Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Bad, The Good and the Stupid

Thailand requires that I have a particular type of visa in order to work here.  To get it, I have to leave the country for a day, drop off paperwork at a Thai embassy, spend a night out of the country and then pick up my visa the next day.  If I were a foreigner in the US, I could do all that inside the country but Thailand likes me to leave first.  From Chiang Mai, the nearest embassy is in Vientiane, Laos.  On a teacher's salary, flying is too expensive, thus making us decide to take the bus.  Unfortunately, there are no buses that go between the two cities and that is where my story begins.

This week was midterms week which means I had no classes.  I figured it was a perfect time to get my visa.  First I would have to figure out how to get there and back.

There are several bus companies and bus stations throughout most cities.  Ideally, you would want to take a bus from point A to point B and be at your destination.  However such an option is usually not the case.  First we had to take the three hour bus ride from Fang to Chiang Mai to the Chang Pueak station.  From there, we had to take a songtaew to the Arcade station, the other side of town, to catch the 12 hour, all-night bus to Udon Thani.  There is only one bus company we know has comfortable buses and that one only runs every third day.  This was not one of those days.  We loaded ourselves into the bus and quickly discovered the seats were less than comfortable.  The driver spent the night speeding up and braking, making me slide up and down in my chair.  The air conditioning kept me cold, the blanket was too small and the toilet behind us smelled like it hadn't been cleaned in years.  I probably got an hour sleep the entire night.  If we could make the connections right, I could have gotten to the Thai embassy on time to drop off my paperwork and go home the next day, but that was not to be.  The bus to Udon kept making random stops to pick up and drop off things, cigarette breaks and other stops I couldn't figure out.  Where were let off required us to take another 15 minute songtauw ride to the Udon bus station for a bus that went to Vientiane.  The embassy closed at noon and we were still in Udon at that time thus committing to two night in Laos.

Where we purchased our tickets to Laos we were warned that I needed to have a visa first or they wouldn't sell me a ticket.  I had an old visa from my last trip and that seemed to be enough to get me on board.  The bus got me out of Thailand, across the Mekong River but left me at the Lao border along with several other people waiting to get their visas.  We then took a songtaew to a hotel, after retrieving our bags which were still on the bus that left us.

The rest of the trip was similar.  Our first night at the hotel, the desk clerk neglected to mention that the bar adjacent to our room had a band that played every night until 1AM.  We were able to change to a quieter room the next night but had to endure rumbling floors and earplugs that first night.  To go home we decided to take a different route, taking a bus from Vientiane to Kohn Kaen and another 12 hour ride back to Chiang Mai.  That was also a sleepless night.
Still we managed to enjoy ourselves a bit.  We met another American fellow who teaches in the Isaan and he gave me ideas about what to teach as he has a similar situation at his school.  He has been doing it for seven years and was in the military thus he adds a bit more discipline to his class than I have been able to.  We also met a Korean family who will be living in Chiang Mai.  He is a pastor with the university associated to my school and we exchanged numbers on the last day as we all had coffee and rolls at the mall across from the bus.  Nee and I also got a chance to walk down along the Mekong River one morning and enjoyed visiting some temples and eating an eclair with coffee.  At the temple a young man bashfully came up to me to ask me if I would be willing to be interviewed for his school project.  I gave a similar assignment to some of my classes so there was no way I was going to turn him down.  I had been enjoying videos from my students last week and hope that his friend who recorded got as good a film as my kids got.

To end our trip, we took the three hour ride back to Fang, totally exhausted from our journey.  Between Tuesday and Saturday, we has spent almost 40 hours in buses and slept one of the four nights out.  We came back to rain and happy to see our apartment again, at least until we opened our fridge.  It turned out the landlord decided to shut off the electricity to save money only to ruin all the food we had.  The rain also made our tile stairs so slick I managed to slip and fall down five stairs until I could stop the fall.  I went to bed bruised and exhausted.

Thus, the bad was the endless bus rides and high prices of food in Laos.  The good was finding some foods we had never tried before and thoroughly enjoying them and helping a Lao student practice his English.  The stupid is to send thousands of people from your country to another to get a slip of paper attached to their passports, sending hotel, transportation and restaurant business to a foreign country.  Using non-slip tile on stairs is beyond stupid.  I dreamed of how rich I could get in the US if such a thing happened to me there.


  1. Wow, you've got to get at least one book out of this adventure!

  2. Thanks, Geoff. Blogs are a way to start a book as it lets me get my thoughts out and I see what people think. Living here is quite the adventure. So different from my days of wondering if I will by a double or triple tall latte from Starbucks. We don't even have a Starbucks here in Smallville.