Sly As A Fox

Vietnam to Laos wins the prize for the most entertaining border crossing yet. The day started off badly. We woke up early so we’d have time to eat the buffet breakfast at the hotel next door to ours before riding across the border. We walked in, surveyed the meager buffet, and asked how much it was. The four employees conferred amongst themselves and then said “I sorry, this buffet only for hotel customers.” I will admit now that the buffet didn’t look that great but it did have eggs and the bizarre perfectly white, perfectly square pieces of “bread” that are used for toast here. I was sick and tired of eating noodle soup for 2-3 meals per day and was ridiculously excited for a piece of toast. So I asked, “Do you have a menu? Do you have any food at all that we can order?” I was met with poker-faced blank stares which infuriated me at that early hour. The previous night we’d tried to get a room in this same hotel and they’d told us they were full, which I still find hard to believe. I think they just hate sweaty cyclists. I was getting ready to start a fight over the buffet when Jamie took my arm and dragged me out. We ate noodle soup for breakfast instead.

The border was only one kilometer from our hotel so after breakfast we got there in no time. As we approached the first border gate we were swarmed by a mob of money changing girls. Jamie was drawn in by their chatty eagerness and began discussing exchange rates. We had about US$200 which we’d need to get us through the 600 kilometers to Laos’s sole ATM in Vientiane. Because we had a decently large amount of money, Jamie figured we’d be able to negotiate for a good exchange rate. We got one girl to agree to 9,500 kip to 1 US dollar (the current official rate is 9,600), which is basically as good as the rate we’d get at a bank so we decided to throw caution to the wind and change money. We turned over our Vietnamese dong and chaos ensued. The girls worked themselves (and Jamie) into a frenzy with their calculators, pads of paper, pens, and gigantic wads of money. They were all talking over each other, louder and louder, crowding closer and closer to Jamie. I was standing back laughing hysterically but also trying to keep an eye on all his stuff to make sure no one tried to swipe anything. Here’s one picture; I love the expression on the girl’s face to the far right. She’s probably saying “Sucker!” to her friends. Our selected money changing girl is the one in the bright orange sweatshirt. Later on it became fortunate that she was wearing such a distinctive outfit…

Our girl counted out the 1.7 million Lao kip that was our due. She counted it, her friends counted it, they passed it all around and punched their calculators furiously, Jamie grabbed it and counted it and tried to impose order on chaos: “OK this is ONE million. Now where’s the 700,000?!” More counting, more calculating, more grabbing. We finally got it all straightened out, said thank you to our girl, and got ready to cross the border. Here’s a scene from the final moments of money changing. Note that everyone is crowding around closer and closer as Jamie demonstrates his skills on their calculator:

We decided that we’d each count the money one more time because borders are infamous for rip-offs and the numbers we were dealing with were so huge that we knew it’d be easy to make a mistake. Turns out that we’d gotten 1,072,000 instead of the 1,720,000 that we were supposed to have which is a rip-off of over $60 US dollars! We looked at each other with shock and dread – we’d just been had by a bunch of giggling, pink-hatted, glittery-fingernailed girls! Jamie said “Should we try to find her?” and I roared “YES! What was she wearing?!”

The orange shirt came in handy as I raced towards the group of girls about 50 ft away; I was able to identify her immediately. The girls weren’t sure what I was after. They eagerly moved towards me and said “Change money? Change money?!” I said “Yessss…sure…” and lured them closer. At this point orange-shirt realized what was going on and she tried to slink away and hide behind a nearby semi-truck. I charged after her, plowing my bike through a sea of people, and yelled “Hey you! Come back here!” At this point Jamie realized I’d successfully apprehended the suspect and came over to join me in my confrontation with orange-shirt. We told her she owned us money, and she meekly agreed which surprised us. Then she smiled, shook her head, batted her eyelashes, and said in a sing-song voice, “I sorrrry! I don’t know!” For some reason this actually worked on Jamie and he smiled and practically patted her on the head and gave her a hug while saying, “That’s OK”. Anyhow, after more rounds of furious counting and calculating (we had to forcibly grab our wad of Vietnamese dong back out of her hand more than a few times in order to get things going again), we got the correct sum of money. The strangest thing was that after we had gotten our Lao kip, the girls were either glaring at us or making pouty faces like we had ripped them off! They even asked for some of our dong as a souvenir. We just laughed, said our goodbyes, and crossed the border into Laos with no further incidents.

The landscape immediately on the other side of the border in Laos is similar to Vietnam, but the people are much more poor; most live in thatched shacks and most of the children are completely naked. When we pass through villages, groups of kids run hysterically through their yards to scream “Hello” or “Bye Bye” at us. There are lots of people out working in the rice paddies; the green color of the rice is so bright that it looks fake:

The road was extremely smooth and there was hardly any traffic at all. The only downside was that when a vehicle did pass, it was a smelly, polluting truck. It is not fun to ride through a cloud of black soot.

We had a fairly stiff headwind for much of first day, but it was really cloudy and we even got rained on a little bit which was great. It is so much better to ride in the rain than to feel like your skin is being roasted to a crisp. I was drafting closely behind Jamie to stay out of the headwind when I bumped my wheel into his, lost control of my bike, and crashed right into the middle of the highway. I was sort of dazed at first and then the only thing I could think of was that I had to get off the highway as quickly as possible. I scrabbled over to the side of the road, dragging my bike, and assessed the damage. I’d landed on my leg and the side of my head. Luckily I’d been smart enough not to put my arm out to catch myself – that’s how I broke it last time! My knee and thigh were scraped up and bruised, but my head and face were fine because the helmet had shielded them. My right brake was bent in at an odd angle, but Jamie was able to straighten it out. Overall I escaped with minimal damage and felt fine, so we rode on to our final destination.

We arrived at Muang Phin and learned at our hotel that the town didn’t have electricity until 5pm; our guidebook makes it sounds like this is typical for rural Laos. We rode around town looking for a place to have dinner and didn’t find much. We ended up with an extremely fishy tasting papaya salad and some noodle soup full of random (non-refrigerated) pig parts. This is almost exactly how our first dinner in Cambodia turned out; we are hoping the food situation here isn’t as dire as it was there!

The next two days went smoothly and after a couple of days of cycling in Laos, we understood why everyone says it is so peaceful here. The road is extremely smooth and quiet. Traffic varies from light to nonexistent. Every once in a while you get passed by a logging truck (carrying teak we guess?), but mostly you just ride along listening to the bugs and watching people working the rice paddies.

The other thing we noticed in Laos right away is that goats have replaced cows as the livestock of choice. They are everywhere!

We haven’t seen goat on any restaurant menus, but one new thing we did get to eat is sticky rice. It is a staple of the Lao diet and in the morning you see old women delivering it to their customers in wicker baskets. You just pull a clump out of the basket, roll it up with your fingers, and dip it into your food. Delicious! Surprisingly, food is more expensive here than in Vietnam. The price of a cup of coffee went up from US$0.25 to US$0.50 and a bowl of noodle soup now costs US$1 instead of US$0.50.

Today we arrived in Savannakhet and tomorrow we will probably take a bus north to Vientiane. Then we will start riding north through the mountains toward China.

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