Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Alive in Lao

One thing that has eluded us thus far in Asia is the time-distance ratio. Just how long is it going to take to get from here to there, there to here. One never can say for certain. We were in Mae Saelong, in Thailand and were hoping to cross the Laos border and then make it a few hours north up to Luang NamTha that same day. We really had no idea if it was possible or not. I suppose it's just all part of the adventure. Can you imagine me (especially) living like this at home? Who knows where we will sleep tonight? Somewhere between here and there...

Mae Saelong has been one of our favourite Thai destinations. The town runs along the spine of a mountain; just a hop, skip and jump from the Chinese border. In fact, Chinese is more readily heard spoken on the streets than Thai. Being in a village on the spine of a mountain is spectacular. On either side of the road the land gives way to steep slopes now mostly lined with tea plants. Every which way you look you see lovely lush hills in the foreground and the distant majestic mountains of Burma or China in the background. Houses, shops and restaurants cling to the edge of the mountain, rooted in the rock on the one side and supported by bamboo stilts on the other. Every house has a breathtaking view. The downside of being on the spine of a mountain is the getting there. Hair pin turns switch back and forth, back and forth, up, up, up the terrifying, yet beautiful mountain range. Once you're at the top, there's no where to go but down. Really down. Down, down down. This thought doesn't seem to even enter the minds of locals as they fly down the streets helmet-less on their motorbikes (see our Flickr photos on the right).

Anyways, that's where our adventure to Laos began. With an early morning, ninety minute songtheaw ride back down through the mountains with a old lady who spit out the window every thirty seconds and a couple of babies who stared at Jonathan's beard like it was about to jump off his face and attack them. (Although, really, who knows whats living up there in that crazy facial bush these days). The songtheaw pulled up alongside another songtheaw in a backstreet village and our bags were hoisted from one roof to another and we switched to another songtheaw for the duration of our journey to Chiang Rai. From Chiang Rai we hopped a bus to Chang Khong, on the Laos border. We were dropped off on the side of the street, conveniently in front of the tuk tuk hang out so that we could pay them a bit to drive us further down the street to where the tiny eight-seater long tail boats waited to take us across the river to Laos. Really, the bus could have dropped us off at the end of the street next to the boat pier, but then what would all these tuk tuk drivers have to do all day? We paid the boat guy far too much to take us for a sixty second jaunt across the river where we then waded through the mud to get to the landing.

There was a sign that said 'Check In' up the hill from the boat ramp, and so we assumed that that might be a good place to stop and maybe have a chat with Laos Immigration. Who knew though, really. Tourists were walking about lost for direction practically bumping into each other as they tracked in circles. There was absolutely no direction. Somehow we ended up with paperwork to fill out and then we stood in front of the window that said 'visa fee' as opposed to the 'check in,' 'check out,' or 'only official money exchange' sign, which were the other options. The officers stared back at us from behind the glass. So we stood there some more. Then someone came out and took our papers, passport and photo and stomped back into the office slamming the door behind him. We inched closer to the glass window. The Officers were doing their best to avoid any eye contact. Now what? We wondered. So I asked. 'Now what?' I asked politely, sticking my face up to the minscule hole just wide enough to slide our passports. 'Five minutes,' the Officer barked. And then he sat there, with the
pile of our passports beside him and continued to count his wad of American money. (The visa fee is charged in USD, but they take Thai Baht too, if you really want to be ripped off.) First, he spread it out into piles, separating the tens from twenties and fifties. Then he piled them all back up again. Then, for what appeared to be sheer entertainment, he divided the bills into piles again. Then he wadded the bills, arranged them into origami shapes, and put elastics around them. Then he took the elastics off and rearranged them again. Wash, rinse, repeat. When we got bored of that show, we turned our attention to the 'VISA FEE' paper that had been taped to the wall. We were shocked to find that Canadians pay the absolute highest fee for a Laos visa. $44 USD! Most European countries were $30USD and the United States was $37. If you were from Cuba or China you got a super deal at only $20 USD. Even citizens of Afghanistan could get a Laos visa cheaper than Canadians. What exactly had Canada done to anger Laos Immigration to this extent, I wondered. Someone should get to the bottom of this. Perhaps, next time we are on Skype we will take a second to ring up Mr. Harper and request that he pen a letter offering Canada's sincerest, deepest apologies to Laos, for whatever our wrong-doings may have been, and send it off straight away. Oh, and would he mind sending our $28 refund cheque to....

We figured our 'five' minute wait was up when someone called 'Visa Fee!' through the passport slot and wagged our passports at us like we were dogs being offered a bone. 'Why is Canada so much?' I asked the Officer forking over our US dollars. He looked at me like I had just asked him to solve the problem 527 x 7237502750 (it equals 3,814,163,949,250) and shook his head. 'Ahhh so it's super classified information!' I nodded, putting a finger aside my nose, 'Don't worry, your secret is safe with me!' He smiled. He had no idea what I was talking about. But it didn't really matter. We had Laos visas and a thirty-day entry stamp. All was good. We barely even got down the steps from the 'Check In' Office when we passed a Tiki Bar looking set up with a handwritten sign that said 'Passport Check.' The bartender/Officer took a quick glance at our passports and waved us up the road. Nice.

It was mid afternoon by this point and it was hot. We arranged a mini bus to NamTha at the first ticket agency we came to and spent a couple hours exchanging our Thai Baht for Laos Kip and eating lunch while we waited for our bus. The bus was meant to arrive at 4pm and we would be in Luang NamTha three hours later. We were counting on it to be on time, because we knew the road up to NamTha was windy and we didn't want to be driving it at night. Doing anything in Asia at night other than sleeping in a safe, comfortable (and on land) guest house isn't high on our priority list. Driving on these crazy roads with these crazy drivers at night is actually in the Top Five of our 'Things to Avoid at All Costs,' list. You can imagine how happy we were then when our minibus arrived at about 3:50pm. And you can also imagine our growing annoyance when that same mini bus drove away to get 'fuel' and then didn't return for another hour. So close. We knew then, that even if the bus did in fact take three hours, which was highly unlikely, that we would still be on the road, winding around the hairpin turns in the dark. We said a prayer and threw our luggage up onto the roof.

'Do you notice anything different?' Jonathan asked me. I looked around. Kamikaze motorbikers, rusty local buses, rickety tuk tuks. 'Ummm. No?' 'We're back on the right side of the road!' Wow. He was right. So weird. We had been on the left side for so many months, and now in little landlocked Laos, they decided to drive on the right hand side! That must make land border crossings quite interesting... Maybe saying that we were driving on the right side of the road would be a bit of a stretch. In actual fact, we were swerving back and forth across the road to which ever stretch of pavement the driver deemed more favourable. It also wouldn't be a stretch to say we had an 'ambidexturous' driver who spent just as much time on the left side of the road as he did on the right. So far, we liked Laos.

'Whoa! What's this?' Jonathan asked pulling a long sturdy piece of material out from under his bottom. 'Hmmm. I have no idea!' I said, studying the metal clip at the end of it. We burst out laughing, like we were the funniest people this side of 'Just For Laughs.' It was a seat belt. We hadn't seen a seat belt since out plane landed in Singapore and we found it pretty entertaining to find one on this ancient mini bus. We buckled up. 'Safety First!' That's our motto.

We weren't even on the outskirts of the city and our driver was already concentrating intensely on the obstacle course of cows, water buffalo, piglets, dogs, cats, children and people's houses that kept popping out in front of us like a line of nasty jack-in-the-box. What? You've never seen a house 'pop out of no where?' Believe me. It happens. It must walk out on its stilts or something. Our guidebook said that the road improvements between the border and NamTha had made the journey significantly more enjoyable that it previously had been. The condition of the road solidly pointed to the conclusion that the guidebook authors had imbibed in some local Lao Lao (rice whisky) when penning these notes. Either that or the 'road' was previously a jungle trench, filled with monkey poo and lined with yet-to-be-detonated UXOs. Because that's the only way that this road would be an improvement to anything. If we were in NamTha in three hours, I would eat my hat. Beside me, Jonathan comforted Jimmy the Rice Hat, telling him that he would protect him in the event that a hat would, in fact, have to be consumed.

I was cursing the Lonely Planet (which is a daily event anyways) when the road magically transformed into pavement smoother than a baby's bottom. The saying 'Be Careful What You Wish For' popped into my head. As soon as the road evened out our driver morphed into Mario Andretti playing a racing video game. It must have been a game, because there is no way anyone in real life, with real 'live' people as passengers would drive like this. Because you come very close to feeling like you are going to die. And generally I wouldn't pay money for that sort of thrill. He took the ninety degree turns at the perfect speed to get up on two wheels at every possible opportunity. The curves were so tight that he had to use all his body weight to make the steering wheel turn. He was a little guy. I know this because I was sitting directly behind him and watched in fear as his torso would swing into the passenger seat when we turned right and practically out the window when we swerved left. Seriously: picture a little kid playing a car racing game.

Just as the last rays of light were sinking behind the mountains, the driver gave one last galiant effort to kill us before nightfall. We played chicken with an oncoming transport. Just for fun. I mean, the pavement WAS better on that side of the road. 'Don't worry,' Jonathan sighed, opening one eye after I disturbed his slumber with a panicked shake. 'That's why they gave us seat belts: in case the road is better on the wrong side. We'll be fine.' And we were. Note to Self: Try even harder to avoid the roads at night.


Mom and Dad Mooney said...

Whoa Jonathan - We know how much you like heights! Great pictures on the rickety bridge. You guys are amazing - experiencing more adventures than most of us will in a lifetime

Sarah said...

Ahh... the description of you two tredging in the mud to cross the loasian (Sp?) border was great. Sounded kind of like you were illegal immigrants or refugees sneaking across instead of crossing at a designated border. Lovely :) I agree, the picture of Jon on the bridge is breath-taking. Enjoy Loas!

Anonymous said...

Hi J and K,
Thanks for your Postcard which arrived yesterday. When your blog comes, I become an armchair traveller, getting comfortable to travelling with you the easy way. The ride into Laos was hair raising . So it isjust as well you were making the trip and not me.Every blog you send is most interesting and informative.
You are in our thoughts and prayers each day. Looking forward to some of your hair raising experiences !

Anonymous said...

Kristen i would suspect the reason the hign cost for Canadians is that you have encountered one of the IMM officers at the RB and didnt allow them entry.

karly said...

Omg you guys are way too funny!! I can do nothing but smile n laugh when i read your blog!! N I can just picture everything!! Miss you n love you!! Xoxoxooxox