After previously extending our tourist visas, it was approaching the time for me to leave Thailand and reenter on an official working visa (Sarah had been back to England for a wedding and so had solved her visa problems). Having been told that the easiest place to do this was at the Thai Embassy in Laos, I met up with my friend Ben who was in a similar situation for the much hassled visa run. The plan: get in, get out, and spend as little money as possible. Of course, things don’t always go as planned.
Purchasing our sleeper train tickets with ease from Hua Lampong train station, we were sure that this smooth transaction had set the premise for the rest of the trip. Our train was headed for Nong Khai, far north of Thailand, where we’d get a tuk tuk to the Laos border before heading to the capital, Vientiane. With a few hours to spare we headed back to the apartment to pack, stopping to get some photos taken and passport photocopies to make the border crossing as quick and simple as possible.
Although Ben saw it fit to mock my heavy packing, it soon became clear that there was one thing missing from my bag – oh yes, my passport. Where could it be? Of course, I’d left it in the photocopier of the shopping centre we’d just visited. “Back in a sec!” and off I went to reclaim (thank God) the forgotten and somewhat crucial passport. “Well that’s the disaster over with, it’s all up from here” I joked naively.
The sleeper train was really cool, as I’d encountered previously when heading south to the islands and we had a couple of beers in the restaurant carriage, listening to Thai music with the locals through heavy cigarette clouds. In need of a breather, we enthusiastically (Ben) and cautiously (me) started swinging out of the open train doors, watching the track blur beneath us as we passed rice field after rice field.
We got a bit of sleep, I was top bunk and Ben at 6ft 4 had earned the larger bottom bunk, but we were frequently disturbed by the train slamming the brakes on, creating the impression of having derailed, only to stop for half an hour until continuing. Ben refused to join my optimism in insisting the train would be on time – more annoyingly he was correct.
The Thai Embassy is only open in the morning, and the visas take 24 hours to process. In order for us to leave the following day, we had to hand in our documentation by midday. After disasterous delays, we had only half an hour after leaving the train and finally making it to the border, before the Thai Embassy in Vientiane shut. Still stupidly optimistic, I was sure we could make it. We still had to get a visa just to enter Laos and had only just acquired the appropriate forms. “Ben, do you have a pen?” Of course not, neither of us did, and after spending 16 hours on a train we were now hindered by our lack of pen. We finally came to terms with staying in Laos another day, the Thai Embassy now closed.
Finding a hotel was easy and cheap and we had the chance to explore Vientiane. What was nearly entirely absent, however, was people, traffic and amenities. In what was seemingly a ghost town, we discovered that whilst Thai new year was drawing to an end in Thailand, Laos New Year was just beginning here and everything was shut. We still enjoyed some Beer Lao and demonstrated some astonishing dance moves, but were notably the only foreigners around.
The following day, hungover but ready to make some progress at the Embassy, we wondered into the completely wrong side of town and for the first time in SE Asia, were treated with slight hostility. We jumped aboard a tuk tuk keen to get away from here and soon saw the glorious and grand Thai Embassy looming before us. Hmm, how do we get in through these iron gates we wondered. The security guard soon informed us that we wouldn’t be, as the Embassy was closed until Thursday, and with us having arrived Monday, this caused somewhat alarm.
There was very little we could do to change the matter. Our visa run had turned into a full blown holiday to Laos, at probably the worst time to visit! However, after discussing finances and booking more nights at the hotel, we managed to make the most of a ridiculous situation. We had a TV with English movie channels (an alien concept to us out here) so that kept us entertained whilst a moat formed around our beds from the leaking air con. We also had a laugh doing a bit of sight-seeing and playing Songkran with the locals. However, as one of the only foreigners around and being so tall (and cocky) Ben was a natural target for all the kids with water pistols and soon got an ear infection! We ventured into a pharmacy/restaurant, but they were unable to help, and so we had our first experience of a Laos hospital.
We approached the hospital to see that blood pressures were being taken outside the entrance and that it was unclear as to who we should speak to. However, Ben being a tall Western man with blue eyes, there were soon five giggling nurses willing to offer their assistance. Thirty minutes, one doctor, five extra-attentive nurses and potent selection of drugs later, we left the hospital, Ben feeling much better.
We eventually managed to get our visas, after trying to pay with the wrong currency and 5 days later than intended. Relieved, broke and eager to return to Thailand, we headed straight for the border after collection of our freshly-stamped passports. Naturally, everyone else who had been stuck in Visa-Laos-Songkran-Limbo also had a similar plan and it took hours of queuing to pass through the border. Sunburned, dehydrated and still in the sweaty queue, I had lost all youthful and naive optimism by now, to the point that I was convinced that we could not relax until safely home in Bangkok. It was around this point that we began to notice a distinct herbal smell in the air that is perhaps the last thing you would ever want to get a whiff of at border control. Alerting Ben, we started sniffing our rucksacks dramatically. Of course the smell was not coming from us, and whoever the guilty party was needn’t have blinked anyway, as there was incidentally no baggage check or question of security as we crossed the border.
We saw a 7/11 and knew we were back in Thailand. Euphoric, we made the catastrophic mistake of nipping in for some water, putting us 5 minutes behind our fellow queuers and hence there were no available sleeper trains or coaches back to Bangkok. I lost it. “BEN I HAVE TO GO HOME RIGHT NOW” was shouted a lot through my three-year-old style tantrum. We begged the bus companies, but obviously they could not magic available seats, and so we returned to the train station to begin begging there again.
They eventually revealed that there were two seats available on a 3rd class sitting train that tourists do not usually take. I was confused as to why it only cost a couple of hundred baht, and was sure Ben was being dramatic when he said it was going to be the worst night of our lives. We boarded the hot, rickety, non-air-conditioned train, settling on our wooden bench seats. The only Westerners on the train, we were getting a lot of suspicious looks, and the train guard upon seeing us, cracked some jokes in Thai to the rest of the carriage who turned to us and laughed manically. “It’s not that bad” I murmured to a seriously unimpressed Ben.
It was that bad. Taking it in turns to hang our head out the window like a dog, catching beetles in our hair and covered in black dust from the tracks, we eventually began to laugh. The floor was covered in bodies by those without seats and we had our rucksacks on our laps for security purposes – something that the Thais were doing too. I kept banging heads with the man sitting behind me every time the train jerked, and Ben kept having spasms as the old lady sitting behind him (with snaggle tooth and monobrow) had long hair which kept tickling his neck and making him believe he had a spider down the back of his tshirt. It was without a doubt one of those times where it was so bad it was funny. And in fairness we laughed for 12 hours, only feeling that we may never smile again for the final 3 (once the sun came up and reheated the sweating bodies).
Ben started to have some kind of nervous breakdown as we reached Bangkok and began to stop at all the local stations and so we hopped off at an earlier station when we saw a metro sign. We were in Bangkok. Thank. God.
But as with so many unplanned events, full of mishaps, they make some of the best stories and memories and I was lucky to have Ben with me. Thankfully we’re both quite chilled out and he didn’t even lose his patience in the face of my constant ‘this never would have happened if Sarah had been here,” or ‘Sarah always has a pen’. Incredibly it was a hilarious week and adventure that could only come about by accident.