Thursday, May 31, 2012

From Bangkok to Laos and Back Again: Few Thrills, A Few Surprises

Say what they will about Bangkok's insane bumper-to-bumper traffic -- and everyone who's experienced it has -- but being stuck in the middle of it is a lot easier to handle when it's not costing you a small fortune. That's one of the reasons why, despite its traffic-jammed streets, I love Bangkok anyway. Like New York City and Buenos Aires in the past, and Melbourne in the present, every time I leave, I can’t wait to return.

Thankfully, driving (as a passenger, or behind the wheel) isn't the only option here in BKK. If you have all the time in the world, a high tolerance to the year-round summer sun and walking shoes suitable for climbing overhead pathways from one side of the street to the other, off-the-road transportation in Bangkok is not only cheap, but it's a easy, too. For those staying in certain neighborhoods (in my case, Sathorn), most everything you need is within walking distance. If not, the public transportation system is excellent and, like the taxis, air conditioned!

Leave the capital and venture to Phuket, Pattaya, Koh Chang, or Vientiane in Laos (that's pronounced with a silent S, by the way, like Illinois, befitting the landlocked country's French heritage), and you'll be at the mercy of drivers trying to charge at least 150 baht (US$5) for the honor of riding in a rickety tuk-tuk to get from point A to point B, regardless of the distance between them. (I've successfully bartered down the rates on occasion, but who needs that kind of hassle every time you flag down a ride?) That's one-third of the roughly 400 to 500 baht it costs to take a taxi 25 kilometers from Bangkok's city center to Suvarnabhumi Airport -- AC and tolls included (in the taxi, not the tuk-tuks)!

In Vientiane (or Vien Tiane, as it's written on some road signs), I was shocked by how much tuk-tuk and taxi drivers were certain tourists would be willing to pay to not have to travel on foot. My taxi driver charged me 500 baht ($17) for the six-or-so-kilometer round trip (plus one-hour waiting time) to go from the City Inn Vientiane in the center of town, several blocks from the Mekong River, to the Royal Thai Embassy to renew my visa. Last summer in Siem Reap, Cambodia, my tuk-tuk driver only expected half that much to spend half of the morning and half of the afternoon taking me from temple to temple. Our van driver/tour guide in Chiangmai only charged us 100 baht more -- and he was with us from 11am to nearly sundown!

As I was griping on the inside over how much I'd just spent to go such a short distance, I realized that the taxi and tuk-tuk drivers in Vientiane depend on suckers like me who are making visa runs there because, really, there isn't any other discernible reason that I can see for laying one's hat in Vientiane and not the considerably better-reviewed Luang Prabang, which is deeper into Laos and therefore not as accessible to budget-minded visa runners. If you're set on Vientiane, be warned that booking a three-star hotel in the city center on Agoda will set you back US$25 to US$60 for basic amenities on par with two-star Bangkok accommodations.

When I arrived at my first hotel, City Inn Vientiane, for day one of my Laos adventure, and I saw a poster with a man-made lake at the top of the list of must-do Vientiane tourist activities, I knew I wasn't in for a visual feast (unlike what I encountered last summer in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh, of which the Laos capital reminded me architecturally). That's not to say that inflated hotel and transportation rates aside, traveling to Vientiane from Bangkok can't still be a somewhat interesting and enlightening experience. Here are five things I learned in three and a half days that I totally wasn't expecting.
Chao Anouvong Statue

1. Overnight sleeper trains can be kind of cool. Though I could have lived without the border control/Immigration portion of the journey and the various fees involved (as a U.S. citizen, I had to pay 1,500 baht for an on-entry Laos visa -- in addition to 500 baht for overstaying my 90-day non-immigrant Thai visa by one day), the actual train rides to and from Vientiane in the second-class sleeper car (758 baht, each way) were not only surprisingly comfortable (more so than that twin bed at the Family Hotel in Vientiane), but they seemed like a lot less than 15 hours.

That will happen when you spend most of the journey sleeping relatively soundly, which might be why I wasn't completely annoyed that both trips were scheduled by the State Railway of Thailand as being only 12 hours. And thank God for considerate fellow passengers: Fabrice, the French guy sitting across from me (and sleeping over me), waited until the last hour or so of the ride to befriend me. This, chatty travelers, is how you do it. Bonus props for the unexpected two-bar Wi-Fi in the Nong Khai train station, on the Thailand side of the border.

All that said, now that I’ve crossed “Ride a Thai train” off my travel bucket list, I never have to do it again.

2. They drive on the right side (the right side) of the road. Which means that if I ever completely surprise myself and decide to move to Laos, I might actually consider getting behind the wheel of a car again.

3. People speak English there. Somebody in Bangkok explained it to me: Since Thailand is the only Southeast Asian country never to be colonized by France, the UK or some other imperialistic power, learning English was never compulsory for its citizens. That would explain why so many people in the countries formerly known as Indochina, all of which are far less developed and tourist-heavy than Thailand, have a rudimentary grasp of English, while hardly anybody seems to in Thailand. It's also why the guy who checked me into the Family Hotel for day two in Vientiane was able to immediately disarm me with his familiarity.

"I love your skin," he said stroking my forearm. "It's so nice. I wish I had skin like that."

Alright, then.

4. Despite the proximity of the countries, people in Laos are quite distinct from people in Thailand. It's easy to take for granted the warm, borderline obsequious nature of locals in Thailand when you spend three months straight being charmed by them. And then you leave, and people go back to being normal. Although the locals I encountered in Vientiane were, for the most part, perfectly polite, the hotel employee was an aberration from the norm, which was prompt service but not necessarily with much of a smile.

5. Still, a Lao massage feels a lot like a Thai one... only with far less pain involved (the kind that supposedly hurts so good, but not for me). You really can't go wrong when you're spending 580 baht ($19) on a two-hour treatment that includes a full-body massage, hot compresses and no hands creeping dangerously close to should-be-off-limits places. But what was the guy who checked me into my hotel -- and checked me out there as well -- doing working the receptionist desk at the massage spa, too?

At least he gave me the type of happy ending ("Good-bye" and nothing more) that I always find perfectly acceptable -- in any country.
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