Thousands of expats make this exact migration yearly. It’s just a little kick in the teeth you have to endure in order to keep grinning in the Land of Smiles. Lots of people blog about it as well, and the only thing that makes mine any different is that, from my perspective, it happened to me, which when you pan back pretty much applies to the whole of life anyway.
First, let’s get business out of the way. The facts. I had to leave the country and come back in. If you don’t know, I “live” in Thailand (and no, I’m not here for ulterior purposes). Now that I’m no longer teaching English, my working visa has expired and I had to go out to get a tourist visa. I had to do this a year ago, so there wasn’t any mystery. I just knew it would be a royal pain in the ass – a time and money sump. Three nights, two days, and $237 to get some stamps in my passport. Seeing Laos may be a golden opportunity for most, but I’ve been from end to end before, and THIS trip was all business and little pleasure. It was also a knock-down punch against me in my fight to stay afloat in Thailand for a year so I can produce a serious body of new art. I hadn’t properly accounted for visa costs. I thought the trip would cost me around $75, not $237. Just did the math now, and for the multiple visa runs and visa extensions it should set me back about $750 for the year. On the positive side it’s possible to do, as long as I can afford it. So, there’s hope, just not a whole lot of it.
And NOW, a mini-travelogue of the sometimes grueling mundanity that was my visa run, which I started writing while sitting for hours with nothing to do at the Thai consulate in Vientiane.
Mini-travelogue of grueling mundanity
(Part 1: written while waiting at the Thai consulate in Vientiane to submit my application for a Thai visa)
#220, and they’re on #60. One hour to closing at 11:30 a.m.. Sitting on the grass under a tree. Put contact lenses on without a mirror, and with some difficulty – got grass on my contact-lens-inserting-finger – so I could switch out glasses for sunglasses and lie on my back looking up at the sky.
I got here as fast as possible, and without a hitch. Yesterday: 8:30 p.m. bus from Chiangmai to Udon Thani, near the Laos border. Arrive 7:00 a.m., eleven hours later. Slept hardly but went through some prolonged quasi-meditative, half-awake states that made me not want the bus ride to end. I had the VIP Extra package, replete with three snacks and three drinks. The snacks were all a combination of bread, sugar, and pork. Eat just one of these ultra-processed goodies, and you’ll be letting fart bubbles escape, intermittently, for the remainder of the ride. I had a second one anyway, realized that was a bit masochistic, and forsook the third and most intriguing, which was molded into the shape of a dumpling.
My seat was directly behind the driver, except there’s a wall in-between, with stairs (that look like they belong outdoors), and a half-height door through which a bus helper goes in and out. The bus looks to have been designed by a student who got the contract out of nepotism, made some grievous mistakes, and then instead of going back to the drawing board, worked around them. This is most apparent in the bathroom, located halfway up the stairs between the first and second level, and which is just big enough to stand in. The tiny sink is tucked in a corner, halfway under a wall panel. The soap has no place to go but inside the cereal-bowl-sized sink. Since I went in there to gargle with Listerine, I had to spit out the Listerine on the soap, then rinse it.
Only after I had finished with a very challenging balancing act of holding the toilet seat up (it wouldn’t stay up on its own) with one hand, propping myself up against a wall with the other, and trying to pee with no hands while being tossed about, did I notice that the sink is a two story number, and the bottom half appeared to be a mini-urinal. It had those deodorizing balls in the drain. Because the sink itself was so low, they probably don’t use the urinal in the intended way, because it would be easier to pee in the sink proper, which I’m guessing they would rather we didn’t do.
I later concluded the WC was for emergencies only, and as likely to make matters worse than better if you weren’t desperate to go. I admit to having had to build up the courage to use it in the first place. I knew there’d be the awkward fumbling with whatever version of a doorknob it had just to enter (I was right). Then there’s the braving of the smells. Better to have gone than not, but I was lucky. It could have gone terrible wrong.
Speaking of which, they are on #123, with five minutes to go. Game’s over. Should be a mass exodus about now.
Also on the bus I observed a peculiar cultural phenomenon apparently everyone else is aware of but I somehow never encountered. They were playing Thai country music in the bus, and I was kind of getting into it (I’ll take it over the generic Asian pop any day), and then I noticed it was on the video screen. The screen in question was immediately in front of the pair of seats on the other side of the aisle. My side just had one seat and no screen. And on the screen were girls gyrating their hips and thrusting their pelvises and squatting and doing their very best to make their crotches visible. The singer needed to be the best at this. That was already odd because I didn’t think that kind of go-go bar dancing had anything to do with folk music, but what was even weirder was when the camera panned to the audience. Instead of seeing drunken middle aged guys looking like dogs when you put their bowl of food on the floor, there were mostly grandmas and children.
Below is just one example of such music and dancing (Miley Cyrus take notes).
You know you’re getting old when one bright day, you hear yourself saying, “why don’t they leave anything up to the imagination?” Call me a prude, but, I don’t think musicians need to give an up-skirt show in order to expect to hold an audience’s attention. I felt a little sorry for the couple who had the screen within arm’s reach of their noses. The boy felt guilty looking at it, and the girl seemed to have had enough crotches thrust in her face already. She pointed at one girl’s underwear, and touched the screen with her nail, to direct her boyfriend’s attention to what looked like an opening in break-away-for-convenience split-knickers.
I like some of the more traditional Thai country/pop enough that the idea of the singer having to strut her privates on stage is about as insulting as having to mix lots of sugar and pork into bread to make it appetizing (see above about Thai bus snacks).
Have a listen to Suphap’s awesome Thai country music as you read on. The intro is the bomb.
Ten minutes later and they’re still open, despite posted hours of 8:30 a.m. – 11:30 a.m..
#140. 80 to go.
Following the VIP Extra (expensive) bus to Udon Thani, and the public (cheap) bus to Nongkai, I took a tuk-tuk to the “Friendship Bridge” which spans the Mekong River, separating Thailand and Laos. Show your passport and pay 15 baht to hop on a bus to cross the bridge. Then the painless process to get my Laos visa (now 1,500 baht, up from 1,000 a year ago). Finally, take a mini-truck to the Thai Consulate in Vientiane to apply for the Thai visa. I paid 100 baht, after refusing attempts to charge me 300 and 200 baht.
I shared the mini-truck with a guy, maybe my age, who has been living in the sticks of Thailand somewhere in Isaan for so long that he communicates with about 30% Thai, 30% English, and 40% gestures. He couldn’t be brought back from the brink to speaking any single language anywhere near fluently. At first I thought his Thai must be excellent, but soon realized he didn’t know common words that I knew, and that he was really only speaking a lot of basic Thai. Here’s a man who communicates with his Thai family in this manner. It was all rather interesting to someone who’s taught English for over six years. Here’s a guy who has picked up the basics of a new language, and temporarily lost the ability to speak his own language.
When he wasn’t trying to flirt with the young Lao women who climbed aboard the back of the truck, he was telling me about the Thai obsession with money. They don’t fill the tank at the pump. On a long trip they just put in a bit of money at a time, and make a bunch of pit stops. This revelation was inspired by our mini-truck stooping to put 100 baht of gas in the tank ($3.5).
Then there was the story about his “baby” not putting gas in their motorbike and “papa” enforcing a rule of “look” (points to his eye and to gas meter) before driving off and running out of gas. He was very difficult to understand, and I found my face getting tired from smiling as if I understood. My guess is he was the only one who refilled the motorbike.
# 165. Will look for a restroom now.
(Section originally written on paper ends here).
(Part 2: I’m about to type this now.)
The Thai consulate never stopped processing our applications, and I finally got mine in after 1:00 p.m., then waited in another line to pay my non-refundable fee (even if you don’t get your visa), and was finally finished at 1:30. Three hours to submit an application. Dang. That’s what I call efficiency.
Got a tuk-tuk into town for 50 baht and walked around looking for a cheap hotel until I happened across the one I stayed at a year ago. They must have the cheapest rooms. 300 baht for a windowless beige room which was perfectly adequate for crashing in.
Slept for a few hours then rented a bike and rode along the waterfront of the Mekong. The road adjacent to the river is closed off for vehicles so people can run, cycle, walk, dance, and do whatever. I practiced navigating through people who were mostly completely oblivious to what anyone else was doing, or what direction traffic might be coming from. There were three bicycle accidents in about 45 minutes. Whole families transect the street without bothering to look in either direction. The children are overwhelmed by a compulsion to run ahead. Meanwhile a squadron of kids ride their bikes in circles, trying to do tricks. Then there are the tourists that stand in the middle squinting at the river, looking for anything like a memorable photo. The mighty Mekong at dusk on an average day isn’t much to look at really.
Returned the bike and went for a slice of amazing pizza, and a large Beer Lao. The pizza is “Cote d’Azure” if you happen to be in Vientiane and want a slice. They have a separate bottle of spicy oil that you drip on the pizza, as desired, through the corked top. Spicy oil! You can’t go wrong.
After a difficult night of not being able to sleep, went in search of breakfast and happened across a Boulangerie which served “croque monsieur”. Haven’t had a croque monsieur since I went to Paris, so some of the charms of Vientiane started to glimmer. A “croque monsieur” is a very special food for me, because when I was learning French in college – back when it was still the universal language, and anyone who didn’t want to be a Philistine had to learn it – it was in one of the lessons. I think it was the ONLY french food mentioned, so quite naturally, I wanted to try it, and never forgot it. After I got my croque, with salad, a fruit shake, and a large iced coffee, my eyes started to well up with the joy of it. Later I’d pay the price for enjoying such luxury, though indirectly.
I’d like to say that the next part was just retracing my steps, but it wasn’t so simple. Just getting a tuk-tuk back to the consulate without getting ripped off proved difficult, and I finally settled on being moderately overcharged by the forth driver I tried to get a ride from. More waiting in lines, public transportation, filling out forms, waiting in lines… and the whole while trying to not make some small mistake, like a misplaced card in a card castle, that would ruin everything.
When I finally got to the Thai side and handed my passport to the official in his kiosk, he informed me I had to go back to Laos because I didn’t have my exit stamp. It would be an understatement to say he was a dick about it. The guy in front of me didn’t have his stamp either, which I know because we’d teamed up a couple hours before to share transport and cut costs, and he’d figured out minutes before that the reason we still had our departure cards was that we hadn’t got our exit stamps. He got through, but I didn’t. I consider this a mixed blessing, because there’s the chance if I got through I’d get bit on the ass later. So, I had to take the bus back over the friendship bridge, get my stamp, come back, wait in line again, and get a spattering of new stamps, and then I was finally on my way.
Hours later I was on the bus back to Chiangmai. I got the cheap one this time because that’s all that was left. The expensive one is worth every extra baht. I had a sleepless ten hours of looking up at the sporadically lit ceiling; listening to the door to the level one front section repeatedly open and slam shut as we made turns (which I was the only person who had the gumption to go close); and should I happen to ever doze get awoken again by the sound of the brackets of the absent TV rattling loudly in the empty TV housing whenever we went over gravelly surfaces. I’ve been on worse bus rides that were more cramped, and even had livestock in them, but this being my second all-nighter in 3 days, it was punishing.
As most who have done this trip say when it’s over, “I hope I never have to do that again”.
If you want a more practical guide to doing the CM to Vientiane visa run, check out these two posts from a friend of mine: Vientiane visa (marathon) run from Chiang Mai Part 1, and Part 2.
Lastly, if you liked this post, you might like this one: Splashdown in Sukhothai for Songkran