So I had an extra day to spare in Bangkok. Being the adventurous type with a strange affinity for travel to weird and wacky places, I decided to forsake the pleasures of Sukhumvit and instead journey north. My objective - a one day trip by land into Vientiane, capital of the Lao PDR. This is the story of my journey.
Thai Airways operates one daily flight into Vientiane that leaves at the crack of dawn (and was hence useless to me as I was arriving into Bangkok at 10am). The only other option to fly directly into Laos was the evening service on Lao Aviation (using a leased Vietnamese Airbus) that gets there past 6pm and was hence equally useless to a tourist on a one day trip. After a little map reading and googling though, I discovered that it was theoretically possible to get into Laos overland via the Friendship Bridge at Nong Khai. A little more research discovered that the closest Thai airport to there was Udon Thani, conveniently served thrice daily by Thai Airways. To make things even more attractive, Thai were offering a 10% discount for online domestic bookings. Accordingly, I decided to take the plunge and purchased my trip for the tax-inclusive price of THB1740 (US$41) each way.
16 July 2003
Bangkok Don Muang to Udon Thani
Too many transits through Bangkok recently have taught me that luggage storage is cheaper at the domestic terminal (THB70/day) than at the international terminals (THB90/day). Accordingly, I set off through the elevated walkway dragging my rollaboard filled with dirty clothes that represented the last 10 days on the road along with the tote that would accompany me on this side trip. Along the way I was accosted by a friendly airport worker driving an electric cart that is euphemistically referred to as a "Club Car". He offered me a lift, presumably because he was dying of boredom driving back-and-forth between terminals with random handicapped Japanese tourists. I piled on gratefully and we set off on the short journey. He was interested to find out that I was heading to Laos and like most Thai I discussed this trip with, was very curious to get my feedback about the country when I got back.
The domestic terminal arrived in due course and I thanked my new friend for the ride. There was quite a crowd at the left luggage window, so I headed straight for the Royal E-Service kiosks to checkin. I was pleasantly surprised by these. Not only was it very easy to use, but it found my e-ticket reservation on the first try, prompted me to choose which Star Alliance partner I wanted to credit the miles to and finally printed out my boarding pass on regular stock. The only drawback was that it didn't allow me to pick a specific seat, but instead restricted my choice to "Window" or "Aisle". I wound up being assigned 48A located about two-thirds of the way back.
By now the crowd at the luggage storage had dissipated and I headed back there to deposit my bag and collect the obligatory token fastened to my passport with a flimsy paperclip. After browsing the bookstore's collection of overpriced guidebooks to Laos, I decided to head on to the Thai Airways lounge to await the departure of my flight. Strangely enough, I couldn't find any signs for the lounge so I stopped a random passing Thai Airways staffmember and asked her where I should go. She pointed towards the departure gates and figuring that to be the logical location for a lounge, away I went. Boy, was I wrong.
I cleared security and then headed to the "ID check" counter. There was a sign in front apologizing for the inconvenience of this "enhanced security measure". Evidently Thai's "enhanced security measure" consists of bored people sitting at a desk and affixing a rubber stamp to your boarding pass. Since the guy was apparently doing nothing else, I asked him for directions to the lounge. He looked at me blankly. I pulled out my Star Alliance Gold card and pointed at the logo. It clicked. He pointed back the direction I had just come from. I told him that I hadn't seen any lounge there either. His patience running thin, he emerged from behind the desk and beckoned for me to follow him back through security. There he pointed to a tiny door off to the side marked "VIP Rooms". The penny dropped. Thai doesn't have a LOUNGE for domestic passengers at Bangkok, they have a VIP ROOM! I felt special.
As I walked down the long corridor to the VIP room, my mind wandered to other "VIP Rooms" I had visited in the past. Since this is a family website I will spare the details, but I did check my wallet to ensure I had enough $1 bills just in case (yes, I admit it, I have a dirty mind). Alas, this "VIP Room" was not staffed by G-string clad nubian princesses willing to please, but instead by a rather matronly looking woman who allowed me entry only after careful scrutiny of my elite credentials.
The room itself was nothing special. It consisted of a number of couches arranged in squares with a coffee table set in the middle of each grouping. There were TV sets in the two far corners, one showing CNN and the other blasting the Thai version of MTV at top volume. There was also a large selection of newspapers from around the world, although careful scrutiny revealed that most were between two and five days outdated. For those looking to satiate hunger or quench thirst, there was a self service counter just outside. I grabbed myself a glass of Iced Tea and relaxed with day-before-yesterday's Bangkok Post.
After about 30 minutes of this, I decided that my time would be better wasted by heading directly to the concourse. Accordingly I trotted back through security and headed to gate 63 where HS-TDD was baking patiently in the noon sun. Boarding was about to commence, so I milled around and took stock of the folks who would be sharing my metal tube for the next hour or so. Finally, about 20 minutes before scheduled departure, they announced pre-boarding for Business Class, Star Gold and monks. Yes, monks are entitled to pre-boarding in Thailand.
Once we were aboard, I found myself next to a very interesting Brit expat. He has been teaching English in Hong Kong for 20 years, but recently moved to Shenzhen and commutes across the border. He was heading to Udon Thani to visit a Thai friend who lived there. As we chatted, I realized that we were still at the gate despite the fact that it was now creeping past our departure time. Sure enough, Capt. Settha came over the PA system in short order and made an announcement that we were waiting for a "package" before we could depart. About 15 minutes later, an ambulance pulled up and a man hopped out with a styrofoam box that he carried up the stairs to the jetway. Evidently we were carrying some sort of organ up to Udon Thani for a transplant. A worthy reason to delay a flight any day of the week.
Nonetheless, we taxied out a few minutes later and were soon airborne into a strangely clear Bangkok sky with a flight time of 50 minutes to Udon Thani. As soon as we were levelled out, the crew came around with the lunch service. This consisted of a pre-packaged box containing a veritable feast. There was a salad, a cold medley of noodles, chicken and shrimp and a desert. There were also containers of water and juice in the box. The crew came around periodically with tea/coffee as well as refills for the water/juice, finally clearing everything away with about 10 minutes left in the flight. I was extremely impressed by their efficient execution.
16 July 2003
Udon Thani/Nong Khai
We landed on the solitary runway at Udon Thani about 40 minutes behind schedule and briskly taxied to the ramp where the two set of airstairs were located. I exited from the rear stairs and noted with interest that the TG staff were loaning parasols to the disembarking passengers to shelter them from the sun for the short walk to the terminal. I declined their kind offer and bravely bared my head to the elements. As I entered the terminal, I happened to notice the hi-tech baggage handling system used at this airport. It consisted of a guy who backed up a battered old pickup truck to the aircraft while another guy simply pushed bags out into the flat bed from the cargo hold above.
With no bags to claim, I quickly emerged into the public area and made a beeline for the Thai Cargo office where a large handmade sign proclaimed "Limousine (Bus) Service To Nong Khai". Why this is operated by the Cargo division is one of those mysteries that will probably never be answered satisfactorily. I found an English speaker and established that the limousine (bus) would indeed drop me off right at the Friendship Bridge if I so desired. I even managed to extract a timetable and instructions for the return trip. The cost was a highly reasonable THB 100 (US$ 2.50), so I purchased my bright pink ticket and headed to the "waiting area" located right outside the entrance to the men's room.
After 10 minutes of savoring the odours, a young boy no older than 15 came around yelling "NONG KHAI" and gesturing for us to follow him. He led us to a large contraption on wheels with "Limousine (Bus) Service" stencilled on the side and indicated for us to clamber aboard. I was joined at this point by 4 other "farangs" - a pair of Norwegian backpackers and an Australian lady traveling with her 7 year old son. There were also a host of locals heading to Nong Khai town.
The ride to Nong Khai was pleasant and took about 45 minutes, mainly along a smooth four-lane highway. My first clue that we were approaching the bridge was when buildings started having names like "Cattle Quarantine Center - Stage II" and other similar markings of officialdom that usually accompany an international border. Sure enough, the limousine (bus) deposited us safely at the Thai checkpoint minutes later and we headed forth to the exit immigration counters.
The Friendship Bridge is an impressive 1.24 kilometer balanced-cantilever that was completed in 1994 and was the first structure ever to span the Mekong River. Interestingly enough, the US$30 million cost of the bridge was entirely paid for by the Australian government as a "gift of friendship equally to the people of Thailand and Laos". There is a plaque commemorating this fact as you enter the fairly modern Thai checkpoint facility.
Exit immigration was smooth enough and I entered no man's land to be confronted with a sign informing me that pedestrians were not permitted on the bridge. However, an enterprising young lad sat right underneath the sign selling tickets for a shuttle bus service at THB 10 (US$0.25) apiece. The bus arrived shortly and everyone clambered aboard, including a Laotian man who sat next to me carrying a whimpering puppy in what appeared to be a converted Sony camcorder case. I wasn't quite sure whether the animal was the family pet or the family dinner, so I wisely refrained from playing with it and looked out the window instead.
The ride across the bridge itself took about a minute and I watched in awe as the mighty Mekong pulsated hundreds of feet below us. One thing that struck me though was how brown the water was, presumably a result of the soil it carries on its long journey to the South China Sea. Nonetheless, there were enough boats and shoreline settlements visible to reiterate the fact that the river was indeed the spiritual heart of the region.
16 July 2003
Vientiane, Lao PDR
As the bridge ended, so did the smooth road surface and I immediately knew that we had arrived upon the soil of the Lao PDR. Have you ever noticed how PDR ("People's Democratic Republic" for the abbreviatively challenged) is a thinly veiled euphemistic suffix for "Communist Stronghold". Algeria uses it, North Korea uses it and Laos (oops, Lao PDR) is no exception. Communism in turn implies state sponsored employment programs, and border post bureaucracy is a perfect area to fleece unsuspecting foreigners by providing a highly overstaffed and inefficient service. The entry procedure for Laos features a plot that is more convoluted than a daytime soap opera, yet almost more amusing than an evening sitcom.
In a desperate attempt to get their grubby hands on as many greenbacks as possible, Laos offers "Visa On Arrival" facility to tourists entering from the airports of Vientiane, Pakse and Luang Prabang, as well as from the Friendship Bridge. The cost of this visa is US$ 30 or THB 1400 (crappy exchange rate if you pay in Baht) and it entitles you to spend 15 days in Laos. It can be extended from within the country for those who wish to stay longer. Most nationalities are eligible for this facility, with the only exceptions being the handful that do not maintain diplomatic relations with the Lao PDR.
Anyway, the visa process begins with an unsmiling guard (#1) checking your passport for a Thai exit stamp before allowing you to proceed to the visa window. There you collect a form from the person behind the counter (#2). You fill the form and hand it back to the next person (#3) who makes sure you have filled out every box. The person next to them (#4) then takes your passport photograph and verifies that it is indeed you before stapling it to the form and handing it down the chain. The next person (#5) ensures that the data entered on the form matches that on the passport before passing it to a peon (#6) who hand carries it to another person seated at the back of the room (#7) who inputs your info into a computer. This done, the peon (#6 again) carries it back to the front counter where another person (#8) stamps the visa into the passport. The next person (#9) takes your money (including a US$ 1 "Immigration Processing Surcharge") and counts it before handing it to their neighbour (#10) who puts it in a box and writes out a receipt. Then the person next to them (#11) signs the receipt and hands it back to you with your passport.
Done? Not quite. You then walk towards the immigration checkpoint (remember, all you have accomplished so far is get a visa - you can skip that step if you prefer to get one in advance). You are stopped by another unsmiling guard (#12) who checks that you have a valid visa and that you arrivals card is completed. He then directs you to stand in line for the only booth marked "Foreign Passports". There are 3 other counters open for Lao passports, but since Lao folk don't travel much these are invariably empty. Feel free to use one instead. At the booth, an immigration officer (#13) stamps you into the country. You then proceed to another counter where you must pay THB 10 (US$0.25) as an "Entry Tax" to another bureaucrat (#14). You are handed a coupon that you carry about 5 yards to another person (#15) who proceeds to tear it in half and hand it back to you. Finally, as you exit the checkpoint facility, another guard (#16) checks to make sure that your coupon has indeed been torn. Never before has the "Welcome to the Lao PDR" sign evoked such feelings of relief.
I had struck up a conversation with the Australians during the entire charade described above and the lady was gracious enough to offer me a ride to my hotel since her husband was picking them up at the border. For those less fortunate however, tuk-tuks and other transportation options were available in abundance. The negotiated fare from the bridge into Vientiane should be no more than THB 150 (US$ 3.75) to downtown or THB 200 (US$ 5) to the airport. Nonetheless, we piled into the vehicle and set off on the bumpy ride towards town.
The most glaring indications that we were in a communist country were the stark contrasts that appeared on the drive. Vehicles on the road consisted either of the swanky current model SUVs/pickups used by the expats/NGOs or of the battered two-wheelers and rickshaws used by the locals. There was no concept of a family car or any private ownership whatsoever by the locals. Furthermore, a lot of the institutional buildings that we passed were completely devoid of personality, bearing names such as "Pharmaceutical Factory #3" and "Vientiane Municipality Primary School #14".
When researching hotels on the internet, I found that the options for accomodation downtown were somewhat limited if one was fussy about basic creature comforts. The only branded hotel I could find was the Novotel located out by the airport. There was also the 5-star Lao Plaza Hotel downtown, but I really didn't want to go to Laos just to stay in a 5-star. Anyway, browsing the trusty [link=www.asia-hotels.com]www.asia-hotels.com[/link] I stumbled across the Asian Pavilion Hotel. The location was perfect, the amenities were satisfactory, the reviews were ok and best of all, the price was dirt cheap. Accordingly, I booked myself into the "Asian Suite" for the grand price of US$30 including breakfast.
I thanked my new friends for the ride once we pulled up in front of the hotel and we exchanged business cards with a half-hearted promise to keep in touch. A very enthusiastic porter had already snapped up my luggage and was carrying it inside, so I took my cue and followed him through the doors. The girl on duty at the desk didn't speak particularly fluent English, but the manager took over and handled checkin without any hassles. I was assigned to one of the suites on the second floor and the porter again cheerfully carried my bags there before giving me the full tour of the room amenities.
To be honest, I was pleasantly surprised by the room. Among other things, it featured satellite television with about 30 channels (including BBC and HBO in English), a refrigerator/minibar (2 bottles of water complimentary daily) and a wicker writing/computer desk. Decor revolved around an outdated and aging floral wallpaper pattern, but everything was very clean and comfortable. The bathroom was also very large with all the expected amenities. The windows overlooked Samsenthai Road and the front entrance to the hotel, but were surprisingly soundproof when closed. The porter gave me two friendly tips as he left - first that Laotian law did not permit unregistered visitors in the room (not that I had any intention of inviting any up but it was good to know anyway) and second that all international calls were "monitored" by the government. I reciprocated with a tip of my own that he grinned and pocketed.
After a quick shower, I set out to explore the town. My first stop was That Dam, a monument literally meaning "Black Stupa". According to legend, the stupa is inhabited by a dragon that protected the local population during the 1828 Lao-Siamese War. From there I headed past the US Embassy to Lane Xang Road where I got a great view of Patuxai, the Lao version of the Parisian Arc de Triomphe. Patuxai is intended to be a war memorial, but was built with concrete donated by the US Government in 1960 ostensibly for the construction of a new airport. A short walk southwest brought me to the Presidential Palace, a highly forgettable mansion of no particular architectural distinction.
Northwest from there along Settha Thirath Street brought me to what is referred to in most maps and guidebooks as the "fountain". The "fountain" seems to have no real significance other than aesthetic, but serves as the de-facto center of town for tourists. Everywhere I turned brought me face-to-face with backpackers from either Britain or Australia. I wandered around for a bit, but wasn't particularly enamored by anything there. Even the restaurants in the vicinity catered to Western tastes with signs proudly advertising local fare such as hamburgers and pizza.
As darkness descended, I strolled down to the bank of the Mekong and watched the bustling activity along the shore. On the way back to the hotel, I passed by the National Stadium and also the Revolutionary Museum. I also had to stop at a store to buy the postcard that I had promised to mail to a friend's 9-year old daughter. She is building up quite a collection from my travels to wacky and wonderful places.
Back at the hotel, I decided to visit the Pavilion Restaurant in the lobby for dinner as it had received great reviews everywhere I had looked. Surprisingly, it was deserted when I walked in just past 9pm and I had the full attention of the courteous and helpful staff. After glancing through the menu and finding myself torn between so many possibilities, I asked them to put together something that represented the local cuisine and house specialities. The Maitre d' seemed to relish this challenge and was especially pleased when I told him that I had no dietary restrictions whatsoever. He started me off with a bottle of BeerLao, a local brew that I found extremely refreshing after a long day in the heat. For the meal, he prescribed some kind of deep fried pork cakes with a lovely lemongrass twinge. This was accompanied by a dish of Pad Thai noodles flavored with dried shrimp. Most interesting about this though was the presentation. It was served sealed inside the fold of an omlette, lending a great taste to the dish. Desert was a bowl of fresh local fruits cut up into a medley. All in all, the meal was one of the best I have had in a long time and my bill came to an absolutely unbelievable 64000 Kip (US$6). Happily stuffed, I retired upstairs to my room and watched the All Star Game highlights with a Japanese soundtrack before drifting to sleep.
17 July 2003
Vientiane, Lao PDR
Up bright and early, I took a short walk to check out the morning market but was not particularly enamored by it. My local market in India has a better selection and is a lot more bustling. Maybe folks from Western countries may be more impressed. I had planned to visit the Revolutionary Museum as well, but decided to take a raincheck. After my experience with Lao bureaucracy the previous day, I wanted to leave a long enough buffer in case of delays at the border.
Back at the hotel, I showered and went down to the restaurant for breakfast (which was included in my $30 room rate). Guests have an option of either Western style or Asian style breakfast made fresh to order. I picked the Western option which included 2 fried eggs, sausage, toast, preserves and fresh fruit. The Asian option consisted of some sort of porridge with meat and vegetables, but I wasn't in the mood to experiment. My friend the porter was back on duty this morning and I asked him about transportation options to the bridge. He offered to set me up with the air-conditioned hotel van for 75000 Kip (US$7) instead of a tuk-tuk which would run me around 50000 Kip (US$5). I checked out around 10am and the van was ready and waiting for me, a veritable oasis of cool amid the searing heat of the Lao morning.
The drive to the bridge took about 20 minutes along typically nondescript and bumpy suburban dirt roads. Once there, I headed to the exit checkpoint armed with the fortitude and mental strength to tackle Lao bureaucracy head on. The officer at the counter assigned to foreign passports took a quick look at my exit card, stamped my passport and handed it back to me. And that was it. No processing surcharge. No multiple checks. No coupons to be torn in half every five yards. How totally anticlimatic. As I was so devastated over this sudden turn of events, I even skipped visiting the Duty Free Shop. (In truth, it was closed despite a sign out front saying it was "OPEN 8am to 8pm"!).
Fortunately for me, the shuttle bus was already boarding for its quick hop over to Nong Khai, so I hurried towards the ticket counter and purchased my ride for THB 10 (US$0.25). The bus was already quite full by the time I clambered aboard but I was able to squeezed myself and my bag into a corner. I then was forced to hold on for dear life as the driver proceeded to accelerate through the red light that regulated access to the bridge. Farewell Lao PDR. Its been a fun experience.
17 July 2003
Nong Khai/Udon Thani
I was the first to alight from the bus on the Thai side of the border and was immediately trampled by the hordes behind me stampeding their way to the immigration desks. There were two booths here, one for Thai/Lao and the other for the rest of the world. Of course, everybody else aboard the bus fell into the former category. In fact, business at the latter counter was probably so slow that on closer scrutiny I discovered it to be empty. I accordingly made a beeline for the closest sign of officialdom that I could see, in this case the nearby glass doorway marked "IMMIGRATION OFFICE" and sporting a noisy airconditioning unit off to the side.
The secretary at the counter had probably been dozing off because she seemed to leap out of her shoes when the door mechanism creaked to signal my entry. I enquired where I might find an officer to process my arrival and she gestured for me to take a seat at a nearby desk while she snapped her fingers at a peon in the corner, evidently instructing him to summon someone. Sure enough, a young Immigration officer came rushing in about 30 seconds later, frantically tucking his shirt in. He shook my hand and seated himself across the desk from me. To my surprise, the peon arrived at my elbow with a tray containing a glass of cold water and a plate of cookies. Wow. I wish every immigration checkpoint was this friendly!
While I was gratefully imbibing the water, the officer pulled out the appropriate arrivals forms from a folder and handed them to me to fill out. He then handed them along with my passport to the peon, who took them in turn to the next room where he could be heard making a phonecall. Evidently Nong Khai checkpoint does not have real time access to the Immigration Bureau computer database, so they had to call Bangkok to make sure that I was not disbarred from entering Thailand for whatever reason! While this rigmarole was being performed, the officer tried to make polite conversation.
He began this by asking me what I knew about snakes. As his accent wasn't the clearest, I thought for a second that he was referring to "snacks", namely the cookies that were sitting on the desk between us. I smiled politely and thanked him for them. He looked exasperated but didn't give up. He found a random scrap of paper and sketched a diagram of a rather vicious looking coiled cobra. He shoved it at me pointing and saying "Snake Snake - India India". I was completely stumped. I replied that yes, we did indeed have snakes in India. Where on earth was this conversation going?
He smiled and then delivered a line that I will carry with me to the grave as a fond memory of Thailand. "I AM A CORRECTOR OF LEPTILES", said he. "Can you help import India snake for correction?" I told him that I had no clue if exporting snakes was even legal, but I gave him my business card and told him to drop me an email once I got back. He seemed amenable to that suggestion and changed the subject. We then made small talk for a few more minutes about my impressions of "Vienchan" before the peon returned with my passport and the all-clear from Bangkok. Entry stamps were quickly affixed and I thanked him as I headed out into Thailand.
There were a whole range of touts at the barricade offering their tuk-tuks and cars for hire, but I settled on the one guy who seemed to actually know where the Limousine (bus) service departed from and negotiated a rate of THB 40 (US$1) with him. The ride itself took less than 10 minutes and would probably have been walkable if it weren't for the blazing heat. Nonetheless, I arrived at the Limousine (bus) office right around 11am, leaving me with over an hour to kill. I spent this at the internet cafe across the street where I bought 45 minutes of extremely slow access for THB 10 (US$0.25).
I finally piled into the Limousine (bus) around noon and was joined by three other passengers, all locals heading down to Bangkok. We picked up another person at the famous "Danish Baker" in Nong Khai and then rattled our way onto the highway. Again, the ride was smooth and uneventful with the highlight being a billboard for the local hospital emblazoned with the catchy albeit nonsensical slogan "Your life is our life".
17 July 2003
Udon Thani to Bangkok Don Muang
I attempted to check in all the way through to Mumbai, but the poor girl at the desk had no clue how to handle an itinerary with a mix of e-tickets and paper tickets. As a result, I had to settle for just a single boarding pass. Formalities complete, I headed up the stairs to the airport restaurant to grab a bite for lunch. Surprisingly, the restaurant had a very nice lunch buffet laid out for only THB70(US$1.75). I settled myself at a table by the window and tucked in to a delicious beef curry while watching the ramp action at bustling Udon airport. Ok, I lie. The ramp action consisted of a bunch of bored folks playing cards under the shade of a cargo container. Udon Thani gets the grand total of three daily flights.
The flight back to Bangkok aboard HS-TDB was routine in all respects. I had an exit row aisle with an empty middle seat next to me, so I was pretty comfortable for the 40 minute hop. There was a drinks service and I sipped on a coke as I leafed through the Sawasadee inflight magazine. On arrival at Bangkok we docked at the absolute far end of the domestic terminal, so it was a fair hike to the exit. Nonetheless, I collected my rollaboard from the left luggage office and headed back to the international terminal to check in. I would sleep in my own bed at home that night.
=== THE END ===
My flight back to Mumbai was assigned to depart from a remote bay, meaning that we had to ride a bus out from the terminal. I was not pleased at first, but once I realized that our flight would be aboard HS-TEK my mood quickly changed. For those unaware of the significance of this aircraft, she is named "Srichulalak" but more commonly referred to as the "Royal Barge". I had seen pictures of her before, but to view her up close and personal was quite breathtaking. She is quite positively the most beautiful aircraft in the world. She exudes a certain aura that leaves even the least aeronautically inclined person spellbound.
As I stood at the base of the airstairs on that warm Bangkok evening and watched the sun slowly set in the distance behind her, I felt as if I had been transported back in time to the ancient city of Ayutthaya. I could almost hear the splash of oars above the whine of jet turbines as she navigated the Chao Phraya transporting the King of Siam to his capital. What a magical and special aircraft and a wonderful way to end a memorable journey to South East Asia.