First thing Monday morning we turned up at the Vietnam embassy with a small hope that they would give us our passports back a day early because really - how long does it take to stick a small piece of paper into a small book? Four days? Not really justified is it? But apparently it is because they told us to sling hook. I bet they had them sitting ready in the drawer though the gits. The next task was to get some cash changed into dollars because Laos was another one of those countries where there was no international cash machines. We got out a shed load of Yuan and headed to the bank to change it to dollars. An easy enough transaction you would suspect. Not in China. After 4 banks we finally were directed to the main Bank of China in Kunming. It’s huge size impressed us. Surely here we thought. “Yes” they said. “Certainly you can change Yuan to dollars here. However, we’ll need your passports and receipts from a Bank of China cash machine”. What kind of buffoonery is this? YOu can only change cash if you get it out of a Bank of China cash machine. We already had the cash and we didn’t get it out of a their cash machine and no amount of pleading was going to change anything. Enraging. Exiting with angry glares and launching on a tirade against mindless bureaucracy, we bumped into some friendly women waving bundles of cash at us. They knew what the score was. They’d seen hundreds of enraged foreigners exiting the bank and quickly copped on to a nice little business opening. Amazingly, they were rubbish at negotiating and we got a pretty damn good rate out of them. So that was that little problem solved. Stunning that you are forced to use the black market just to get a few dollars though.
Tuesday was the day of reckoning. We had the passports back and we were rolling down the road to Laos. Woohoo! However, we were going the wrong way and had to turn back after 3 hours. How we laughed. Also, we had totally underestimated the distance to the border. Driving until 3am only got us halfway there. Another 11 hours driving on Wednesday got us to Jing Hong where we phoned our guide who would see us across the border and explain to those friendly border chaps why we were weeks behind schedule. Ray proved to be a great guide and didn’t mind staying up until 3am while we lumbered towards the border. We even managed to repeat the good old leaving petrol cap behind gag that we’d enjoyed so much in Turkey. Luckily it was only 40 minutes delay this time.
After 4 hours sleep we were back on the road and blazing towards the border. The road was rough as a badger’s behind and most of the time we were driving beside a huge highway that was under construction. This road was going all the way from Kunming to Thailand through Laos, courtesy of the PDR of China. After a few hours explaining our delay at the border (thanks Ray) they waved us through and we experienced the most bizarre border crossing procedure yet. Apparently, only one person is allowed to be in a car that is driving across the border. Richard had to get out at the marked line, walk 15 metres to the next marked line and wait until I’d driven across the space so he could get back in. A huge boost to national security I’m sure. I’m fairly sure there would never be another terrorist incident anywhere in the world if this policy were introduced across every country. After a few Km we arrived at the Laos border control. We were a bit wary of this one because we’d read somewhere that Laos didn’t allow campers into the country. Would we be able to blag it? The thought must have been troubling me because I actually drove straight across the border line and had to break sharply and nonchalantly reverse back across it much to the amusement of the border guards. After a brief look at our passports they demanded a 10,000 Kip fee. Good God, 10,000 Kip, how much is that? 1 USD. Large sigh of relief. The best was yet to come though. While repeating the bizarre line crossing business, one of the guys wanted to see in the back. Oh no, I thought. He’ll see the beds and we’ll have to bribe our way in. However, it was not the case. A casual glance in, a quick squeeze of the mattress to determine that it was in fact suitably soft and we were on our way. No engine number check, no storage boxes search, no nothing. I’m confident that the line crossing procedure made sure we weren’t smuggling any contraband though.
We were finally in Laos! We drove down the remarkably good road to the small town of Luang Nam Tha and parked up at a guesthouse beside the river. They didn’t mind us sleeping in the back and we made sampling the local beer our priority. The imaginatively named Beer Lao isn’t amazing but it wasn’t bad and came in remarkably big 650ml bottles. Given that we were parked 7Km outside of town, we broke out the bicycles and headed off to see the sights. An old stupa 3 Km away was supposed to be worth seeing but just as we were arriving it was getting dark so we progressed on towards town. Or tried to. It got very dark very quickly and it took us an hour of peddling around dirt tracks on the outskirts of town before we found one that would bring us in to the centre. Lesson learned. Bring lights.
While sampling some Lao cuisine, we met a fellow traveller - Rachael from Scotland who had also suffered from “Too long in China” syndrome. On Friday, we biked around the area, (in the daylight this time) and generally tried to work out a plan. We had two weeks in Laos before having to bring the car to Thailand to get fixed while we flew to Vietnam so we had to determine what was worth seeing. The Nam Tha area was great for trekking and kayaking but with only 2 weeks we couldn’t justify spending 5 days on these activities. We decided to head further south to Luang Prabang and during the course of the day we picked up some people who were also heading that way - Scottish Rachael and her Aussie friend Jasmine and Israeli Matan.
An early departure on Saturday morning meant we arrived at Lunag Prabang at 6pm. The Lao countryside was beautiful and practically untouched - the road twisted and turned through vast swathes of tropical jungle with scattered villages along the way. There is no sign of industry and the villages were all without electricity. The houses are small wooden affairs built on stilts and have thatched roofs. In Luang Prabang we found a hotel to park at and hit the town to experience the night life. Unfortunately, almost everywhere in Laos closes at 11pm even at the weekend so we eventually ended up in a dingy bar with a bunch of other foreigners. Sunday, we hired some scooters and cruised out to see the waterfalls located outside the town. The waterfall was pretty spectacular and there were many cascaded layers where you could take a dip. True to our form though we managed to get a dud scotter which broke down on the way back causing hassle with the rental guy and a subsequent tedious argument. Despite this it was a fine day and the Lao culture of relaxation was beginning to permeate our awareness. Already we were slowing down and saying things like “there’s no rush” or “I might do it later’. The Lao food was great and a welcome change from Chinese fare and the Beer Lao grew on us with every tasting. Luang Prabang was a picturesque town and next week we would explore it - if we could summon the energy.