The Mekong slinks by in the foreground, forming nature’s unassuming border between Thailand and Laos. In the shadow of its shore we stand at the counter: Passport Immigration. “You are leaving Thailand today? I will stamp your passport,” says a man in uniform, who seems used to doing such things. This is it. Time to board a boat and cross a spit of water that could be easily swum if not for its steady current — and a healthy fear of deep water. Here goes. Goodbye language, goodbye baht, goodbye meager understanding. Time for the next frontier.
The guidebook lists its fast facts for Laos, most notably in the medical section. Meant to reassure, or at least inform:
“If you find yourself afflicted with anything worse than traveler’s diarrhea, its best to head to the closest Thai border.”
“In Vientiane, dial the following numbers [for emergencies]: fire 190, ambulance 195, police 191. There are no emergency numbers for the rest of the country.”
“You are leaving Thailand now”, asks our border official. Deep breath. Yes, we are leaving now.
We arrive in Huoaxyai at least 45 seconds after taking off from Chiang Khong, perched in a boat commandeered by a man with no shoes and many lines of wisdom on his face. And just like that “Sawa dee kha” becomes “Sabai dee” and “Khob Khun Kha” becomes “Khop jai” and, perhaps most alarmingly $1, which so recently became 30 baht, becomes 7,896 kip. This small fact throws my whole navigation system out of whack, as though someone has moved the iron in my inner compass.
Just as I was momentarily country-less, having exited Thailand with no visa for Laos, I am now money-less in a new land. First stop, ATM. Please choose the amount you would like to withdraw. The options stare back at me: 80,000 kip, 150,000, and upwards. I settle on 1,000,000 kip, a mind-boggling number, and discreetly count the 50,000k bills, placing them in my purse.
Then, it is on to provisions. They entire town of Houaxyai has the feel of a pass-through: border to interior. The tourist market is geared toward travelers taking the two-day slow boat down the Mekong to Luang Prabang. That’s us. With no food and water provided on board, we’re told it’s essential to bring our own. Storefronts hawk sandwiches for the journey, 10,000kip. I balk, too expensive, muy cado, but then pause. What it this? Eight dollars? Twelve? Or, in truth, one dollar and twenty-five cents. I order for morning pickup. “Kha”, I say, “I mean, thank you. Khop jai”.
Where am I?
The mind reels and I am grateful to know that we are such adaptable creatures; synapses forming endless new pathways amidst the confusion.