Saturday, February 24, 2007 Laos Lao Peoples Democratic Republic

Viva Laos Vegas

Luang Prabang night market [Enlarge]

Our first night in Laos was also our first night sleeping under a mosquito net. We didn't really need it as we had air conditioning, but it was suspended from a hook in the ceiling and if we hadn't unfurled it we would have probably had strange dreams about ghosts hovering above the bed. Having tucked it in around the bed, we took everything we needed into our cocoon. Except we forgot the ear plugs, which we suddenly needed at 05:00 when the roosters started doing their noisy rooster thing. Yes, there was in fact a chicken coop right outside our ground-floor window.

Laos is an ex-French colony and one of the better things the French did to the place was to introduce the wonder of bread. Our breakfast consisted of freshly baked baguettes—not something we thought we would have in Asia! We would have liked to stay in the Merry Swiss for our second night but they were full, so we spent the first hour of the day finding another guest house—we eventually settled on the Xieng Mouane, which was in a colonial-style mansion set around a garden courtyard. Then the day was ours to spend hanging out in Luang Prabang, soaking up the weird ex-colonial astmosphere. Most of the official street signs were in Lao and French, but clearly the commercial pressure favours Lao and English, because the shops and menus were generally in those languages. Much to the chagrin of the many French tourists who still arrive in Laos expecting to be able to converse fluently with the locals. And also, much to our slightly twisted Anglo-Saxon amusement.

We did have one or two chores to accomplish, not least deciding on our onward route. We eventually settled on taking a bus south to the capital, Vientiane, from where we would cross back into Thailand and take the train back to Bangkok. We found an agent offering decent AC buses and booked two tickets on his Super VIP bus. It was hardly any more money than the regular AC one and we wanted to ensure the most comfortable journey possible—we had heard about Laos's roads. Apparently, when working out travelling times between cities you should use an average speed of twenty kilometres per hour. We also booked a couple of seats on the overnight train back to Bangkok.

When we reached for our wallet to pay for the tickets we realised that we weren't very well off for cash. Two nights at three times the price we had planned for had severely dented our reserves and we soon learned that the situation wasn't easy to resolve. For the first time on our whole journey we were in a country that doesn't have ATMs. They are just starting to be introduced in Vientiane, and they will probably spread very quickly. But for now, according to the travel agent, there are precisely none in Luang Prabang. We did have just enough cash for the bus tickets so we got the agent to cancel the train tickets—we will be able to book them from Vientiane or the Thai border town of Nong Khai.

We eventually found that there is a sort-of ATM in Luang Prabang—it is a dodgy-looking contraption in the Banque Pour le Commerce Exterieur Lao, a currency exchange office, which will only work with MasterCard credit cards (we generally use our Visa debit card in ATMs as the bank we switched to just before we started our trip doesn't charge us any commission or fees for making the transactions). Since we were going to have to make an advance against our credit cards anyway, we decided to pass on the machine and go up to the window.

In Laos, money is a bit of an issue generally. The local currency is the kip, but because of recent hyperinflation it has lost around eighty percent of its value. Unsurprisingly the locals prefer not to use it with tourists. Despite a law prohibiting companies from advertising prices for goods and services in anything other than kip, you are positively encouraged to pay for everything in either US dollars or Thai baht (always getting your change in kip, of course!). In our heads we still obviously work in pounds Sterling, so we are having to juggle four different currencies in our heads all the time! For example, we see a bus ticket advertised at 100,000 kip. In our heads we would be thinking about five quid, and we would actually hand over around ten dollars or 400 baht.

Anyway, we needed to get a fair bit of cash out in case the bus broke down half way to Vientiane and we were stuck needing accommodation. But it is difficult to change kip back into anything worthwhile when you leave Laos, so we wanted to get baht or dollars. The exchange staff were unwilling to issue dollars but we managed to persuade them to give us some baht, although the transaction would still be put on our card in dollars. We were going to get stung for commission on both ends (sounds painful)—the exchange office would take their 3% cut, as well as their favourable kip–dollar–baht exchange rate, then our credit card company would charge us interest and commission, and their own favourable dollar–Sterling exchange rate. We took the hit and bought 8,000 baht (GBP 126.93 / USD 244.61).

There were a couple of places we fancied visiting in Luang Prabang. There was the museum and the climb up to the temple on the hill in the centre of the city. We headed for the museum first but when we got there we discovered that we had to leave our shoes, bag and camera at the entrance and pay a foreigner-weighted entrance fee. We decided we couldn't be bothered, so instead we headed for the steps up to the temple. There are 328 steps according to the signs at the top and bottom. We were about 110 steps up when we bumped into the film crew from the BBC Holiday Programme. For non-British readers this is a long-running UK television show which, as the name suggests, reviews holiday destinations. It was not Judith Chalmers slogging up the hill, nor even Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen… what would the humidity have done to his frilly cuffs? Instead we had a chat between takes with the very friendly and modest Simon Calder. He was much more interested in hearing about our travels than talking about his own and we now have his business card and an invitation to send him any good travel tips we might come up with. We were tempted to drop the Laos Vegas quip into the conversation and claim it as our own, but by this time his director was ready to start filming again. The show is due to be aired in the UK some time in March. He had taken a slowboat down the Mehkong from Huayxai just like us (although he made the overnight stop in Pak Beng), and when you see him doing his piece in Luang Prabang at the temple at the top of the hill, think of us standing just out of the shot.

We wandered down the hill pausing briefly to see a giant footprint-shaped indentation in a rock—allegedly left by the Lord Buddha himself—and to listen to some monks enthusiastically bashing a very large drum. The night market was setting up as we walked back through the town. If we had been following the backpacker rules we would have had huge rucksacks as tall as us, which would have had plenty of room for hand carved Buddha and elephant statues, inlaid chess boards, beautiful handmade pressed-flower paper lampshades and notepads, and of course fake designer sunglasses and watches, made in China and ferried down the Mehkong. There were souvenir Beer Lao t-shirts too. It was nice to see some different, less mass produced stuff on sale alongside the tourist-tat. Maybe one day we'll come back with a long shopping list and a big wad of dollars. For dinner we chose a very popular restaurant overlooking the night market and drank Beer Lao as the sun went down.