Laos is now behind us and we have arrived safely in Kratie, Cambodia after a prolonged trip by long boat, bus and mini van - all in the space of one day. In actual fact the journey was painless but punctuated by long waits along the way. This matters not all as it is not like we are going to miss a meeting or anything. We entered Cambodia near the Mekong at Dom Kralor and paid for our visa on arrival. As anticipated the border officials suggested that we pay a couple of extra charges here and there, firstly for “Departure Tax” as we left Laos (at US1.00 each) and then for the Cambodian visas at USD21.00 as opposed to the going rate of $20.00. Credit be to Nipun who politely contested our case (most of our fellow travellers paid the money willingly) and managed to ensure that we were not fleeced. Having grown up in the third world I would have been more than happy to pay the, ahem, admin fees and be done with it. Experience has taught me that there are many pompous uniformed men and women out there who will happily ruin your day over a dollar. The ZRP (those fine stalwarts of Zimbabwean society who are charged with upholding the law and order of the land) are fine examples of such nefarious characters. Where Nipun pleaded indigence today, I would have thanked them for being so undemanding in their terms and offered a tip. All in all by refusing to pay the various fees she managed to save us USD6.00 which paid for a meal out. It has to be said though that the Cambodian border police were absolutely brazen in their requests and so supremely confident that their fees almost seemed to be genuine!
I seem to be developing the unenviable habit of going gaga about every country we leave and Laos is no exception. Laos exceeded every expectation that I had, I loved it and I was impressed on so many levels. The infrastructure and road network was generally very good along the routes that we took, the diversity of the landscape (ranging from the vertiginous route from Luang Prabang to Vang Viang through to the plains of the South,) the hospitality of the people and their gentleness and generosity. Sure, we met a few rogues along the way. My fishing trip with a lao lao (local home brew) swigging maniac springs to mind. His fishing gear consisted of broken rods tied together with twigs and elastic bands whilst he used bits of broken bricks for weights. The only fish we could have caught would have been one that was hit on the head by a plummeting rock.
As can be seen in the photo of our bellicose friend (credit on this one to Jochen Druberg who was test driving my D300) he was as crazy as a loon and took great offence to me writing down something in the notepad that comes everywhere with me. The contents of my scribble were harmless - a guest house recommendation in Cambodia given to me by one of the girls on the trip.
Our hapless guide then returned to his lao lao before steering us back along the river, needless to say without a fish caught between us. He ranted all the way, referring to me as Mr Book and refusing (thankfully by this stage) to acknowledge my presence other than to offer desultory curses. Ultimately though this just made for a very amusing afternoon and I’d be lying if I said that we did not make a decent dent in the Lao Lao too. We were so amused by the days “fishing” that we ended up de-briefing in one of the bars for the evening.
As a contrast to my fine fishing companion the family that we were staying with came to our bungalow (called the Holiday Inn but baring no relationship whatsoever) before we left and lit incense before tying string bracelets around our wrists and blessing our onward journey. It was a simple way of saying "Good Luck" to us and we were touched by the effort that they went to. It did not matter that they were Buddhist, Nipun Hindu and me, to all intents and purposes a tree worshiping pagan who would have been burnt at the stake as a heretic once upon a time - rather they were grateful that we had stayed with them, played with their kids and wanted to wish us well on our travels. It was very humbling, and a high note to leave Laos on. What really struck me as we travelled through Laos was the small, random acts of generosity and kindness that we saw time and time again. And that can be refreshing anywhere in the world.