Bill Gates is a Communist Collaborator: Misadventures on the Vietnam-Laos Border

August 1, 2012 in Asia, Laos, Travelogue, Vietnam

It’s never good to start a day with the realization that two iPods have been stolen. One from each hotel room.

It’s even less good to have that realization on 1.5 hours of sleep or less following all night conference calls in EST.

Then add ferrying the family, backpacks, guitar, etc across town one at a time and dropping kids off, alone, one by one, at some nebulous “bus terminal” that turns out to be just a sidewalk in the middle of town with an abandoned bus sitting there.

One would think the day would have to improve from there. 

One would think.

One should not think.

As you might be gathering, today was a long day.

I’ll ruin the ending by starting with the positives:

We are in Laos.

We have beds.

We are fed.

I have a bathtub.

Tony is on his all night call with Boston.


All’s well that ends well, right?

Yeah. Keep tellin’ me that, will you?

Let me start by saying that I think Bill Gates is a communist collaborator, and as such, he should be made to cross every border that uses his blasted Windows platform for its computer system. “Blue screen of death” isn’t quite as funny when half of your kids are checked out of a country and half are still in. Neither are two power outages in the middle of the process requiring an entire reboot of the Vietnamese border station. The desktop computers had battery backups, but not the servers. Naturally.

The kids helped push big carts loaded with wheelbarrow parts and other miscellaneous hardware across the border before we found the window for “Visa on Arrival.”

There is nothing quite like counting out a pile of $222 USD in ones because the ATM at the border isn’t spitting out Kip fast enough, while trying to explain to the border guard that you’re going to Myanmar later, hence the bank bag of onesies in your backpack. All the while one kid is stationed with his eye trained squarely on the bus (parked in Laos while we are still in Vietnam) with orders to YELL for Dad if it starts to take off with our gear. Forgetting my file folder of passport sized photos cost us an additional $12 USD as the charge for them taking the photos, which it turns out they can’t do because there’s no camera at the Lao Bao crossing that works. So, basically its a $2 per person fine for forgetting ones photos at home. With no sleep and several hundred dollars in the hole for the morning due to the iPod heist, I found this somewhat irritating.

Smiling is key at the border. So is kids shutting up. I remind myself (and them) of this and we wonder what’s taking Daddy so long at the bank.

In case you’re wondering, communist efficiency is exactly as advertised.

First let me say that the southern end of Laos is not the overly touristed end.

We have yet to see another western face since we left Hue, in Vietnam. Perhaps at the top of the country, where the capital is and where most of the tourists frequent the infrastructure is somewhat improved. That is my caveat before telling you that the road from the border of Laos to Sukannahvet is the worst we’ve ever been on. This includes post-rainy season Guatemalan wash out. We crept along at barely walking speed for hours with the bus occasionally rolling backwards into a pothole we were trying to get out of when the driver would shift to a lower gear.

There’s nothing to add joy to a ten hour bus trip (on no sleep and a theft to start the morning, punctuated by border incompetency) like hours and hours of Vietnamese MTV chased with a double shot of Vietnamese stand up comedy. Useless discovery of the day: laugh tracks are identical, across the language barrier.

Six hours into the trip Elisha sneaks up to my seat, almost in tears:

“Mom, I REALLY need to pee!” We all do. We didn’t get to at the border (the toilets were out of order) and the bumpy road isn’t helping matters. As if he knew what Elisha had said, ten minutes later the bus driver pulls off to the side of the road. Everyone piles out. Men to the right side of the road off in the bushes, women to the left. Hannah and I picked our way through scrub grass and bamboo looking for a place to make water, both of us muttering about snakes.

First impressions of Laos:

  • Gorgeous.
  • Two (maybe three) steps down the “developing country” scale from Vietnam.
  • Extremely friendly and helpful folks.
  • Perhaps the most picturesque of the Asian countries we’ve been to so far.
  • More livestock in the road than any other country we’ve ever visited, bar none.
  • Muddy. Red mud, thick and deep, everywhere (of course it’s monsoon season!)

Interesting things seen from the bus windows:

  • The burned out shell of an American bomber next to a statue of the “victorious” holding up their gold gilt AK 47s.
  • Pink water buffalo! Lots of them, sow belly pink.
  • Alternately beautiful and squalid villages of bamboo mat houses on stilts with naked babies chasing chickens underneath.
  • Diesel water buffalo: I don’t know exactly what they are, part tractor, part rototiller, but often serving as the family SUV, pulling a cart… hence our name for them. I’ll post a picture.
  • Lots of fishing, with nets and poles and traps, in swollen streams and mocha coloured ponds
  • Charcoal in the making, in long smoking pits

    Diesel water buffalo!

We were never so glad to get off of a bus and walk a mile in the humid heat

I already told you there was a happy ending:

  • The hotel is clean.
  • The wifi is sustaining the work call (albeit, barely).
  • And I took a bath in the Mekong river… well, the river was diverted to fill my tub anyway, yellowy green water lathers up soap the same as clear! 🙂
  • Dinner was an adventure. The only thing we could identify 100% were the three ants floating in Gabe’s bowl; added protein.

For those of you who read yesterday’s post with longing for a motorbike ride through a waving sea of living emerald, be comforted:

Today we waded through knee deep ruby red living merde instead.

That’s the way of it with travel, the good is magnified, and so is the bad. You can’t have one, without the other.