Entering Laos

[…aaaand we’re back.  You may have noticed that Pnina and I, um, fell behind a little bit.  It’s actually late November now.  We returned from the world trip about a month ago.  We’re in Seattle again.  It took a little while to get back into regular-life-mode (back to work, move to new apartment, etc.), but now we’re settled and I finally have some time to devote to the blog.  I still plan to write about the last 3-4 months of the trip.  Here goes…]

June 17-18, 2009

The visa extension that Pnina and I got back in Golmud was about to expire, so it was time for Pnina and I to leave China.  From Yuanyang we headed south to Laos.  This was a 2-day bus journey with a night’s rest in a middle-of-nowhere town called JiangCheng.

This part of China has a tribal group called Hani.  We didn’t stick around long enough to really learn about them, but in passing we noticed that the women wear jester-like hats and the men smoke cigarettes using large bongs.

A Hani woman selling Mangosteen fruit:

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A Hani man smoking his cigarette through a 1/2-yard bong:

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The road to the Laos border was beautiful – rice paddies, hills, and rivers.  But it was also the first crappy road we’d seen in China.  At one point we reached an impasse – the road was completely washed out and there was no way to get by.  Luckily there was a bus heading in the opposite direction that found itself in the same predicament.  So, our bus conductor spoke to their conductor, and they decided to do a “passenger swap”.  Before the swap, though, our conductor went from person to person and asked for more money.  We’re not sure why (nobody spoke English) so we can only guess that the other bus was more expensive.  Anyhow, this was one of those few situations where it paid to not speak the local language.  Each time the conductor lady came by to ask for money we just flashed our bus tickets and said “we already paid”  🙂  After the 6th attempt, she let it go.

The view on the way to the Laos border.  The same kind of terraced hills we saw in Yuanyang:

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The road was completely washed out, so we crossed this part by foot and hopped on a different bus to go the rest of the way to the Laos border:

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Eventually we emerged from the canyon into flatter land:

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When we stopped for lunch I watched this scam-artist at work.  He had one of those simple games where he hides a coin underneath one of three shallow cups, then shuffles them and bets people that they can’t locate the right cup.  His trick (and it’s a really lame trick) is that when people look away for a moment to grab their money, he moves the coin to a different cup.  It was totally stupid, but I watched 4-5 people fall for it, one after another.  I was tempted to tip people off, but I wasn’t sure how the scam artist would react (better to just leave China and not get into trouble).

A scam artist betting one of the passengers that he can’t identify the cup with the coin:

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Mohan is the last town in China before the border, but it already looked pretty Laotian (or Thai).  We saw signs in both Chinese and Laos script, and many buildings had Siamese-style pointed roofs.  From here we hopped on a short-range minivan to the actual border.

We exchanged our few remaining Chinese bills for Laos kip notes.  This was the weakest currency we’d seen since Zimbabwe: $1 US = 9600 Laos kip.

Then we went to the immigration office to get stamped out of China.  The immigration officer was confused when we handed her our visa because it wasn’t a standard in-your-passport visa; instead, it was a separate piece of paper (this was the “group visa” that we got when we entered Tibet).  Her manager took over.  He said he would need to keep our original visa, but he’ll give us a xerox copy that we can show the Laos people.  The end result is that our passports contain no evidence whatsoever that we were in China.  You can find stamps showing that we exited Nepal and other stamps showing that we entered Laos six weeks later.  In between?  Mystery.

With our exit stamp, we walked about 1 km from the Chinese border (which was huge and impressive) to the Laos border (which was a small shack in the middle of nothing).  Right about this time it started to rain pretty hard, and it stayed that way for the next few weeks.  This was the Southeast Asian monsoon welcoming us.

Motorcycles in Mohan (the last Chinese town before the border) have these smart built-in parasols.  Notice that it’s sunny here:

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Only two hours later, at the Chinese side of the border, and now it’s raining buckets.  Notice the muddy river flowing along the street:

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We had just enough cash left in our pockets to take one final ride to our first destination on the Laos side – the village of Luang Nam Tha.  We reached the village after sunset with 2000 kip in our pocket (about $0.20).

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