Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Three The Hard Way, Take Two

Mukdahan, Thailand

When we were in Hanoi, we knew we were going to be crossing Laos to get into Thailand. So, even before we left for Cat Ba Island, we took a trip down to the Lao Consulate to get ourselves some travel visas. When we got to the consulate, it seemed kinda sketchy. There was no security; just two dudes in civilian dress lounging in plastic chairs. They pointed us to the visa office, which was a small room behind the stairs stocked with Lao candy for sale, and manned by one guy and 5 children. Literally. There were three desks back there, with five kids jumping and crawling all over them. The only adult was sitting behind the counter looking annoyed. When we asked about visas, he handed us some forms, which required some photos. When we mentioned that we didn't have any, he just shrugged, and said not to worry about it. We filled out our forms, handed over our passports, gave him some money, then left to grab lunch. We came back a couple of hours later, and he gave us our passports back with visas pasted in them. Despite the amateurish appearance of the whole consulate, the visas seemed fine.
But they weren't.
When we tried to cross the border into Laos, we were stopped and told that our visas were no good. Something about missing the proper stamp. So, we had to sit on a dirty bench, meters away from the border, waiting for some other border guy to come by to help rectify our visa issue. We sat there for half an hour before he showed up, grumpily snatched our passports from us, and stomped into his sad little office. After about five minutes, he came back out and told us that we would have to go back to Hanoi to get the visas re-stamped. Fuck that. We just bit the bullet, got the shit visa nullified, and paid too much money to get another Lao travel visa issued to us on the spot.
Finally, at nine o'clock in the morning, on September 5th, we crossed into Laos.
At the border, we were met by an unidentified lady who told us that she would take us to the bus we needed to get to Savanakhet, at no charge. OK. I had no idea if this women was affiliated in any way with the "company" that we bought our bus tickets from, but we had no paper tickets with us, nor any idea how to find the bus that we wanted. It was either go with her, or stand just inside the Laos border with our thumbs up our asses. With nothing more to lose, we followed our mysterious guide.
We jumped on some motorbike taxis and were sped away into the center of the little town to meet up with our newest bus. And, of course, by newest, I mean crappiest. This was by far the junkiest bus I had ever seen. Every piece of exposed metal had rust on it. Those pieces that weren't rusted were dented. The windows, many of which were broken, appeared to be made out of some sort of cheap, milky plastic. The seats inside were unevenly spaced and upholstered with cracking old vinyl. And they were extremely uncomfortable. After sitting in them for about half-an-hour, both my legs and my lower back started falling asleep. No sign of a nice sleeper bus here. Even our lady-guide betrayed a face of disgust when she first entered the bus that was to be our home for the next few hours.
Speaking of ladies, there were a whole gaggle of women near the border on both sides wandering around with big satchels of cash, trying to trade Lao Kip for Vietnamese Dong. As soon as we pulled out any amount of Dong, they would swarm all over us, offering the exact same exchange rate, whining at us in broken english. Our lady-guide was one of these exchange women. They even followed us into the bus. I've got a great picture of Jarah giving one of them the ol' stink-eye.
Eventually, the moving junk-pile heaved into first gear, and we were off, crumbling our way towards the other side of Laos. With any luck, we would be in Savanakhet in a few hours, then it would be just a short ferry-hop into Thailand.

We had no such luck.


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