Leave for Laos on 8:40 pm bus from Chon Buri Wednesday. Arive 11 hours later, around 8 am in Nong Khai, Thailand on Thursday morning. Take tuk tuk to border, cross over Friendship Bridge into Laos, take 45 min tuk tuk to Thai Embassy in Vientiane, Laos. Arrive at embassy by 10 am, with plenty of time to drop off visa paperwork by 12pm. Sight see in the capital of Vientiane, stay over at cheap hostel. Pick up visa Friday afternoon, take overnight bus back home and lesson plan the rest of the weekend.
What actually happened on trip:
Amelia, Matt, and I got on our overnight bus with plenty of time to spare. It was roomy and cool with AC, and we got water and some food. At what I think to be around 12 am, I woke up and we were at a dead stop. I looked out the window to find that we were stopped in the street, along with every car around us. Our bus driver was outside smoking a cigarette and hanging out with what I assume to be other drivers stuck in the traffic jam. Immediately some swear words ran through my head as I'm thinking, we're not going to make it on time. I was extremely tired though, so I drifted back to sleep. Maybe two hours later I woke again. Still stopped. This had to be some kind of sick joke. I looked across the bus in alarm at Amelia and Matt, but they were both sleeping. Knowing we wouldn't make it to the embassy on time (by 12 pm), but also knowing I could do nothing about it, I went back to sleep.
We eventually started moving and we took a pit stop at a rest area at 7:30 am. This is when Amelia and I finally talked, looked at our location on our phones, and muttered a few more swear words. We weren't even halfway there yet. Now a million things were going through our heads and we began to brainstorm. Our only hope was that we could both drop off our paperwork and pick up our visas on Friday (which was a high hope, visa applications are never processed same day).
Around 2:45 pm on Thursday, we finally made it to Nong Khai, where we needed to be taken to the border. We grabbed a tuk tuk, but the man tried to scam us by taking us to a place where we could pay for our Laos visa. Laos visa?! We didn't need one of those, so we demanded he take us straight to the border, where he proceeded to overcharge us for our ride. At the border, we showed our passports and they let us in with no problems. We boarded the bus to cross the Friendship Bridge, and when we got into Laos, we realized that we actually DID have to get a visa. And pay for it. Which we hadn't factored into our budget for the weekend. It was only $35, but that is 1,500 Baht in Thailand. A large expense that we knew nothing about.
So, if we weren't screwed enough already by missing the visa drop off time, we were surely screwed now by suddenly having a significantly smaller amount of money. Not knowing exactly what to do, we took the cheapest tuk tuk we could find and went to the embassy. It was 3:40. The Thai Embassy closed at 3:30. Fail. Next, we did the only thing we could do. Asked around for cheap hostels that would maybe fit into our now super-small budget. We had the name for a super cheap hostel. This nice professor at a business school called the number we had for it even though he said he was not familiar with it. No wonder it wasn't familiar. It doesn't exist anymore.
We stumbled upon a nice hotel called the Lao Golden Hotel. We explained our situation and they were very sympathetic. The room he had for us was normally $55 a night, but after our sob story he said he could go down to $45 for the night. Again, this would usually be the cheapest hotel you could find in America, but we literally didn't have enough Baht to afford this. Our last and only option: Charge it. Charge it we did, and charge it unfortunately became the theme for the weekend.
The Lao Golden Hotel was luxury. Something we will probably never ever see again in our stay in Southeast Asia. We showered, got a great sleep, and took full advantage of the complementary breakfast. With many thanks, we made our way to the Thai Embassy. We explained our awful situation again and I cried on command, but we got the answer we were not hoping for. You have to pick up on Monday. Enter some more tears and lots of thoughts of how the hell are we going to survive the weekend!? We had no clothes. We had no money. We had no place to stay. The three of us went to a coffee shop to get on wifi. I cried some more. We waited around to see if we could get an advance in our first paycheck, but the email we were hoping for never came through. Last option: Amelia's Visa and my MasterCard. Amelia, being the well-traveled and level-headed one, took charge, which I will always owe for this trip. She put aside cash for our bus trip back to Chon Buri and for all of the songtao/tuk tuks we would have to take throughout the weekend. We weren't left with too much, so charge, charge we did.
We immediately changed our way of thinking to okay, let's make the best of the weekend. We were in a new country that we knew little about so we set out to explore. We went to two temples and other Buddhist sights. Seeing the temples is something that I never thought would give me that wow moment, but each one was simply breathtaking, and we saw at least five during our stay. After walking around Vientiane for a few hours, we decided it was inevitable. It was time for a beer. We sat. We drank. We fumed. We laughed. We caught up on Instagram and Facebook. We searched for cheap hostels online.
Sihome Backpackers Garden. How we love you so. Their reviews were so recent and so enthusiastic that we decided that this had to be the hostel for us. No wonder the reviews were so recent.. Sihome had only been open for 15 days when we arrived on Friday. Brand new and thriving already. FINALLY something went right! We met the owner Steve, a young German, right when we arrived. We explained our situation yet again, and he immediately said he'd take care of us, and that he did. The rooms were clean, we had air conditioning, and the staff and other guests were extremely friendly. Not bad for my first ever hostel. Later that evening when we were talking to other guests and listening to the awesome music Sihome plays all day everyday, we came across an Australian, Phillip, who happened to be the other owner. He asked what brought us to Laos, and we spilled our story for the fourth and definitely not final time. Phillip told us he had extra women's clothing that he would wash for us and give to us the next day. He also said that we had to go on the waterfall tour that Steve put together on Saturday. Phillip helped us out with that too since we couldn't afford it. We were finally relaxed and ready to enjoy the weekend.
Although the bed in the hostel was harder than mine in Chon Buri and a rooster was crowing at 6:20 am, I still woke up refreshed and ready to go. It actually felt like I was on a small vacation. Amelia, Matt, and I had our complimentary Western breakfast (eggs, toast, bacon, coffee, banana), which is also something we will not ever again see in Thailand. We got on whatever clothes we could fake as bathing suits, since we didn't bring any, and headed to the tuk tuk with the other guests going to the waterfall and Steve. How I know we were a charity case for the weekend: As we were waiting to get on the back of the tuk tuk, Steve said to me, Can I have your names again? I just have you down as Three Poor People. Nice! Nicknames for the rest of the weekend!
We drove about two hours to the countryside of Laos. I mean to the jungle of Laos. Getting to the waterfall was difficult when we reached the national park. The tuk tuk was old. At many hills, we had to get out and walk up so that the tuk tuk could make it without being so back-heavy. The road was dusty. We were all a new shade of red dust by the time we parked and I definitely inhaled a good amount of dirt. We trekked through the bamboo lined jungle. At one point Steve gave a helpful bit of information: If you happen to see a tiger or elephant, don't move. Just stand still. Comforting. The long drive and bit of a walk was well worth it, especially at first glance of the waterfall. No other words to describe it but beautiful and peaceful. I of course was too chicken to jump off of it, but we swam a bunch, had lunch, and relaxed until we decided to take off around 4:30. I can't thank Steve and Phillip enough for letting us join the day trip. It is something I will never forget. Big shout out to them for all of their helpfulness and hospitality. Not that it's likely, but if anyone reading my blog happens to be traveling in Vientiane, look them up. You'll be in for a highly enjoyable stay! Check them out here (shout out to the postcard we left for them!): https://www.facebook.com/BackpackersHostelGarden
I am so happy that we changed our attitudes and took advantage of being in a new place. We met very interesting people from all over the world. We splurged on good food and drinks, knowing that we won't be spoiled like that ever in Thailand (whoops, sorry credit card!). We saw many temples. We fell in love with Vientiane. Vientiane is the capital of Laos. Compared to what I have seen so far in Thailand, Vientiane is not crowded, it is very clean, it has many eclectic restaurants, and the population of people is very diverse. In Chon Buri, the foreign teachers are the only white people in town, aka roughly 15 of us. When we see a white person we immediately wonder what the heck they're doing there. In Vientiane, saying look, white people! got real old real fast. White people were everywhere. German, Australian, French, American, Canadian. You name it! There is also a huge population of expatriates in Laos. Cost of living is cheap and it is a very nice city, so many people end up living there. It is definitely a place that I would visit again, and we may have to cross Vang Vieng, Laos off of our bucket list during our stay in Asia.
Even after all of the frustration and stress, I think we were meant to stay in Laos for the weekend. Although it was definitely much more expensive than what I would have wanted it to be, the experience ended up being something unforgettable. It was a disaster that turned into a blessing and I am almost thankful that our first bus took so stinking long. Here's to hoping my overnight bus trip to and from Chiang Mai this coming weekend for the Lantern Festival goes a bit more smoothly with just as many good memories!