After the homestay in Sapa, I woke up with a bit of a stuffy nose. I automatically attributed this to the fact that I drank 15 shots of rice wine and only had 4-5 hours of terrible sleep. For two days I had a mild runny nose and a small cough – not even close to the worst thing I have dealt with on this trip. On the third night though, I got terrible chest pains and had difficulty breathing, but it wasn’t until the sixth day of being sick, when I had a fever, that I began to worry that I had Malaria (thanks Stu). A few days later, I pulled the trigger and visited my first Asian hospital in Laos.
Before I even got the hospital in Luang Prabang, crossing the border and getting to the old capital presented challenges in themselves.
Rough Start to Laos – Crossing the Border
As our bus pulls up to the Lao border, the rain is coming down hard and the storm in the sky spreads for miles. The cool temperature feels good after so many weeks in the heat and humidity of Vietnam. The 15 or so people on our bus file out and start filling out the required paperwork to get into the country. When it is my turn to approach the window, I pull out my passport picture and hand it to the man behind the counter.
He looks at it for two seconds, looks back at me, looks at the photo, and then looks back at me. Finally, he just shakes his head and says no. I smile at him and ask what the problem is. He says that the picture is not me. Without any forethought, I had come to Asia with a 6 month beard. Then, one month into the trip I shaved it off. I hold up the picture next to my face and smile, assuring him that it is indeed me in the photo. He takes the photo back, shows it to his colleague, then they both shake their heads and hand it back.
Getting New Photos
He says I must buy new photos from them for $5. In my head, I am thinking that just because they don’t grow any facial shouldn’t stop them from recognizing somebody who has a beard from when they are clean shaven. In hindsight, they were probably right to turn me down.
I initially refuse to pay the $5; so, he smugly tosses my passport back to me and says OK. After two minutes of watching everyone else move forward with the border procedure, I realize I have no other option and get the photos. I think the main thing making me mad was that the guy in Vietnam let me in when I had the huge beard even though it didn’t match my passport photo. That, and the fact that the Lao border had four other random fees made me suspicious.
Hidden Fees at the Lao Border
Agitated from my sickly state and the forced passport photo purchase, the other fees the Lao government impose on me don’t help at all. In total, I shell out $49. Here is the breakdown:
Yes, that is correct. They charge more on the weekends and they charge to take your temperature to see if you are sick (the thermometer didn’t even work). Each fee is paid at a different window to make things even more confusing. Getting back on the bus, I have a bias about Lao already.
Stranded in Muang Khua
To make matters worse, the bus drops me off in some nowhere town called Muang Khua where I am suppose to catch another bus to Nong Kiaw. Right when I depart the bus, another bus pulls up going to Nong Kiaw. The driver says it is $21. This is more than the night buses in Vietnam, let alone some 5 hours day bus. I decline and tell him I will find a cheaper one later. No other buses come the whole day. One night and a nine hour bus ride in the morning later, I finally make it to Luang Prabang.
Trip to Luang Prabang Provincial Hospital
Sitting in the lobby of Villa Philaylack in Luang Prabang two days later, I start to realize I am sweating profusely and I have the chills. Talking it through with Stu, we start to realize I have a lot of the symptoms of Malaria: fever, diarrhea, cough, congestion, chest pain, and difficulty breathing. It all seems to make sense with the 20+ mosquito bites I acquired in Sapa.
In a panic, I hop in a tuk tuk and go to the closest hospital – Luang Prabang Provincial Hospital. I walk into the main building and ask one of the pharmacists where I can see a doctor. She points down corridor and I start walking. I reach the end of the building realizing I don’t see a single doctor and nobody I ask speaks English. I go back to same pharmacist and shrug my shoulders. She takes me by the hand and leads me down a different corridor into a room where a doctor, some patients, and some nurses are congregated.
I ask if anyone speaks English. The youngest man in the room turns and says he speaks a little English. Turns out he is also the only doctor. He asks me to wait in the next room for him. The waiting room has two patient beds, and the other bed has an older, tan, blonde woman in her 50’s. She asks me what’s wrong with me. I tell her I think I have malaria. She looks at me for a while and then tells me she is part psychic. She feels that I don’t have malaria. What the hell? I take some comfort in her words.
A few minutes later , the doctor comes in and listens to my lungs. He listens to my symptoms and then tells me we will do a blood test for malaria and a chest x-ray for my lungs. Finishing the paperwork, he asks me to go pay for the tests. In many hospitals here, you pay before you get treatment. When I am back with the receipts, a nurse I cannot communicate with beckons me to follow her.
Waiting for the Test Results
First, we stop off in a tiny room and young women ties a dirty rubber tube around my bicep. She draws some blood and dismisses me out of the room. I must have looked befuddled the whole time because my guide nurse laughed every time she saw me.
Next, we go to the x-ray room. It’s a bit dingy but definitely operational. Two men take my shirt off and show me how to stand. Within 30 seconds I am done with the x-ray.
I walk back to the area with my doctor and sit in a chair in the hallway to wait for the results. Sitting in the chair, I start to realize how dirty everything is. Ants and flies roam the halls in mass numbers to match the dirt and grime in the cracks and corners. I quick trip to the bathroom confirmed the cleanliness of the facilities. Oh, and trust me. I chose the cleanest look urinal.
The Malaria Scare
As I sit in the hall pondering what is going to happen, my nurse comes out of a room, walks up to me, points at me, and says, “Malaria 3”. I ask her if I have malaria and she nods. Then, she tries to say something else to me, but I cannot understand. She leaves to go tell the doctor something. Letting the news sink in, I start mentally preparing for what might come. So much for your fuckin’ psychic abilities gypsy woman.
Twenty minutes go by. Finally, the doctor comes out and walks up to me. He takes his mask off and says they are waiting 5 more minutes for my malaria results! Phew. In the end, he diagnoses me with bacterial Bronchitis. A welcome relief at this point. He writes some prescriptions and I go to pay at the window. It’s a funny scene at a hospital when all of the women (they were all women) behind their respective windows are gossiping and watching Youtube videos. None of them seem too concerned with customer service.
Cost of Hospital Visit and Overall Thoughts
Despite not being able to find a doctor, not being able to communicate, and being scared of the facilities at first, the visit was actually pretty seamless. I was in and out of the hospital within one hour – faster than it would have been in America. In the end, the total cost of the blood test, x-ray, exam, and medicine was $41.
I also should be passing this on to my travel insurance company. I purchased 6 months of coverage through World Nomads based on the insurance tips from NomadicMatt. It was about $330 total for every type of coverage I could want. Turns out, I am very happy I got this plan, as this was not the end of my illness. In the coming weeks, my ailments would return and I had to visit two more hospitals. I will finish the story in the coming posts.
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