Monday, May 25, 2015

Lao Trip 10.4a - Non-Immigrant "O" Visa

Fourth day of my tenth trip to Lao – and my second trip to obtain a one-year Thai visa at Savannakhet – turned out to be one of those great days (actually night) in my favorite country to travel in. Looking back on it, I rank the day up there with the afternoons I met Nuey in 2014 and Nout in 2012.

In the morning, after taking a tuk-tuk to the Thai Consulate, I submitted my required paperwork and application for a new Non-Immigrant “O” Visa, based on marriage to a Thai national. My packet included: application form, two recent passport size/style photos, 5k THB fee, my passport, photocopy of the passport page dated and signed by me, marriage certificate, copy of marriage certificate, copy of my wife’s Thai ID front and back signed by her, and a copy of her house book (tabian bann) dated and signed by her. I was given our marriage certificate back after the receiving official inspected it and compared it against the copy. I would get my passport back and, hopefully, a fresh new one-year visa the next day, in the afternoon.

(pages from my passport, circa 2013, showing what the visa looks like)

I went back to the riverside and checked out another guesthouse in the area. I just didn’t like where I was at, at Nongsoda. This other guesthouse was a nice place, but five dollars more and further away from the riverside vendors where I liked to hang. So, I didn’t follow thru with the place, but as it turns out, I should have and will probably stay here next time I’m in the area. I forgot to write down its name.

On the way back to Nongsoda, I met a guy about my age, Eric from Denmark, who likes to travel in SE Asia on his yearly vacations. He was en route to Vietnam. Oddly, I would by chance meet him again in the same exact spot, hours later.

Back at Nongsoda, I did laundry, showered and changed into clean clothes. Since the guesthouse WiFi didn’t reach into the dungeons where I was staying, I moved out into the common area, the main patio complex where the owners, their help, and visitors hung out. Here, using my “smart phone,” I got caught up on my communications which actually took a while.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Lao Trip 10.3 - Savan

Day Three, I took the southbound bus from Pakxan to Tha Khaek, passing thru Pak Kading, where the Nam Kading hits the Mekong, and Hinboun, where the Nam Hinboun does likewise; both very sizeable rivers.

This bus was better than yesterday’s. At least we had air-con for a while and we made better time, arriving at the Tha Khaek bus station – hey, I remember this place! – while the sun was still high. So, I decided to get on another bus southbound to my ultimate destination of Savannakhet – commonly called “Savan.”

My sense of timing was right on, for we made good time to Savan, despite a tire blow out toward the end of the ride. It wasn’t a puncture; it was an actual rubber blowout.

In Savan, I checked into Nongsoda guesthouse, where I had stayed last year. I got another dumpy room, just like last time; not out of choice, but that’s all that was available. The “inside” rooms are dark, with a window of little use, and often musty-smelling due to mold and mildew. The “outside” rooms are lots better and both the same price. Importantly, the outside rooms have big single beds and the inside rooms have two doubles.

The big plus about Nongsoda is its location. When the Thai Consulate was located riverside, it was just two blocks away. Even though the Thai consulate had moved since the last time I was here, the location of Nongsoda riverside, not far from the riverside vendors and the Savan Khaim Khong, still made it attractive for me to patronize.

After laundry and a shower, I walked out along the upper banks of the Nam Khong and was soon distressed to find that my favorite Savannakhet bar was now diserted and nearly gutted.

My spirits picked-up soon afterwards, however, when I walked past the new Savan Khaim Khong. Apparently, business was good and the family had built a new and bigger bar/restaurant.

Again, I was disheartened to note that the riverside vendors now quit their work early, with no after-dark activity at all. The larger outdoor sukiyaki operation was still functioning, so I had a beer here before moving onto the new Savan Khaim Khong.

The Savan Khaim Khong is a bar, restaurant and karaoke spot, not dissimilar from the floating ones in PL2; just bigger and obviously land-based. I had some good memories of the old Savan Khaim Khong and was curious to see how the new place would match up.

Although there’s not a view of the Mekong at the new establishment, it was nice again to be in an enclosure with so many young people having fun. I did find myself feeling my age. I saw one other Falang in the place, in the company of Thai friends, who looked very much out-of-place. I wondered if I did, too. Starting to doubt myself a little bit, I also wondered if I was now losing my mojo.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Lao Trip 10.2 - To Pakxan

On my second day in Lao, the Thai government warned tropical storm was still nowhere in sight. After a continental breakfast at the Duang Deuane, I checked-out and looked for a tuk-tuk to the southern bus station. I’ve learned to negotiate prices for samlors. When I know I’m not offered a good price from one driver, I can usually find another who will.

The bus ride to Pakxan seemed a lot longer than it really was. I must have been on a third class bus; no air-con, only open windows. Unlike most everyone else, I kept mine wide open and my face on the recipient side of the wind. It was a little like being in a wind tunnel for 3-4 hours, but I enjoyed the scenery as I rode southeast of Vientiane, along the Mekong.

Pakxan has potential, but is hopelessly laid out for tourism. I did what I normally do, by locating myself within walking distance of sizeable water.

After checking into the BK Guesthouse, doing laundry, a shower and chillin’ in some air-conditioning, I walked down to the confluence of the Nam Xan and Mekong rivers.

This area would be the logical tourist center should the city decide to make one. The views are good and it’s far enough from Route 13 to seem pretty pastoral. I found a small eatery on the Nam Xan, with a lone teenage girl tending it, listening to some decent Thai pop. Not seening much in the way of food, I ordered a Beer Lao and ice. The girl apologized that she didn’t have any ice, then took off on her motosai and returned shortly afterwards with nam khong. I thanked her very much:

Kawp jai, la-lai.” (thank you, a lot)

After sundown, I walked back to the guesthouse in the hopes of finding a place serving food. Finding none, I went back to my room, availed myself of the WiFi and regretted not buying food from vendors who periodically came on the bus between Vientiane and Pakxan. A hungry lesson learned.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Lao Trip 10.1b - Vientiane

After stamping out of Thailand, crossing the Mekong into Lao, and purchasing my one-month Lao visa ($45 USD), I was approached by the usual touts for a ride into Vientiane (about a 20-minute ride). Taxis I dismissed without a second thought, but one tuk-tuk driver – Mr. Yen – was so persistent, I gave into him after bargaining an 80k kip ride to 60k; basically ten dollars down to eight.

I checked into the place I’d stayed at a half a year ago – the Douang Deuane (doo-ang dee-wain), fifth floor top; nice room overlooking the center of riverside activity, with a slight view of the Kong.

After my usual freshening-up routine, I walked down the riverside road west to the
Bor Penyang and had a liter of draft Beer Lao while I overlooked the Mekong three flights up. Great views from here and I was early enough to miss the blaring speakers of the aerobic exercisers who set up by the river every late afternoon. I was, of course, too early to see any freelancers.

From the Bor Penyang, I took a samlor to the Sunset Bar, further west along the riverside. The bar/restaurant has a great write-up in the 2000 Lao edition of Lonely Planet, but surprised me a bit by being somewhat of a Falang meeting spot; expats working and married into Vientiane, mostly. They seemed friendly, but had their own group and I wasn’t in it.

I walked back toward the center of town, watched the sun drop over the Mekong and them moved on to another riverside bar/restaurant I hadn’t been in before. This one was most all Lao people and had two musicians playing a lot of Pongsit tunes. It wasn’t long before I was invited over to a table of two Lao guys in their early 30s.

I couldn't help but contrast where I had been, at the Sunset, and wherever I was, now. I don’t mean to be judgmental, as when I’m travelling in a foreign country, the last thing I want to do is hang out with a bunch of Westerners. When I was on the two day slow boat trip down the Mekong two years ago, it couldn’t be avoided and that was OK. But, later, in Luang Prabang, when I would occasionally cross paths with young Falang I’d drank Beer Lao with for two days on the slowboat, they barely acknowledged me.

Westerners – myself included – are somewhat “stand-offish” compared to Thai and Lao people. I’m trying to work on this tendency on my part. Maybe this is why I notice it so much when I see it in others.

The two Lao guys worked at KP Lao and knew English moderately well, which always helps me. After a while, they suggested we go on to a karaoke bar and checked with me a couple of times to see if I was up for it. I indicated I was, feeling safe enough with these guys who had given me their cards, despite previous warnings from my wife not to get too friendly with strangers. They thought better of it and cancelled the karaoke plans and, instead, dropped me off at the Douang Deuane. I hadn’t eaten, so I went over to the Belgian Beer Bar for some food and the day’s last Beer Lao.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Lao Trip 10.1a - To Nong Khai

All my trips out of Thailand (mostly to Lao) involve some preparation. This tenth trip to Lao required more than most.

For one thing, we were still in the middle of building Bann Nah. So, there were things like running out of #3 nails and having to get another box full; authorizing unexpected expenditures; transporting water (both use and drinking); updating the expenditures list; payment of labor; inspections; and, of course, a final end-of-day four 630ml bottle Leo beer drink with our workers.

Then, the other big preparation involved paperwork: getting my new Thai visa application packet together. Last year’s visa was about to expire, so this was to be somewhat of a business trip, just like the one a year ago. Because the packet requirements are less strict at the Thai Savannakhet consulate, I decided to return was in order. This time, I’d make my way a bit differently, via Vientiane, to mix the trip up a bit and see some more of the country I hadn’t seen before.

The day of my departure, I drove our monks to and from binta baht, as I do most every morning. Then, I dealt with some last minute problems with my gaming clan and finally I was off – Thip driving me to the Nong Bua Lamphu bawkasaw (bus station) on her Honda Wave 110i motosai.

We had timed it so that I picked up the bus to Nong Khai, Thailand, on the border not far from Vientiane, in Lao. In the past, I would just take the first bus to Udon Thani and then a bus from there to Nong Khai. This time, although we still ended-up stopping at Udon, being able to stay on the same bus and not having to wait around the Udon bus station was a definite improvement in my travel plans.

Outside Nong Khai, those of us going on to the border transferred to a tuk-tuk. On it, a rather foul-mouthed Canadian made me feel embarrassed to be a North American. He didn’t have a good word to say about anybody and wasn’t the first one of his kind that I had run into, in my travels. I’d characterize the type as unshaven, uncouth, a bar hound and a man of little respect – especially for others. I always hate to cross paths with guys like this. My Bangkok friend Kevin says this type of Expat runs away from problems in their own country, comes to Southeast Asia to escape them, and bring all their baggage along with them.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Bann Nah 19 - Big Storm

It was a late afternoon, after our workers (aka “our special workers” – reference to them being on loan to us from our temple, as well as other reasons) had knocked off for the day and I had provided liquid refreshment in the form of Leo see kuat (four bottles of Leo beer).

I had been allowed back on the premises only after the anti-termite chemical had dried the day before. We sat on a grass mat that had seen better days. On it stood the four 630 ml beer bottles, a small ice chest with ice, ice thongs, glasses, and a coupld of small packs of small pork rinds – an Isaan favorite, especially with beer.

As Lott and Naht spoke together mostly about our “farm house,” I admired the structure at the same time as I gave it a critical eye. I was not alone in this, as I knew our head monk Lungpaw also regularly visited the site, checking the progress on the house and the quality of the work.

Our family and friends were highly critical of Lott and Naht taking so long building our “cabin on stilts.” But, my attitude was that I didn’t care how long it took, as long as it was well built and the workmanship of quality.

I had taken my cue from Lungpaw, actually, who once in a light hearted moment joked with Thip when she had mentioned to him that she wanted our workers to build Bann Nah as if they were building their own homes. Lungpaw corrected her, reminding her of what their homes looked like. No, he said, you want them to build it as if they were building another structure belonging to the wat (temple). And that’s pretty much what has happened.

With these thoughts running through my mind while I checked the house closely, drank my beer and served my friends – occasionally responding to one of their jokes – I kept noticing an area of dark gray/blue on the northwest horizon.

From Bann Nah, you can see out a quarter of a mile in three directions at ground level and many miles/kilometers in all directions, skywards. We’re out in the middle of 9 rai of rice paddies, after all, with many more rice paddies adjacent to ours. The views can be stupendous (like that night of the lunar eclipse the night of Ohpensa, last fall).

That patch of dark gray/blue kept slowly getting bigger, but there was no air being pushed our way from its direction, so I didn’t think much of it. Only later did I realize that big Isaan storms don’t push as much air our as much as it sucks it into its vortex – much like a tornado.

There was a point reached when it was obvious that whatever was out there was heading our way.

Fone toke (rain),” Lott said; Naht nodding, as we could now see the electrical storms lighting up the insides of the gray/blue.

We finished our beers – no rush or quick gulps, just steady pulls – then packed up what remained and moved out. Again, there were no quick movements or hurry. It was just understood that there was no more hanging around. Naht lead the way on his motosai, followed by Lott on his mechanical buffalo with cart attached, and me bringing up the rear in my samlor.

I had just reached our village home, about a mile from Bann Nah, when the storm struck with hard rain, fierce wind, thunder and lightning. It went on like that all night long; at one point making me think that our roof might even blow off.

Next morning, after the electricity and internet slowly came back on and the sky lightened up, there were many who thought that the storm surely would have blown Bann Nah’s roof off – it being out in the middle of the rice paddies with no protective covering around it – or even knocked the whole structure down. Nope!