If it’d been a western movie a tumbleweed would have bounced through the scene. The sun was trying its best to beat the heat into the ground. The difference between light and shade was so strong we two foes seemed to be enclosed in a hallway of dark tones. I eyed the border control officer through the small window. He looked up from his seated position, his gaze unmoving and unfazed. I twitched.
Then I clawed for my wallet and slapped 1,800 baht on the counter. A hand slipped out, swept up the money and the small window quietly, unhurriedly rolled close.
I started grumbling at the sky.
My trip had started well enough. I’d taken a night train from Bangkok to the north so I could cross over into Laos in the morning and visit the capital Vientiane.
The special train border crossing at Nong Khai, Thailand was really easy and a ticket bonus got me a ride into Vientiane from the train station.
Of all the crossings I’d used on my tour around Cambodia, Malaysia, Laos and Thailand—which included driving, walking and now a train crossing—my favourites were the train and driving. Not only were they more streamlined, you also got to sit through any waiting that might occur.
When I walked into Cambodia through the Poipet border crossing there had been the tea bribe (100 baht for the officer’s “tea cost”).
When I walked back into Thailand through the same crossing I’d gotten stuck in a standing line. There’d been a poor woman who was quietly puking in a bag as she waited to cross with her husband/boyfriend. If I’d been ahead of her I definitely would have let her swap places with me, but I was further behind.
No one else seemed to be able to muster up enough empathy. I don’t blame them though. Most had been reduced to zombies in the sweltering heat during the hour plus wait.
Had it been the season? The timing? Possibly. Share your experiences below with your Southeast Asian crossings and we can compare notes.
The Money Exchange
Once in Laos I’d tried to pass over my second passport (yay for duo citizenship! Thanks Canada!) so I could get a $30 USD visa-upon-arrival. According to Internet research I’d learned that I could swap passports as long as I used the same passport to enter and leave a country. I’d entered Thailand as a Canadian and left as a Canadian. Now I wanted to enter Laos on my other citizenship so I could avoid the $42 USD Canadian visa-upon-arrival charge.
After fingering through the passport they insisted on the passport with the Thai exit stamp. Then they simply passed new paperwork back and waited until I filled out another entry card.
I thought, fine, the Internet can be wrong. This might be the protocol. Whatever.
Then I asked to pay in baht—naturally what I had since I’d been living in Thailand. It seemed silly to go to an ATM in Bangkok, withdraw Canadian money as baht then convert it into American dollars. Plus, I’d asked some classmates who’d recently visited Laos if they’d been able to pass with baht. They’d been fine they said.
“No. American dollar only,” was the prompt and indifferent response to my attempt.
“I only have baht,” I insisted.
“Baht very expensive, 1800.”
Eighteen hundred baht amounts to $56 USD.
I grudgingly passed over the baht and waited. Down the way the van driver was tapping his foot. The other passengers were waiting in the van beyond.
My advice to duo citizens: enter these Southeast Asian countries on the passport that gives you the most advantages and stick with it.
The Drop Point
With that warm welcome concluded the other train passengers and I found ourselves unceremoniously dumped in the middle of Vientiane. Growing used to these random drop-points, I gathered my things and headed to the northern terminal to nab a night bus ticket to Xieng Khouang in the north.
Once I had that in hand I strode over to the parking lot to seek some transport back into town. Unfortunately, I had a choice between a songthaew (two bench vehicle), songthaew, songthaew or songthaew.
When you’re in a group these things are a steal, but as a solo traveller they are white elephants. Mustering up my bargaining skills I sauntered up and asked for a short tour of a selection of temples.
I’m pretty sure I lost that battle. Badly.
Originally intended to be a monument to fallen WW2 Laotian soldiers and those who died fighting for independence from France in 1949, the monument used to be called Anousavali or simply, Memory. It was constructed using American money.
It gained its current name when the communist political movement Pathet Lao seized power from the constitutional monarchy in charge.
A third name associated with the monument is Vertical Runway, because the concrete was originally designated for a new airport. I kid you not.
It only cost me 3,000 kip (pocket change in dollars) to climb to the top. Course I had to pass through at least three souvenir shops, which was a gauntlet of budget/lack-of-baggage-space terror.
The Man Who Disappeared
To Be Continued… Dun Dun DUNNNNN