Laos, where the hell is that? It’s a very poor, landlocked country bordered by Thailand and Vietnam and some other countries that are equally obscure to a non-geography bee winner. It is a “People’s Democratic Republic”, aka Communist. As an American, I couldn’t help but feel a little naughty spending my USDs there, but their silks and banana pancakes were too alluring.
I had to go there last week to get my work visa from the Thai consulate. In order to get the proper visa to work here, you have to actually leave the country and go to a consulate in another country and then re-enter Thailand, makes a lot of sense. Vientiane (the capital of Laos) is a popular place for people to go, so I hopped on the overnight train last Tuesday and headed North.
Trains in the developing world are a real mixed bag. Almost everything about them is annoying, and you just deal with it, but there is always one thing that makes you completely insane. On this train, that one thing was the subzero air conditioning paired with a “blanket” for sleeping. Thank god I was smart enough to get drunk in the bar car with a British guy before heading to bed otherwise I would never have fallen asleep. Remember in Frosty the Snowman when the little girl was dying in the freezer car with Frosty? That’s what it was like after my delicious beer blanket wore off.
I made it to Nong Khai (the Thai border town), right on time, 3 and a half hours late. I booked it via Tuk Tuk to the border so that I could get to the embassy before 12 when they stop taking applications. The driver stopped at a travel agency to try to get me to pay them for forms or something and I was like, just go to the border NOW. So I got to the border and fumbled around with all my forms and got my Laotian visa and headed across the Mekong River into Laos. Unfortunately, I missed the cut off time for submitting my visa paperwork, which doomed me to spend an extra day in Laos.
After checking into my hotel, I went to do some ‘sploring. Vientiane has a well earned reputation for being the most boring town around, but I happened to be there on some special Buddhist holiday when magic pink light balls come out of the river (?), or so I was told, but I didn’t know that until the next day, so I missed it. But there was a huge market/carnival going on so at least I had one day of entertainment.
American carnivals are so “safe” and “inspected”; this one gave me the real thrill that a carnival is supposed to give you… that “this thing is coming off the rails and I am surely going to die” thrill. They had carnival games, bumper cars, a ferris wheel and a haunted house, which probably was actually terrifying. There were a ton of people selling all sorts of crap. I couldn’t help but buy myself a super hippie skirt, for 30,000 kip, which is about $3 USD. I negotiated it down to that price which I kinda feel bad about, but when I bought that skirt, within about 5 minutes, a bunch of Laotians bought the same skirt as the whitey. Free marketing.
After all that fun, I headed into one of the nearby temples to get some photos and it was really beautiful, especially since I was there just before sun set. The monks had 6 foot tall speakers set up in the courtyard and they were bumping out Ke$ha and Britney which was incongruous to say the least, but I guess Buddha likes to get down too.
It also happened to be Halloween when I was there. My costume was “a white person”. When I got back to my hotel, I noticed many other people in costumes. They were wearing perfectly tailored military uniforms and had very realistic automatic weapons slung over their backs. Oh wait, no, those weren’t costumes, that was just the military putting up a camp in the empty lot next to my hotel. Yippeee.
I got up at the crack of dawn on Thursday morning, greeted the military garrison outside and headed to the consulate so I could get the visa BS taken care of. As I’ve mentioned many times before, there is only one thing in the world that Americans are unarguably the best at: waiting in line. No other nationality is better than an American at waiting in line. So being the first person at the consulate (which I was) is a very different thing than being first in line. I ended up 4th, because other people literally came up and physically pushed me out of the way to be first. All part of the experience… I tell myself…
I got all that stuff handed in, and it takes a day to process so I couldn’t pick it up until Friday at 1, which means that my train ticket for Thursday night was useless. Meh. I spent the rest of the day wandering around and went to check out the big golden temple, which is about the only thing to see in Vientiane.
With the exception of when I got sexually molested by a monk and had to grab him by the neck (a whole different story), the temple was really cool. Lots of golden Buddhas everywhere, and it was a beautiful day so it looked especially cool against the bright blue sky. The next 12 hours after that were painfully uneventful, so much so that I spent about 40 minutes dancing around my room to techno like the iPod silhouettes.
Friday, I picked up my visa and got the F outta there. All in all, I made it out of Laos alive, with a visa, some silks, and a good story, which is the best I could hope for.