Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Border Hopping

"If you catch me at the border, I got visas in my name"
Ironically, on my trip to Laos, I saw the most white people, or Farang, I have seen since my arrival in Asia. I think the fact that Vientiane, the capital of Laos, has the closest embassy to travel to for Thai tourist and work visas contributed to the dense population of lighter skinned folks, as did the fact that I have yet to explore any of the “touristy” areas of Bangkok. Either way, I still count myself as very fortunate to have met another expat who is actually living in Thailand rather than backpacking on a whirlwind tour of Southeast Asia. I actually spent the entire nine hour bus ride to Nong Khai, the northern most point in the north-eastern province of Thailand, blasting Jack Johnson on my iPod (a desperate attempt to drown out the horrific Thai movie, complete with screaming, violence, and crying, which was playing on full volume – what is it with Thais and blasting multimedia at ear shattering levels?) and trying to sleep. Aside from deciding together that the squishy bun with green goop inside it was definitely edible and tasty, it wasn’t until reaching the bus depot about five minutes away from the Thai –Laos border that Philippa, my English bus mate, and I even had a conversation. As our bus pulled in, a screaming sea of taxi and tuk tuk drivers crashed upon our ride, and we both turned to stare at each other in horror. Clearly the most foreign people on the bus (there were some possible half Thais, but definitely not full farangs), I think we were both a little scared we would become the number one target for hassles. She asked me if we were already at the border, if I was also going on a visa run, and if I knew what I was doing. I assured her that while I had not a clue what was going on, I had the fortune of having my Thai aunt and her friend along with me and who could sort out any roadblocks we might come up against, and that if she liked, she was more than welcome to tag along. As it turned out, meeting Philippa was the best thing that could have happened for either of us.

Feeling slightly more secure with my new friend along side me, I braved getting off the bus. I definitely received a lot of hassles and demands, but it turns out that Thais are just as interested in hassling their own as they are foreigners, so it wasn’t too overwhelming. We sat down in the bus depot to wait out the hour or so until we could buy tickets to Vientiane. The ticket window finally opened, and as our little group lined up one of the taxi drivers walked up to the window and held up a sign which stated, “If you do not already have a visa for Laos or a Thai passport, you can not get on this bus.” Again, the look of horror passed between Philippa and I. I think we were both of the same mind set, that if we simply ignored this taxi driver who kept pointing at us and demanding to see our visas, the problem would go away. Thankfully, my Aunt and her friend were with us, and throughout the trip they turned out to be our saving grace. As it turned out, the taxi driver wasn’t lying to us, but funnily enough, he also made a bit of a profit from the situation, as we decided to take his ride to the border. As we drove through Nong Khai, I was amazed by how much the scenery reminded me of Kenya. The dry dusty color of hot country surrounded us- the plants, the streets, the shops, everything seemed to be of this same brown dust. Suddenly we turned on to a lush side street with blooming trees and greenery lining the road, complimented beautifully by the two young monks dressed in burnt orange with the happiest smiles on their faces walking down the road, which ended just as quickly and thrust us back onto a dry, smoggy street headed towards the border.

About five minutes into our drive, and half way to Laos, our tuk tuk taxi driver (because our ride was really a mixture of both) pulled into a small hole in the wall shop where he told us we could buy our visas. Thankfully, both Philippa and I were experienced travelers, and we adamantly put our foot down. Try as the shop owner might to convince my aunt and Noi, her friend, that we were wrong and that the deal of 1400 baht for a visa, ride through the border, and night in a hotel was legit, we refused to give in. “Visas can only be bought at the border and at the embassy” we said over and over again, as An and Noi tried to convince our taxi driver to move along and take us to Laos. It was clear that this was a scheme set up by the taxi driver and the “visa” shop, and he was upset that we were not stupid tourists easy to rip off. Finally, after much hassling on our parts, we convinced him we were not going to buy this package visa deal, and we were back on our way.  After that, crossing the border was a cinch – first you travel through the Thai customs, hop on a bus to cross the “Thai-Laos Friendship Bridge” and then buy your visa to enter Laos. Although my visa cost 1500 baht and didn’t include a night in a hotel or a ride to Vientiane, I was happy to pay my due knowing that at least the border guards couldn’t legally rip me off (well, in terms of buying a fake visa… in terms of price, I’m not sure I’ve ever heard of $35 US converted in to over 1500 baht… 33baht to the dollar, you do the math).

By this point, Philippa and I had spent a good two hours awake together, and we were fast becoming friends. She has one of those spicy personalities which draws people to her, witty, talkative, and not afraid to poke a little fun if you set yourself up. We clicked immediately and decided to spend the entire Laos trip together. While Philippa and I chatted away waiting for our visas, An and Noi had crossed the border and commandeered us a driver for the entirety of our trip. A little skeptical at first of this incredibly friendly looking, smiling man, my suspicions turned out to be entirely unfounded. Not only did he drive us to the embassy, where we waited over two hours just to spend 30 seconds handing in our visa application, but he was still there, waiting for us when we got out. He drove us around to hotel after hotel, until we found one for 275 baht each a night (we’re talking $8 here) with an incredibly expensive and gorgeous hotel across the road whose pool we could use for a small fee. Sounded good to me. We headed upstairs to freshen up, with Philippa and I in one room, An and Noi in the other. I was relieved to see that our toilet was not one of the squatting kinds that Thais are so fond of, but a regular, flushing western style toilet. Our shower, however, was just attached to the bathroom wall, no stall or curtain or any sort of separation device. According to Philippa, this was a huge improvement from her previous hotel, where they shower head had been stuck directly over the toilet, which she had to straddle in order to get clean.

The shower was refreshing, but the air outside was hot and sticky, and Philippa and I decided to skip the markets for a day at the pool. An, who is not at all a shopper, gave us a jealous look as Noi pulled her away for a long day of bargaining. After donning Philippa’s extra bathing suit (thank god she hasn’t learned to pack lightly after years of traveling… I on the other hand forgot one days worth of clothing and my swim suit) we headed over to the pool for a day of lounging, reading, and gossiping about the elderly French couple who were inappropriately canoodling in the pool. Once the sun started to go down and our sun was replaced with shade, we packed up our stuff and decided to try and find the markets. After asking several police men, none of who spoke English but who were all too happy to try and give us directions regardless, we found our way to the Morning Markets. I was expecting markets like Bangkok, full of every imaginable piece of clothing, or like Nairobi, full of local treasures and cultural items, but these markets were just full of random crap- plain tee shirts and underwear with a cheap knockoff bag here and there. We quickly abandoned our shopping plan and decided to look for the river, where Philippa knew we could find bars and restaurants.  However, we were again faced with the problem that hardly anyone spoke English and An and Noi were nowhere to be found. So we began to aimlessly wander, hoping to strike upon either the river or someone who could understand even our wild hand gestures. We spent an hour walking poverty ridden streets without a foreigner in sight when we finally decided we had no idea where we were and it was probably best to head to the hotel and try again. We sat down in front of a local convenience store, stocked solely with water, coke, a few tea drinks, beer and a few random house hold items such as toilet paper (which isn’t surprising, people over here use it for EVERYTHING), to have a rest and a drink. That ended abruptly as a police officer with a gun as long as his legs casually strolled on by.

Hightailing it back to the hotel, we realized we had been walking in the complete opposite direction from the river and neighborhood we were looking for. In fact, had we used our brains and eyes for even a moment, we would have notices the streams of farangs everywhere we looked. Relieved to actually be among foreigners, we went to look for somewhere to have a proper drink. All of Laos is full of French influence, and this area in particular buzzed with a European vibe. We sat down at a little Italian restaurant for a Beerlao, a very well liked and tasty local beer, and were shortly joined by two English boys who hailed from the same region of England as Philippa. We sat with them for about an hour, but the boys were a little too weird and a little too daft for our liking, and the older Aussie man who joined us and wanted to pay for everything was definitely off putting, so we excused ourselves (with the obvious lie to meet up later, but its not like we are going to tell them we think they are daft and weird) and headed back to the hotel to pick up An and Noi.

The ladies were just settling down for a nap as we returned, An looking absolutely wiped from trailing Noi around all day in sweltering hot heat to buy cheap cell phones and knock off Louis Vuitton luggage. A little buzzed from our beer, we decided to leave them to nap and head out for cocktails and food. We happened upon a beautiful restaurant with an outside bar and seating, and settled in for the next few hours. We ordered gorgeous Indian food, a Laos appetizer of vegetables and dip, and quite a few cocktails. As we were eating, an Italian man Philippa had met at the embassy, Giovani, happened upon us, and we asked him to sit down. Three cocktails and half a beer later, we realized we had to go back and pick up An and Noi, as our phones didn’t work and we wanted to go out with them. We ran back to the hotel, grabbed the girls, and went straight back to our waiting beer. An and Noi wanted to order everyone drinks, and suggested we order a tower of BeerLao. Now I am not sure whether it was the language barrier or because I wasn’t listening, but I insisted we order two. I thought An was referring to the tall bottles of BeerLao, and I know Philippa and I would power through one before An and Noi even got to wet their lips. So when the waiter showed up with two giant towers of beer, pretty much like small kegs with a spout, I was shocked. As the bar wouldn’t allow for us to return one, all we could do was tuck in, drink, and find as many friends as possible.

Finding friends didn’t prove to be too difficult. I am pretty sure the older Japanese man who grabbed my waist as I walked by, gave my boobs a little grab and tried to kiss me would have been very happy to join our table, but I left him with a smile, a konnichiwa, and a very fast walk away. I think he was satisfied just giving me a very vigorous smile and wave every time I turned around to face in his general direction that night. We did, however, invite the three English boys who were sitting a few tables away from us and who Noi thought were incredibly cute. Definitely an improvement from the poms (read – prisoners of mother England, or English folks) we had met earlier, and we were happy to pass our beer around.

We finally left our restaurant around midnight, twenty minutes after the staff had shut the lights out on us, with both towers empty. As it was our only night in Laos, and one of our English buddies last night traveling, we decided to try and find a discotec. We were discussing with the tuk tuk drivers milling about where we should go when we noticed one of the poms across the street doing some very shady business. When he came stomping back cursing loudly that the stupid guy had just tried to sell him crushed up aspirin, Giovani decided it was definitely time to go home, and Philippa and I grabbed An and Noi, jumped in the Tuk Tuk and took off. As startled as An and Noi must have been for us to leave our new friends, it’s not easy to forget the warning written on all entry documents to Laos that trafficking drugs is illegal and the penalty is death, so we figured it was best to explain while we were well on our way.  We headed to the only night club we knew of, which was on the third floor of a very quiet hotel, and decided it wasn’t worth paying for. We still went in, of course, but we just walked importantly pass the bouncers, who after saying 300 baht once didn’t seem too phased to let us just go on through. We walked in to the little dance club, and within a few minutes it was as if Philippa and I had walked into hell. At one table sat the fat old Aussie and the two English boys we had ditched earlier in the night. Walking in the door were the three we had just left standing in the street. And all around us were young Asian girls and fat old white men. We decided to call it a night, dragged Noi kicking and screaming (not literally, more like boggie-ing and drinking) out to a taxi and made our way home.  On the way, we stopped at a Laos noodle stand, and ate some noodle duck soup. Although it wasn’t as good as the Thai food I’d had, I’d venture to say my late night snack definitely was my saving grace for the next day.

The next morning we all pulled up surprisingly well, considering the amount of booze we had comsumed the night before. Noi and An, who had a much later start on us in the drinking department, got up at 7am to visit a temple. Knowing I’d have to make a visa run to Laos a few more times during my stay in Bangkok, I decided to skip the early morning festivities and snore the morning away. I decided to try and be human again around 10:30am, guzzled a bunch of water, took a cold shower (not that there was any other option), and bee lined for a restaurant with some sort of sandwich I could wolf down. Our friendly tuk tuk taxi driver was waiting for us outside as we came down (truly, the man must have been an anomaly, I’ve never met such a trustful driver in my life), and he drove us back to the area we had eaten the night before. We ran into Giovani again, who was enjoying a coffee at a little French cafĂ©, and asked us to join him. Noi and An headed off to buy some smoked fish off the street, and Philippa and I tucked in to a delicious French style lunch. One thing the French have definitely taught the Laos to do well is cook bread, and I had one of the tastiest buns on my burger that I have ever had in my life.

We decided to leave Laos early, so we picked up our visas and headed back to Nong Khai. Turned out the next bus wasn’t for three hours, so we spent some time exploring the local market. We found a stand with beautiful scarves, were we bought loads to stock pile as presents for family and friends. We ate some delicious Laos style food, as we hadn’t managed to eat much while actually in Laos, and hopped on our 8pm bus to arrive back in Bangkok at 6 in the morning. My trip to Laos, while short, was definitely eventful. I managed to gain both a legit work visa and a good friend through the experience, making the trip an ultimate success.

No comments:

Post a Comment