We woke up on the train in a different landscape to that we’d left behind in Bangkok – everything looked a lot drier, as the dry season is in full swing up in the north. Instead of lush green trees and grasses, as around Bangkok, there is instead a profusion of different shades of brown and grey. But we weren’t planning to hang around, but instead get straight across the border to Laos. We’d already arranged our visa in Bangkok (dead easy through any of the travel agents in town, and cheaper to buy there than on arrival), and so we hopped straight into a tuk-tuk (motorised three-wheeler), to the bridge.
We got our passports stamped to leave Thailand, and then caught a minibus on the bridge over the Mekong. The river bed was huge, but because of the dry season the river was filling only a part of it, with a kind of muddy soup. Mind you, it was still 200m wide (we later learnt that the Chinese are building 8 dams upstream, and less water is coming down the river every year). Perhaps the most curious feature of the crossing was a road-sign that showed two arrows crossing over. It was when we saw the road do the same that we realised what was going on – we were changing from driving on the left (Thailand) to driving on the right (ex-French colony, Laos!). Although we’re used to that living in England, it’s the first time I’ve come across on the road border, and I’m glad I wasn’t doing the driving – the road was just like a cross-over on a Scaletrix track!
Then we had to get all the formalities done in Laos, the ninth country of our trip, and we all admired the pretty passport stamp (communist countries really go to town on their stamps, to create quite a work of art). Then we went to the exchange desk to get some local currency. Knowing we’d be there a while, I changed $100 (these days, only worth about 55 Pounds!). But in Laos it’s worth a fortune, and we got a huge wad of notes from the bank teller. The Kip trades at 10,400 kip to $1. So we ended up with 1,040,000 kip. Fortunately it wasn’t all in One Kip notes, but we did get quite a lot of 5,000 Kip notes. In fact, up to 2 years ago, the 5,000 Kip note was the largest denomination, and that was the biggest one the bank on the border had.
So I ended up trying top cram 200 banknotes into my wallet. Just to help you imagine what that’s like, the picture on the left shows my Million Kip wad, photographed alongside our South East Asia Rough Guide (the guidebook covers 11 countries over 1,400 pages, so its pretty thick!). It made everything seem hugely expensive, until we got used to it.
We decided to miss Vientiane, as nobody seemed to have a good word for it, and head straight to the bus station to catch a local bus to Vang Vieng, two and a half hours away. The taxi fare was 60,000 kip, and the bus was 10,000 kip each!
The bus trip brought back so many memories of travelling around India. The bus was an old wreck, with seats with no padding, and all of the windows wide open to let in a small breeze into the stifling interior. Our rucksacks were lashed onto the roof by the conductor (who also travelled up there most of the trip), and the two and a half hour trip turned out to be a four hour one. But we did have one toilet stop – in full view just crouching in the middle of a field. There was no discretion involved at all – all of the passengers were fascinated with the sight of Charlotte and Emily heading off for the toilet. I decided I could wait!
When we arrived in Vang Vieng we knew we’d made a good choice – we found a clean and modern guest house, with a triple room for $4 a night, and then had a cool drink on a terrace, overlooking the river and the sunset. Moving around is always a bit of hassle, because you never know what to expect at your next stop/destination, so it was great to put the bus trip behind us as we sipped on ice-cold 15p bottles of Pepsi. We were so lethargic, we didn’t even move for dinner, and just stayed for a great Laos style meal, costing a massive 73,000 Kip (whoa, almost 4 Pounds). Part of the reason we felt relaxed here was the striking similarities to Yangshuo in China, one of the nicest towns and views in China – limestone karts towering over paddy fields and people.