Life in the Greater Mekong Region of Southeast Asia
Thursday, July 17, 2008
Descending to Bangkok
My cold struck in full force on Wednesday, so I left work early and crashed. Today is a holiday - the start of the three month rainy season retreat, known as the Buddhist Lent. I had wanted to wake up early in the morning and go to That Bhat,make offerings to the monks, but I just couldn't move and even thought about postponing the trip. Then I drank some water and my tooth twinged so I decided I would have to go.
The trip Vientiane to Bangkok by air can be simple and expensive, or complicated and less expensive. In the past, a roundtrip ticket Vte to Bangkok was not that expensive, maybe 200 USD (and sometimes cheaper if there was a special) and since I live near the airport, it's not that difficult to get over there, check in and have some coffee and relax. Now the plane fare has doubled.
So the complicated and less expensive route by air - which only happened because there are so many people traveling by train on this four day weekend that there were no seats available and I didn't want to go by overnight bus - is to get over to Nong Khai. One method involves getting on the new Lao - Thai cross border buses which fill up on weekends and holidays, especially going to Udorn, so you have to get there several hours beforehand. Or what I did was to take a tuk-tuk to the bridge; took about 45 minutes because it sounded like it was about to give out when it didn't sound like it was going to blow up/
Then, there's getting through the immigration lines. Lao can cross over to Nong Khai if they have border passes, which they should check and make sure are current. Usually, I get stuck in a line where someone's border pass has expired. When I see the person's head stuck through the open window of the immigration box, I move myself to the next line over. Only had to do that once.
After this, there's making the actual crossing. The Thai buses, which I have a picture of from two weeks ago, are regular buses. The Lao buses are 25 passenger tour buses, in poor repair. Once 50 people have gotten on, the bus leaves. It's no problem really, since the trip across the river is just five minutes. Once there, there are the lines and getting the visa on arrival on the Thai side. In the past, that goes quickly - but now that they are using barcode scanners on passports, it takes longer. The Lao with border passes are supposed to have a photocopy of their border pass and have their entry cards filled out in English. Guess what doesn't happen very often.
There are buses that go from the Thai Airways office to Udorn so I usually try to get there early enough to get a seat. I took a taxi from the bridge and the man gave me a low price - then he tried to convince me to let him drive me to Udorn. "We have enough time, I can show you sightseeing," he insisted. I got off at the Thai office, got my ticket and ate the curry shop next to it.
The curry shop has been spiffed up - they have a flat screen TV on the wall with the Thai news on. And since the last time I made this trip (maybe two years), they have remodeled the restaurant with light green tile floors, a series of fountains in the front, and a new serving table with all the curries in sparkling stainless-steel pans. One woman spoke to me in English when I ordered so I talked with her for a while. She admitted that she had studied English in Australia - she had gotten her Master's Degree there. She was embarrassed when she further admitted that now the only work she can find is with her relative's restaurant. Will have to fly again so I can get more of the story in the future.
Udorn Thani airport had not changed between the times I used to work doing refugee screening in 1989 -90 and when I returned to work in Laos. This airport was the jumping off site for Air America flights to Vientiane and Long Cheng, the center of the secret war. I remember several old buildings from those days around the airport. However, since this airport was never made into a UNESCO world heritage site, they remodeled it a few years ago, and put in an international departures and arrival area. I think there are flights to Vietnam now.
My story is nearly over. I sat in the airport, go on the plane and arrived in Bangkok, at the old Don Meuang Airport. This was very strange - Don Meuang had been closed when the flashy new Suvarnabhumi Airport was opened. However, what with cracks in one of the runways (the new airport is built on a swamp, after all) and problems with handling the number of flights, several carriers re-started domestic flights in and out of Don Meuang. It was strange seeing hardly any planes around the terminal buildings and the buildings themselves felt empty, like there were ghosts waiting in the corners.
The picture above is of vegetable and rice fields in the area north of Don Meuang, as the plane was landing.
New scenes are these new housing developments which are extending the edge of the city:
Finally, at the end of the long day's trip (left my house at 9 am, left the office at 10 and arrived at 5 pm), I was able to lie down and watch the sunset, and start to nod off. Until I began sneezing and had to run across the street to the Seven-Eleven to get a box of tissues and drinking water.