Saturday, 22 October 2011

Let's get out of here! To Laos! - 26 April 2011

It's time for us to leave Cambodia and head into the ninth country of Andy's Epic Voyage.  Laos had been a fascination and a country that was extremely appealing due to my lack of knowledge of the country.  Our minibus was due to leave at 8am, it was now 7.30 and we're trying to pay our bill for the food and drink we had consumed over the past day and for some reason the man whom classed himself as the manager couldn't take our money and insisted until his mother was back.  Once she had arrived around 8am she retrieved her little notebook and scraps of paper where she had noted all the things we had. It soon transpired that she had no idea who had what and had plucked a figure out of the air.  The figures was obviously wrong, but thankfully we had noted our own consumption down ever since they refused to take our cash when we arrived.  Tom, Nicky and I ended up going through our own accounts and telling the lady how much we each owed to her, she wasn't too fussed and I think quite pleased that we took it upon ourselves.  My bill actually came to more so whether we did the right thing by doing the calculations ourselves is debatable.

The previous evening we sat in the restaurant having a drink and eating a meal with two girls that I previously met in Hué on the DMZ tour.  As the sun disappeared briskly behind the trees on the opposite side of the lake a swarm of flying insects invaded. We walked to find an internet café that night and I had never seen so many insects flying around.  Following our previous horrid journey to Banlung, we wanted to have a more comfortable trip into Laos so we decided to go with our hotel who had assured us that his minibus is private and he makes sure that there is only one person to one seat. We interrogated him for a while repeating the question in several different forms to be absolutely comfortable that we weren't going to be squashed up once again.

After we had paid the owner of the hotel our due debts, we walked towards the minibus that had been waiting for us for a few minutes.  We passed our bags to the driver who placed them on the passenger seat next to him in the front, shook the manager's hand goodbye and climbed aboard. “No, no!” the driver said pointing at the seats.  “Four per seat. One, two, three, four... One, two, three, four...”.  I honestly can not believe this situation.  Just ten hours ago we sat with the manager who specifically stated that there will be one seat to every person and now they are trying to squeeze four of us onto three seats.  I exploded.  Usually I am an easy going person but I had reached the end of my tether with these lying Cambodians that are taking our money and lying to our faces.  I sat on the back row, stuck in by the person in front who had pulled down the fold up chair.

“Get me him!” I pointed at the manager who walked over sheepishly knowing full well why I was angry.  “My friend, you lied to us.  You told us that each person would have one seat.  One person, one seat.  What do you see here?  How many seats?   One, two, three.  How many people?  One, two, three, four!”
“It's usual in Cambodia.”  He justified his position.
“Usual in Cambodia?!  Usually for Cambodians?  We're westerners, we're much much bigger than you! Anyway, that doesn't matter to me.  It's that you looked us in the eyes and lied to us!  We paid extra for this bus as we trusted you!”  With that I knew I wasn't going to get anywhere arguing with him and the only pathetic insult I could muster up was to retrieve the business card he had given us from my wallet and tear it up into little pieces and throwing it at him.

I sat back as the door closed and stared blankly out of the window at the manager who seemed non phased by my insult.  He didn't need to worry, as do any of these people that lie to you.  They know you don't have a leg to stand on and will be out of there city soon enough and won't be able to do anything.  The only thing we can do is give a bad review on Trip Advisor.

The bus drove out of the hotel and into the city centre where we picked up a couple of locals who were transporting the goods free of charge thanks to us who had paid for the petrol and their meals for the next month.  The bus left the track, over a little bit of grass and before we knew it we were travelling along the runway of the local airport.  Obviously this doesn't get used much if locals can just drive across it freely. At certain times on this trip I just wish I wasn't on a mission to complete this trip by land and sea only, however, I'm sure I will look back at these moments with fond memories.  The journey to Stung Treng, where we would be changing buses again took us back along the track we came out on.  Nicky lightened my mood when he asked me to listen to a song that was quite fitting for our last few days in Cambodia, It's a Holiday in Cambodia by the punk band Dead Kennedys.

It's a holiday in Cambodia,
It's tough kid but it's life...

...Well you'll work harder
With a gun in your back
For a bowl of rice a day
Slave for soldiers
Till you starve
Then your head is skewered on a stake...

We pulled up to a restaurant in Stung Treng where we were to transfer to another minibus that would take us up the highway to the border with Laos.  A couple of people on our minibus immediately boarded another bus that was taking them South. Us, on the other hand had to wait for an hour for our bus but luckily the restaurant was on hand to provide us slightly overcharged food and drink for the temporarily stranded tourists.  I had my staple fried rice with chicken and a refreshing Coca-Cola and sat back to enjoy our freedom dreaming of the wonderful Laos that lies an hour up the road.

As our departure time neared, we asked the lady if we could pay for our meals.  She came over, told us what we each owed and we diligently handed over the de facto currency of US dollars.   “I can give you change in Laos Kip?”  The lady offered.
“What is the exchange rate?”  We enquired.
“6500 Kip to Dollar.”   She answered.
“Oh, that's not a lot.  No thank you, we'll take our change in Dollars.”  We confirmed.
“No, I give you Kip. 6500 to a dollar.”  She insisted.
“No thank you.  Dollars will be fine.  Thank you.”

This exchange went on for a long while.  My newly relaxed state had taken a battering again and my agitation increased boiling my blood to explosion point.  I tried to keep calm.  Took a deep breath and remembered a valuable lesson I had been taught whilst teaching children that raising your voice does absolutely nothing to resolve a difficult situation.  So I reasoned with her.   “I'll give you an ultimatum, you can either give us our change in dollars as per our agreement or you can give us our change in Laos Kip at a rate of 8,000 to a dollar.”  I offered.
“But this is my business I cannot do that, I need to make money.”  she retorted.
“No, our business with you is the food we've eaten, nothing more.  We paid in dollars and we expect our change in dollars.  If you gave us a good exchange rate then I'd happily get my change in Kip but you're not.  So please, my dollars.”  Conversation ended.

Eventually she muttered to her son under her breath obviously complaining about us and he disappeared off on his motorcycle to get us the change in dollars.  That of course didn't stop her trying to push the Kip on us.  She continued right up to the moment the money was back in our hands.  Our minibus pulled up outside and we were ordered aboard.   The van was packed up with goods again and we were squeezed on.  I had reached tipping point and as we left the restaurant Nicky, Tom and I raised our middle fingers and wrote it off.  It wasn't worth anymore anger as we would soon enough be walking across that border into Laos.

It didn't take us long to reach the border as the roads were all newly sealed and comfortable.  As we stopped, the driver opened the door for us to get out, unloaded our bags and drove off back towards Stung Treng.  The border was quiet, we were the only group of people crossing through.  There was a line of drink and snack stalls leading up to the checkpoint.  We were shown to some chairs and table beyond the stalls where we were handed the immigration forms to fill out.  A man who was on our bus took our passports, documents and visa fees including a 'compulsory' health check charge and got them processed whilst we hung around with an overpriced drink in our hands.  He returned around twenty minutes later and handed back our passports with instructions to walk through and meet our new driver on the other side.

It must have been the most relaxed border crossing I had ever had the privilege to cross through.  A man merely glanced at our passports and the health check booth which we had paid for was left empty.  Obviously the man had pocketed that extra dollar we paid for it.  I was in Laos. 

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