“No visa, no ticket.”
The clerk delivered this unfortunate news then dismissively directed his gaze to the next person in line.
I backed away from the ticket counter in frustration. It seemed my journey to Vientiane, the riverside capital of Laos was over before it even started. Unwilling to give up so easily I sat myself down on one of the bus station’s rickety metal benches and pondered my options. Taking the bus directly from Udon Thani, where I currently sat, to Vientiane was out of the question now. Flying in would grant me a visa at the airport customs but was too expensive for my budget. I had over a week of free time, Laos was so close but bureaucracy and foreign policy made it seem so far. I didn’t want to slink back to the Udon Thani base house and wait for my week off to expire.
I looked around the busy station. Thai commuters, some with nothing more than a small satchel, others burdened by taped packages and overstuffed sacks scurried about the terminal, boarding busses and waving baht at the ticket counter. My eyes fell to the timetable. Cities and towns, many I’d never heard of illuminated the board, shuffling between English and Thai. Their departure times remained steadfast off to the side.
Quickly, I drew a map from my backpack. With my finger I found Udon Thani in the north east of Thailand and slowly traced along the road north. Just before my nail reached the Mekong River, the natural border between Thailand and Laos I stopped. The dot under my finger was the last Thai city before the border, Nong Khai. I would take a bus as far north as I could and walk into Laos. I would buy my visa at the border.
Pleased with myself I slapped my map closed with a happy pat and looked up at the timetable board. Scanning the different stops I finally found what I needed, Nong Khai. Departure time eleven o’ clock. Calmly I stole a glance at my wrist watch. My breath caught in my chest as I watched the minute hand strike three minutes past eleven.
Shit! I thought as I stuffed my map into my bag, slung it over my shoulder and pushed into the bustling mass of Thais.
Shoving my way down the platform I stopped under a sign for Nong Khai. A man at a card table lazily handed me a ticket as I quickly pressed money into his hands. The bus was still there albeit exhaust spewing, engine rumbling. It would leave any second. Rushing up I banged on the door with my palm. The driver gave me a frown then swung a handle letting me in. With relief I staggered down the aisle. The bus was all but empty save for a couple older women, a long dark haired European and a monk. I sat opposite the monk and caught my breath as we pulled out of the station.
As the bus crawled along north I already felt myself being lulled to sleep by the gentle bumps and cool air conditioning. Out of the corner of my eye I stole glances at the monk. I knew part of the vows for taking the robes forbid monks from naps. Oversleeping was taken as laziness. How could this ride not make him tired? I thought. Making my own personal game I became determined to stay awake and outlast him.
We drove and drove. He sat with perfect posture, gazing straight ahead, only pausing from time to time to steal a peek out the window. My head and eyes grew heavier and heavier and I knew I had lost. As my eyes closed and I drifted off I swore I saw him glance sidelong at me and smile.
“You know you’ve missed your stop.”
The English woke me from my short doze.
“What?” I asked, surprised and confused.
It was the long haired European, spun around to face me from the seat in front of mine.
“Yeah, yeah. You should have gotten off at this crossroads here.” he pointed to a map on his smartphone. “You are going to the bridge, no?”
German. I thought. His accent was easy to place.
“I’m going to Nong Khai, I’m trying to get to Laos.” I answered him. I didn’t like his tone. He spoke matter of factly, like I made a stupid mistake.
“Yeah, me too.” he said. “But the bus should have stopped at the crossroads, I don’t know where we are going now.” He traced his finger along some road on a map on his phone that I couldn’t see.
“I’m just going to wait until we get to the bus station in Nong Khai.” I said, half certain that I hadn’t missed my stop.
“Didn’t you download Google Maps?” he asked, pointing to his phone as if introducing me to the technology for the first time.
“Uh, I just brought a map.” I gestured towards my bag. “Like, one made of paper.”
I didn’t know how else to word it.
He gave me a strange look like I had some kind of infectious disease and his mouth moved into a half grimace as if he had just tasted something foul.
“Oh, well I think we should stop the bus. We may be driving for awhile now.” He made a move to gather up his things.
No sooner had he hunched over then the bus screeched to a halt under a faded aluminum sign that read, “Nong Khai Bus Terminus.”
I narrowed my eyes at him after he realized where we were.
“Oh!” he said with a small laugh. “We’re here! You were right!.”
He flipped his long black hair from his eyes and extended a hand beyond the seat for me to shake.
“My name is Max.” I clasped his hand in mine. “I’m from Frankfurt.”
As we stood on the Nong Khai bus platform I learned Max’s story. He was an exchange student living in Thailand. His two year graduate studies were at an end and he would be heading back to Germany soon. With the common goal of getting into Laos we agreed to go across the border together.
“We should have a tuk tuk take us to this park.” he said, thrusting another finger at his beloved Google Map.
“We are here, you see?” he held the smartphone out for me and I could see that the phone’s GPS had transmitted our exact location down onto the phone where we stood at the bus station. It made getting lost impossible.
“We should go to this park, the drivers think we want to go to the bridge at the border but if we say we want to go to this park instead they will charge us less.” He spoke in a very animated manner. Gesturing with his hands and emphasizing words to the point where the veins bulged in his neck. I found myself giving him a wide berth while he talked. Because Max had more experience in country I seceded this plan to him.
After the driver dropped us off at the Nong Khai park we hoisted our bags and began walking through the park, Max assuring me that bridge to Laos was just on the other side. The noon time sun of tropical Thailand beat down on our backs as we walked. My backpack grew heavier and heavier. Sweat dripped freely from my brow and pooled around my shirt collar. Finally we arrived at the opposite end of the park and were met with the sight of a concrete wall.
“This shouldn’t be here!” Max exclaimed, swinging his arm in exasperation at the wall. Frantically he swiped at the touchscreen on his phone aghast that Google Maps had failed him.
We backtracked through the mid day heat back to the entrance and down the narrow side streets of Nong Khai. Sweat poured in torrents down my back. I drained my water bottle and gradually felt myself becoming more agitated for not just taking a tuk tuk straight to the bridge.
Finally, standing on a wide thoroughfare a sign ahead pointed towards the border and Vientiane. Unfortunately walking across would be no easy affair. Thai soldiers blocked the way. They stood, guns slung at their sides pacing back and forth and watching traffic. We decided to hire another tuk tuk to take us through.
As we passed the checkpoint a soldier barked an order in Thai at our driver and we were soon dumped at a border customs office. Paying the driver he pointed forward to a window labeled, “Visa On Arrival.”
Filling out the application card I paid the fee and smiled at the officer. I felt like it was just something I was supposed to do, as if not smiling would incriminate me and deny me access. He took my paperwork with disinterest and went about tossing the various forms into different piles, not bothering to read them.
I was ushered into a wide square room. Void of any decorations, wall hangings or furniture, the space was only occupied by three small booths. The only sound was the echoing thuds of stamps being implanted into passports. I stepped into a queue and waited to see if I would be allowed admittance into Laos.
As I waited, I thought how much this part of travel meant to me. Sure it was a headache and could be frustrating, but it was also challenging and fun. Choosing to skip the easy route of flying and just being dumped where I wanted to go, I went through the rewarding experience of actually trying to get there on my own. I navigated buses, read maps, and braved border guards.
I gazed over my shoulder at Max, head down, fiddling on his phone behind me. With the challenge of getting from one place to another puts you into situations where you meet new people and can be brought together by the mere fact that you are both trying to undertake the challenge of getting to the same place. Whether these people help or hamper you is just all part of the experience. Every journey should be one worth remembering, the more challenging the travel the more memorable the journey.
I stepped up to the counter. The guard eyed me up. Looking back and forth from me to my passport. He gestured I stare into the tiny desktop camera. I stepped back put my hands at my sides and had another internal struggle whether to smile or not. He planted a stamp on an open page, the action sounded like thunder in the hollow room. Quickly he pushed my passport back across the counter.
Stepping back outside I took in my new surroundings. It’s a funny thing crossing borders. One minute you are there. There, being a place with its own language, currency, culture, history and politics. Then suddenly you take two steps and you are transported to here. A place where all the things that defined there, are totally different.
People hustled and moved out of the office clambering aboard shuttles. Money booths advertised exchanging Thai baht into kip. A new flag snapped in the breeze. Blue and red with a white circle emblazoning the center. Signs displayed a new elegant but indecipherable script.
“Sa-bai-dee!” the shuttle driver greeted me cheerfully.
I let this new word for “hello” ring around in my ears.
I had done it.
I was in Laos.