February 25, 2007

191206 Luang Namtha town

Main street of Luang Namtha:


Building on left with blue signage is the local BCEL branch, where the cat obtained more than half a million kip:

LNT bank

For 'address in Lao PDR', the cat got away using the name of whatever guesthouse it was staying in, even if it was checking out in less than an hour ;) Fortunately this branch was well-stocked with crisp 20,000 kip notes. The cat would have run out of double clips if it were issued with smaller denominations (rubberbands are provided though). As with all BCEL & Lao Development Bank branches the cat visited, staff were fast & efficient, & would write out the breakdown (above, bottom left) of denominations to help tourists reeling from shock at the thick wads they had to count & stuff into their money belts without bursting the seams.

While waiting to be served, the cat watched bank staff sitting at a table in a room at the back, manually counting & tying bundles of kip into 'bricks'...if this were some movie they would then be stuffed into black briefcases, picked up by dark-suited men in sunglasses & delivered to some mafia boss =P A real contrast to the modern looking LED display with the latest exchange rates at the front, sans any buying rates for kip ;) If Lao banks aren't interested in their own currency, it isn't too surprising that the kip is practically worthless outside of Lao. This branch & the Luang Prabang ones had extended operating hours (including Saturdays!) to make the most out of the annual influx of much-needed hard currency that comes with the peak tourist season.

& then it was off to KNT internet (300 kip/min) to report on the cat's whereabouts, & the post office for stamps. Wonder how many have mistaken this for a mailbox:


The tiny words at the right say 'NOT FOR LETTERS' =P

Next up was noodle soup brunch & a stop by the local branch of Big Brother Mouse:


The books here make wonderful gifts for locals, & those that the cat bought here would end up travelling to places way beyond the cat's route =)

On this trip the cat would meet many young Lao eager to read anything the cat had with words on it - printouts of travelfish eFish & scanned pages from travel guidebooks (lighter than carrying entire guidebooks with irrelevant info), the cat's journal & Thai-English dictionary, museum exhibition pamphlet, namecards, maps, recycled NUNC ziploc bags, postcard captions - such is the thirst for the written word...reminded the cat of its kittenhood days, when it read words on anything from ingredient lists on shampoo bottles to warning labels on insecticide sprays to discarded magazines dug out from recycling bins (straycat dustbin-digging instinct at work).

Outside of major towns, books are hard to come by in North Lao. The only bookstores the cat came across catered to tourists - not surprising since there seem to be hardly any Lao books in publication (except for textbooks), & most locals can't afford textbooks for their kids anyway.

The cat saw newspapers only once during this trip, & it was passed around the bus for both literate & illiterate to look at the pictures. The literacy rate in places like Phongsaly is just 43%, & the cat wasn't alone in trying to make sense of signs written in Lao. At times it was approached by illiterate locals for help, who assumed that the cat was literate (correct) in Lao (how wrong!) because it wore glasses. In places like Phongsaly & Udomxai with bilingual (Lao + Chinese) signage the cat could help them, but elsewhere it was a case of the blind asking the just-as-blind, & it is when you are unable to help that you feel the most helpless & redundant =|

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