Now that I’ve been in Laos nearly three weeks (I’ve been a bit remiss in my updates!) I finally feel like I’m getting the hang of the currency and no longer fumbling with the bills as much, trying to add up how many thousands of Lao kip I need to pay. The color coding helps, but really all the bills that aren’t blue kind of blend together in my wallet (yet American currency is only one color and I seem to manage at home just fine!)
It doesn’t help that each bill contains excessive zeroes, and there aren’t even commas to help you discern a 5,000 from a 50,0000 in a hurry. But I can’t complain about the exchange rate. There are about 8,000 kip to $1.00, so I get daily practice at my 8 times tables. The top bills in this picture, the 50,000’s, feel like big bills, like carrying around twenties. Yet they’re only about $6.25. For some quick reference, the 20,000 = $2.50; 10,000 = $1.25; 5,000 = 63 cents, and 2,000 = 25 cents. Approximately.
I can’t help but notice that the images featured so prominently on the back of the bills are all emblems of industry and development. Buildings, hydropower, roads – it’s a telling sign of values, of priorities. This country is a hotspot of natural biodiversity, but those kinds of assets just don’t seem to hold the same kind of value here, or at least not enough. That’s a good part of the reason why my work is here – trying to help elevate discussion of the importance and value of fish.
I have to say my favorite of the bills is the lowly 1,000 kip note, a whopping 12 cents. At least it showcases a bit of cultural heritage – the three women on the front are a common icon in Vietnam as well, highlighting the customs of the north, south and central parts of the country. The 1,000 note even has animals on the back! Albeit cows. With power lines in the distance.
My first few days here, I was keeping a detailed record of every kip I spent, trying to keep track of my spending and get a handle on the conversion rate. I’ve pretty much given that up, since a little money can get you quite far here. It’s possible to eat out for lunch and dinner and only spend about $5.00 total, which I did today. A $10 meal is living large. My bowl of pho for lunch today was only 16,000 kip ($2). However, the box of Great Grains cereal that I splurged on: 52,000 kip ($6.50). Buying imported American goods can add up fast. But a 22-oz bottle of Beer Lao: 15,000 ($1.88) – dangerous. A bunch of Thai basil at the market: 1,000 (12 cents). And the aerobics class along the river that brings me so much joy: 3,000 kip (40 cents). Somehow I assumed that dancing around in a public space must be free, but they still charge you for the pleasure. It’s so much fun though, it’s worth every penny.
I actually had a bit of a money mishap on my first trip to Laos last fall which I have been meaning to post on this blog, so may as well recount it here. I had been in the country only a matter of hours when I visited an ATM to withdraw money. As I had done at ATMs a number of times while in Vietnam previously, I expected to see a range of withdrawl amounts displayed, and I could probably safely choose one of the middle. Instead, at this particular ATM (an ANZ Bank), I was asked to type in the number of kip I wanted to withdraw. Uh-oh, a pop math quiz. Having become accustomed to converting 20,000 Vietnamese dong to dollars, my brain froze up as I tried to multiply 8,000 into some reasonable amount – those tricky 8’s. When the ATM graciously asked me if I needed more time to complete my transaction, I hastily pushed “yes.” And then again. And then once more.
Apparently anyone who takes more than three minutes to withdraw their cash must be up to no good because with some flashing of lights, the machine sucked my card inside and admonished me with a message to the effect of “suspicious activity.” It printed me a receipt that matter-of-factly described a “card capture” and instructed me to go to the bank headquarters to retrieve my card.
Of course, this left me somewhat speechless and I finally caught the attention of my Lao coworker who had been making a call on his cell phone. He was probably stunned that I could manage to lose my card in the machine in a matter of minutes while his back was turned. (This is the same coworker that recently had to extract a piece of a new key from our office door lock that I managed to break in half while testing it out. He probably wonders how I can function on my own.) Luckily, he took me to the bank headquarters the next day and I was able to retrieve my card a few days later after they emptied the ATM. Lesson learned – do your math ahead of time.