22 January, 2007

Take the Slow Boat

We are leaving Thailand tomorrow and heading to Laos.

Good bye, green curry with chicken and coconut!

Good bye, medieval city walls!

Good bye, signs in English!

Tomorrow morning at 0930 we take a minibus to the boarder, then board a slow boat (3 days) to Luang Prabang, Laos. Here's something I never knew: apparently you don't pronounce the "s" at the end. Did you guys know that? It sounded funny to me at first but now I sorta wince when I hear someone Laos like a rhyme for "mouse." It is supposed to rhyme with "cow." So, who knew.

I'm going shopping for fruit and snacks for the long slow trip down the Mekong. I am saying goodbye by walking around by myself in the sunshine and listening to my iPod. Will I ever come back to Chiang Mai? I hope so.

Here is the Blog I wrote on the way.

Grrr. I am raging the rage of a sucker. A border-crossing, packaged-tour buying sucker. If you want to go from Thailand to Laos, listen up: the goal of this blog is to save someone from going through the same crap that we are going through right now.

So we’re in Chiang Mai, right? And we want to go to Laos. We spend a morning going door to door, asking advice of travel agents on how best (and cheapest) to get to Luang Prabang, Laos. Every single place is selling the same tour: a company named aYa (their tall red and white banner is the warning sign) will pick you up from your guest house around 0930, drive you to the border in a minibus, you pay for your visa, they feed you dinner, then you spend the night in a guesthouse. The next morning, they feed you breakfast and put you on the slow boat, which takes two days. That second night is your own expense, as is meals from here on out. In the afternoon of the second day on the boat, you reach Luang Prabang.

Every agent that we talked to offered this trip and only this trip. One place offered it for 1350B, one place for 1250B, and finally, one place for 1150B (Tic Travel in the Old City, if you’re interested). So we book the tour at the cheapest place and the next morning we’re picked up by the minivan.

Now here’s a good thing: the minivan is cushy. It’s spacious, the A/C works, and they didn’t overload it with passengers (first time we’ve seen this happen so far). There were the usual commissioned stops, of course, but no sales pressure; if you wanted a snack, you bought a snack, and the bus didn’t linger overly long at any of the stops.

Now, in Chiang Mai, all the travel agents were pretty clear on one thing: a Laos visa costs $30. That’s what they all said. So we brought $30 each, in US Dollars, as we were explicitly told to do by Tic Travel. So here’s where the first bad thing happens. When we are dispatched from the minibus at the border, the aYa staff there (I’m assuming that’s who they were, since they were there to handle our group) handing us the paperwork tells us that a visa for a US citizen costs $40. That’s a 33% price increase from what the travel agent told us the day before. Sorry, says the border girl, these prices have been in effect since November. Well how is that possible, I ask, since we were just told yesterday by this company that visas are $30? I don’t know, she says, we can’t be responsible for what they tell you in Chiang Mai.

Now hold on a sec. My understanding is that when you fly a company’s banner, write out an itemized receipt with the company logo, and have the company pick you up the next day that the price they quoted should be the correct price. I am completely aware that things work differently here than they do at home, but still, isn’t that sort of blatantly scammy? We sigh and hand over the forty dollars each. Ouch. Then we are ferried across the river—the most laid-back border I could ever imagine. Once we’re on the other side, the guy who is in charge of us (and who I was also assuming works for aYa but who later hands us a card that says EasyTrip) makes us wait quite a while to get our passports back. He’s got them, but he’s handing them out very slowly, and oddly enough, hanging onto the USA ones for last. I’m watching him do this. Once we get our passports we join the queue to have them stamped, which is the last step in being here legally, and we notice a sign broadcasting the price of a visa if you buy it on this side of the river: $35 for a US citizen. What? So we did just hand over a pocket greasing tip! Dang it! When we get to the front of the line, we read that there is a surcharge for overtime work (done between 4pm and 6pm). It is 5:15 pm, but we have been hanging out just waiting for at least an hour. We grumble and hand over the surcharge (which, ok, it isn’t much- about a dollar. But still, now we’re at $6 or $11 over what it is supposed to cost, depending on where you’re counting from).

(A quick note to those living back home in the States, or Oz, or wherever: please forgive me for being so concerned over this smallish amount of money. I know it’s what I used to happily spend on a greek salad at the Brew’n’View. But trust me, when your daily budget is $10, including room and board and fun and everything, a situation like this can cause some stress: we just lost a day of traveling).

Anyway, we ask our guy in charge of us what the official exchange rate is (he has asked us to call him “Mr. Information,” after all) but he rather slyly says that he doesn’t want to answer any of our questions until dinner time, when he can tell everyone all at once. That is when he will tell us, quote, “What to do and what to don’t in Laos.” Okay.

At the appointed time, we are gathered and waiting for his speech. But all it consists of is: don’t try to spend your local currency in Laos. In Laos, you can only spend Lao money. You can get Laos money at a thing called a bank. At this point, I am grumpy and I feel cheated and I am in no mood for a long lecture from a sleazy guy who seems like he is about to—yup, he just did: he tells us that the banks have just closed but this very hotel that he is standing in (that he has led us to) will be happy to exchange our local currencies for the Laos kip. I am sure that they will. Instead of shuffling to the end of the now forming line to be given a shoddy exchange rate (8000 kip to the dollar, as opposed to the 9600 kip rate at the bank), we approach Mr. Info and ask him what time we’ll be leaving in the morning. No, no, he says—that I will tell everyone later. No, no, we say—you will tell us exactly now. Okay, he says to me conspiratorially, but he (Kenny) has to cover his ears. He tells me that the boat will leave at 10 but we will meet in this hotel at 9am. Ok, then, it’s decided: tomorrow morning we’re going to the banks, so that we can at least feel like our few remaining dollars are dying a decent death.

Now it is time to assign us to our rooms, which are not bad, although the first and second guesthouses fill up and the rest of us go on a little hike down the street to find some empty rooms. Once we do, the room is good: big, clean, with towels (yes!) and two rolls of toilet paper (double yes!). Ours also has free hot drinking water, which means our instant coffee and tea bags will keep us warm tonight. So this is not bad. But when we head over to hotel central to get our included dinner, what is handed to us is a Styrofoam container of room-temperature fried rice. We saw them deliver it an hour earlier, during our talk. And that’s dinner.

Breakfast the next morning is a cold egg between two slices of white bread. Come to get yours a little bit late, and the lady handing them out asks you for 6,000 kip, not believeing that you haven't yet had your alotted egg sammy. Then we line up to get on the boat, but not before they try to sell you a cushion on which to sit (the boats have wooden benches) for 100B. Didn't they just tell us it was illegal to use any curreny besides kip?!

Then comes two very long days on sitting on the boat, but our moods improve greatly with the new scenery and the funny company of other scammed yet merry tourists. In fact, the farther into Laos we float, and the further from our packaged tour prices, the easier everything seems. By the time we land in Luang Prabang, we once again have stars in our eyes in regards to Asia but still, very glad to be off the boat.

But as far as aYa goes, we are not impressed. If we had bought the public bus ticket from Chiang mai to the border (250 to 300B), bought the Visa on the Laos side ($35 for US citizens), and purchased the slow boat ticket separately (130,000 kip, which I suspect to be about $13), we could have found some cheap guest house and noodle soup for dinner and be better fed and have more in our wallets right now. I vow to never again take a packaged tour, especially not one from aYa. This blows. I think that crossing from Laos back into Vietnam will be my big project now, and I think I’ve got it figured out: we’re going to forsake the tourist trail (Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng to Vientiane) and head east, going from Luang Prabang to Muang Ngoi Neua to Sam Neua and cross into VN at Nam Xoi. Yeah.

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