Dedicated to a wonderful Mother Jean Noble 31/5/1929 - 20/8/2007 - may we never take our mothers for granted. - Goodbye Mum
LAOS FAST FACTS - JANUARY 2009
Prices in Aussie and US Dollars
Laos Fast Facts December 08 to January 09
These facts cover Nong Khai Thailand, – (Friendship Bridge) to Vientiane Laos, then,
Route 13 to the Lao-Cambodian Border - by Bicycle.
They are our experiences ONLY and it does not represent the “true state of affairs”.
At the time of writing AUD$1.00 5,500 Kip US$1.00 = 8,400 Kip.
VISAS. As Australians, we got a 1 month tourist Visa for US$30.00. Other nationalities pay different prices – e.g.. US Citizens pay US$35.00. We crossed “after hours” and the visa commenced the next day. We paid a US$1.00 after hours fee – which we think was fair. The entire process took us about 1 hour, which included filling in the forms. We used one “passport photo”, when we submitted the form. We were allowed to cycle across the bridge. We found the customs, police, etc.. to be helpful and friendly. You can buy US$/kip at the booth next to the visa section. You can extend the visa for another month at immigration offices. Although we have no first hand experience, as we will not be doing this.
MONEY. We found using the Kip was – by far - the best option. Although the Thai Baht is widely accepted in Vientiane and other major cities on Route 13. Vendors offered less value for money using Baht. You can check your favourite exchange site – we use http://www.oanda.com – for the latest rate in your currency. On a couple of occasions, US Dollars were refused as payment, in smaller towns. However, we found we could exchange US Dollars/Thai Baht in most places. We also found the rates to be close to the “mythical” “interbank rate”, which is quite remarkable. We were unable to use our Australian Bank “Visa Card” in ANY ATM. The ATM's we tried (many) were functional, with locals in the queue getting money before AND after us. Be aware this MAY happen to you, regardless of your nationality... so have a good PLAN. If you do manage to get money, the limit in the ATM's we tried was 700,000 Kip, (20,000 and 50,000 notes) however you can re-insert your card and repeat to the limit of your banks policy. You will have some hefty fee's if you choose to do this, as some travellers told us, to their disgust.
COSTS - ACCOMMODATION. We found accommodation to be quite inexpensive, however, about 70% or more of the accommodation was poorly maintained. (I guess you get what you pay for). We found clean sheets/pillow cases to be one of the major issues and as cyclists we did NOT have the option to move on most of the time. We each carry an extremely light “silk sheet”. Made so that it traps a normal pillow in a pocket underneath – much more roomy than an average sleeping bag. Quality ones are not cheap, these cost us about AUD$50.00 (US$35.00), they have proved invaluable in our travels. They are extremely light and amazingly small when in their “stuff Bag”. Plus they are ideal for tropical climates.
Expect to pay between 30,000 to 100,000 +++ kip for reasonable, budget accommodation. 40,000 – 70,000 was our average.
Most of the places have broken fixtures and fittings, which meant many very cold showers – we are in the winter season. Many of the “accommodation options” are (were) used as short time/long time places, so there can be much “comings and goings” throughout the night. It can be disturbing if you are a light sleeper.
Noise is a major problem in most of Asia. There seems to be no concept that “ones” activities can disturb another. Music can (and is) put on at deafening levels, any time in/of the night. ALL types of other noisy activities can and are engaged in AT ANY HOUR – at the whim of an individual, with total lack of regard for the comfort of anyone around them. This phenomena is well known to any frequent traveller to Asia.
COSTS FOOD. Food is expensive throughout Laos. We found it to be at least double or triple that of Thailand or Malaysia. Apart from a lack of variety, (outside larger centres) the single biggest problem is hygiene. The lack of hygiene was evident in EVERY eating place. We found no exception to this, anywhere. Glasses are rarely washed from person to person. Salad can be gritty and is washed in “questionable” water. Sticky Rice is often in one large basket that many people have used prior to you, or it is transferred from this “communal” basket to a smaller one for you. At times we found it “grey” from repeated handling. Lao television is attempting to educate the population, as to the benefits of good hygiene.
After talking with a “meatball” maker in a city, we never ate them again (I never ate at all – I'm not a noodle person). A not uncommon mix is Buffalo, Dog, Pork, Chicken - in one meatball. Most other available “meats” are used to make the meatballs. Remember, even if you do not eat the meatballs, when you buy noodle soup... you are drinking the soup they are cooked in. The guy we spoke with had no experience of “fish balls”, however we avoided these too.
ALWAYS ASK (if you can), how fresh (“Sot Baw” – phonetic), the item you are eating is . Lee speaks Lao, hence we could be quite specific. When choosing food. ALWAYS ASK THE PRICE. (“Touw Rai” – phonetic) We found even asking the price, many sellers were reluctant to tell us before we ordered. Not infrequently, some totally refused to discus price beforehand, in these cases we just did not order and went elsewhere.
Calorific requirements of cyclists can be high and many dishes are very small – if you can, ASK. (“Lie Baw” ? = what size is it? – (phonetic) they may answer you Yai = large or noi = small – there are too many other possible answers, however you can “prompt them for an answer with, Yai or Noi + body language = they may understand) Expect to pay from around 5,000 Kip to 30,000 ++++ Per dish. In the countryside, smaller roadside vendors sell eggs, fried sweet potato, corn on the cob, etc.. etc... from about 2,000 kip upwards.
COSTS OTHER. Laos manufactures very little, hence most things are imported. This tends to add a premium to all that you purchase. You will often see a “Thai Baht” price on an item and find you are paying 20% more... In some cases even more than 20%. On the other hand some things are cheap...
A NEW Chinese made motorcycle costs around US$300.00 and is more than adequate for a “laid back” touring holiday. What you do when you finish your holiday, I don't know – there are many poor families out there :-), if you are so inclined.
A NEW Chinese made bicycle, with 5 derailleur gears and a single front chainring, costs as little as US$35.00. They are a little on the heavy side, but I would use one to cycle Route 13, given there are not many hills and those few hills, are relatively small. Lee's Mum has used one – without maintenance for over 9 years. Again what you do when you finish your holiday is up to you....
Locally produced items tend to be quite cheap. One thing in favour of these cheap local machines, is that spares/repairs can be done almost anywhere.
Lao Beer costs around 8,000 kip per bottle, Lao whisky is ridiculously cheap at around US$1.00 per 750 ml bottle. Wine on the other hand can be quite expensive. Transport to can be relatively expensive – ALWAYS bargain with Tuk Tuk's. Petrol is fluctuating wildly, but, was around 5-6000 kip per litre, if purchased wisely.
Some overcharging could happen to you, if you do not negotiate a degree of “clarity”, when purchasing food/accommodation or other....
SAFETY. Of course always use common sense AND your “sixth” sense. How you “feel” about a situation should always guide you. You will be wrong at times, but, relatively few people suffer from being cautious. (not over cautious) (yes I know some do – we did in Tasmania). We think Laos – (Route 13 Vientiane – Cambodia) is very safe. We even cycled at night (Not recommended), without a feeling of dread. We took all the usual precautions. We did see a few hopelessly drunk drivers of motorbikes, one at least, with three guys on board, did give us great cause for concern. They were literally all over the road.....
MEDICAL EMERGENCIES If you are unfortunate enough to suffer an accident or a severe illness, do WHATEVER you can to get out of the country. Thailand has world class medical facilities. Facilities are poor to non-existent in the Lao countryside, equally poor in the cities. If you are in or near Vientiane, we understand from talking with Aek Udon international hospital, Udon Thani Thailand. You can get an ambulance without border formalities, from Vientiane direct to the hospital. (Info we got, as at November 2008). If you are traveling with someone – do what you can to get them out. PLEASE TAKE HEED OF THIS WARNING.
If you, like us, are cyclists on a long tour, please consider taking a “first aid” class in your home country, before you leave. We did this and it has helped a few times in the years we have been on the road.
Familiarise yourself with minor treatments and what to look out for as regards symptoms. It may save your life in very remote areas – of course it is no substitute for consulting with a trained (or even partially trained) professional, if that option is available.
We carry a first aid kit that has many of the things we need for minor bumps and bruises – we have never taken prophylactics, however this is a personal, philosophical choice. Do your own, thorough as you can, research and get plenty of opposite views before you decide whats best for you.
We also carry a mosquito net for those accommodation(s) that are mosquito infested and have used it often.. It weighs about 4 or 500 grams, so needs careful consideration on the type of tour you are taking. It belongs to our “good kilos” section.
COMMUNICATIONS. We bought a “Tigolao” chip, “Lao Telecom” chip and an ETL chip. All work “out of the box” for making phone calls.
We use GPRS on our laptop. Without a doubt ETL proved to be the only one we needed. Simple to set up and no “subscription” required, plus, reasonable rates. Worked all the way down to the border with Cambodia, with various “speeds” - all slow. Able to “top up” at nearly every village. Useful for email but you need to disable Java and images on your browser, to get an acceptable page load.
CUSTOMS Laos, like Thailand is conservative. Too much adult “skin” on display can embarrass. There is a big “however” here. Both men and women often wash outside – mainly at communal washing areas, as water is not piped to all homes. They use them independently - that is to say a woman may wash there, then a man – rarely, if ever together. These areas are often in full view of everyone. A sarong is used for privacy by both genders. The process goes on largely ignored by the local population. The distinction here is, being natural or being provocative – I don't need to explain that to anyone.
SELDOM COMMENTED ON. Laos is very poor and toilets do not exist everywhere – even in some villages. It was not uncommon for us to see men and women using the fields for their toilet. Women use their sarong for privacy. People just seemed to accept this as a normal part of life (which of course it is) and completely ignore it.
You may, of course, not notice this if you are zooming past in a car or on a motorbike – then again why would you want to. However, as a cyclist you will have more need of a “bush toilet” than most other travelers, often, (on Route 13), with little cover, especially if you have eaten “questionable” food. Be as discrete as you can, but not ashamed, it will be ignored and viewed as quite normal by the locals, if you happen to get “surprised”. Quite a contrast to the so called 1st world. (or whatever politically correct new name it has now).
A sarong is one of the most useful pieces of clothing, any traveller can carry, with over 200 reported “uses”, well worth investing in – we consider it a MUST.
Most service stations have a toilet (not all), but, as a cyclist, are too few and far between to rely on.
CROSSING INTO CAMBODIA WITH A BICYCLE FROM LAOS. The first “official” thing you will reach is the “Lao Customs Check Point”. You can just cycle on without stopping – unless of course you are called upon to do so... It looks like this....
This is the sign on the left of the large picture.....
After you have gone past this checkpoint, you will need to cycle 5 kilometres to the border itself...
The border looks like this, a small shack on the left side of the road.....
The exit stamp cost us US$2.00 each, as it was a Sunday. We do not know if this is an official fee or not. However, it seemed fair to us given that it was “after hours”. The border officer was a very pleasant guy and after we had our passports stamped... (A 1 minute procedure), we stopped and chatted with him, whilst we stocked up on water at the small adjoining stall. We moved on after a bunch of backpackers walked in from the Cambodian border – about 200 metres away.... NOTE: You cannot get a LAO visa OR an extension to your LAO visa here (As at 4-Jan-2009). Pakse is the closest, according to the immigration guy, to EXTEND your visa - We asked...... (Remember he may be wrong – confirm YOURSELF)
After you have gained your exit stamp, simply cycle about 200 metres to the Cambodian Border – which is on the opposite side of the road. The picture bellow is the CAMBODIAN border.
IF, like us, you do not have a CAMBODIAN visa, stop just short of the border and go to the immigration building. This is set back from the road about 25 metres. Here you can sit and fill in the “Visa application form”, (You will need 1 “passport size” photo) and pay the US$21.00. (Remember it was Sunday for us – after hours). The visa takes one full page of a passport. The immigration guys speak English, (At both border points) were friendly and very helpful, they also supplied a pen (Writing implement).
Once you have completed this formality, you go to the border post (above) and fill in your second, more comprehensive form – NO photo required with this one.
After you have done this, submit your passport to the officials (Plus for us a US$1.00 after hours fee).... Within minutes you are on your way.
OUR TOTAL COST crossing the border FROM Laos TO Cambodia was US$24.00 (AUD$35.00) EACH. We crossed on a Sunday.
FOR THE CYCLIST.... The kilometres on the signs do not add up. If you are following the signs to Veunkam, expecting this to be the border – add 5 kilometres to get to the border. If you are following the signs from the Cambodian border to Strung Treng, AND STAYING ON BITUMEN add 6 Kilometres.
Prices in Aussie and US Dollars
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