Walking down the quiet street of Nong Khai at the crack of dawn, I relate its atomosphere to just any rural town in Japan-sea side region. It is not touristy but being the town at the border, there is enough travelers passing through. From the visitor’s point of view, there are not great many things to look at here in Nong Khai. Well, at least Lonely Planet seems to devote most of its section about the town on the listing of the guesthouses, just to show you how much there is to see, well, according to the editors of the guidebook. So it is a spot to have a look at the great Mekong, some temple, and according to the guidebook, some radical artist’s own creative haven? No thanks!
While I was in Ayutthaya, Bee-san and his friends recommended that I visited a famous temple while I’m at Nong Khai. I knew my time there is going to be limited, and while we were talking at the bar in Ayutthaya I did not realise that the temple they were referring to was listed on the guidebook. Wat Hin Wak Peng, now I see on Lonely Planet, is 2 hours away by a public bus from Nong Khai, and is one of the most respected temples in Thailand, with its monks following the most strict of rules to themselves such as eating only once a day, etc. It is apparently a mountain temple with a beautiful scenic drive leading up to it, and ladies are worned to dress ‘respectably’. This is no tourists’ temple out of their tour bus. It is a real saint’s sanctually where only god-fearing followers visit with a humble head bowed low. Sounds great but I just don’t have one day for that trip there. Must add to the to-do list for the next time. As always, I came on this trip on such a short notice. Plus, I refused to read too much about the destinations on the web and other books, so that I can keep it fresh and filled with some surprises. If you spend too much time reading about it, looking at beautiful professional photographs on books before you go for a trip, you tend to get that impression of ‘ah, that’s just like the guidebook’ when you get there. Traveling is all about turning that corner without really knowing what’s waiting for you ahead, and you do turn that corner with all the anticipation and a little bit of worries (that there may be something bad, dangerous, or just a dead end from which you have to walk the way back). So it is a natural consequence that along the way I meet people who recommend this and that place, and often very famous places and sites, on the ‘beaten track’, which I have to just keep aside for the next trip. And I do hope I get that next trip.
So here I was, up again at the crack of dawn, walking down the street with sleepy eyes. I see people having breakfast of noodle soup or porridge at the restaurant around the corner. Tuk tuk driver building the energy for the day. Some eldery group walking slowly on the promenade. The sky is threatening. The rain came late last night with strong wind. But it is not raining now. Maybe it will being to clear up. I walk on the quiet morning street and criss-cross back to the promenade by the Mekong, looking for a giant Buddha on top of a temple building.
As I came up to the temple, I see the young novices sweeping and wiping the pooled water on the street in front of the temple. It is not a good time to visit. So I waited a bit, walked a bit beyond that. I came across a group of about 20 or so aunties and one uncle engaged in a morning excercise, similar to Japan’s traditional ‘radio excercise’ but this one is based on flowing movement like Tai-chi.
The monks slowly started walking back into the temple, so I also walked slowly back. It looks like they are having a breakfast in the back, so I said a bit loud so they hear me, with my palms put together in front of my heart centre, ‘sa wat dii khrap. May I walk up to the top?’ and I pointed up to the Buddha. They nod for approval, so I took my shoes off at the bottom of the stairs and went up 2 freight of stairs. The last bits were a bit steep, so if you are a bit uneasy at height like me, be careful on the wet tile after the rainy night. Up at the top, I put my palms together and bowed to the Buddha. He looks young and energetic, looking straight across the border to Laos, as if he is also looking over the well-being of the people on the socialist side.
I walk across the town to visit another temple, and I’m ready for some breakfast.
I check out and ask for a suggestion on how to cross the border. The guesthouse had a map for the centre of Nong Khai, with a boxed section explaining step-by-step how to cross the border. It said:
To go to Laos:
- Take tuk-tuk to Bridge
- Go through Thai Immigration
- Buy bus ticket (20B)
- Wait for bus to arrive
- Get on bus and ride over Friendship Bridge
- Get off bus and buy Laos Visa at 42US$ (a little more expensive in Thai Baht)
- Go through Lao immigration
- Take taxi, Lao bus, or tuk-tuk into Viantiane
The western lady at the reception told me that it would probably cost around 30 to 40 bahts if I took a tuk tuk from the guesthouse to the bridge. She said it is a bit far, though of course it is not impossible to walk. I was prepared to take a tuk tuk for the first time this trip, equipped with the knowledge of the market standard fare. When you travel by tuk tuk or a taxi which are not equipped with a fare metre, you must know the market rate for the trip before you negotiate with the driver. Ask the guesthouse, fellow travellers, or although often outdated, use the information on guidebook as a baseline. Then you discuss the fare with driver, best write it down or show the actual money, to avoid the common mistake of not following their English pronounciation for thirty or thirteen, etc. So I started walking with a small backpack on one shoulder and a daypack on the other. A tuk tuk came my way, hesitant look on the driver’s face. I’m not standing on the road side waiting. I am walking like a determined walker who has no business with a tuk tuk. That’s my habit for staying free from all those tuk tuk drivers slowing down next to me to ask if I need a ride. Be determined and they’ll get the message. But this was not the right time for that gesture and I missed a ride. Another tuk tuk came from behind me but he was carrying vegetables and meat he just bought at the market and was not for service. (How would I know when they do not have ‘engaged’ sign like a street taxi?) A few tuk tuk’s passed like that, and I was already walking probably about 1 kilo-metre. I was guessing it to be around 3-3.5 km walk, so I thought there is no more point in grabbing a ride. Another couple of km’s down I realise that there was a marking saying that the bus station was about 3km from the end of the map. The guesthouse was about 2-3km inside the map. So am I looking at a good 5km walk? Great… but no turning back now! The sky started to break and the sun light started to warm me. Do not walk too fast, you get over-heated. Walk slowly, and you’re okay.
I was looking for the immigration office where I can pay for the Laos visa. Then I came across the bus station. Thai immigration must be another half a mile down. Somebody at the bus station asked me where I was going. I said to cross to Laos but I dont’ have the visa yet. He said I could just get on the bus and pay at the border. I wasn’t sure whether I should trust him. If he was not correct, it is my fault for trusting unofficial source and I end up wasting my limited time. After all, today is a big day for me, with a plan of a walk tour in the centre of Vientiane followed by a bus trip to Luang Prabang, my main destination. I looked at the map the guesthouse gave me again. It says I should go to the Bridge, not the bus station (which was near the immigration I was going to). Then I realised that the Thai immigration office is there for people who want to extend their stay in Thailand. So the bus it is. I paid 20 bahts and got on the next bus to Laos immigration. There were many people waiting so I had to throw my bag in the boot under the bus. The bus first stops at the Thai side of the immigration. I was close to the last to get off the bus and my queue seems to be very slow. Finally I had left Thailand but by that time the bus was full and I see people standing. I was waving at the bus, hoping they would not leave me without a backpack. Luckily they waited for me, and I got in just above the backdoor step. The short trip across the modern bridge brought the day-shoppers and workers and home-goers and one traveler to Laos. The bus switched to the right-hand lane (as Laos drives on the wrong side of the road like Europe and US), went through the spray water that washed the contaminated water from Thailand side (sure, why not! Thailand has no hygiene compared to Laos, right? who knows?) and the bus came to a stop in front of a complex where everyone alighted.
Now I’m looking at the thinner one of my 2 copies of Lonely Planet. Laos guidebook was of August 2007 edition like the Thailand one. It said that US dollar is well respected here and despite very unreasonable exchange rate between the local Kip, Thai Bahts and US dollars (strongly in favour of US dollars), they still offer you far less on US dollars than Thai bahts or often even the local currency of Kip. So before coming here, I had exchanged some Singapore dollar to US $ in Kuala Lumpur where the rate was reasonable. Since I did not expect to have an access to a market where many cash exchangers are competing one another except for my short stay in KL, it was a reasonable thing to do. So I took aside US$30 in my pocket as I approached immigration office.
There are printed papers on the office windows that seem to indicate the steps to go through the customs. But they were actually just confusing and in my opinion not correct, or might have been correct but not updated. I was led to believe, seeing the English signs on the windows, that I pick up a form for visit visa application from one window, go to the next window to submit it, and maybe pay the money at the next window. However, as it turned out, it was correct only as far as the first window was concerned. I filled out the arrival card (make sure you bring a pen, or you can buy one – no free pen, according to the sign) and went back to the office, only to be told to ‘go inside’. That’s what the guy said in English. Okay… but there is no public entry to the office and I didn’t want to be arrested. And then I found out, I think I asked somebody, that I should just go through immigration normally. So I joined the queue, just like you would at any border, submitted my passport with the arrival form, and they stamped my arrival on the passport. Hmm… so where do I pay for the visa? US$30 right? I’m holding on to my 20 and 10 notes in my right pocket. But I already got my arrival stamp on my passport. I’m in Laos already. What’s going on? Then came a desk, quite like one of those temporary information desk, with its folding leg table set up for arriving guest. But there I read a sign ‘Entry Fee’. The guy is sitting with stuck of coins in front of him. He said whatever kip. I don’t have Laos Kip yet. Not exchanged. Only fools exchange at airports and borders with their ridiculous charges. I asked ‘US dollars?’ and the guy looked puzzled. O-oh… something is not quite what I expected here. Then I asked ‘Thai bahts’? He says ’15 bahts’. 15 bahts. 15 bahts??? Man, that’s cheap! I pulled out coins from my pocket, picked a 10 and a 5, and he took the money and let me go. That’s like what, US 50 cents??? Something happened in the last one and a half year or perhaps 2 years since the guidebook collected information. Some radical change happened here. But now I’m looking at the map from guesthouse as I’m typing this at home, even that map said it was US$42 (the entry fee was different depending on the country of your origin – ranging from 30 to 45 dollars or something). So why did I pay only 15 bahts? The guy at the entry fee desk was not very good with currency exchange? But then again, it didn’t look like I was the only one paying it in Thai Bahts. Never mind. The guidebook had an old info. Nothing new. I got off the hook with the small sum of the leftover Thai currency, and I was okay with that.
Some men standing there offered for a taxi, but I said I wanted a bus. The guys pointed at a mini bus there, and I went over to talk to the conductor and asked how much it was in Thai bahts. 25 bahts, he says. Fine by me. I got inside the bus which was already close to full, and found the last remaining seat. A few more people got on board, with some sitting on the floor between seats, and the bus got on its way. I am now in Laos. It doesn’t feel scary. The bus looks pretty normal apart from their own sense of what ‘full’ is. I am excited about this nation I’ve never visited before.