Friday, January 20, 2006

Even monks need to do their laundry

Some more thoughts on Laos after almost a month of traveling here.

-- The Lao people are super friendly and helpful. Even when they're trying to sell you something, you still feel like there is goodwill involved. Plus, as I have been sick and had other incidents over the past few weeks, I've been overwhelmed by the caring and kindness shown to me by the guesthouse owners and others. It's nice. It makes you feel not quite so alone and on the other side of the world from your family.

-- One thing we can't figure out. Lao people are not big. By and large they are significantly shorter than westerners with short little legs. Yet the steps on their stair cases are HUGE. Whether it be in a modern guesthouse or up ancient steps to a Wat or down clay foot steps to the river we are struggling to stretch our legs enough to manage these steps that our Lao guides are just blithely running up and down. We can't quite figure it out..

-- The currency in Laos is the Kip, and it is pretty much worthless. Even banks in Laos won't necessarily let you change kip back into dollars, euros, baht, or other hard currency. Forget trying once you're outside the country. Because of this, the people here are happy (and eager) to get their hands onto hard currency and there is a healthy shadow (can you even call it shadow when it's so blatantly, officially, out in the open????) economy. Anything can be paid for not only in Kip, but also in Thai baht or US dollars. In fact, you often can get a better price if you DON'T pay in kip. (Laos Airlines, the NATIONAL airline, for example is requiring us to buy our plane tickets in dollars).

-- Surprisingly, given all the opportunities for shaving a cut off of these transactions, we've actually found the conversions at restaurants, hotels, markets, etc. to be extremely straight forward. They use the same exchange rate in both directions (unlike at a bank or money change place, for example) and are pretty flexible. But you do occasionally get a headache doing the math when you are paying a bill quoted in US dollars with Thai baht, and getting whatever change you are owed back in Lao kip.

-- Two other financial challenges in this part of the world. 1) The biggest bill that the kip comes in is equivalent to $2. So not only is it an unwanted currency, to pay for anything of any value, you would have to pack a wad worthy of a Rockefeller. 2) The other challenge for us is the fact that there are no ATMs in Laos and travelers checks are only accepted at banks in major cities. (Cambodia, while potentially having a few ATMs in their capital, is supposed to be about the same) That means that we had to move away from our previous monetary strategy of minimizing the amount of cash we carried and regularly refilling our pockets in local currency from ATM's. Instead, we loaded our moneybelts up with baht (75%) and dollars (10%) and dollar travelers checks (15%) and tried not to feel too conspicuous being walking piggy banks in countries where we were carrying the equivalent of a few people's annual wages. Luckily, we've been careful and have never felt at risk and things seem to be moving smoothly. But we're looking forward to getting back to more stable economies again with more easily accessible cash.
-- So far in Laos we've taken a 9 hour truck trip from Huay Xai to Luang Nam Tha (120 miles) , a 11.5 hour ordinary bus (i.e., aisles full of people and rice bags and people riding on top) trip from Luang Nam Tha to Luang Prabang (~200 miles), an 8 hour VIP air con bus from Luang Prabang to Vientiene (230 miles), and an 8 hour VIP air con NIGHT but from Vientiene to Pakse (400 miles, with the airconditioner's condenser periodically pouring water on me. fun). Amazing to think that growing up we thought going places more than 2 hours away was way too far.

-- Evidently Lao people don't believe in soft beds. The floors of the huts we slept on had more give than some of the guest house beds. And the bed at the last place we stayed was SOOO hard (how hard was it?) that a) Brian was easily able to do his push-ups on it instead of on the floor and b) you had to shift about every 20-30 minutes because your body parts would literally (no exaggerating) fall asleep from lack of blood flow and start to tingle. I can't tell you how much I miss my pillow-top mattress at home right now.

Back to catching up on email and getting organized for our trip down to the southern Laos islands tomorrow.


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