Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Angels in the Darkness

My visa was going to run out and my new employer was able to help me out.  I needed to have a letter and a stack of documents to take with me to a Thai embassy outside Thailand to get a new visa and not have to worry for a bit longer about getting deported.  Such worries are new to me.
I can't quite figure the logic of sending thousands of people outside the borders only to stand in line in front of Thai nationals to get a stamp in a passport.  Such activity could easily happen inside the country and they could gain from the travel money spent.  As it is, I had to find an embassy I could go to that wouldn't break my bank. The employer would give me the paperwork but not the cost of travel.  Two weeks earlier, I took a bus north to Myanmar but that only gave me 15 days.  I needed more time.
Embassies in Singapore and Malaysia involved getting on a plane which gets expensive.  Cambodia was too far and I don't think there is an embassy in Myanmar...besides once in Myanmar was plenty.  That left me with Laos, the nearest country to the east of here.  The embassy is in the capital city, Vientiane, which I had heard was beautiful, at least from a couple of students from my TEFL class.  Actually, I had heard quite the opposite from travel shows thus my curiosity was up.
Getting there is a bit of a challenge.  There are direct flights from Chiang Mai though more expensive than I wanted to spend.  Plus, the Thai embassy has time limits each day as to when you are able to drop off your paperwork.  Office hours are from 8:30 to noon each day.  If you arrive after that, you are locked out.  You drop off your paperwork on day one and then return the next day in the afternoon to pick up your passport with visa attached.  Thus, we were committed to spending a night there.  That gets me back to my original complaint about all this.  Sending tourists and business people out of the country to spend the night in a foreign hotel and eat the local food only takes money from Thailand.  Where is the logic?
Not flying directly leaves us with flying to the town of Udon Thani, an eastern city in Thailand.  We caught the early morning flight from Chiang Mai to arrive at 9 in Udon Thani.  The websites I read about it said there would be many different taxis and busses waiting to whisk me away to the border.  Actually there was just the one line for cabs which we caught.  The cab turned out to be the fellow's personal car which was clean and comfortable.  We drove for an hour to the border.  He couldn't cross so he left us there.
Lao Songtauw.  Nee sat up front and I was in back.
From there, I had to give my visa to Thai immigration where they took my exit card, charged me a fee, and sent me on my way.  Nee just walked through.  We then caught one of the oldest, most beat up bus I had seen in Asia.  That took us across the Mekong River into Laos.  I had to once again go through Lao immigration and at this point Nee was getting fed up with transportation.  She did her best to negotiate a deal into town, only to get us onto a very dilapidated songtaew, about half the size we see in Thailand.  The androgynous driver said he was a guy but looked and sounded like a girl.  Hey, this is Southeast Asia.
We rattled along for another hour making it nearly 11:00 when we arrived.  We got through the gate past a long line of more songtaews and tuktuks and entered the gate.  The crowd was several hundred people from all over the world all waiting under a steel roof in the hot sun.  The next number was 120 and mine was 286. Oh my.  I knew I was in trouble.
We waited for several hours, chatting with people from all over the world, sweating, eating over-priced street food.  That night we explored Vientiane.  Though on the surface it looks much like Thailand, it is quite poor, by comparison.  Cars and motorcycles are mostly quite old, streets are not cleaned, and locals can't afford to eat out.  The French did leave many beautiful buildings and straight roads, but maintaining them is a challenge.  Another thing the French left, though, was the bakery.
Near our hotel, I found several, all smelling wonderful in the early morning.  We went in search for breakfast, but were a bit early, so we wandered the town.  We saw more homeless than Thailand, more dirty streets, a number of temples and many hungry dogs.  The landscape was beginning to depress me and made me want to go back home.  Then for a moment, I could here the soft sound of singing; the voices of young women singing in harmony.  I turned and saw six girls riding bicycles down the quiet street, wearing matching t-shirts for the restaurant the worked at nearby.  They were singing to a radio one girl was carrying, and the voices seemed to fill the void and make the filth disappear for a moment.  As suddenly as it began, it ended as they got off their bikes to go to work.  I was impressed with how they seemed to be so comfortable with their world.
A Lao temple near our hotel
We returned to Udon Thani that night and stayed in a far better hotel without dirty sheets and buzzing mosquitos.  We ate Thai food at a street corner cafe, something so common here yet difficult to find only a few miles away in Laos.  I thought of how Laos have had to struggle for so many years and yet they still manage to sing their way to work.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for sharing your adventures with us, Roy. I'm living vicariously through your written words. Great job.