By Thursday evening it's about time to leave Bangkok. We're heading up north, to Laos. I have no idea anymore what the original planning was/is we had in mind, but we're taking the night-train to the Thai - Lao border, crossing the Mekong. This way we'll skip most of northern Thailand, including Ayuthaja, Sukhotai, and Chiang Mai. We can always visit these places on the way back, but apparently if you've been to Laos, Cambodia, or especially Burma, the art in Thailand is just amateurish in comparison. So we'll see.
After getting a final massage we head to the train station. We have booked a ticket on the night train that will leave at eight in the evening, and arrive about eight hours later. Unfortunately we have to settle for 2nd class sleepers. No private cabin, no airconditioning, all very, very crowded. Both sides of the wagon have seatings, a ladder going to the upper bed. The bottom seats are folded down at night. We can just barely fit in these beds. At least it's comfortable. Kinda. Nong Khai is only about 550km from Thailand, but at our current speed of 30-40km/h it's no wonder the journey will take 10+ hours. Hell, we even stop at every little dirt town along the way and for the first two hours haven't even made it outside Bangkok. Ugh.
Finally, a bit after nine in the morning, thirteen! hours later, we finally get off. The doctors and vaccination centres at home pretty much scared the s*** out of us about malaria so the previous day we started taking pills. As they need to be consumed in the middle of a (warm) meal we head out right across the train station of Nong Khai to eat. The tuk-tuk drivers are annoying as ever, no surprise there. But the people in general are so much more nicer. I will have to reconsider my previous judgement of Thailand and just restrict it to the rotten city of Bangkok. The smile is the same, but everything else is different. Not even did the restaurant owner gave us a ride into the town's shopping centre so we could buy food, but as we were kinda lost again, a total stranger invited us in his pick-up and dropped us off right in front of the best, and most friendly hostel in town.
We really did want to hire a motorbike, and with plenty of things to do in town we decided to stay for the afternoon and cross over into Laos in the evening. Of course by the time we checked in, dropped off our bags, etc. it started raining. It stopped a few hours later but it was so late that it was either motorbike, or Laos. For obvious reasons the motor won. So we rented it, hopped on and started cruising. Michel used one before on a holiday but it being the first time for Remko we were moving at the speed of a disabled turtle. Our target: the noodle factory in Tha Bo. It's only about 25km west of town, but it took us over two hours. I will not blame it wholly on Mr. R. as we did stop at several wats to wonder at their beauty, and we did get food at a local market - to the big delight of the locals from whom we had the curious look again - but still... when we finally arrive the noodles are already made, hung, dried and cut and we see nothing but empty racks of poles where the noodles were supposed to be. The locals again are very friendly. It would never happen in Europe that if some stupid foreigner comes into your internet-cafe asking for directions you send your kid on the scooter to take them there. Very, very awesome :D
So we missed the whole noodle thing, but that didn't really matter. Getting there, cruising, stopping along the way was a lot of fun. In the evening we criss-crossed the town, marvelled at the lit temples, the people eating on the promenade; it was great. Nong Khai is right on the Thai - Lao border, with only the 200m or so of the Mekong dividing the two countries. At night you can see the traffic on the other side, the Friendship Bridge all lit up; like an airstrip to our destination.
We did try to get to the border to inquire about the required visa into Laos, but the language barrier was too much. We got there after ten in the evening, the border already closed. The single guard couldn't speak a word of English, couldn't read either without glasses on and probably thought we were a bunch of idiot tourists trying to cross at night. He just kept repeating "border closed! border closed!" and "morning!"; and probably was going to reach for his submachine gun if we were to push on about the visa; *sigh*.
The next morning we discovered the town again. There are two places really worth a visit: one is a sunken wat right in the middle of the Mekong. Sometime in the past the river changed its course and flooded the temple. Now only its top can be seen if the raging brown mass of water is low enough. About 13m maximum. We were just in time, about 60cm of its top was still sticking out. Thais built an exact replica of the temple on the new riverbanks. The only other attraction in the area is the Sculpture Garden.
When the communist rose to power in Laos, about 10% of the population fled into neighbouring Thailand. One of the crazy ones decided to build these huge concrete sculptures. Ten, twelve metre high Buddha's, Hindu goddesses, serpents, elephants, all kinds of crazy stuff. Pretty amazing. Some were just made for fun though. A dog riding a bicycle and a 4WD jeep cannot even with the best intentions be called authentic. The weather was really really hot though, and the call of the motorbike too strong, so we didn't stay too long. Instead we just decided to cruise some more before we had to return them. We just headed out into the farmlands, crossing dirt roads, by rice fields and lotus ponds. A motor really is the best way to explore the neighbourhood. Am I getting addicted? Don't know, but I will surely rent one of these two-wheelers whenever the opportunity arises!
On to Laos. We take a tuk-tuk to the border crossing at the Friendship Bridge bargaining hard, clear customs and board a bus to take us across. Always being the cheap one I wanted to cross on foot. However the idea was quickly shot down when we learned that the Lao do not really appreciate this act. A bit afraid of the communists, we took the bus.
Laos is communist. As all of their kind, they love bureaucracy. Of course you need a visa to get into the country. Of course you need to pay a ton of money, fill out several forms with the same information, have multiple uniformed officials check the papers you have just been given minutes ago. Well, that's life. It's just a way to get more money. I am just glad I am not an American. They need to pay $165 for the visa; we get it for $35. With my Hungarian passport it would only be $20.
The hammer and sickle is still flying proudly next to the Lao flag. Let them have it; it won't be for long...