Category Archives: Travel
I arrived at Mukdahan bus station at approximately 8:30 on Monday April 1. I’d managed to get a few hours sleep under my blanket on the bus, but I was feeling pretty groggy all the same. As I said before, I’d been to Mukdahan many times, so I knew the layout of the bus station and where to get the tickets. The bus station is small and the ticket offices are easy to locate being near to the entrance. The ticket was remarkably cheap. I think it was about 40 baht! I bought a strong coffee and went to wait for my bus.
Within about 20 minutes of buying my ticket I was on the way to Laos. We stopped first at the Thai border control to officially leave the country. This is the point where everybody stampedes off the bus and selfishly pushes their way to the front of the queue; me included! When I finally reached the end of the queue, I was instructed by the passport officer to go inside the main building and speak to his boss. As I was cancelling a working visa, I guess he figured I needed special attention. As it turned out, the man in the office looked at my passport for all of two minutes then stamped it to show that my working visa was now officially void. I guess I was lucky. I’ve heard stories of teachers being charged 15,000 baht for similar reasons. Eventually, everybody was through and we got back on the bus. We crossed the Friendship Bridge, which allows some nice views of the Mekong River.
Now I had to get a visa on arrival for Laos. I suddenly felt like I was in a foreign land. Seems strange to say it, but I actually feel quite at home in Thailand these days. I wasn’t sure what to expect from the Laotians. The bus stops at the border control, and once again it’s out for stamping and all that kind of stuff. I went straight to the window where I saw other foreigners. Usually the best course of action. The guy gave me a form to fill out and an arrival/departure card to fill out. The arrival cards in Laos are actually rather nice and they have a few useful phrases for you to use while you stay there. Sabai dee bor means the same as Sabai dee mai, or How are you? The Laos actually understand Thai as their language is very similar. I guess it might be like the difference between Spanish and Catalonian Spanish.
Your visa on arrival will cost about 1,500 baht. Make sure you take passport photos along with you. I was lucky, I had some in my wallet, though I had completely forgotten about this point. Once you have all your documents stamped and signed just go to the window where all the other foreigners are standing and get a stamp in your passport. You have to pay 40 baht for this, I’m pretty sure they’re just skimming money off of you but it’s not too much.
The time was now 10:40. Remember the Thai embassy closes at 11:00. I felt a bit like James Bond making a last minute dash to save the entire planet from imminent destruction as I jumped into a tuk tuk and sped off for the embassy. I had no idea how far away it was, but I was putting my money on it being close enough to get there in 15 minutes.
To be continued…….
After feeling like I’d overstayed my welcome in Dunkin’ Donuts, I went downstairs to the dreaded bus station. If you’ve ever been in Mochit bus terminal, you’ll know what I’m talking about. As you travel down the escalator you look out over a sea of people, all haphazardly standing around waiting for a bus. The place is dark and dingy and makes you think of things like rats and cockroaches. In the middle of the aisle are numerous shops that sell drinks and snacks at inflated prices. On either side are the bus parking bays. Around these are hoards of people crowded together, hoping to be the first to get on the bus. In front of the parking bays sit representatives of the respective bus companies, occasionally speaking over a loud speaker to announce that the bus will be late. In fact, buses are often late.
After pushing myself through the sea of people, I bought some watermelon in a plastic bag (so convenient to eat healthily in Thailand) and stationed myself near to the stop where my bus would be coming an hour later. Luckily, I got a seat. Most of the time, you end up standing in one place for hours. Apparently the bus was delayed by half an hour, and so I’d have to wait until around 10 pm to get on it. I was hoping that the late bus wouldn’t drag out my stay in Laos. The Thai embassy in Laos stops receiving applications for visas at 11 am in the morning. Therefore, if you get there after 11, you have to wait unit the next day just to make the application.
Eventually, after the slow inexorable grind of time, I was getting on the bus. I sat down by the window, even though my seat was next to the aisle. I had to sit next to some random Thai guy, which is never what you want, but that’s just the way it is. I read my book while the light was still on, then tried to get some sleep once it went dark. I used to think the four-hour trip to London was long. Since then I’ve become accustomed to ten-hour trips to Mukdahan to visit my wife’s family.
On Sunday (April 1), I left my new apartment in Bangbua Thong to make the 700km (approx) journey to Savannakhet, in Laos. The reason for going was simple: I needed to change my visa type before I could begin my new job. I kissed my wife and son goodbye, then headed off to catch the bus to the Mochit bus terminal, where I would then take a bus to Mukdahan on the border with Laos. As I had never actually taken a bus from that stop before (we had just moved into our new apartment on the very same day), I asked the guy standing next to me if the 134 passed. He said it did but told me that the minivan was a quicker way to travel. I decided I would take the minivan afterall. I waited for the minivan but I didn’t see any coming that were headed for Mochit. After a while the guy asked me if I wanted to split a taxi; the fare, that is. At first I said thanks, but no thanks. The minivan is cheaper, and plus, I didn’t want to get in a taxi with someone I’d just met on the side on the road. After a while, though, I realized we could be waiting for a ages if we wanted the minivan, so I decided to take a “risk” and go with the guy afterall.
We jumped in the nearest taxi and set off. The driver and my new friend got off talking as though they were old friends, and I was beginning to wonder if I’d been set up. I had visions of them taking me on a wild goose chase around the city until I owed them about 600 baht, then throwing me out and saying “oh, sorry, we can’t find it.” As it was, I just went with the flow. The driver was asking me all kinds of questions about who I was, and where I was going, and did I like Thai girls (of course I did, doesn’t everybody?). He seemed friendly enough, and I decided they weren’t going to mug me afterall.
We arrived at Mochit bus terminal, paid our “split” fare, and got out. Me and my new buddy walked into the bus terminal together, shook hands, and said good luck. I’ll probably never see him again. Such is life. I realized I was going to have a three-and-a-half-hour wait on my hands, so I went to get some food outside the bus terminal.
Thailand has loads of great little restaurants (if you can call them that) on the side of the road. They usually have plastic chairs and tables, with some kind of plastic canopy in case it rains, which it often does. The guy cooking the food is stationed at a little foodstand on wheels and takes orders from a million customers, just remembering everything in his head. I ordered beef noodles, something I rarely eat. The Thais eat a lot more pork pound for pound than any other meat. The Chinese Thais don’t eat beef, and this affects the culture in general. No beef means no red meat, means not much iron.
After eating noodles I wanted a place to pass the time before I got on my bus. I had seen a Dunkin’ Donuts inside the bus terminal and so I decided to set myself up there with a book, coffee, and a few donuts. The place was jam-packed with people trying to do exactly the same thing as me: pass the time until their bus arrived. I read this book I’d found in the office at my old school before leaving. As I was leaving, I guess that technically meant I’d stolen it, but I didn’t care. The book was by Nick Hornby (first book I’ve read by him), and was vaguely about a teenage skateboarder who got his teenage girlfriend pregnant. If it had been more about skateboarding, and less about teenage pregnancy, I might have enjoyed it. Not a bad book to pass some time on a long journey, but definitely not the type of thing I usually read.
If you’re thinking of travelling to Chiang Mai, there are a number of options for getting there. However, the overnight trains are probably the most exciting way to travel. Buses can be hot and stuffy, with little leg room for sleeping. Planes are convenient, and they’re the fastest way to get there, but fast isn’t always good. The train will allow you to appreciate some of Thailand’s beautiful landscape and scenery. Many of the trains have sleeping areas built into the cabins, allowing you to catch a few hours sleep before you start your adventuring in Thailand’s exciting northern “capital.” Travelling by train also has something quaint and romantic about it, which has been lost on modern transport methods. If you’re the adventurous type, then train travel is the way to go.