Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Vientiane and the Visa run to Laos


One can’t spend too much time in Thailand talking with expats or visitors of a longer duration without the topic of Visa runs being raised. Everyone has a tale, a story, or as my friend Riz would say; “porky pies." The difference between the stories being the storyteller’s motivation, to regale, brag or instill fear. A search of forums and the web have all sorts of advice on the cheapest, easiest, best way. The problem a researcher runs into is not just the inaccuracy of the story based on the above, but also the when. South East Asia is a quickly growing and changing place. What was “true” on Friday may be not so true on Monday morning? The original story may be slightly embellished, proving the writer's powers of negotiation, or entirely fabricated. Armed with this knowledge and understanding Inga and I set off to Laos on a Sunday afternoon in February.

            While cheap, easy, best, seem at the start to be definitive in nature they are not. What is cheap depends on your budget and what you place value in. I value time and safety over money so for me cheap was a Nok Air flight from Chiang Mai to Udon Thani near the Laos border. Mini Vans do make the same trip at about a third the cost, but I have heard “tales” of horror. Even if these horror stories are not as true as the telling the mere fact of being stuck in a van for eight hours at the mercy of the driver for bathroom breaks on challenging Thai roads made the decision an easy one.

            Once in Udon Thani the options for a ride to the Friendship Bridge and border are varied. Bus, minibus, or “go now limo” are the most convenient. Apparently a city bus style route exists but without a Thai interpreter that option died on arrival. We opted for the ‘go now limo’ and, for us, it was a good value. During the hour long ride thru the city and out to the border, I witnessed three Minibus incidents ranging from close to stupidly tight how did they not just crash.

            The border itself is run very well on both sides. You hand your filled out departure card and with two stamps and a smile your leave Thailand. You leave the building and then run into a modern day sheep herder. His job is to get you into one of the buses that drive across the bridge. I have read you can walk across, but I don’t know how one would do this as the chaos in this no-mans-land area between the two countries is intense. So he directed me back to immigration and Inga spotted the bus ticket seller just to the right of the immigration door. Tickets purchased we were herded onto a waiting bus for the trip. It isn’t a long trip but considering dusk had just fallen, and our mosquito spray was packed, forty Bhat was cheap and easy. On the other side of the bridge, one fills out the forms and the Immigration Officer conducts an on the spot interview in superb English and polite manner. You hand over your passports with the required cash amount for your country and in three minutes you have a cool looking visa allowing you a month in the Peoples Democratic Republic of Laos.

            We were approached during the process by a young man offering help and smiling I said that my English was pretty good and I could muddle through it. He smiled, understanding, and then offered a ride into town. A short negotiation of how much and what kind of transport and we had our ride into Vientiane. He hovered close and checked how we were doing and politely offered suggestions. The ride into the capital of Laos was comfortable in an air-conditioned minivan with us as the only passengers.

            Arriving at the Lao Golden Hotel had me questioning my decision to book it. I knew it was very close to the Consulate of Thailand and was a three-star hotel. The street appeal of the property is a little lacking. Inside however the staff were excellent and the night manager had enough English to make it all work.  The day personnel and the hotel manager speak perfect English and the three days we stayed were very pleasant. The breakfast included with the stay is good and well executed and the kitchen staff and manager very professional.

            Our helpful driver had told us that Monday would be busy and to arrive at the consulate early.  Inga and I went for a night time walk to find the consulate and enjoyed the cool jungle air. It was only about five minutes by foot and the neighborhood very quiet after Chiang Mai.  We arrived back at the hotel and got an early start on sleep, both of us tired from the travel and wondering how the easier, cheaper routes would have felt.

            The Consulate opened at 830 and we arrived at 7:45 to find a line about fifty meters long. The line stretched along the narrow sidewalk, already crammed with people selling services and food. We were approached by a couple of people politely offering to fill out the forms for us and we declined and then set to watching the spectacle. Many different nationalities surrounded us and most had come on minibusses doing the cheap, easy visa run. They looked tired and happy to be standing in line. We watched one of the service helpers diligently set up his stall. To say the man was detail  orientated would have been wronging thousands with illness. I knew we needed a photocopy of the front page of our visa and had intended to do it at the embassy on the top floor but the price was right and I knew this guy would do it correctly the first time. He offered to look at my paperwork and concluded that we needed photocopies of our Laos visa, and stamps, and I needed a new picture. He also gave us two applications and cut and glued our pictures on them. The price he charged was about 20 Bhat more than if I had done it inside. A great value for a while, you wait service.

            Inside the embassy grounds are beautiful and amazingly so given the enormous amount of human traffic that is seen on a daily basis. A small snack bar provides coffee and treats at a reasonable price and there is even a small smoking area. We stood in line until we reached a covered area to the rear of the compound and then received a number after our documents got a once over from junior staff. Inga and I found a spot and filled out the forms and waited for our number to be called. It is run very efficiently and the staff are very helpful and polite. We left after about two hours total time without passports to explore the city.

    Vientiane is very different than Chiang Mai and so are the people. Things are about the same price with the exception of street food being a little cheaper and Tuk Tuks being more expensive. The city itself is charming with the French and Soviet influence very apparent in the buildings and road designs. The people are a little shyer but still pleasant. English is spoken less frequently here and Bhat and Kip used as a single currency. In fact, the speed at which they can do the conversion is pretty impressive. We walked perhaps too far on this day. The weather was sweltering and the humidity very high yet we pushed ourselves to go see That Luang a huge temple complex northeast of the city center.  It was impressive and very different from Thai temples. The return journey found both the temperature and our blood pressure climbing. We relaxed the rest of the day and enjoyed an excellent meal at the hotel.

            The next morning found us again walking, yet this time in the rain. A cloud system had rolled in cutting off the direct sunlight. We enjoyed a long walk to the waterfront and found little shelter points along the way to dodge the greater deluges. This is jungle rain after all and when it comes down it comes down! To be honest both Inga and I remarked how we missed the rainstorms of Vancouver and we found a little café and enjoyed a drink both of us missing BC a little.

            The rain stopped and we took a route down to the Presidential Palace and the Chao Anouvong Park and Monument. We had the entire place to ourselves as everyone had the good sense to stay out of the rain. But to us the rain was warm and the cooler temperature allowed for a longer walk. The morning swept by and soon I had us walking in the direction of the Embassy to pick up our passports and hopefully our sixty-day tourist visas.

There wasn’t a lineup when we arrived at the Embassy and we each got a number and waited for them to open the doors to main building. This is the secure side of the Embassy and it is where you paid your fees the day before. The people waiting in the large room were most of the same individuals we had seen the day before. Some looking very worse than they had a short twenty-four hours ago. The system was again smooth and number driven and Inga and I both received the visas we requested.
That good news and stress gone from our day we had a small lunch and recharge before heading once again on foot to the waterfront steps to enjoy a cigar and sunset over the Mekong River before hitting the night market.

1 comment:

  1. Great photos and write up. I'm glad the two of you are getting around so much.