Today we leave Vientiane, Laos, and fly to Bangkok for the third time. There were many things that stood out about Vientiane, but the main ones for me were traffic, money, and animals:
Traffic: Laos’s capital’s drivers seem to take life slowly. There seems to be no “fast lane” here. There are also plenty of one-way streets which can make life stressful as you try to find a way to go south on a street that allows only north-bound vehicles. These vehicles include jumbos, motorbikes, tour vans, and VW bugs. Jumbos are the Laotian version of tuk-tuks… kind of. They are, as their name suggests, bigger with the seats in a U-shape instead of two benches opposite each other. There are mini-jumbos, which are technically the same size as tuk-tuks but, because of the shape of the bench, can hold more people. They are also the loudest and ricketiest “vehicles.” They buzz and whine and putt-putt their way through the streets, and our mini-jumbo this morning stopped running more than once while we were stopped.
Full-sized jumbos are a whole different story. They have three seats in the front, too, with the one in the middle being the driver’s and the other two for passengers. The seats have all sorts of different patterns on them, and the outside can be all different colors. My favorite so far has been a purple jumbo with seats that are purple with a pink stripe down them. We didn’t get to ride in it, but maybe we will on the way to the airport. That would be awesome! We probably won’t, though, because the most common jumbo color is white with red, yellow, blue, and green accents.
There aren’t very many songtows, but the ones we’ve seen have been, for the most part, stuffed. Just today we saw two songtows go by Swensen’s that were full of novices in their bright orange robes (that’s why we noticed them). Vehicles the same size as or larger than a Ford Escape seem humongous unless they’re a cement truck. The motorbikes are still here and dominating. At every stop in traffic, these little beasts move up to the very front of the line of traffic. The bicyclers could do this, but it seems like the only people on bikes on busy streets are tourists, who, for the most part, aren’t brave enough to get up to the very front.
Money: The official exchange rate is ₭8,024 per US$1 as of July 24, 2012. It fluctuates a lot; on July 20 it was 7,100 kip per US dollar. This makes prices like 72,000 kip seem low: that’s only US$9. The coins were deemed so worthless that they no longer mean anything. The bills are in denominations of 500; 1,000; 2,000; 5,000; 10,000; 20,000; and 50,000, which is worth about US$6. There may be a 100,000 kip bill, but we haven’t seen one. Even then, though, it would only be US$12.5 (approx.).
The face on most of these notes is the face of President Kaysone Phomvihane, who was Lao PDR’s first leader.
Animals: The most common type of animal in Laos is probably humans, but dogs and ants are close seconds. Actually, ants most definitely outnumber people. The guide yesterday told Dad that a popular Laotian dish is fish and ants. The ants add acid, which is sour, and the people like that. Personally, I find that disgusting, but maybe I’d like it… if I felt like trying it. There are ants everywhere– on the sidewalk, in the fried rice yesterday, along the trail, inside Swensen’s, in my pants… (Yes, I did have ants in my pants.)
We are of the opinion that dogs in Laos (or, at least, Vientiane) are cuter than the dogs in Bangkok and Chiang Mai. There are four that live right around Vayakorn House: the short, furry one with floppy ears and a nasty bite, the tan short-haired dog of some kind, a black dog, and the cutest black and white dog with a heap of fur and a tail that looked like a fountain of black fur. The last one followed us home from Joma Café this morning because it smelled the chocolate chip cookies and banana cake Mom was carrying. It stopped at a sign post, we turned the corner, and I’m guessing it tried to decide what attitude the other three dogs would have towards it since it was an intruder. The little furry one looks like it belongs in Great Britain for some reason, but it can hold its own just as well as the tan and black dogs.
Pigs are here but we only saw a few yesterday in a truck heading towards Vientiane. There were four or five on the roof of the car and more below. They were all alive and smelly.
There are many cows here, too. Not in town so much (although we did see some along the Mekong on our first day) as the countryside. We saw dozens yesterday as we drove to and from the waterfall. Our songtow had a musical horn that was used to get the cows out of the way, although we usually just drove around them. Cows are very stupid, and we discovered just how stupid they are when we looked back and saw a calf running along the road with a van right behind it. It could have just turned to the right and been safe, but it chose to turn to the left just as another van was coming. It was hit.
It got up, though, and went back to running in its own little world.
I hope it lived.