When I woke up at 3.30 am this morning, had I been told of the drama that would unfold at the Thailand border near Lao DPR I may have returned to the one near the Myanmar border! In a journey like this it is such uncertainties that make it exciting in the end. But when it happens it sends shivers. Since breakfast was not included in hotel stay plan I had the option of leaving any time I wanted. I was on the road by 4.30 am. Last evening I had spent considerable time writing out the route and the deviations for bye passes. I had bought a sim card in Thailand hoping that it would help me connect up with Google Maps. But it refused to activate. Hence, using the WiFi in the hotel I sought directions from the Sukhothai hotel to the Vientiane hotel. I used the download to travel from one to the other without any problem.
Right from Sukhothai road conditions remained excellent all through, barring a few stretches that were under repair. Road warnings and precautions taken by the construction company, to ensure that road users get advance information of the road condition, are something that the NHAI should learn from. Major part of the journey was through dense forests on either side of the road. National parks are many and so are waterfalls. Signages placed by the tourism authority also call attention to fossil parks and a dinosaur park. Nearly 300 kms were done when I made the first stop for fuelling at 8 am. Continuous driving it was for three and half hours. The traffic on the road was hardly any and I did not feel any strain behind the wheel. Most of the big fuel stations have convenience stores and restaurants attached to them. Seven Eleven is almost in all of them. I found a vendor selling Bao, stuffed rice cake, at the car park. It was steaming hot and I bought two of them to satisfy the breakfast requirement. It was stuffed with meat and tasted fantastic; more so since it cost just 10 THB – less than Rs. 20.
At the pace at which I was progressing it was reasonable to expect to be in Vientiane by noon, if all went well at the borders. Without any hiccups I reached Nong Khai, the Thai border at 11 am. Considering what I had experienced at Mae Sod, the border near Myanmar, I expected the clearance to be fast here. I was only apprehensive about Lao DPR. One of the major problems at the borders of these countries is that very few speak even broken English and one has to rely on gestures and facial expressions. Pride and ego must be fastened to your seat belt or else it can get you into problems that get compounded. I handed over my passport at the immigration counter along with the document given by Customs in Mae Sod and the Carnet to prove that I am travelling by personal car. They asked me for a document that proved immigration clearance at Mae Sod for the car! They had a whole bunch of them in front of them and I knew that they were asking for what is due. When I told them that the Immigration in Mae Sod had not given one to me, one of the supervisors asked me to return to Mae Sod and fetch one, without which he said he cannot let me pass. I pleaded like I had never in my life. Later he took me to his boss who repeated what his subordinate said. I was in a flap, especially since I didn’t even have anyone to seek advice from. What the supervisor was asking me to do was to drive nearly 700 kms each way, without any assurance that the Immigration in Mae Sod would help me! I was sweating from the climate as well as the impossible demand of the supervisor when a Guardian Angel appeared to help me out of the trouble.
Lt. Col. Pariwat Satchapan, Inspector of Investigative Sector, Nong Khai Immigration summoned me and listened to what I had to say. He mentioned that I had violated a fundamental requirement for importing vhicles into Thailand and that I would have to pay a fine in case I did not want to go back to Mae Sod. I clutched at that straw. The fine was to be THB 8000, about $250. I had no option and I readily agreed. Satchapan was extremely well behaved and understanding, given the circumstances. He helped me fill out the forms and pay the fine, which he reduced to THB 4000 when I told him that I am a retired civil servant from India! He reiterated that I must get the Immigration document for the car the next time I entered Thailand to avoid hassles. When all this was going on I gave him a copy of my book and a key chain, and that impressed Satchapan further. He wished me well, before I went in search of the Customs department. No one knew what to do with the Carnet. Someone finally asked me to go to room 15A in the complex. I sought it out and in sat a serious guy dealing with another passenger. I could not follow what they said but I knew that the passenger was having a tough time, going by the number of times he folded his hands in surrender! But, when my turn came he handled the Carnet without a question and asked why I was travelling alone. He asked if I had a girl in Lao DPR!
The guy manning the road barrier asked for another document when I drove the car to pass through. I had to park once again and convince a bunch of them that I did not need any as I had the Carnet done. Finally, after nearly ninety minutes, at the Thai border I drove on to the Laos-Thai Friendship Bridge, which is a rail cum road bridge, with the rail track at the centre of the road.
The experience on the Lao DPR side was smoother. I asked the Immigration counter if I needed any document for the car and he replied in the negative. The lady at the Customs booth did the Carnet requirement quickly too. Then I thought of car insurance and went in search of a company that would do it. After visiting a couple of company offices in the premises I gave up the hunt and decided to face the risk. Then I went to the money changer and felt rich all of a sudden. I was given 1.62 million Kips for $200! It was difficult to stuff that into the pocket.
From the border post I had to once again shift to driving on the right side of the road. I drove slowly to the Vientiane Garden Hotel without any further hassle and reached there by 1.45 pm. A smiling and pleasant girl at the front desk showed me to the room. I was famished by the time and walked to Ray’s Grille, round the corner, and ordered Namkhong beer and Chicken Quesadilla, which is basically a stuffed chappati, the filling being chunks of chicken, bacon, onions and cheddar cheese served with salsa. The cold beer was refreshing and the quesadilla was filling. I had only one agenda thereafter – sleep.
By the time I woke up late in the evening it was time to walk to the night market. It seemed as if everyone in Vientiane came to the Mekong River front to spend their late evenings. The River is shrivelled at this time of the year. Large numbers were involved in community aerobics in groups guided by young fit girls and done to loud music. The night market was one to experience. There were stalls and more stalls. On display were clothes for all, perfumes, leather, local handicraft and food. Most of the items were light on the purse; for instance, good quality shirts were available for 20,000 Kips, almost Rs. 150. I have every intention of picking up a couple tomorrow. From one of the stalls I ordered what the girl told me is ice cream. Well, it was ice and cream. Two types of syrup on crushed ice in a large cup, like an ice gola, gratings and cubes of coconut and fruits and topped with coloured sabudana were the major ingredients. Over it came a large helping of Milkmaid. To say that I loved it would be an understatement.
On the way back to the hotel I bought a bottle of Beer Lao from one of the stores, which is given as a must drink in travel magazines. After a shower and the beer I felt like a massage to relax the tensed limbs. There are massage parlours all over. The closest to the hotel is the Kim’s massage parlour. I went in for an hour of relaxing body massage. All through the session the giggly girl, Won, kept telling me that oil massage is very good there. The massage kindled hunger and I walked into a noodle shop. Only two items are available – either the big bowl or the small bowl. I settled for the small bowl, served with leafy vegetables. Glass noodles in soup with chicken and meat balls and steamed vegetables was a wholesome fare. I tossed in some chilly to spice it up.