yesterday: Bangkok to Chiang Rai
Right outside our hotel there's a cart serving breakfast for 15B. Some sort of rice porridge with noodles. Delicious. It's quite an operation for a cart. We've got nice bowls and spoons, and there are tables and chairs set up. Instant outdoor restaurant.
Back on our side of the street is the entrance to a fantastic food market. Inside they sell pastries, toads, eels, dried fish, bundles of leaves, dried peppers, and all sorts of things I can't identify. Two people are grilling fish over an open fire. Jesper said he saw turtles and roaches for sale.
Chiang Rai had many of the things I liked about Bangkok, but without all the pushiness and sensory overload.
We load up a chartered bus, stop at the airport to pick up Barry's and Nick's better-late-than-never unicycles, and drive to the border. I struggle to take pictures of strange looking houses that will surely become commonplace over the next couple weeks.
After a delicious lunch, at which we reaffirm the inadequacy of the local portions for our western appetites, we start the long process of crossing the border, a bureaucratic comedy in three acts.
In act one, we got permission to leave Thailand. In act two, we piled onto tiny boats and crossed the Mekong to the town of Huay Xai. (There's no bridge.) Act three was more of a dance, involving several Lao officials at three windows, each to be visited in the proper order with the proper paperwork, photo, and fee. My favorite box in the forms was the one in which they asked how we planned to get from here to our next destination. I imagine it'll be a while before I get another chance to write "unicycle" on a government document.
Also fun was the changing of money. I'm told that there is, in fact, an ATM in Laos now, in Vientiane. In the meantime, we need cash. US dollars are good for large purchases and easy to change, but for walking around money, we should have Lao kip. I brought a bunch of crisp $5 bills with me, and a few twenties. As strange as it is to use dollars here, I find it stranger to see people from Europe, New Zealand, and Australia also carrying US dollars.
The smallest note still in circulation is the 500 kip note, worth about a nickel. There are no coins. The largest is 20,000, which is worth two dollars. Now imagine the giant wad of cash each of us walked away with.
A 640ml beer costs between 7000 and 10000 kip, which at 10000 kip to the dollar means that pretty much everyone is a cheap date as far as we're concerned.
So now we're in Laos, or more correctly, Lao People's Democratic Republic. It's my first visit to communism. It doesn't seem any different, except that it's somehow hotter on this side of the river. I decide that any statement could be plausibly followed by "and I will immediately be soaked in sweat". Try it. It's kind of fun, but makes getting cleaned up kind of pointless. It cooled off at night though.
After changing money, we settled in, put our unicycles together, and went out riding in small groups. I went solo, and it was quite an experience. At home, I get reactions from some of the people I pass, and many of them are tossing out stupid comments like "Hey, someone stole the rest of your bike!", which I'm sure they think is clever, but it gets old when you've heard it a hundred times. In Laos, I get attention from nearly everyone, and since their English is limited to "hello", "number one", and "good", and my Lao consists entirely of hello, thank you, and some choice food words, I don't have any idea what they're saying, which is refreshing.
So in Huay Xai, I'm a superstar. People rousted out the whole family for a look, smile, wave, and would say things that sounded encouraging. In the case of the small children, who seem to make up about half the population, I elicit gleeful laughter, shy gaping, pointing. In several cases, I was chased / escorted down the road a ways by a running throng of kids who seemed to be having the time of their lives. I know I was.
Wow. This is what I came for. So many smiles of all ages. People on bicycles, motor scooters, and a few cars. Genuine friendliness, fun shock and surprise, and a youthful delight of the novelty of a unicycle zipping by. It was intoxicating. I get that a bit riding at home, but the effect here is much stronger. More people are interested and reach out with waves and friendly shouts.
tomorrow: Huay Xai to Pak Beng