Visa run to Vientiane

(Emily) The border crossing from Thailand into Laos was eeeeeea-sy! It only took about 15 minutes to exit Thailand (bear in mind the average we’ve experienced at border posts so far is about three and a half hours, with some taking five or six!) Getting into Laos took a bit longer, but most of that was queuing up to apply for a visa with all the other travellers. We did have a bit of a wait at customs after that so Darren went on ahead of us to find the guesthouse we’d booked in Vientiane, sharing a taxi with a couple of girls he’d been on the bus with, while we got the bike paperwork sorted. Eventually someone ‘official’ enough was found to stamp our carnets but we got the distinct impression no-one really knew what they were doing! It was strange to be riding on the right hand side of the road again for the first time since China but although it took a bit of getting used to, it was nice for me to finally be able to use my mirror again when overtaking (I broke my right one in the accident in Istanbul and have never got round to getting a replacement…) When we got to Vientiane – the small capital – we knew roughly where we were going but got caught on a one-way system. By weird coincidence though, when we pulled in to look at the map we saw the two girls from Hong Kong who Darren had shared a taxi with! They’d just dropped him off at our hotel so were able to tell us exactly where it was. Then, even bigger coincidence: while we getting our bikes unpacked outside the guesthouse, who should walk by but Fabian!!?!! Mad or what?! We hadn’t even known he was in the area but turns out, he was in Vientiane to get a longer Thai visa just like us.

So, with the added bonus of now having the Fabster with us, we went for a little wander, taking in a cool ancient temple, a shopping centre (?!) and a bustling market filled with lots of new and interesting produce we hadn’t seen before, most notably entire stalls dedicated to different deep-fried insects! From what we could tell, there were many similarities between Thailand and the almost ‘cosmopolitan’ Vientiane, such as the vibrant street food scene, monks clad in the ubiquitous yellow-orange robes and countless scooters zipping through the streets, but it also seemed much more reserved; people weren’t unfriendly as such, just less likely to smile and engage in conversation with a stranger. The country is still under communist rule and you are certainly left in no doubt about it; hammer and sickle flags flutter in every street and from every building (James: This determination to maintain a sense of ‘perpetual revolution’, i.e. keeping a sense of revolution when the revolutionaries have been the establishment for over 30 years, becomes something of a joke when you see a not so cheap but very gaudy American Hummer 4×4 parked next to one of the countless propaganda posters!) However, the French influence (Laos was once part of French Indochina) still pervades and the streets are filled with old French colonial buildings, quaint squares surrounded by cafes that wouldn’t look out of place in any provincial French village and shops selling baguettes! Numbers aside, tourism seems to have had less of an impact in the capital than it has in Thailand. It’s illegal for foreigners to have ‘relations’ with Laotian girls unless they are married so it was quite refreshing not to see the classic ‘fat old white man, childlike local girl’ combo which had been so prevalent in Bangkok and pretty much par for the course in Pattaya.

In the evening we found a fantastic restaurant, called Makphet, just around the corner from our hotel which works towards offering a sustainable existence to street-children by training them up as waiting staff and chefs so they can go on to work in hotels and restaurants around the country,(a bit like Jamie Oliver’s ‘15’). To date they have trained and provided skills to over 1400 street kids. They served up western/Laos fusion food at budget prices and practically every main dish could be ordered as a full or half portion; a great idea as it meant we could try even more (highly necessary when everything on the menu had us salivating)! The chicken, pumpkin and mushroom curry certainly went down a treat, as did the beef marinated in whiskey! (As you commented, Joanna, our schedule seems to lean heavily towards eating and drinking. It’s a hard life!)

The following morning we were up early doors to go and submit our visa application at the Thai embassy. James, particularly, didn’t appreciate the 7am wake up call as he’d hardly slept – we were quickly learning that he and Darren weren’t the most compatible of roomies! Many a ‘discussion’ had already been had over aircon: James hates it and it gives him a sore throat by the morning whereas Darren can’t sleep without it. Then there was Darren’s snoring and sleep-talking to contend with!! We decided that perhaps it would be prudent to get separate rooms from now on in order to keep everyone happy! Anyway, we left Darren sleeping and walked to the Thai consulate with Fabian, a forty-five minute journey in the end (about half an hour longer than anticipated!), not helped by missing the turning for the road we wanted (not many road signs here!). Hungry for some breakfast, we stopped in at a café that was offering free visa application forms but unfortunately, once we got into the consulate, we discovered they were the wrong ones, doh! The place was absolutely heaving – Vientiane is one of the most popular visa run towns being so close to the border – and we were somewhat dismayed to be allocated queue number 437 from the automated ticket machine (the display was currently showing 109!) Good thing we had our books with us as it was two hours before our number came up! And then we had to queue again to get a receipt for when we returned to pick them up the following day… ah, you’ve gotta love visa offices, everything is always so well thought through. By the time we got back to the hotel (after walking again – gluttons for punishment but the tuk-tuks were quoting too much), Darren was despairing as, after all we’d been gone five hours!

After a tasty, noodle-based lunch we bartered with a tuk-tuk for a good price to get us to Xieng Khuan Buddha Park, 25km or so out of the city. We’d seen a photo of the place on a postcard the previous day and it looked like a pretty unique spot. Conjured up by a shaman in the fifties, it basically comprises dozens of stone and concrete sculptures of Hindu and Buddhist deities; Xieng Khuan itself means ‘Spirit City’. Even though it’s a relatively modern construction, the whole park had a really ancient feel and it’s fair to say we all absolutely loved the place! It’s one of our favourite sights on the whole trip for its sheer eccentricity and Dali-esque surrealism, and of course the photo opportunities were more than enough to keep James and Fabian happy! We read in one of the guidebooks that it’s a favourite with children… what can I say?!

The following day, Darren headed off early to get back across the border by bus while we explored some local temples and markets with Fabian before getting to the consulate in time for the afternoon visa collection slot. As we’d half expected, the queue wound all the way down the street already but it was so hot out in the full sun we’d definitely made the right decision to join the masses only once the embassy opened. It took a good couple of hours to get our hands back on our passports, now complete with Thai visa sticker, but, after saying goodbye (until next time) to Fabian who was staying in the country to ride into southern Laos and then on to Cambodia, we made it back to the border for about half past three. I stayed with the bikes while James went off to find someone who could sign our carnet. He was absolutely ages and it turns out that, after struggling to find the ‘Carnet guy’, he’d had to go pillion on someone’s moped to the customs house on the road back towards the Buddha Park to find this one guy who knew what to do, only to find he wasn’t there either! In the end, James had to teach one of the staff (James: the Customs chief it turned out!) how complete our log books and sign our bikes out of the country! It is scary the amount of time wasted at borders due to officials not having a clue what they’re doing! In the meantime, I’d got chatting to a group of four Malaysian bikers who were doing a tour of Thailand, Cambodia and Laos. Lovely guys, and strangely, our second set of Malaysian bikers met at a border – we’d come across another four in no-mans land between Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan (James: It seems we only bump into Malaysian bikers and overlanders when in no-man’s land, that they are always in groups of four and always ride sponsored Kawasakis!) Fortunately, this time the border guards were nowhere near as ‘sensitive’ as in central Asia so we were able to take photos and swap contact details. We certainly won’t be stuck for somewhere to stay when we get to Kuala Lumpur, especially as our sister-in-law, Jo, has family in Malaysia too!

It was only once we’d got to the Thai side and had produced our passports for inspection that James realised he’d only been issued a single-entry visa as opposed to the double entry we’d asked for (and I’d got.) B*****ks! An easy mistake to make; we’d checked them both back at the embassy, mine first. On seeing the ‘2’ written in mine, it was easy to read the ‘s’ for single as a ‘2’ in James’. It was really annoying. Not the end of the world as it got us back into Thailand fine this time and James would always be able to apply for another visa when we got to Laos to do it ‘properly’ after Darren had gone, but a pain and a rather stupid rookie mistake on our part. There was also a bit of a wobbly moment when customs only gave us 30 days on our bike papers (remember that the whole point of the visa run was to get a 60 day visa that meant we could leave our bikes in Thailand while visiting Vietnam…) I was about to have a bit of a meltdown – not least because all this time out of Darren’s riding holiday would have been for nothing – but James (hero that he is) talked them round to giving the bikes 60 days to match our visa. Phew!!! With that, we rode across the friendship bridge that spans the Mekong river back into Nong Khai and Thailand under the setting sun to catch up with Darren. He was on fine form, having been out for a little jaunt on his bike and sampling the guesthouse’s delicious home-made chocolate cake so we had a beer and breathed a collective sigh of relief. Now all the set-backs were out of the way, we could finally relax and Darren could enjoy his last few days on the bike without incident….

3 Responses to “Visa run to Vientiane”

  1. Jackie (AKA Mum) says:

    As usual not read the blog yet but have looked at photos which are brilliant, especially like the one of you Em in the crocs, or is it an alligators, mouth !! Did you try the deep-fried insects ?

    Love as always, Jackie xx

  2. Jackson says:

    Hey guys, just had mammoth read of 3 in a row on the flight today (don’t worry i was still looking out the window sometimes!)
    what a treat
    loving that you are visiting places I fell in love with 10 years ago, had to fish out the old albums, had a few at the sculpture park. Laos is just awesome, loved my time there. Will have to dig out my old blogs next…..could get emotional.
    ……and a high five for james and fabs

  3. Mama/Kate says:

    Ah, the silver-tongued Bob to the rescue once again. What a hero. x

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