Thursday, September 4, 2008

Day 8: Nong Khai; Thai-Lao border; Vientiane, Laos

Having made several stops throughout the night, we finally made it to the Thai border village of Nong Khai. We stayed there for about an hour while we filled out our Laos entry forms.

About ten minutes later, we were at the Thai-Lao border, where we waited for about two hours. Luckily, Laos is one of the countries that gives visas on arrival, but only after paying the appropriate fee and filling out more paperwork. All in all, 2 entry forms and $36 later, I received my Lao visa and was allowed to cross over the border, where a new bus that was to take us to Vientiane was waiting. But we still had to pay one more time: about 10 baht ($0.30) to cross onto the other side. Whatever it took, I finally made it, and, half an hour later, the bus was on its way to Vientiane.

About another half our later, we were in Vientiane.

I couldn't even believe it.

After Bangkok, a city of at least 8 million people, Vientiane, with its population of about 240,000, felt like a small suburb. The level of development between Thailand and Laos was obvious immediately. In all aspects, Thailand, itself a fairly poor country with many poverty-stricken regions and a few wealthy ones, was centuries ahead of Laos economically. Laos, in short, was dirt poor, and this was visible in all aspects: there were fewer and older cars were on the road (and, conversely, many more tuk-tuks and motorbikes); the prices were even lower than in Thailand; there was a dearth of Western-style eateries and supermarkets. Indeed, only hours later did we see a Shell petrol station, and that was about it. No 7-11s, no McDonald's or McThai, as in Thailand. This was a very Lao city, distinct from Bangkok in myraid ways.

And, actually, I liked it. I liked it because it felt like a different country. I liked it because it was so different from Bangkok, and because there was so little western influence. But it took a while to get used to this sense of western isolation.

Laos is officially known as the Lao PDR, or People's Democratic Republic. Yes, it is nominally a communist country, but it doesn't feel like one. Lao people understand the Thai language, due to its similarity and owing to the fact that Thai TV is popular in Laos. However, this is not a police state by any means: although policemen are common in certain places, they are not everywhere. But even without them, I felt remarkably safe for a country that I thought, for one reason or another, would be dangerous.

Vientiane is actually the French spelling of the Lao capital that is actually pronounced Wieng Chan (literally Sandlewood City). The French used to rule Laos up until roughly 40 years ago, hence the spelling. French and English, I was told, are mandatory foreign languages in school today. Most of the foreign signage--about 70%--was in English, though. The rest (25%) was in French and about 5% was in Japanese and Chinese.

The national currency of Laos is the kip, which is more or less stable now. At present, the exchange rate is about 8,827 kip to $1.
The food was distinct, too. Unlike Thailand's numerous spices and fried rice, Lao people prefer sticky rice and less spices. The food is more green, too. The most famous dish is the kaap (pictured above), which is some lettuce, rice and either fish, chicken, beef, or pork. And it is very filling cheap (about $2). And, of course, always served with Beerlao (< $1), the national drink that is ever so popular here.

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