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Learning Experience In SE Asia

We are now in Vang Vieng, Laos. It has been an interesting and educational journey to get here.

We left Bangkok for Chiang Mai four days ago on a night bus. Perhaps if I'd looked at a map while considering how we'd obtain our Vietnam visas, we would have never gone to Chiang Mai, as it is north and west of Vientiane, Laos, where we had to go for the visas. I did neither, though, I just felt strongly that we needed to get out of Bangkok after two nights and that Chiang Mai was a good place to go. In hindsight, we should have purchased the Vietnam visas in Bangkok, which would have saved us a trip to Vientiane altogether, but it's funny how clear hindsight can be compared to the rush of the present.

Our night bus to Chiang Mai was quite a cool experience. We were on the VIP bus, which in SE Asia means that they put your luggage under the bus rather than on top. We needed to get to the tour company office in downtown Bangkok, a distance that looked remarkably close to our neighborhood on the map, which would have been a true miscalculation. It turns out the distance was 6 km, through very confusing neighborhood. As it was, we struggled to find a taxi driver that would turn on their meter (a common trick with taxi drivers is that they try to bargain for the price rather than use the meter, because you can never bargain them down below what the meter would charge). Once we found a taxi driver, it still took us over an hour to get to the tour office through the most incredible traffic that I've ever seen. We'd literally sit still for 5 to 10 minutes at a time; I could see the time ticking on the meter. At the end of the trip, the meter read that we'd idled for 35 minutes--to go 6 km, or 3.5 miles. 

The bus was worth it, though. We were on the second floor of a double-decker, at the very front, so we had a private windshield that was more like a big-screen TV showing the downtown of Bangkok rushing around the bus. Whereas the taxi had to wait its turn, this monstrous bus bulged out into three lanes of traffic, because it was that big. They showed a movie, Wolverine, which I've seen enough to be able to follow the story despite the fact it was in Thai. We rolled into Chiang Mai an hour early, which would have been cool if any of the stores were open at 6:30 am. I wandered around while Jess watched our bags, and found a cool little guesthouse filled with dark wood and the scent of mosquito repellent smoke, called Your Guesthouse 1.

Our stay in Chiang Mai was unremarkable in most respects. The city itself is well known for the multitude of excursions you can do, such as trekking, elephant rides, rafting, village visits, etc. That is all well and good, but Jess and I had neither the inclination nor the budget for such things, and so we just relaxed for two days in the city. We mostly stayed in the Old Town; venturing out to the bus station to buy tickets to Laos, we found that Chiang Mai is a smaller version of Bangkok, including its traffic. We still really enjoyed our stay in Chiang Mai, we walked all around the Old Town, we ambled through multiple markets, we ate large amounts of cheap Thai food, we drank as many fruit smoothies as our GI tracts would allow, and we befriended a great Chinese fellow. It was nice to have a couple of days where our schedules were as empty as we wanted them to be.

Probably the highlight of the visit to Chiang Mai was during the last few hours there, when we went to the boisterous Sunday Market. It encompassed several parallel streets, and sold everything under the sun, from cheap clothes to Thai toys to Hippie jewelry. Of course, our favorite part of the market were the multitude of food markets--we ate everything we could. We started with vegetable spring rolls, then had a banana wrapped in rice wrapped in the banana leaf. We moved on then to several pieces of dim sum (not Thai, but hey, when it's cheap, you eat it), and finished with big plates of pad thai. We couldn't finish without sampling the oddly looking black jello licorice drink, which we challenged each other to try but then sucked down like the nectar of the gods. In silence.

The relaxation came to an end at that point; it was time for yet another epic travel day, Asia-style, which throws into conflict whether we can even call the comparatively calm trips in Morocco and Europe "epic." It started out with a tuk-tuk ride to the bus station, followed by an eleven hour bus ride south and then east to Udon Thani, where we caught another two hour bus to Nong Khai. That is the border town between Thailand and Laos. We jumped onto a tuk-tuk to go to the border, and had to forcefully refuse as the driver tried to divert us to a travel agent that would have doubled our visa costs into Laos. At the border, we were stamped out of Thailand, and caught a bus across the Friendship Bridge across the Mekong River into Laos. There, we ran into trouble.

This is where our trip became educational, and where hindsight was far more revealing than foresight. Our best plan would have been to buy Laos visas in Chiang Mai, which would have been a little more expensive but easy. The second best plan would have been to have had US dollars, which we found out too late. The visa cost was $35 a person, but when I tried paying in Thai baht, they wanted the equivalent of $90 for the two of us, instead of $70. I argued, but got nowhere; they told me to go around to the currency changer. When I did just that, they offered me $78 for the same amount, and so I entered a round-and-round. Jess says that I got angry, I say I was only standing up for my rights. Regardless, in the end and despite my objections, I still had to pay 3000 baht; it will be the last time I am in SE Asia with no USD on hand.

Anyhow, we then took a bus on into Vientaine, the capital of Laos. Our first objective, after obtaining Laos kips (their currency, which I had worried about being able to get from ATMs after reading online forums, which turned out to be wrong), was to get our visas for Vietnam.  We decided that after all that riding, we would walk to the embassy, which looked like it was just down the road. It was a little longer than that, but we made it, at 11:20. That was cutting it very close, as they took a two-hour lunchbreak at 11:30. Still, we had our visas within ten minutes, and the Vietnamese officials couldn't have been nicer. They obviously cared much for their lunch break. We caught yet another tuk-tuk downtown to the backpacker street, intending on staying the night. However, as it was only noon, we decided that we could keep going, because Vientaine doesn't have much going for it.

So, we booked a bus at 2 pm, had a bit of lunch and coffee, and then caught a tuk-tuk and then a minibus to the big bus, which brought us to Vang Vieng. That last bus was promised to be a VIP, the equivalent to a Mercedes, but it was really like an old, dusty, beat-up Pinto. That was obvious when we pulled up in the crammed minibus and saw some guy hanging out of the engine of the bus we were supposed to trust us in the mountains of Laos, a scary thought. They wanted to throw all our bags on the roof, but looking at the clouds above, I refused, and carried it with me to my seat. Everyone else had their bags lashed to the roof, but fortunately, it didn't rain en route. The ride to Vang Vieng was along a twisty, rough road, although the scenery was some of the best we've seen yet on this entire trip. Somehow, that bus slowly rolled along the hills of Laos, around the curves, through the crowds of cows and chickens in the road. (That was remarkable, given that during the bathroom break the driver had to make sure the engine was still attached, and someone noticed that the tires were of an uneven size. Sweet bus, though, really. There will be pictures of it later.) It was supposed to be a 3 hour ride, and four and a half hours later, we finally arrived under the cover of darkness (perhaps to hide the Pinto-esqe appearance of the bus?) in Vang Vieng. It was 6:30 pm.

The Car Equivalent Of Our Last VIP Bus

So, let's add those rides all up. We started out at 7 pm, and ended up in Vang Vieng right at 6:30 pm, meaning the trip took 23.5 hours, with only a few hours of walking and eating and shouting at customs officials involved. We rode a total of four tuk-tuks and six buses in less than 24 hours. In all likelihood, we truly deserved the Pinto bus-ride to Vang Vieng, because by the point that we boarded that bus, we looked more rough than it did. They say when you look as bad as your passport picture, you're too ill to travel. I say, when you look as rough as we did, you are one step from being a professional Hippie, a crowd that swarms this area of the world. We fit in well today.

Until next time, be safe.



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