A new routine in my lifestyle abroad is going on monthly visa runs – a phenomenon that, as far as I can tell, is unique to Southeast Asia. As expats in the area know, visa runs are a short departure from the country in order to “reset” the duration of your stay. Tourist visas typically last one month and countries in this region lack the “90-day rule,” unlike many other parts of the world, so leaving for even an hour allows you to get a new visa on the way back. Our work visas will be issued by the Lao government at some unknown date, but until then, every month we will hop across the Mekong to Thailand and devote another couple of passport pages to a handful of stamps and a new 30-day visa.
My first such trip was this past weekend. Some of our group opted to cross the Friendship Bridge that connects Thailand and Laos to the border town of Nong Khai for a few minutes while others chose to take advantage of a few vacation days to travel farther. Courtney and I chose an option somewhere in between, spending a night in Udon Thani, a city in the Isan province of Thailand, about 3 hours from Vientiane by bus.
We bought our tickets at the Central Bus Station near Talat Sao – the morning market – and hopped on a bus that took us through a series of checkpoints at the Friendship Bridge. We followed the rest of the passengers, dutifully standing in lines to getting our passports stamped (leaving Laos), getting back on the bus (crossing the bridge), getting our passports stamped again (entering Thailand), and getting back on the bus (straight to Udon Thani). Though the process seemed unnecessarily complicated, it was fairly painless.
Upon arrival in Udon, our bus was swarmed by a horde of tuktuk drivers in faded orange vests, each vying to claim passengers for their vehicles.
“Where you go lady?”
“Bo! Khop chae!”
We repeated the polite refusal we’ve perfected in Vientiane, making our way out of the bus station on foot. Hungry, we were drawn like moths to a flame to the Golden Arches, the Western beacon of familiarity across the world. Ok, well, we hadn’t yet reached the level of homesickness for which McDonald’s is the cure (and hopefully we never will), but still, the familiar logo, along with that of Starbucks and KFC drew us to Central Plaza, a large mall near the station.
Though more reminiscent of the sleek, modern malls in India than the sad malls of Chicago suburbia, Central Plaza was a startling flash of Western brands and consumer culture. The closest to a mall in Laos is the new Vientiane Center, which boasts a few pricey shops aimed at Chinese tourists and the city’s only cinema. The two times I ventured in, the center was deserted but for a few wanderers, none of whom seemed to be actually shopping. Most of the stores were shuttered closed, anyways. Central Plaza, buzzing with activity and familiar stores was almost more stimulation than Courtney and I could handle. On one hand, the mall was comforting in a way that made both Courtney and I feel a little ashamed, but for the most part, it was too busy and overwhelming. After just a month in Vientiane, we have already settled into the laid-back pace of Lao life and Udon Thani with its bustling mall and heavy traffic were a unexpected reminder of Home*.
Courtney and I made our way across town to the more local part of Udon. We fast discovered that the little Lao we know was largely useless in Udon. Minus (albeit useful) numbers and the phrase “bor pen nyang” – which means “no worries” – everything else we said was met with blank stares. Our hostel, BaAn RaRe, was a cute affair, tucked behind a furniture store and bike rental place of the same name. After an ATM run on account of being 11 baht (~$0.33) short for our room, we said hi to our roommate – a chatty older Australian man – and head out for dinner. We walked to the park and lake that are some of only real tourist attractions of note in the city. The park was bustling and we walked past a jazzercise class, giant rubber ducks on the river, and small food stands towards a restaurant suggested by Lonely Planet. Making the mistake of walking down a slightly dimly lit alley, we found ourselves being ambushed by a trio of angry, barking dogs. I panicked and ran, followed shortly by Courtney, and we then celebrated our bite-free survival with a delicious dinner. We agreed, though, that Lao dogs and food are both better, noting amusedly how we already have a sense of loyalty towards our home for the next year.
Despite being shocked by the crowds and cars driving on the opposite side of the road, the next morning we took advantage of our time on the opposite side of the river to access things we couldn’t get in Vientiane. Courtney was told in the States that she needed a root canal, so our first stop was a hospital. We had heard of its efficiency from others in our group, but actually experiencing it firsthand was amazing. The polar opposite of my experiences with the hospital system in America, we waited for less than 10 minutes before Courtney was in the dentist’s chair. She escaped with just a cavity filling and the whole procedure cost her less than $50. USA, take notes. Of course, the best way to celebrate a successful dental procedure was by stopping for Guinnesses at an Irish pub near the hospital. While Beerlao is undoubtedly the best of the Southeast Asian beers, nothing quite compares to Guinness on draft. Back at Central Plaza, we happily munched on sushi and donuts, bought French presses for a tenth of the price compared to in Laos, and treated ourselves to adult coloring books (adult as in advanced coloring pages, not X-rated…**).
We were eager to return to sleepy Vientiane, where we could (somewhat) read ad speak the language, but getting back was a slightly more complicated process. We took a bus to Nong Khai, where a sneaky tuktuk driver quoted us 150 baht for a ride to the Friendship Bridge. Through some haggling that would make my mother proud, we used a broken mishmash of Lao and English to agree on 50 baht. Upon reaching the bridge, the driver tried to assert that we had agreed to 50 baht per person, but after we insisted we had agreed to a lower price, he eventually just drove off. From there, we took a bus over the bridge, got our visas, and then took yet another bus back to the bus station near Talat Sao. Aside from feeling like cattle for most of this process, it was easy – though unnecessarily convoluted once more – and we were thankful to be back home in sleepy Vientiane, which expressed that the feeling was mutual by welcoming us with a gorgeous sunset as we traversed the bridge.
*Home, with a capital H, as in the States, versus home, Laos
** Clarification is provided because Will asked.