Joshua Slocums book – Time for a final scam – Into Laos – Language school basics – A 2 billion dollar war – Foreign aid and investment.
I’ve just finished reading Joshua Slocums book. I had vowed against reading books in first person because when your only english interaction is through a first person book you start thinking in the authors turn of phrase. Joshua Slocum uses phrases such as ” . . she shook from her keelson to the truck when it shivered by the leech”, which as you can understand isn’t good. He also had an imaginary friend in the ‘Pilot of the Pinta’ and often doesn’t make any sense. I don’t have an imaginary friend and often didn’t make sense before thinking in his phrase. But in tribute to Captain Slocum I’m starting this entry the way he starts a chapter, by telling you all the answers up front.
I crossed into Laos from Vietnam at Na Meo. Its one of the quieter checkpoints and internet reading lead me to believe it was the most scam worthy, mostly to do with costly transport which doesn’t affect me. On my second last night I fell for my final Vietnam scam, the dodgy guesthouse offering a room for 50,000 VND sounded a little to good to be true but considering it was missing bed sheets, hot water, electricity (the town was off) and half the plumbing it seemed fair. In the morning I went to pay my 50,000 VND and all of a sudden the room was worth 200,000. The magical number for a scam hotel room. The consolation is that you can call someone anything you want if they don’t understand english. So I did.
I was prepared for all sorts of hassles trying to cross the border. My Australian heritage doesn’t really comprehend land border crossing. The guards and my hotel on the Vietnam side both offered me some horribly poor exchange rates to buy Kip. I figured buying from the guards would help sweeten the deal for leaving.
On the Laos side I had been warned that they often charge a ‘processing fee’ that goes straight into their pocket. I also found out the night before that I needed a passport sized photo for my visa on arrival application, but immigration could take one for a few american dollars.
First up, they didn’t offer to take a photo, even when I hinted that I expected to pay money or it. But even without a photo they wanted me to keep filling in forms which I took as a good sign. The guy disappeared with my passport and came back with a photocopy that he cut my photo out of and stuck to the form. No charge for the photo and no charge for a ‘processing fee’. I liked Laos already.
As I waited I watched a flow of villagers walking straight through the checkpoint. No ID, nothing. It seems if you’re bare foot and carrying a bamboo basket you’re fine.
I think I was expecting a bit of a soft entry, that the world wouldn’t change at the border. That the little bit of Vietnamese I knew would get me through a day or two. Nup. Wham Bam, this is a new country. Everything changed at that gate. All of a sudden I didn’t know what a roadside soup shop looked like, if they existed, how to order, what water was called. Bam. I was pretty hungry by the end of the day.
But I also noticed the good differences. The first one was flowers in gardens. I hadn’t noticed these missing in Vietnam, but their appearance here struck me. Blue paint and maintenance on houses also stood out. On the Vietnamese side the attention to details is not good and the effort put into things that aren’t necessities (will make you money) is low.
The vehicle traffic also changed, the roads in general are quieter but the number of Toyota Hiluxes is ridiculous. I think every second vehicle is a dual cab Toyota Hilux. I had heard that the Hilux moves the Taliban but I think Laos would also stop if you took away the Hilux.
The language difference has also been huge. The tone of voice in Laos is much softer. You can’t say ‘Sai Bai Dee’ and sound angry, but its difficult to say the Vietnamese ‘Xin Chao’ without turning the corner of your mouth down. I think the English course at schools is also different, both countries teach ‘Hello’ as the first phrase. Laos seems to teach ‘How are you?’ as phrase number two, where most Vietnamese have a second question of ‘What is your name?’. Its far more intrusive and when delivered in a tone that resembles Monty Pythons Spanish Inquisition is becomes a little scary.
Along with Laos beautiful scenery and ongoing hills there is also a really sad past. America invested 2 billion dollars in Laos to drop bombs on it. It equates to 2 tonnes of explosives per capita. Many of the bombs were designed to act as mines, the ‘bombies’ had a shell that broke apart and separated into 20 small mines that would not go off until disturbed. Nearly 40 years later there is still one person a day killed in Laos by unexploded ordinances, UXOs. The lonely planet guide lists ‘nuisances and annoyances’ for Phonsaven as ‘Do not underestimate the warnings about UXOs’ where it normally lists bag snatching.
My first stop was Vieng Xai, the cave hideout of the communist government during the war. To escape the constant bombing, the government to be and local villagers took to living in the caves. They spent 10 years living in them, tending to fields at night and avoiding going outside during the day. By the end of 10 years they had a complex system of caves including hospitals, theatres and, my personal favourite, a steel mill.
I think there is a certain feeling of guilt when other countries look in to Laos. It’s a beautiful country with beautiful people and they didn’t ever really threaten anybody in a way that deserved the bombing they got. Nowadays, the country has a smell of foreign aid. It doesn’t sem feasible that Laos has created the infrastructure, tourism and health that it has on its own. The brilliant multi lingual audio tour through Vieng Xai caves had to have been orchestrated elsewhere. Much of the UXO clearing work and safety campaigns is done by UK based aid organisations. The roads have signage saying that funding has come from the German government. It’s fantastic to see so much help being given to a country, but strange that none of it ends up next door in Vietnam.