The Journey into Laos

February 27th - 28th 2010

We parted ways with Team Canada in Pai, Thailand. Brigitte and Christel went on a 2 day trek to some local villages and the other two girls got sick but decided to stick around for an extra day and do a bus tour to the villages. Tyler and I decided to take the long but cheap route into Laos since we weren't pressed for time and we would meet up with the Sisters Dorge (Bridge and Chris) in Vang Vieng in 2 days. That was when the journey began.

Although we were unable to find the local bus from Chiang Mai to Pai on the way in, we were able to take it in the reverse direction. It was a fun experience, the turns were much easier to handle on the local bus as they drive much slower than the maniac mini-buses so it didn't make anyone on the bus sick. Tyler befriended a travelling man named David who was visiting from Taiwan and we all investigated the overnight bus option from Chiang Mai to close to the Laos border (Udonthani). The bus was pretty reasonable and although we had about 6 hours to kill in the bus station at Chiang Mai, we just read our books while David went off to spend money in town and looked as if we were crazy when we said we just wanted to hang out there until the bus came. Save money whenever you can, is our motto. And we'd already seen the sights of Chiang Mai.

The overnight bus was pretty nice from what I remember, the bad bus trips are what really stand out in your mind and this wasn't one of them. We were able to sleep and although we got to Udonthani around 6am, it wasn't too tricky to wake up. We then had to switch to a local bus that was supposed to take us to the border. It played really loud music videos and was full of school kids who were grooving to the tunes. They dropped us off in the middle of nowhere and pointed vaguely in a direction and said 'Border, there...." and then drove off and left us to aswarm of tuk-tuks negotiating prices. David handled the negotiations and the tuk-tuk man was sketchy and took us to a visa office instead of the border, where they were trying to charge us a ridiculous amount of money for a bus to the border and our visa (which we knew we could get at the border and for way cheaper). We argued with our tuk-tuk man and he came around and took us to the actual border.... sneaky man.

The Laos border was relatively easy but we did have a minor problem. You were supposed to fill out your departure card and then you get stamped for exiting Thailand, before you go get stamped for entering Laos and getting your Laos visa. The man we visited on the Thailand side looked at our empty departure cards and made a gesture that looked like he was waving us through to go to the other side. So we didn't know about the stamp and thought everything was okay. He even handed our departure cards back to us and Tyler and I looked questioningly at them but our friend David said Oh, that's just for the next time you come here. We were stupid to listen to this. But we took the bus across the bridge to the Laos side and were told after waiting in line for our visas that we had to go back because we didn't have the exit stamp. Boy were we angry! We looked into how much the buses back were and they were 4x what we paid to come across to the Laos side, and it wasn't that far of a walk so we just said no, got really grumpy and made our way back to the Thailand side (probably about 1.5km). Halfway there a mini-bus pulled alongside us with our backpacks and everything on, sweating like crazy and took pity on us and gave us a ride back to the border for free. Nice people do exist in Thailand.

We filled out our departure cards, got our stamp, got our visas on the Laos side and finally made our way out of Dodge. Another thing we learned is that Canadians have to pay the most for their Laos visa - $42. We think this is because other countries get a discount for being involved in removing unexploded ordinance from Laos, but Canada is not a part of it (probably because we didn't drop any bombs here). So the border official laughs every time he comes across a Canadian and says 'Haha, you have to pay the most!' Yes, very amusing.

Quite the exhausting morning. We found our way to a local bus to Vang Vieng and arrived in the city by early evening. The bus drops you off in the middle of a dirt road with not much in sight but we found our way to the river and to our accomodation with very little struggles and so we were happy to have a bed for the night. And awaited Brigitte and Chris getting to town the next day.

Asia . Thailand . Bangkok . Pat Pong

February 4th, 2010 - February 7th, 2010

So, Team Canada met around midnight at Khao San Palace. Their first act was to walk the length of Khao San Rd. Sounds simple, eh? Well, let me tell you about Khao San. This road has a lot going on. You want clothes? It's got clothes: suits, t-shirts, hats, t-shirts, sunglasses, t-shirts. You want food? It's got food: pad thai, pancakes, fresh fruit, fruit shakes, fried insects, mystery meat! You want alcohol? It's got buckets (literally). You want illegal stuff? It's got illegal stuff: pirated movies, music, drugs, ID cards, prostitutes. You want knick-knacks? It's got knick-knacks: croaking-wooden-frogs, neon-tribal-hats, things-that-spin-and-fly. You want to be yelled at? It's got yelling: "HEY!", "COME LOOK!", "CHEAP-CHEAP!", "YOU BUY!", "NO?!?", "YES!!!", "LATER????", "NOW!". Needless to say it was a pretty overwhelming experience after hours / days spent flying, so Team Canada retreated to their beds.

The next morning (and pretty much all subsequent mornings) was started with a fruit shake. Mmm-mmm good. Energized, the team was ready to plan. The first step was to arrange travel visas for Christelle, Mel and Milaine. A polite policeman told us that unless we wanted to be drugged and robbed, we should go see a government approved travel agent for all our travel needs. A difficult decision, but we decided to take his advice. Walking into the travel agent's office we must have smelled like fresh sticky-buns: covered with money and steamy with stupidity.. Here's an approximation of the initial meeting:

"How can I help you?"
"We need travel visas."
"Ok. Where are you going?"
"Laos and Vietnam."
"When?" 1
"Around one month from now."
"Where are you staying?" 2
"Khao San Palace."
"Please sit down." 3
* We sit *

Friendly. Factual. Revealing. With this conversation, the travel agent determined 1 how long we'd be in the country, 2 how much we spent each day, and 3 how receptive we were to commands. In the end all 6 of us signed up for a two week island-hopping adventure in southern Thailand. Recall, we started out with questions about visas for 3 of us.. Making destination and accommodation decisions with a group of 6 is always a chore, so despite the disparity between motivation and resolution, we were all happy. Especially Joe (aka Mr.Travel-Agent-Man).

The rest of the day was uneventful. We ate (the best pad thai ever). We wandered (the Grand Palace). I think we swam.. Most importantly we decided that we weren't getting enough culture out of Bangkok. We weren't seeing Bangkok's "BANG!". We needed to see a show. We considered a Muay Thai Kickboxing, but it was way out of budget. So we decided on the next best thing: Pat Pong.

Pat Pong is a district of Bangkok. A collection of streets offering red-light services. Similar to Amsterdam, it has transcended the reputation of being a pervy back-alley, and is now considered a tourist attraction. The main draw is a skills-show. ..Vagina-skills. .. .. .."Vagina-skills?" Yep. It's important to note that it's a muscle.. So it can do "stuff".. "Stuff" like "holding things".. And "smoking things".. And "launching things";.. "Launching? Launching what?" Bananas. Ping pong balls. In fact, these shows are traditionally referred to as Ping Pong Shows.. Pat-Pong, PIng-Pong.. it's sort of a play on words. Y'know, sort of witty. Other noteworthy skills were whistling a whistle and blowing out candles (from a standing position to a cake sitting on the ground! Just like those old kung-fu movies where a master blows out a candle flame with his fist!). A good evening (mostly).

For those of you considering one of these shows, I have two point of caution. Firstly, the glasses that drinks are served in are big enough to accommodate a ping-pong ball. Moreover, the performers seem to consider themselves amateur golfers, so hole-in-ones are highly sought after. Solution: cover your drink or simply remove it from the driving-range / table entirely. AND for god's sake, if your drink does get "polluted", then show some respect for hygiene and DO NOT DRINK IT. Secondly, Thailand has it's share of scams. Don't be afraid of them, just expect them and being willing to laugh when they happen. When we entered the venue for our particular show, the street-advertiser said 100 baht per drink, which is about 3 times the usual price. No problem, this is how they make money. After looking at a menu with no prices, we all ordered one drink for a total of 600 baht. At the end of the evening, the bill showed 1800 baht. Upon questioning the bill a burly woman with an aggressive smell and glow-in-the-dark contact-lenses showed us a piece of paper:

Just show 1000 baht / person
First drink 300 baht
Non-first drink 100 baht

Pure scam. We ended up throwing a total of 1000 baht and then hurrying out.