February 2, 2013 in General
I am rich.Â Rich beyond my wildest dreams.Â A millionaire, in fact.
Â Itâ€™s all due to the exchange rate for Laos currency.Â One New Zealand dollar is worth around 6,500 Lao kip, so one of the first things I did after we crossed the border from Thailand was withdraw one million kip from an ATM.Â It felt good.Â Oh, it felt good.Â One million in notes in a neat bundle in my hand.Â The â€śremaining fundsâ€ť amount on my receipt was even better.Â It went so far into the millions I had to count the commas.
Incredible wealth aside, arriving in Laos was yet another adventure.Â We woke early in Chiang Khong, the Thai border town on the west bank of the Mekong River, and made our way through customs to leave Thailand.Â Then it was a short boat trip across the river to the Laos immigration office on the other side.Â Getting a Laos visa proved to be no small matter.Â First we went to this window, then to that window, filled out this form, filled out that form, put our picture here, went back to the first window, waited, waited, waited some more because the American tourists in front were arguing with the guy behind the counter who didnâ€™t speak very good English, went back to the second window, got our passports, showed our passports at the third window, then showed our passports (again) at one final checkpoint.
Iâ€™m travelling in Laos with a tour group, so we had a van waiting for us in Huay Xai once we had cleared customs.Â Our local guide had a name which was long and which Iâ€™m not going to attempt to spell, but he said to call him Xai for short.Â We were grilled on what not to do while in Laos.Â Men, you canâ€™t have â€śrelationsâ€ť with local ladies, and women, cover your shoulders and legs.Â Signs along the way informed us it was also illegal to try to discuss politics with the locals.Â It appears they arenâ€™t so sure of the success of communism that they are willing to have outsiders question how well it works.
Leaving Huay Xai, the road became more and more remote as we bumped along in the van.Â Wooden huts were few and far between, and after an hour or so we were winding our way through mountain tops with no sign of humanity for mile after mile.Â The road was surprisingly good â€“ a joint venture between Thailand and China, we were told, paid for so freight could move quickly through Laos between the two countries.Â Occasional villages dotted the roadside.Â When I say villages, I mean collections of often no more than ten huts.Â Old women squatted in the shade, young children peered curiously at the van, and chickens ran squawking off the road.
We stopped to spend the night in a village which was quite large by Laos standards.Â (SeveralÂ hundred villagers.)Â The van bumped to a stop in the middle of the village around 4pm, and a group of local women stood waiting to greet us.Â They looked us up and down, then chatted away for a while about who was going to host who in which hut.Â Eventually there was a consensus, and they greeted us â€śsa bai deeâ€ť (hello), and gestured who was to follow who.
The woman we went home with seemed to be in her thirties, but it was hard to tell.Â Her house stood high up off the ground, and her weaving loom occupied most of the space underneath it.Â Her husband was waiting to greet us inside.Â He was watching TV.Â The boxing was on, Thailand vs Philippines, and cushions were laid out so we could join.Â Â His wife handed round bananas which I presumed were fresh from the yard â€“ there was a banana tree by the door.
Electricity, yes, TV, yes, but running water, no.Â When it came time to get clean before dinner we had to head down to the river to wash ourselves with the locals.Â It was just like a big bath, except everyone did it together and we had to stay clothed.Â The girls valiantly tried to go for a swim wearing dresses and with shawls wrapped around their shoulders, but didnâ€™t get very far.Â Guys could wear speedos if they wanted, the locals didnâ€™t seem too worried about the men.Â It didnâ€™t seem very fair.Â Downstream a few metres, a woman washed her vegetables in the water weâ€™d just washed in.
Dinner was cooked over a bed of coals in a small room to the side of the house.Â It was amazing food. Â Chicken, sticky rice, spicy pumpkin, river weed, and several other things none of us could identify.Â Our hosts tried to explain what things were.
They nodded. â€śPawk pawk.â€ť
We rubbed our bellies, ate some more, and they smiled widely.
Some of the local kids got a bonfire going after dinner, and we sat around the edges of it.Â They told us all their names, but most of them were unintelligible to my ears.Â Likewise, our western names seemed to confuse them.
And on it went.Â They were eager to learn though, and picked up other bits and pieces of English quickly.Â When the topic turned to music, they were keen to show off their moves.Â And lo and behold:
Â â€śone-maca, two-maca, three-macarenaâ€¦â€ť
â€śHeeey, sexy ladyâ€¦â€ť
They knew the Macarena, the YMCA dance, and yes, they even knew Gangnam Style.Â We all laughed.Â The younger kids clamoured to play with my phone, quizzing â€śGames?Â Games?â€ťÂ Â I showed them where the games where, and a crowd of children gathered round as they bee-boooped.Â I was surprised by how easily they navigated an iPhone â€“ they may be living in a remote Laos village, but these kids were 21st century kids nonetheless.Â An interesting reflection also on how pervasive and global our culture is.
I was exhausted by 9pm.Â It was a relief to finally be able to lie down on the rolls of bedding our hosts had spread out on the floor, and close my eyes.Â It was very peaceful â€“ no hum of traffic, no bright city lights, just the occasional cluck of a disturbed chicken.
As I drifted off to sleep, I thought to myself that simple though the village life was, it seemed pretty good.
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