“Well, what are we gonna do now?” the visa control agent asked me in Lao, his accent lilting like those who are from that southern part of the country. I had just landed at the Pakse International Airport, the common layover point for those traveling in and out of Laos. I was on my way to Vientiane for a week.
“Um, I don’t know – I was hoping you could tell me!” I quipped in my American-accented Lao, trying to return his joking tone, but deep down, I was getting a bit nervous.
I rummaged frantically through my wallet and passport cover one more time. Crap. Confirmed: I had mistakenly used my last U.S. dollars that I was supposed to have saved to purchase my visa that day. I had yet to exchange any money for the Lao kip. And those, along with the Thai baht, were the only currencies they would take.
I usually buy visas online in advance if the country’s embassy website allows. Laos requires you to buy the visa in person upon entering the country, and requires you to pay in cash.
I could’ve sworn I set aside exactly 35 bucks the night before, when my friends and I were packing up our things on our last night in Siem Reap. But alas, it seems I had gotten myself into yet another precarious situation. How was I going to sweet talk this agent into letting me by so I could find a way to get Lao kip, all so that I could buy my visa and enter like a law-abiding foreigner?
I understand the irony in this. I was needing to break the rules so that I could follow the rules.
I was used to getting out of situations – and perhaps, getting into them a little too often as well – but because this time, it involved the Lao government and me trying to enter their country legally, there was a real chance I wasn’t going to be able to get out of this one. And that would mean I wouldn’t be able to connect to Vientiane, where I had planned to visit my cousins for the last leg of my Southeast Asia trip.
I mean, this wasn’t one of those situations, like when I talked the Macy’s cashier into giving me a 10% discount since I found a snag in a dress.
This time, I’m needing to convince this very-nice-but-stern-looking man that I’m not a criminal and that I very much want to follow the rules.
So, I lay on my charm thick. I put on my best “pleading but worried eyes” look paired with my pleading voice, as I ask him in my okay-ish Lao if there’s any possible way, if an airport security person could accompany me to the ATM or the currency exchange window, that I could quickly get some Lao kip and return to pay him.
He pauses for a good minute, as beads of sweat drip down both sides of my face. Was I sweating because I was hot, or was I nervous? Didn’t matter. I was so frazzled that I didn’t even bother to wipe them off.
Then, he finally agrees and waves over a petite, young woman wearing a bright yellow, mesh, worker’s vest – the kind you see construction workers wear. I can’t be too sure what she did at the airport, but I assumed she helps usher people, gives directions, checks bags, issues tickets, all of the above. Her ponytail swung a bit as she walked over to me and smiled kindly.
The very-nice-but-stern-looking man explained the situation to her, and she ushered me into the airport.
I flashed her my huge grin of relief, talking a mile-a-minute as I re-explained all the events that led up to that situation. Finally, I catch my breath and ask, “So where is the ATM?”
Suddenly, her smiling face turns into one that is about to deliver bad news. Their ATM, the only one they have at this tiny airport, was broken and wouldn’t be fixed for another 2 hours, she said apologetically. My flight was in an hour-and-a-half.
“But I can take you to the currency exchange,” she says.
“Yes, let’s do that!” I say, thinking on my feet, as I’ve become accustomed to doing while traveling.
She grins and quickly leads me to the window. I ask through the small cutout in the plastic partition if I could exchange my Singapore dollars into Lao kip.
“Sorry, we don’t take Singapore dollars,” the man replied. “Only U.S. dollars, Euros, or British pounds.”
Double shit. Now I’m really screwed.
The nice woman overhears, and she and I exchange a dumbfounded look.
“Well, now what?” I ask her, my hopes deflating.
She stands there quietly in front of me, and I could see the wheels are turning. So I stand there in silence and in anticipation of what plan she’s hatching.
“Come,” she says finally, and then she lowers her voice. “I’m going to take you to an ATM outside of the airport.”
I must’ve looked at her with alarm, because she quickly assures me that it’s only a few kilometers away, and that I can hop in her car.
All at once, I am panicked, relieved, and grateful. Grateful for this compassionate woman. And grateful I won’t have to ride on the back of a motorbike, a common vehicle for men and women throughout Laos.
In that moment, I realize we’re both taking risks and taking a leap of faith for a complete stranger.
As we step out of the airport, she swiftly removes her bright yellow vest and throws it in the backseat of her car. I hop in on the passenger’s side and thank her profusely for the hundredth time.
She just keeps replying sweetly, “Bo pben yeung.” (“It’s nothing.”)
True to her word, we soon arrive at an ATM outside of a small and narrow convenience store, with mostly motorbikes and a few sedans lined up outside the storefront.
We get out of the car. She guides me to the ATM with clear, plastic framing on each side, but no door. And as I step up to the booth, she goes inside the store to buy a beverage.
In perfect synchronization, she walks out with her drink as I’m putting the kip into my wallet, careful to separate out a few small bills to give to her later.
We jump in the car, and she drives me back to the airport. As she pulls into her old parking spot, I hand her the cash as a thank you for saving my ass, desperately hoping she’s not offended that I’m giving her money for her kindness. But it’s the only way I know how to express my gratitude in that moment, outside of me saying “thank you” to her over and over again.
And true to form, she politely refused it, even after I insisted.
“Bo pben yeung,” she says again, and smiles her sweet, gentle smile.
“Kop jai lai lai, der!” I tell her. (“Thank you so, so much!”) We step out of the car and walk into the airport together as I breathe a huge sigh of relief.
She walks me back to the visa counter, where I am grinning ear to ear as I hand over the kip I owe the very-nice-but-stern-looking man.
“Mah leo!” he cajoles. (“You’re back!”) And he’s chuckling and shaking his head at me.
I finally get my visa sealed onto one of the pages of my passport.
The young woman then accompanies me to my gate (there are only two gates in that entire airport).
And as we say our goodbyes – as I’m prone to do – my emotions get the best of me, and I give her a huge bear hug and repeat, “Kop jai lai lai, der! Sohk dee!” (“Thank you so, so much! Best wishes!”) I realize in that moment that this must be so awkward for her, because Lao people don’t tend to hug each other with such gusto.
But I don’t care … because it’s the only way I know how to express my gratitude in that moment, outside of me saying “thank you” to her over and over again.
So I hug her in all my Americanized glory. And I think, deep down, though it may be a bit uncomfortable for her, she appreciates the intention behind it.
As I walk toward the waiting area, I’m reminded once again of one of the main reasons I love traveling so much. When traveling to explore other countries and experience other cultures – as long as you are doing all this in earnest – people tend to be kind and helpful to you.
I’m also reminded of how the Lao people are some of the kindest, warmest people in the world. And I’m blessed to belong to these people.
Although I eventually managed to get my Lao PDR visa (by the grace of God, Buddha, some higher being), by no means do I condone anyone else doing as I did. If a visa is required for you to enter a foreign country and you must pay for the visa in person, please remember to exchange your money for the local or other accepted currency before you step foot onto any foreign soil! I have certainly learned my lesson the hard way and won’t ever do that again, in any country.