Never have I been so acutely aware that I live half way round the world, in a country where I don’t speak the language, as I was this weekend. There are some things that can only happen when you travel to a far-flung location: swimming with dolphins, cocktails on the beach, elephant trekking, bobsledding, you get the idea. There are some experiences that you wish to remember for as long as you live and are the very essence of exploring.
And then there are those that you wish had never happened, and that you could remove.
Thailand (and Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos) have definitely provided some of my most cherished memories. I have been lucky enough to do some amazing things, meet some amazing people, and experience amazing cultures. I have pretty much loved the whole thing, excpet for some choice moments in the classroom, and have been extremely glad that I did it. I am even sure one day I will look back and think that the monkey bite was funny.
I can tell you for free right now that the visa run experience is one of the most unpleasant and nerve-wracking experiences I have ever been through, and one that I definitely never wish to repeat.
When you travel, you expect to cross numerous borders, collect lots of stamps and visa, and face strange looks and questions as you venture into new countries. I know that, I expect that, I look forward to that, who doesn’t like to see that fresh stamp in their passport? I have begun quite a collection in my current passport. It may only be 2 and a half years through, but I think it might be looking at retirement when we get home it has got that full! Border crossings do often make you wonder what you have done wrong, and make you wish that you look as normal as it is possible to look, but they very rarely cause you problems.
Yesterday was the first time when I crossed a border and a) wasn’t doing it for tourism reasons, b) wasn’t sure I would be able to pass through, and c) got incredibly worried I might actually be arrested. Out of all the borders in the world, the Laos/Thailand land-border is not really where I wanted to feel like that.
Jade and I awoke early in the morning, and by 7am were ready to go on the day long trip over to Savannakhet, Laos. We (accidentally and annoyingly) used up one of our entries on our visa for a two day stay in Bangkok pre-tour, so had to do a border run with no official tourist visa to get back in the country. There was no way I was leaving the country without all my valuables, so i packed my backpack full and asked the neighbours how to get to the bus station that early in the morning. They kindly offered us a ride – the day was off to a good start.
We bought tickets and got straight on a bus, where there was an Australian-Canadian-Swedish guy (quite the nationality mix) sitting at the back. he was lovely, told us things about the border town on both sides. He did also inform us that the route was known as suicide run because of the bus quality, terrain, and driving; just what you want to hear! When we arrived at the thai side (after a ‘Thai time’ bus journey), he showed us the ticket desk and we bought our cross border bus tickets.
At this point, we lost him to the coffee shop and free wifi. Good choice, as when we sat down, we gained an incredibly drunk beggar at our feet, shouting and gesticulating at us for money (I think, I mean it was all in Thai). The police arrived after a while and hauled him away, before we saw our bus arrive. It was the most rickety old bus I’ve ever seen to take us from Mukhdahan to the Friendship bridge (I will never get over the name for the border corssings here, i get the distinct impression friendship is an incredibly strong word for the relationship). We’re talking holes in the roof/floor, shoddily crafted seats, bits falling off, and a lot of the inside held on by duct tape and will power.
Then we arrived at the border. After piling off the bus, we passed through the Thai side into no-mans land with ease, and were collected promptly by the bus the other side. We were driven across the bridge to the Laos side of the Mekong, and after filling in the departure cards and getting an on-arrival visa, we passed through the Laos side quickly. If the whole day had been this smooth I would have been disappointed I had ever been nervous.
Once we were collected the other side by the bus, we were driven to Savannakhet. I have been to some border towns out here, Chang Khong, Amnat Chareon, but I can safely say this was the worst yet. Worst may be the wrong word, I am sure it is a lovely community to live in if you’re Laotian. As a tourist hoping to burn a couple of hours, it’s an empty ghost town. I am not sure if they have heard of the internet, or coffee, or to be honest, doors, walls, and rooves. It was freezing, and after walking round for about 45 minutes, we settled into ‘eight-star’ cafÃ©/restaurant for fried rice and Ice Scream. I’m still not sure if that was a joke, or just a mis-translation. I’m really hoping it was the first. It wasn’t their fault we have higher standards, I mean the place was lovely,it just wasn’t where I wanted to spend a few hours of my day. Add into the mix the knowledge that should we be denied re-entry this is where we would have to spend the night, we were ready to get out.
One we had burned the recommended time, we returned to the bus station and got onto a new bus, following a 45 minute wait. All I seemed to do during the trip was read, wait, and worry. While waiting, we watched two boys load bags from the bus onto a motorbike side trailer thing. I say boys because the driver of the bike could not have been older than 12. Things are so different here!
When we arrived back at the border, the fun really started. I walked up to the gate first, and they looked confused at my passport, before demanding a Thai visa to get through. I mean, I was pleased they hadn’t cancelled our Laos visa before letting us know, but I wasn’t happy. After some awkward questions, multiple refusals, and instructions on where to obtain a visa, we finally explained that as british nationals we could pass into thailand without visa for a short amount of time. If it was like that to get out of Laos, you can imagine how nervous we then became about getting into Thailand at the other side. We decided to make full use of the facilities, while we could and while they (and we) were free.
Waiting at the Thai desk was horrible. I went first and gave in my passport, and he asked questions about why I hadn’t put anywhere to stay, and what place we would be visiting irst. Trying to explain you were just going to rock up and book a hotel when you got there didn’t seem like an answer they liked, but was better than the alternative saying we lived in Roi-Et, so we experienced the agonising wait of being pushed to the side while other people were let through and a stern official perused your passports with a fine-tooth comb. Rapid thai was spoken, and nothing seemed to be happening, until the heavenly sound of a stamp. We got 30 days (15 more than we were expecting) but were terrified. I really never want to have to go through all of that again.
The bus journey home wasn’t great. The seats in front were reclined so far we couldn’t physically move, our bags wouldn’t fit anywhere but on our laps, the seats were old and uncomfortable, and devices were running out of charge. We were moved hlfway through because the attendant had put us in someone’s pre-booked seats, and we were squashed into an even smaller gap on the back row in the corner. By the time we arrived home, I had cramp, and we decided to skip a trip to Tesco and go straight home.
One day, getting a Tuk Tuk from the bus station will be easy. They just don’t understand where we are saying, and if by some miracle they catch the name of the school correctly, they have no idea where it is. We resorted to pointing to a landmark about 500m away from where we live and gesticulating when we got close. Never have I been so relieved to see the gravel trap at the edge of our place.
I think the macaroni cheese and chocolate were well-deserved, even if they don’t quite fit in with the whole losing weight thing. 14 hours of wasting time and getting visas was just rubbish, I’m glad that has been and gone and hopefully never has to be repeated. I think our immigrant visa can just ben obtained in Bangkok, thankfully.
Despite everything, I still managed to draw my picture of the day, complete my update blog post an Bout of Books challenges, and do my workout. The workout is pretty good actually. It’s a 7-minute workout app that times you down, shouts things at you, and reminds you to do it everyday. No matter how rubbish the day was, the fact it does only take 7 minutes meant there was no excuse to not do it really.
Unlike Sunday, Saturday was relaxed and fun. It was Children’s day so we went down to help. Really we just stood around by the stall and became a token attraction for our school (y’know, Look we have white teachers who came out to support us) and were videoed by the local TV people. The only question we were asked was ‘do you have boyfriends’? They don’t hold back here. We gained a lot of free food from the other teachers, and our school definitely stood out as being one of the best. A stark contrast to the stress of Sunday.
If we have to do another border run, I think I might try Cambodia next time. I don’t think I can hack the friendship bridge stress again, and don’t want to have to go to that ghost town on the other side. At least we’re back now, legally, and teaching.