Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Laos was not a good time.

After finishing the previous blog entry, I went to meet up with the Thai girls to get ready for our 6:00 PM bus to Vientiane. I had noticed that the latest bus on all of the schedules posted at all of the guesthouses was 1:30, which I thought was strange, but I supposed there was some sort of non-tourist bus or something.

We got to the place where the girls had asked about the bus information, which was called Riverside Tours. The woman working there told us that the tuk-tuk would arrive at around 6:00. Buses often run late, especially if this one was coming from Luang Prabang, so I didn't think anything of it. We got dinner across the street, and then headed back to wait for the tuk-tuk.

The driver charged us 10,000 kip/person to take us to the bus station, only instead of taking us to the bus station, he took us to a point just beyond the old airstrip, which is perhaps a three- to five-minute walk from Riverside Tours. And then he just asked for payment without any shame whatsoever, saying that the bus would pass this way, so it doesn't make sense to take us all the way to the bus stop since we'd just have to come back anyway.

That makes no sense, because even if it would be backtracking, it still makes more sense to get your tickets and have your seats assigned at the bus stop than wait for the last, crappiest seats that happen to be available when the bus rolls around randomly to pick you up. I should have spit in a 1,000 kip note and thrown it on the tuk-tuk floor because that is as much payment as he deserved.

The place that we stopped at is a family owned haircut place that also sells snacks and drinks. The owner says that the bus is delayed and will be there around 8:00. It is only 6:15 or so. At this point, I'm thinking, "Ok, this bus does not exist, and they're saying 8:00, because by then it will be dark, and they will try to charge us for another tuk-tuk ride back into town."


Do you know how long two hours is to sit and stew over being lied to? Can you imagine how incredibly pissed off and righteous you get in that amount of time? Believe me, the thoughts in my head could have given the best Bible Belt fire-and-brimstone minister a run for his money.

I had a flashlight with me, so we did not need a tuk-tuk ride back into town, and when the lady at Riverside Tours saw us, she just smiled without any shame whatsoever. And here's the thing - Thais smile no matter what. They smile when they're happy and when they're pissed. I bet they even smile when they're constipated. And these girls were pissed. But all they did was smile and say, "There was no bus!" I am not Thai. I gave this woman a dirty look and told a foreign couple who was asking about tours there that the place was a scam.

I had actually planned to stand outside and yell in the four languages that I speak about the place being staffed by liars for the rest of the night, but there were only ever 4-8 people within 50 meters in any direction of this place at any given time, so that would have been unnecessarily crazy.

Granted, I realize there are far worse scams out there, but in terms of my personal experience, this was the only time I was outright lied to (as opposed to just overcharged), and in a way that could potentially have serious consequences. (What if we had a flight from Vientiane the next morning?) She just had absolutely no regard for the effects of her actions, and for what, 30,000 kip? That's not even $4. It's not even a good scam; she should be ashamed even by scam standards.

The worst part about what she did is that whenever I think of Laos, I will think of her and how pissed I was that she arranged for a tuk-tuk to take us barely out of town to wait two hours for a non-existent bus. Not that I expect her pea brain to understand that the way you treat foreigners is not only a reflection of you, it is a reflection of your people and of your country. And my memory of Laos will forever have a negative tint. Because of her. I hope she's proud of herself. Selling out her country's image for 30,000 kip.

So yeah, Riverside Tours Laos in Vang Vieng is staffed by liars. I hate them. And their stupid fluffy dogs. They lie with their eyes.

So we set off to find a room. I was not aware of this due to my feverish state, but apparently the guesthouse that we had stayed at the night before (something Orchid Guesthouse) was not very nice - the towels were not fresh and the air conditioning barely worked. We went to Popular View Guesthouse, where a 3-bed room was 700 baht, or roughly 186,000 kip. The room was much nicer, the towels were clean, as was the bedding, and the air conditioning worked normally. However, this is not an expense we would have had to pay had we actually been in Vientiane, since we would have stayed with the girls' friend.

We went out to check out the local market on the airstrip, which we had passed on our walk back from our waiting point, and it was very much like the arcade in Cambodia with darts and balloons and a giant inflatable slide for kids. They also had bingo. The darts were much harder though, because you had to decide what you were playing for ahead of time, which would determine how much you had to pay for three darts. Then, regardless of what you're playing for, you have to make it all three times. So if you're playing for a silly keychain, you only pay 2,000 kip, whereas if you're playing for a large stuffed animal, you pay 15,000 kip, but no matter what, you have to hit three balloons with three darts to win.

After that, we had some snacks at a local restaurant and went back to the guesthouse. On the way back, I gave the Riverside Tours lady a cold stare and she had the gall to stare back. Seriously. No shame. Like you're going to pretend that I did something wrong? I don't think so.

The next morning, we took a minivan into Vientiane, which cost 70,000 kip and came to pick us up at the guesthouse, which was nice, especially since we were the first stop. We saw an accident on the way there, in which a big cargo type truck was sideways, after which the driver noticeably stuck more to his lane for the hairpin turns where you can't see oncoming traffic at all.

The minivan dropped us off... somewhere... in the city, and we took a tuk-tuk with a whole bunch of other Thais to some market to go meet the girls' friend. The four of us then had lunch, after which I took a nap at the friend's place while the girls went to visit some gate that is supposed to be like the Arc de Triomphe I suppose, only looks nothing like it.

We then took a tuk-tuk to the Friendship Bridge for 80 baht each (four people total), and went through Lao immigration. There is an "overtime" fee if you arrive after 4:00 PM of 9,000 kip, which I believe applies to weekends as well. Fa (one of the girls) really wanted to go duty-free shopping, but unluckily, the stores were closing just as we arrived (around 5:00 PM). There were two open though, so they were able to stock up on "Johnnie Lao." (It's packaged and sold as "Johnnie Walker" but believe me, something about the packaging is just off, though it's hard to pinpoint what exactly.)

The bus from here to Nong Khai is 4,000 kip and takes maybe 10 minutes.

From the Nong Khai immigration point to the Nong Khai bus station, we took a minivan, but I forget how much it was. Something between 20 and 40 baht.

We got tickets for a bus going to Bangkok for 350 baht each, which is ridiculously cheap, but it was a very simple seated bus that stopped at every bus station imaginable, so we didn't arrive until 8:30 or so this morning.

From there, I took a taxi from the actual taxi stand. It turns out the lanes don't mean anything. They're just separate lines, but not split by destination region or anything like that. Just pick a line and wait there. From my observation, the third one gets the most action, so that might be your best bet.

Now I am back at Sergio's, where I stayed before I went to Chiang Mai, and it's nice to meet up with the same people again. Even the receptionist recognized me and practically threw me his key. The taxi driver circled around this place three or four times because he could not figure out how to get on the right side of the road to make the turn, but he made it eventually. This place is pretty far east of the city center, and very far from Mo Chit, and the fare (even with the circling) was 150 baht. If I had taken a taxi to the metro and then a bus from there, it would have been cheaper, but not worth the hassle after an overnight bus ride where I didn't get much sleep. Plus I have a lot of baht left over that I can afford to spend.

I have a follower from Iceland! How cool is that?

Monday, May 16, 2011

I'm not dying. Don't call the embassy.

So yesterday, I woke up around 6:30 to meet the Thai girls in the lobby at 7:00. We got a tuk-tuk for 10,000 kip/person to take us to the bus station, where the cheapest bus to Vang Vieng was 130,000 kip. It’s the same price if you take it all the way to Vientiane, but really only tourists go to Vang Vieng, so you can just think of it as a tourist tax.

The announcer guy at the bus station was really funny, although unintentionally so (I think). He was super dramatic. It was like listening to Gob. "Please. Get On The Bus Now. Because. The Bus Will Leave. In Fifteen Minutes."

The bus ride was fine at first, what with yielding to elephants and seeing people either living out of an old train car or using it as a furnace for something, but after several hours, the extremely winding and bumpy road makes you very aware that your brain is smashing against the walls of your skull. Repeatedly. I should’ve worn my helmet. The seats were surprisingly comfortable though and didn't make my ass hurt after an hour.

We stopped for lunch, which is included in the price of the ticket, and I got some noodle soup with beef while the girls had stir-fried stuff with rice, and we all got some ice cream after (5,000 kip for a small cup).

Ice cream is a good example of the point I was making earlier. At first I asked how much this really good cone ice cream was, with like peanuts and frozen fudge and everything, and they told me 15,000 kip. This exact same ice cream cost 15,000 dong and that was in Hoi An, where everything is priced for tourists. Same number, but very different value.

Then it was back to the bus for the rest of the trip, which thankfully, was almost over. We arrived at a new bus stop in Vang Vieng, so it is not walking distance from the main street. The tuk-tuk into town was 10,000 kip/person as well, and they put everyone’s luggage on the roof.

The girls asked for the price of a room at the guesthouse where we stopped, and it was 125,000 kip for all of us for a room with a balcony and air conditioning, which is not bad at all. It pays to have them ask in Thai, otherwise I’m sure the price would have been much more expensive. In general, it seems like they have no trouble with communication whatsoever. I don't know if this is because everyone here speaks Thai because of tourism or because they're linguistically very close.

We slept for a few hours, throughout which my brain was pounding from its intimate ordeal with my skull, and by the time the girls were ready to go out for dinner, I was running a pretty bad fever, was really dizzy, and kept wanting to throw up (which later I did). So that was not fun.

I hate being sick. Plus, when I’m sick, I always think everything is worse than it really is, so part of me is like, “CALL THE EMBASSY I NEED TO BE AIRLIFTED TO THE STATES FOR EMERGENCY MEDICAL ATTENTION.” And the other part of me is like, “… Well… ok, yeah, let’s do that.” In the end though, being sick and pukey and dizzy means you’re not going to look up the number for the embassy and then call them. It means you are going to stay in bed and mumble incoherent things.

During my fever, I had a dream that I got a contract to write a book about navy warships in connection with Yale Associated Press (does such an organization even exist?) but I thought I was supposed to write about these cartoon guys that LIVED on a navy warship, so I kept going, “Can’t I just write about the Weebles?” Sometimes you just want to write about the Weebles.

So I stayed in bed all day, and the girls brought me back some fried rice and orange juice, which I had asked them to but simply could not stomach. One sip of the orange juice made me dry heave, and solid food was just not possible.

It's a good thing there's only wifi in the lobby and not in the rooms at our guesthouse, because if I had had access to the internet, I would have been all, "CALL THE EMBASSY I'M DYING."

I do feel much better today though. We are leaving tonight for Vientiane (which is a much shorter ride, thank god), where the girls have a friend, so we are staying with them, and then tomorrow night, we will leave for Bangkok, and then I fly back to China, although given the state of things, this is not really a sad moment for me.

I was going to go to the tubing area to watch people be drunk and almost kill themselves, but I need to meet the girls in the guesthouse lobby at four, and it's already three, I'm really comfortable at this place where I had lunch and has free wifi, and I'm also somewhat afraid drunk people will hurl me onto sharp rocks and then I might actually die. People seem to be very comfortable with picking me up and dragging me around. Not that it happens often, but the fact that it happens at all is kind of strange. Plus I should just come back when I am in a condition to participate in said tubing. Maybe skip the killing myself part though.