Wednesday, August 11, 2010

In Transit: Hue, Vietnam to Tha Khek, Laos.

I realized that I completely left out Laos in all of the tales of my Southeast Asia trip thus far. That's sad considering Laos was probably my favorite country to have visited in that part of the world. 

(Just to be clear, I don't know that I will ever be able to pick a favorite place in all the world so at this point I'm sticking to the idea of having a favorite per continent.)

I really had to book it going through Laos and that was unfortunate. Honestly the nature of the country has nothing to do with speed. Everything is done at its natural pace and typically that tends to be quite slow. Something that those of us living in the States have a problem with. 

It certainly helped me realize how impatient I've become, especially after living in such an incredibly efficient place as Taiwan. 

Either way, Laos was amazing. Slowing down really helped me take everything in. It's an amazingly beautiful country. 

Simple and yet simply gorgeous.
So getting to Laos from Vietnam took forever, especially since I pushed myself even further and made myself continue after my first bus arrived. In 12 hours I went from the Eastern coast of Vietnam to the Western border of Laos. It's weird to think you can drive across two countries in that amount of time. 

It's really difficult to consider if you come from as place as large as Texas. 

Getting from Hue to the Laos-Vietnam border was actually much faster I had expected. Coincidentally, a guy I had met on my DMZ tour a couple of days ago was also traveling to Savannakhet on the same bus, so I had a buddy to talk to and fumble through everything with — and I really mean fumble. 

At the border we had to disembark from our bus but were told to leave our bags on the bus. That in itself was a little disconcerting but all the locals were doing it too so I decided we could just go with it.

This was my first time doing a border crossing by land other than from America to Canada, which is pretty simple. You get to stay in your vehicle there and they just ask you a couple of questions and send you on your way. The fact that there is no need for stamps or payment really simplifies the situation (and alleviates much of the corruption you see elsewhere).

We paid our exit fee in Vietnam and walked across the border into Laos where we filled out our visa application forms and waited patiently, like you can only do in Laos. Then the guy asked us for $40 each. 

I was mildly irritated because I read that it would only cost $30, but I had brought $45USD with me precisely for that reason. I handed the guy two $20 bills only to have him hand me one back and tell me he can't take it because it's too old. 

It was not that old and otherwise it was perfectly fine. I could understand where he was coming from because SE Asian countries do have a counterfeiting problem, but this put me in a significant bind since I didn't have enough money to pay the full amount in Vietnamese Dong and I, of course, didn't have any Laos Kip yet. 

I finally managed to get the guy to let me pay half in USD and half in Dong, but this left me with about 20,000 Dong when all was said and done which is hardly enough to be traipsing across countries with.

So the guy I was with and I decided to go to the ATM that is just on the other side of border control (maybe they could have mentioned that tidbit) where we waited in line behind people who apparently couldn't get their cards to work. Just as my friend was putting his card in the machine I saw the bus begin to move out of its parking place that was across the street and I started running over to the bus. 

I was not about to get left behind especially with all my stuff on that bus (though I did have my valuables with me). Luckily I made it and we both hopped on the bus. Man, they take their sweet time for the most part, but when the Laos people are ready to go they take no mercy on those who dawdle.

Getting into Laos we nearly immediately saw the difference. There was a point at which I realized that Vietnam is a beautiful country, but Laos is beautiful and unadulterated. It's so pure and amazing. 

Not long after the border we stopped for a quick lunch (typical stir-fry). Later on in the trip we made another unexpected stop. Somewhere along halfway between the border and Savannakhet, so essentially smack in the middle of Laos, the bus driver pulls over on the side of the road and he and about 25 other people hop off the bus and run into the bushes to pee. Small children didn't even bother with the bushes and just went on the side of the road right next to the bus.

Now I'm going to go ahead and say that I don't come from the classiest family so I've had my fair share of road trip, peeing-on-the-side-of-the-road experiences where you have to pee and your mom tells you to run into the bushes on the side of the highway. I always obeyed even though I was clearly embarrassed/terrified of what might be out there. 

But it was the most surreal thing to see half a bus full of people doing this.

So seven hours after the border we arrived in Savannakhet, which is on the Laos-Thai border in Central Laos, I immediately had to learn how to navigate the Laos bus system. It's slightly more difficult than the Vietnamese open-bus tours and was especially complicated by the lack of signs on buses and the fact that buses show up when they feel like it and not really when they're scheduled to. 

I was told the bus from Savannakhet would take about two to two-and-a-half hours. It was supposed to leave at about 6 or 6:30 p.m. so I figured getting there by 9 p.m. at the latest wouldn't be the worst thing ever. 

Instead, the bus left at nearly 7 p.m. and got there at nearly 11 p.m. What was that about Laos time?

I still managed to find a tuk-tuk driver to take me to the hostel I wanted to go to, but not until after haggling with him over the exorbitant price he was trying to charge me. He eventually pawned me off on someone else when he decided that it wasn't worth it for him. 

Somehow I still ended up paying 10,000 Kip more than the trip was worth, but what's a little more than a dollar when all you want is a shower and a bed after 17 hours of traveling?

Luckily, it's the low season and I was able to secure a bed in the dorm room. I showered off the dirt (did I mention the Laos buses were open-air and not a/c?) and then headed off to bed where I passed out within minutes and without concern for when I would wake up the next morning.

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