It wasn’t easy, but we’ve made it to Vientiane, the capital city of Laos. Or as the backpackers like to call it in an attempt to seem really clued-in: Lao.

We spent one very fun evening in Savannakhet before hopping on the bus for the 400km ride to Vientiane. We took the bus to Vientiane because we have a one-month visa for Laos and didn’t think we could ride all the distance we have to cover. Savannakhet to Vientiane seemed like the most boring stretch: very flat along the Mekong with the same scenery or rice paddies that we have seen everywhere. In Savannakhet we met a woman from New Zealand who is on a 2 year assignment as a public health nurse here. It turns out that we actually rode our bikes right past her house outside of Picton, New Zealand! She brought us to a floating restaurant on the Mekong for dinner where we ate delicious fish and had a great time chatting with her. She’s traveled all over the world working as a nurse (in Nepal and the Arctic Circle!), does long distance mountain bike tours, jumps into rivers to cool off, and is a truly adventurous person. She reminded me of Anne Mustoe. After dinner we all took a short evening bike ride around the city to see the sights. We were both glad to have the chance to hang out with her – what an impressive and interesting person!

Here we are riding to dinner together:

The next day was not so good. We got on the 7:30am bus to Vientiane. We traveled only 400km but it took 8 hours. The bus had air-conditioning, but the driver refused to use it. The temperature was at a steady 95 for the entire 8 hours. We were sitting in pools of our own sweat on the vinyl seats; I developed a case of heat rash on my butt to complement the saddles sores I’ve begun to develop. I had a headache from lack of water and last but not least, people began throwing up into their handkerchiefs by the end of the trip. Jamie almost got hit by the woman behind him as we were filing off the bus. This is the type of experience that makes us really appreciate the fact that we’re traveling by bicycle and not bus! This was the first bus ride where we didn’t have to pay for our bicycles. We think one of the workers may have been trying to get some money from us, but he didn’t speak any English and gave up quickly when he realized we didn’t understand him. At the first stop, he called Jamie out of the bus and over to the ticket office. There, the ticket worker tried to talk to Jamie, but what he said was “How many cigarettes? How much does it cost?” Jamie stared at him trying to figure out what was going on and the guy then said “One cigarette, 40,000. Two cigarettes, 70,000.” Jamie was bewildered and said “Cigarettes or bicycles?” but no one seemed to understand and everyone left us alone after that.

Vientiane is a very nice city and wonderful for biking – nice wide streets and not much traffic at all. We were starting to get sick of noodle soup, so we’ve really been the variety of food available here. We’ve had really good Indian food, pizza, and croissants with lattes and free wi-fi in the morning. Heaven!

Riding into town. There’s a rumor that this arch was created out of cement that the US government donated to Laos so it could build an aircraft runway. Laos built the arch instead:

Not everything is running perfectly though; we got to exercise our problem solving skills yesterday. There are no ATMs in Laos other than the one here in Vientiane so we need to withdraw enough money to ride through the entire country and into China. We have about 20 days of riding in Laos ahead of us, plus possibly 10 more days in China to reach the first ATM where we can restock our cash supplies. At $35 per day (our average) plus a little padding for emergencies, that is a little over $1,000. Ideally we want that money in US Dollars rather than Laos kip because (1) A thousand dollars in kip would be a stack of money literally 10″ high and (2) you can’t exchange kip outside of the country and even inside the country the currency fluctuates a lot and we could easily get screwed somewhere along the line.

Jamie lied awake all night worrying about this and, as usual, got annoyed with me that I wasn’t worrying with him. I told him that worrying while lying in bed wasn’t going to do any good and we’d just have to research it tomorrow and figure out a solution. This is how he has earned the name Mr. Doomsday; you may also remember that he exhibited similar behavior within the Suicide King journal entry.

So, we have the money we need in our US bank account; the problem is getting our hands on the actual cash we need from here. First we tried to go to the bank to see if there was some way to use the Laos bank to withdraw money from our US bank account. Nope; the only option there was to get a cash advance on our credit card which we’d have to pay a 20-25% interest fee on immediately. That’s $250 on $1000 – yikes! Next we went to the Western Union office; we’d heard you can wire money to yourself. It was difficult to explain what we were trying to do to the Western Union guy and in the end he told us we could only wire money to ourselves if we had cash. We laughed. If we had cash we wouldn’t need to wire money at all! Then we had the brilliant idea of going to an internet cafe and using the Western Union website to wire money to ourselves. They website allows you to enter a credit/debit card number – perfect! But alas, it did not work. We got an error code but weren’t sure what it meant so we tried changing all sorts of variables in our online request. Maybe you can’t send money from James Welle to James Welle? So we had James Welle send money to Sarah Erck. That didn’t work. Maybe there was a problem with our primary bank account, so we used our back up bank card? That didn’t work either. This went on for over an hour when we finally decided to give up. Our current theory is you can’t wire money into Laos using a credit card; you have to use cash.

We were feeling pretty depressed at this point, thinking we’d be forced into doing the cash advance and paying a 25% premium. We went to eat lunch and talk it over. After lunch we decided to stop by the ATM to see how much money it would allow us to withdraw in one day. We figured that carrying around gigantic stacks of kip would probably be better than paying $250 for the privilege of US dollars. The limit was $300 per day which Jamie went ahead and withdrew. At that rate we’d have to hang around here in Vientiane for four days to get enough money which is bad news because we have a lot of miles to cover before our Laos visa runs out. Not really thinking it’d work, we tried my ATM card which is hooked up to the exact same account as Jamie’s. Amazingly enough, it allowed me to withdraw $300 too – hurray! That cuts our Vientiane time down to only two days to get enough money. We were dancing with joy on the street beside the ATM as we realized that we wouldn’t have to pay a $250 fee for a cash advance. Then we realized we had $600 in cash on us and we were looking much to happy while lurking around an ATM, so we hopped on our bikes and took off to our hotel to hide the money before we became targets for some sort of armed robbery scheme.

Here are our wads of cash!

Tomorrow we head north towards Luang Prabang. This area of Laos is supposed to be extremely hilly and beautiful. We have met many cyclists who have said it is the highlight of Southeast Asia. Stay tuned for pictures!

3 Responses to “Vientiane”

  1. Simon A Says:

    For what it’s worth, Luang Prabang also has an ATM. At least it did last year. Of course, who knows if it a) works b) will accept your ATM cards? You might check on the Lonely Planet “thorntree” message board for more info.

  2. Simon A Says:

    Mention of Luang Prabang ATM here:

  3. reality check Says:

    FYI- it’s not just backpackers who refer to Laos as “Lao”. The previous spelling is a complete contrivance courtesy of the French colonizers who, as colonizers often do, bastardized hundreds if not thousands of years of history so that the name of their new country would be easier for them to pronounce. Sorry you had such a lame time, but please at least check wikipedia before re-writing world history at a whim. Cheers!

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