Thursday, May 28, 2009


Last post I said the worst personal scrape for a reason. Looking back, I've been in situations that were much worse for the people around me. State of emergency flooding, road destruction, etc. This time, I was the only one hit, nobody around me has had any problems as a result.

Here are the events as best as I can reconstruct them. The critical part is guesswork, and seems far-fetched, but it's the least far-fetched explanation I've got.

I left Pai and took a bus to Chiang Mai, and then from there to another town named (confusingly enough) Chiang Rai. That was as close as I could get to the Lao border, I'd be catching a slow boat the next morning around 11am from the other side that would take two days on the Mekong river to get me to the city of Luang Prabang.

As I looked around the main street of Chiang Rai, four Thai guys sitting around got my attention and and told me they had a bed available for 90 Thai baht. The current exchange rate runs something along the lines of 100 Thai baht equaling $3 US. Even by Thai standards, this was a great deal. They showed me the clean and spacious four bed room, assuring me that since it was low season, I'd have it all to myself. When I saw that the last person in the guest registry had checked out four days before, I believed them. It all seemed a bit too good to be true.

Usually when something is too good to be true, it is. Here's a little background information that will seem completely unrelated, at first. I wear a passport pouch. It's a zippered two-pocket money-belt that goes around my waist and tucks into my pants, out of sight. I use it to keep a few essentials: my passport and international vaccine certification, my usb thumb drives with all my photos, and a stash of cash in the back pocket, my US drivers license, my ATM and credit card, a list of phone numbers,  and an anti-diarrhea pill in the front pocket. There are only three places this pouch normally exists: tucked in my pants, hung up next to me in the shower, or stashed under my pillow when I sleep.

Back to the story. I went to bed that night in Chiang Rai, sticking my passport pouch under my pillow as usual. I slept. While I slept, one of the four or more guys working for the hotel used one of the three other keys to the room, saw my pouch sticking out from under the pillow, removed my credit card and ATM card from the front pocket, and left. I woke up and noticed my pouch sticking out from the pillow, but thought nothing of it-- I sometimes toss around in my sleep, moving my pillow with me, uncovering the pouch. No big deal.

I took a bus and tuk-tuk to the border and got nailed with the surprise overstay charge. I was out of baht at this point, the slow boat was leaving soon, and the money changers were a lot closer than the ATMs. So I changed a $20 out of my pouch's back pocket to pay the rest of the bill. $35 and a passport-sized photo later on the other side of the border, and I was legally in Laos with a 30-day (I checked) visa. I swapped my Thai baht for Lao kip, bought a baguette sandwich, and paid most of my ticket on the slow boat, but found I didn't have quite enough kip. So I walked uphill to an ATM, opened the front pouch pocket for my debit card, and got the shock of my trip.

I kept cool, went into the bank, changed $40 more into kip to pay for the rest of my ticket and started making a couple calls- first to my parents in case I couldn't get through to my card companies, then to my card companies themselves. I got one card on hold but the other wouldn't let me talk to anyone because they were closed for memorial day. I bargained with the sandwich makers for a deal on five short, plain baguettes and headed for my boat.

I tallied up my usable assets. After the overstay charge and visa fee, my US stash was running low. I'd decided I wanted to sit on my dollars and euros as long as possible in case of a medical emergency, and use my kip until it ran out. I had a 10 euro bill in my bag, $49 US left in my pouch, and most of $15 in Lao kip in my wallet. It wasn't much, but I'd make it work.

I kept my mind off things by playing cards up front with two traveling couples. I didn't mention my situation. I'm not sure why I didn't. Pride, I guess. But I did quietly accept whatever little offer of food they had shared around. An Oreo here, a few Pringles there. Aside from that, I was going back and munching on my bread and water.

We made land and the touts just didn't understand my problem when I told them their price for a room was nearly half my kip. I was white, therefore I had limitless money. All the other white people getting off my boat seemed to have limitless money. All the other white people before them did too. What made me any different? I did manage to get a room for a fifth of my kip supply, finished my bread, and went to sleep, the cracks in the walls providing a nice breeze when the electricity to my fan was shut off for the night.

I bought a bunch of bananas on the way on to the boat. By about noon, midway through more card games, someone offered me another banana, the mere thought of which made me a bit nauseous. I ate it anyway. I was offered a spoonful of fried rice people were sharing and some crackers to supplement it all before we got to Luang Prabang at sundown. This time, the room rates had gone up.

I'm used to being accosted a every other doorway by someone trying to sell me something. But it's a very different experience when you are walking through a third-world city trying to sell you everything they've got and you can't afford any of it; when the nightly rate of a room is more of the local currency than you possess and you know you can't get any more. Everything around you, goods, services, and even the cheapest junk food sold out of the back of a garage is a reminder that you don't have enough money to live. I sat down on the sidewalk when I found an open wifi connection, messaged all the couchsurfing people I could find in the area, and got messages to my family to tell them I was okay, which I mostly was. I was still sitting on US and Euro cash to pay for medical expenses, so if I could just make the kip stretch for a few days...

I managed to find a room about the size of a closet and, after a long argument, bargain the rate down even further. I didn't feel hungry, but I was starting to feel physically weak, and I knew that five short baguettes and a bunch of bananas weren't enough for a 6' 165lbs guy to run on for almost 48 hours. I asked around from and found an outdoor stall next to a temple selling a buffet- one plate for 5,000 kip (meaning I'd be spending only a third of my kip rather than over half). I ate half of it and started feeling a bit ill-- my body figuring out that it could start complaining about the food situation-- but shoveled the rest down anyway, listening to more backpackers talking about where they could get drinks that night and what purchases looked good at the night market.

It's hard to exaggerate how frivolous people with a lot of money look to people without any. I've lived a life of privilege-- I'm a white American with married parents who make enough to have sent me through private schools my entire life. I do know what it's like watching people who are a lot wealthier than I am, but this was different. Back then, I could be amazed by the things rich people did, but I knew I had my affordable lifestyle to go back to. I've never before wondered if I could count the days I could afford eat and sleep on one hand. None of the people around me were really any different from how I would have been normally. But when I didn't have the money to consider the purchases they were turning up their nose at, they looked like they were from another planet. They all seemed very rich, spoiled, and callous to their surroundings. And if any of them looked at me, they just thought I was one of them.

Fortunately, things are now working out for me. My parents sent me some cash a lot earlier than I expected possible via western union. I walked out with my cash in hand, bought a nice chicken sandwich, kept an eye open along the way at the local crafts for sale, and settled back at the restaurant with wifi to get the word home that I'd gotten my cash. The scariest thing about all this is not what it was like to have so little, but how quickly I seem to be forgetting now that I have money again.

This afternoon I wandered into a book swap that offered a one to one swap as long as you donated 20,000 kip to the local orphanage. Normally I object to paying for a book swap, as that kind of defeats the purpose, but since this was for a good cause rather than profit, I went in. I started talking to the proprietor, an Australian lady who had been working the orphanage for about six years, and she told me she was expecting to have 168 mouths to feed this year for the upcoming holidays-- a jump from last year of 140-- and that next year at this time there could be 200-400 more than that. Whole villages were dying out and starving due to drought and disease.

She had a lot to say that gave me a lot to think about. Even at my worst, I'd had bread one day and fruit the next. Probably more than many of these kids got for weeks, and that was me at my worst within less than two days. What was even more discouraging though, was talking to her about how corrupt and unhelpful the foreign aid and NGO system was at addressing the problem. I spent about half an hour listening to her explain why the vast majority of NGOs didn't actually help to address the local problems. Stories of how one would do things like invest 55 million dollars into building dairy farms in an area of people who don't like milk and have never run dairies. Then they forgot to provide tankers to transport milk from the shiny new farms to the shiny new processing factory because they were out of money. The people couldn't process the milk, didn't like it anyway, so they did the sensible thing and used the cows for beef and let the dairy equipment rot. 55 million dollars, nothing is solved and everybody's blaming everyone else. This was one of many examples she gave from NGOs with some very big names.

The only things that really helped, as she put it, were small projects by individuals that lasted for a long time. As in ten years or more. And she pointed out that these projects have little to no administrative costs, and don't ask for volunteers (just get her on the subject of third world orphanages, volunteers, and pedophilia risks-- would you allow random volunteers off the street in a first-world nursery?). Her example was a woman who moved down from the states and worked at setting up libraries around the area, teaching kids various things, with a lot of success (after a stint with photography, her students were winning international photography awards). She didn't really need donations. She didn't have much overhead. She just worked all day, every day, six days a week for six years, and she's still at it.

That's a lot of food for thought for three days.

Check out this entry's Photos.


  1. jesus, joel. that really, really sucks. hope they don't spend all your money, or at least that the cards got successfully frozen.
    good luck, hope things get shinier :-D

  2. Wow. I really hope those cards get sealed off, and I'm impressed at how well you handled it - scary as that must have been. The absolute lack of money without enough to get home with (even if you spent your euros and dollars)...I'm glad you had wifi and the ability to call home.

  3. Since you said you would be away from electricity for a couple of days, thought your readers might like the reassurance that the cards were successfully put on hold... and that made easier by your having carefully made copies of all your documents before you left the US. Good preparation doesn't always prevent disasters, but can make some consequences easier to deal with. anonymom.

  4. Thanks for letting us know! :-D

  5. For travelers in this fix, western union works simply and well. The sender pays a fee to western union and the money to be sent and obtains from WU a lengthy code number. On the other end, the recipient shows identification and gives that code number and receives the money at any western union in the country to which the sender has identified when sending. This means the recipient must have identification and a way to obtain the code number from the sender. With internet/phone/text, this is easier nowadays.

  6. Starbuck and Count C- Yeah, like my mom said, it was all taken care of. Weirdly the idea of buying a ticket home never occurred to me. I guess because it was so far out of reach...

    Anonymom- Thanks, I realized I probably should have said something about that in the post. I'll have to write a tip about the preparation thing, that's good.

    Anonymous- Do you work for Western Union by any chance? I know some people in some companies troll search engines for the opportunity to write comments like that as publicity. If so, thanks, your company got me out of bind efficiently and thoroughly. For everyone else, WU is good, though it usually charges a hefty fee for the transfer (10% of the highest amount in a tranfer's "bracket") Fedex offers a similar service called ikobo, and I believe some people use paypal accounts and their debit card to do similar work. Western Union though, is the classic standard. Just make very sure you have that code number when you go in to collect.