muddy water grey rock green jungle landscape hadn't changed much. courtney moved to an abandoned seat and i slid down to the floor and was able to sleep for a little less than an hour.

during the journey we encountered (the high pitch scream first and then a tiny slicing spraying blur second) several speedboats, tiny crafts loaded with maybe eight to ten passengers wearing crash helmets (i thought that was a joke in the guidebook) and life vests, cutting swiftly through the water like angry insects. the engines were cranked and water was spraying so high that we guessed the passengers must surely be miserable... no talking, no reading, no relaxing. from what we could see through the blur, their faces betrayed a gripping irritation frustration fright and we were all happy that we'd chosen the slower option. at one of the the stops, we picked up two passengers who told us they'd been on one of the speedboats and had asked to be dropped off to wait for the slow and steady. with each faint scream, many would break out their cameras to try to capture the blur.

i used my gps to track our progress down the river. at 1700 we arrived in pakbeng about 50 minutes ahead of my estimate. a small village along the river which relied on tourism, directed to a guesthouse, check-in, dinner with chavi [spn], lucia [spn], sam [eng], rhia [fin], and courtney [can]. ded pushed a certain local plant at the top of the menu.

the boat would be leaving tomorrow at 0830. as we retired to our rooms at 2300 weary for the long boat ride, a horde of mice sat around a circular table planning their raid of sam and rhia's room to capture a chunk of bread resting under rhia's bed. they would execute their plan at 0430.

posted by paul on Tue 03 Jan 2006 at 00:00:00 est (-05:00)

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