Before leaving Chiang Mai, we walked in the old city and enjoyed a few temples.
It was a long ride from Chiang Mai to the Thai-Laos border, through an increasingly rural landscape. We broke the trip up with a stop at a cashew farm and another at Wat Rong Khun in Chiang Rai, also known as the “The White Temple,” which is the unique creation of a Thai artist. I’ll let the pictures do the talking.
We spent the night at a sleepy little town on the Mekong, in preparation for our crossing into Laos.
We rose before dawn and arrived at border control before the lines got too long. After paying our departure taxes, we lugged our suitcases down a sandy bank (thanking the gods it wasn’t muddy and slick from rain) and clambered aboard a long boat with an outboard motor for the short trip across the big river.
On the opposite bank, we slogged up the hill, then up some steps, piled our passports and visas and entry fee money ($35 USD each for us) into the immigration window, and waited for our stamps. Then we had a few minutes to change currency and load up our songthaew. While others were at the ATM, I tried to get a couple of coffees, to go, from a restaurant. This was interesting. They made a strong, fresh brew by grinding a lot of coffee very fine, dumping it into a pitcher with some boiling water, and giving it a couple of minutes to brew and settle. I’d asked for milk and sugar, so the girl first put milk in each cup; then, before I could stop her, she grabbed a large scoop and filled one cup halfway to the brim with sugar.
“Too much, too much!” I cried. After some hand signals, she got my meaning and started over. It occurred to me that they might be using sweetened condensed milk, so I asked to see the milk. She held up a can. “Fresh meek. Fresh!” she said emphatically, pointing to the can. It was all I could do not to burst out laughing, but she was so earnest. She was holding it in a way that I couldn’t see the picture or words on the front, so I decided she probably meant that it was basically whole milk, not sweetened, and we’d deal with whatever we got for coffee.
Time to pay. The price was 16,000 kip (Lao currency, less than $2 US for two coffees), so I handed over one of the 50,000-kip notes we’d just procured at the ATM – the smallest denomination I had. A young man took the bill and disappeared out the back door without a word. I waited. And waited. And waited. “Change?” I ventured to the girl, showing my hand, palm up. “He get.” Just then our guide popped in. The songthaew was ready to go. Ack! Where is that guy?
At last, the young man returned with the change. My guess is he had to try several shops before he found a neighbor who could break a 50,000-kip note. That was my first insight into the Lao economy, which operates on two levels. There’s the tourist economy, in which the Lao people sell food and drinks and artistic treasures that they themselves can’t come close to affording. If you happen to be one of the first customers of the day, it’s best to bring a lot of small bills and coin, as the shopkeeper probably needs you to bridge the order-of-magnitude-difference between the Lao economy and the tourist economy.
Another thing I learned is that it’s good to be the first customer of the day when you go to the market looking for good deals. Often the vendor will quote you a discounted price, because they’re keen to make the first, lucky sale and get the cash rolling in. Later in the trip, I bought a few items while the night market in Luang Prabang was still setting up, and made four different vendors very happy, while I walked away with some major bargains, all for very little effort.This entry was posted in Honeymoon 2013