Today I renewed my 30-day tourist visa. I will need to do this 10 more times over the course of the year unless by some miracle the Lao government processes my work visa before my departure date next July. I won’t hold my breath because the last group of fellows never received theirs, which means monthly land crossings to Thailand or an international flight. I could choose to see this an a great burden or as an obligation to take a monthly weekend getaway. I can’t believe that I’ve lived for a month in a place that most people will never get to experience. Those who do by and large only stay for a few weeks. I’m overwhelmed at both how little I seem to have accomplished and how much I’ve learned about the language and people of Laos.
Two weeks ago a group of fellows went to the US Embassy to withdraw Thai Baht to use to purchase our multi-entry visas. I wrote a letter authorizing another fellow to cash my check and withdrew $450 in Thai Baht for my roommates and me to pay for Thai visas, which miraculously worked. She gave me a wad of colorful bills and my roommate electronically transferred me their share.
The Embassy had written us letters asking the Kingdom of Thailand to grant us 6 month multi-entry visas so we could make up to 5 visa runs to Thailand before having to re-up. Typically one can only extend a tourist visa to Thailand to 90 days. This Lao visa problem is very common and lots of international volunteers, teachers and NGO employees have to leave and come back every month.
Last week we all met at the American Center and the motor pool from the Embassy picked us up to take us to the Thai Embassy where we waited in a long line, filled out paper work, copied our passports, cut down our passport photos from squares to small rectangles, signed on the dotted line, handed over our $150 worth of Baht with our passports and hoped they returned safe and sound with the correct shiny sticker inside. (They did.)
Click on the image to see more photos in the slide show.
Today the motor pool picked us up at the American Center and drove us to the Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge, which opened in 1994 making driving over the lower Mekong River possible. We stopped on the Lao side, filled out departure papers, waited for our driver to give us the go ahead and got back in the van.
Laos was a French protectorate. They drive on the right like in the US. And while Thailand was never colonized there is a heavy British influence as well a heavy Japanese one. All three countries drive on the left. We drove over the Friendship Bridge in our right-sided van on the left side of the road. I am impressed with our driver's versatility and skills. We waited in another line on the Thai side in the city of Nong Khai to get an entry stamp to go with our snazzy new visas and determined that Thai script is less beautiful and more harshly written than Lao, though it felt familiar as there is a 30% overlap between the languages.
Not wanting to simply turn around and come directly back to Laos, we went where any good Americans would spend a day: shopping. First stop: Makro, the Costco of Thailand. The best part: FREE SAMPLES! I tried two types of coffee, noodle soup, and a frozen omelet over rice. We bought Oreos and pasta, three industrial sized rolls of TP, marinara sauce, peanut butter, chicken nuggets, an enormous bag of shredded mozzarella and roller ball deodorant. (I’ve only found the spray kind in Laos.) Did we go over board? Yes. Could we have found these things in Laos? Maybe, but they would have cost a bit more and we would have had fewer options. At one point while in the cookie aisle, I got trapped between ropes warning customers not to enter the aisle while the forklift was in use. No one thought to warn me or usher me out of the area. After a month of relatively fewer choices, smaller stores and less florescent lighting and blatant commercialism, a wall of televisions and 50 types of shampoo felt overwhelming. My roommates and I bought about $100 worth of stuff and received a largely useless 2 foot long receipt written exclusively in Thai.
Click on the image to see more photos in the slide show.
Next stop: the mall. Highlights included Dunkin Donuts’ impressive display of stinky durian flavored pastries, the “American Store” which sold confederate flags, camo, leather vests and combat boots, and a kiosk selling jars filled with contact solution and single contacts to change brown eyes to the most unnatural greens, blues and purples.
At the boarder crossing back to Laos we filled out more paperwork and submitted a passport photo. I had one left from 2013 when I had short, blonde hair. Another fellow commented I looked like Eminem’s Slim Shady. While the regulations state the picture must be from the past 6 months I figured I’d try it. I took my bleach blonde photo my $35 USD and my paperwork to the counter. The customs officer looked at it, looked at my passport, looked at me, back at my passport and ca-chink, stapled the photo to the middle of the paperwork, passed my passport to his colleague and ushered me down to the next window. Success.
My passport is only two years old, but it’s already half full. Each month an entire page will be taken up with a Lao visa. One page is taken up with my Thai visa and each trip requires another full page of stamps, an exit and entrance to each country. If I go to Cambodia, Vietnam, China, Malaysia and Myanmar on visa runs as I hope to, at some point this year I’m going to have renew my passport and start again. A new letter to the Kingdom of Thailand from the US embassy, a new page for each visa, an international trip every month. A new adventure every 30 days.