Boring busdays part so-many

Day LI – Mai 8

I wake up when it’s lready light out and soon we’re transferred from one bus to the next for the last half hour to the border, that we cross by foot.
In the immigration room I see a poster reading about the application rules like photos and a 1.000b entrance fee. I get a huge freak out for a moment; for as far as I knew a 15-day visa was issued for free.
But all they ask for is my passport and I get the stamps without further ado.
Goodbye Cambodia, it was so good to make your acquaintance! Hello again Thailand!

I just walk out on the other end where it’s a turmoil of salesmen pulling their carts and all sorts of traffic, when the clock strikes 8 and the national anthem begins to play, and everyone freezes. It’s like a flashmob!

Another shout-out “Bangkok?!” and I’m put on a crowded minivan for 4 more hours.

I was thinking of just going to the station and arrange a train there myself to avoid a rip-off for which one is warned in Bangkok. But right where we’re dropped of I find a travelagency and walk in just to check.
The guy makes a few calls but tells me all trains are fully booked. He offers a bus-boat combo to Koh Tao for 700b – cheaper even than Lonely Planet says it should be. And I already discovered that in my 2010 version prices are mentioned lower than they are now adays. So I take a leap, leave my backpack with him and take a walk to kill the 7 hours till pick-up.
This office is pretty neat by the way; just one desk in a little alley, some posters on the wall et voila. Bangkok does have it’s charms.

As it’s just around the corner from Koh San Road I walk over to see what all the fuss is about. But I don’t get it; it’s just another tourist shopping street with many shirts, tattoo shops and loud bars playing those same hits over and over. I do go in to one of those and sneak off to their bathroom to clean myself up a bit; my last shower was over a day ago and the next isn’t scheduled before tomorrows check-in.

I stroll through smoggy Bangkok that feels quite cool to me now. At some point there is a big road to cross and there are some other tourists waiting at the light. When it turns green the cars don’t stop they look a little panicked. I just start walking, making my way between the cars. I remember how I was them in Hanoi and smile to myself.

I try to find the Royal Palace, but instead end up in Wat Pho, a pretty temple, but it’s so crowded, and over the top bright and gold.
And then suddenly I stumble upon that same stand where I had my first streetfood 7 weeks ago, and I sit down for another ‘best padthai ever’. The lady still cooks with the same passion and it still tastes magnificent!

I walk back to the travel agency to find my pick-up is also by foot, a 20 minute walk through the maze of little alleys behind Koh San, through a fighting school and what not.
It’s a pretty comfortable bus that takes us down and again I catch quite a few hours of sleep.

Off to Vietnam

vtn hanNext destination:
(The Socialist Republic of) Vietnam
Hanoi, population: ± 6.5 million
visa requirements: a passport with at least one month validity, a letter of approval for visa on arrival, arranged through visatovietnam.com at $15, $25 stamping fee, 1 photo
population: ± 91.5 million
capital: Ho Chi Mihn City / Saigon
language: Vietnamese, tiếng Việt
slogan: Timeless charm, also named The slumbering dragon
currency: dong, €1 = 20.000d

Day XXV – April 12

I’m on a plane. And it’s so cold I find use again for that sweater I’ve put away as soon as I arrived to Asia about a month ago.
It almost feels like a commercial break, an intermezzo; and when I land it’s Part II: Free Falling Vietnam.

When I exit this tiny plane, there’s nothing of the heat and rubber I crashed into when I first entered Bangkok Airport. It’s calm and quiet.
I hand over a photo, $25 stamping fee and the letter of approval that I received over mail. I get another pretty set of new stamps and am pointed to the exit. A sweet smell and a pleasant temperaturer welcome me into Vietnam.

Travelling alone may be tiresome at times, but it also gives me a sense of pride; I did it again, all on my own, I got this far without major damage. My life and the road I walk is all mine. Nobody is telling me what to do. And sure I get some occasional help, but I am doing this, just me.

It’s a little wait for the airport-minivan-service to fill up before we leave to go into Hanoi. The sky is an angry shade of grey and there is a threat in the wind, but the trees reveal a very sparky green.
Once fully packed we drive out of the dull airport-area and the colour of the sky stays the same, but the brightness of the fields is almost too much to look at. The houses are so colourful, and many neon lights brighten the highway.
The whole hour it takes us to pass the 35 km into the city, little stalls are lined up alongside it everywhere, selling baguettes, pineapples, lottery tickets and I don’t know what not. People are walking or on bicycles, but mostly on moto’s, zigzagging up and down between the cars. For the amount of vehicles taking part in this traffic jam, it moves extremely fast.

crowded hanoi
It’s around 6 pm when we stop at the old quarter. I join the Swedish brother and sister that were cramped in next to me on the minivan, on hostelhunt, so I won’t have to enter this craze all on my own. It seems like every inch of this town is moving and buzzing.
The moment we’ve checked in with Hanoi Backpacker, they say goodbye – there weren’t enough beds to put us in the same room. They probably have a lot of catching up to do anyway, only just being reunited.
I try some of the crowd sitting in the front, in that cozy looking alley. But I guess I was just very lucky at Spice Laos; no one really responds here…
So I set out alone, looking for some dinner. I’m so hungry I go into Joma’s for a bagel egger – boring! (but tasty!) Tomorrow I’m sitting down with a streetvendor, promise!

As crowded as it was on the highway, it is in the city. It’s true what they say about Vietnamese traffic; it’s absolute madness! The moto’s are everywhere, honking continuously, like a sort of orchestra. The buzz of this town is so loud!
But just relax and move at your own tempo; I’ve already learned it actually is the only way to move at all through this constant coming and going.
4mil dong And they’re just as fanatical in their sales-techniques; everywhere there’s people pressing you to buy one thing or another.
Don’t feel upset if ‘no’ doesn’t work right away, just keep walking.

Vietnam seems to be much more in a rush than the Asia I saw before. It is excitement all over.

I see a few travelagencies still open just now, at 8.30pm, but I decide I’ll start booking tomorrow and take the night off.

“I have to say the Vietnamese dong is the most beautiful dong I have ever seen.”
“I have to go pull out some dong.”
“Do you need me to hold your dong for you?”
“Wow, you’ve got a whole lot of dong in your pants!”
And you can just keep whipping out those dong-jokes; great stuff!

I’ve been strolling the streets and just got up to this little rooftop bar in a creaking old house, so very charming! Down in the narrow street there’s the immutable busslte. But up here I sit safely tugged out of sight behind a tree of electric wire connecting to the whole rest of this huge city, that could almost feel like a small old town. Have you seen the movie Tekkoninkreet? I feel like I’m in it.

rooftop bar hanoi
The image of home is slowly fading. I still can picture it, it’s just – the more this place has become real to me, the more I went head under in Southeast Asia; the more my connection to home is lost.
I still feel like talking to them, but somehow the time difference and bad internet connections keep messing that up.
And then they ask “How is everything, is it amazing?!” And I’m like “Yeah…” But I can’t explain it, the way I’m feeling it right now.
And thus the gap between home and me grows, and the dissociation sets in.
I don’t even know how I feel about that boy any more. I hope to catch him when I go online. But when I do, I don’t know what there is to talk about. And I’m sure it will be great to see him again, but right now I can’t imagine that moment – like I could so clearly before.

The evening ends early and uneventful.
So many people roam the streets, but I don’t find a connection tonight. It’s been a lonely day, emphasised by the many crowds and long distance I’ve exceeded.
But it’s ok to be lonely at times. Besides, I’m too tired to bother.
So I retreat to my bunkbed, crawl onto my luxuriously thick mattress and under my nice fresh white linen.

Crossing the mighty Mekong

Laos
entering through Huay Xai
visa requirements: $35, 1 photo for a one-month tourist visa
population: ± 6.5 million
capital: Vientiane
language: Lao
slogan: Simply beautiful
currency: Kip, €1 = 10.000k

Day IX – March 27

The alarm rings at 6:30am. We get into a red tuxi – the tuktuk-cabs you see driving around Chiang Mai, that should take you anywhere in the city for 20b per person – at 7.30am, and the driver takes his sweet time picking up some more customers along the way to the busstation, to fill his entire ride. But we’re still well in time.
At 8.30am we board a simple but cool bus, with many but not all locals. There is an unannounced stop at a bus station after a few hours; I guess it might be Chiang Rai? As we near Chiang Khong there are several random stops where random passenger jump of without any obvious pressing of a button or asking the driver… Just the way they do I guess? *

And then suddenly we’re there? Everyone is ‘told’ – with a bark and heavily waving hands – to get of the bus, the luggage is thrown out, and many tuktukdrivers are waiting outside, signing they’ll take you ‘there’. Everything happens so fast and it’s all so unclear, but at a good guess we sit down with several other travelers on their way to the ferry. And indeed, 10 minutes later we’re dropped near a pier and are asked to pay the 40b fee. For the tuktuk that is. Leaving Thailand is free and goes without hassle.
Then the ferry is another 40b for the 3 minute ride to the other side of the Mekong. Another set of fences and military uniforms await us. There is some paperwork to fill in and a $35 visa-fee for Dutch. Aussie Dan only pays $30.
All together this went pretty smoothly, and it’s over before you can actually realize or question what’s happening.
Right around the corner we find the Friendship Guesthouse, where we get a twin room for 70.000k, and at the Gibbon Experience office we book Dan a spot for tomorrow as well, no hassle whatsoever.

Time to chill!
It’s not yet 5pm when we get a few mangos, check out the rooftop terrace at Friendship and take a last look at Thailand as the sun slowly sets behind it’s fog and take a deep breath of Laos air.
This border town, Huay Xai, doesn’t seem very happening and a bit grey and dull, but more easygoing than Thailand. The tuktuks are prettier too, more refined in their decorations, not the gruff trucks from Chiang Mai but fragile little Nissan vans.

More and more people show up on the roof and turn out to be on the Gibbon Experience leaving tomorrow as well: the French couple Alex & Audrey, the Canadian couple Veronica & Devon and a Dutch guy who’s been having trouble with his ATM card all though Laos.
For dinner we all set out to find the local nightmarket together. We walk for a good hour, ask around a bit, but have to conclude in the end there is no nightmarket, not tonight, not in Huay Xai. Unless you’d count the lane of lottery booths we’d past.
It was a nice walk though. I like to explore my new surroundings.
And when we all felt horribly lost there for a second, when we reached the end of town in utter darkness… well, we share an adventure now.
So dinner next to the pier after all, at a somewhat chique place, with a lovely view of the Mekong and the campfire going on on the other side in Thailand, with the wind every now and then bringing us a note of their song. And an English-speaking waiter, which seems to be much more rare here in Laos.
I top it of with a 4th beer on the roof of the hostel, catching geckos with Alex. I didn’t manage, and he only caught one because he made it loose it’s tail so that’s cheat.
All adds up to very pleasant evening!

* First time on a bus, so I didn’t know. But they indeed do this ALL the time. Still, never did I hear anyone ask the driver to stop at a certain point or see them signing, so how it works is a mystery to me.

Visa and vaccination factuals

28 days prior to departure – February 20

With just one month to go by the time I finally made the cut and booked, I got the heebie-jeebies last night, trying to figure out which visa and vaccination I’ll have to get and whether I’ll make it all in time. Kilroy Travels doesn’t cover that sort of information and just gave me a flyer with links to check out.
One of those sites, visum.nl, has a visa-service, but it takes about a week sending my passport to the embassy, 4 in my case, and charges about €100 each.
Now I encountered another problem: my current passport expires on June 28th. I will be home by then, but to apply for a visa it needs to be valid another half year after entering a country. So I will have to get a new one, which will take an extra week.

I never was too big a fan of Lonely Planet before, but I bought myself one anyway, right after I booked and walked out of the Kilroy office. The American Bookcentre (one of the few international bookstores in The Netherlands) is conviniently housed across the street from it. And I was really glad finding the following information in there:
It’s very possible to get the Laos-visa at the Huay Xai-border, for a mere $40, just stand your ground and make sure they don’t overcharge.
I do have to get my Vietnam-visa in advance, but on Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree forum I found a link to this site where you can get a letter of approval for just $15. Show that at the airport and you get your stamps for an additional $20, no problem.
I can get an e-visa for Cambodia that costs $25, but it’s not valid at every border post. Bavet -where I most likely will cross- however is fine, and should even issue visa at arrival.
Indonesian visa should be issued at each airport for no more than $25.
Checking the Thorn Tree forum for updates and recent experiences really helped there!

Next up: some nice little shots to ensure my wellbeing under tropical circumstances. I’m still counting on some food poisoning, it’s just bound to happen. But that should only keep me down a few days.
After a call this morning with the local Travel Clinic I got an appointment this afternoon where we discussed the necessities for the areas I’ll be visiting. We’ll be able to fit it all in prior to departure.
I got a full cover for hepatitis A today, in just one shot that should hold up to 3 years, and the first of 3 shots for hepatitis B. I decided to get the voluntary rabies shots since I often can’t help myself when it comes to petting fluffy things. This also comes in 3 rounds, of which I had the first today.*
Next week I come back for typhoid of which 1 shot covers 3 years, and a second round of hepatitis B and rabies.
The week after that I come back for the last of those and one to cover general stuff like tetanus etc.
I got this pretty little yellow booklet, you know, the ones pets get for going to the vet, with all these stamps in it. And a slightly blue feeling in my upper arms.
All through my stay in Laos and while volunteering in Cambodia’s remote area I’ll have to take a pill named Malarone to keep clear from malaria.**
The travel clinic told me also to be careful, mostly in public transport, for tuberculosis. And a fever virus named dengue, for which there is no cure, just precautions like wearing Deet(40%min) and covering clothing.
A well-traveled friend also told me to bring ORS (oral rehydration salts) to keep from dehydrating and Imodium against diarrhea (very sexy) so I started gathering my travelkit together today.
So much on diseases for today.

I’m feeling a lot more relaxed now then I did last night when suddenly it looked like things wouldn’t be settled in time.
My budget is still extremely tight and I will have to keep a close eye on it to make sure I won’t end up having to spend nights on the streets or get in trouble with transportation. All these vaccinations and things left on my to-do and to-buy lists turn out to be much more expensive than I calculated. But I’ve invested way too much now to back out. So even if in flashes of fear I might want to, I won’t. I’m going.

-torch
-gloves (gibbon experience)
-raincover/flight bag for backpack
-ziplock bags for clothes etc
-a wooden wig to use as a doorstop
-Deet 40%, ORS, Imodium

Footnotes:
* In hindsight this was a complete waste of a whole lot of money; they’re €75 each. I never even encountered a case of rabies. And should one get bit; you’ll have to be rushed to a hospital whether you’ve had those 3 first shots or not, to be completed with another 2. Or just have all 5 when needed. The clinic made it sounds scary with the whole story where you die in a few days. But it really doesn’t matter if you’ve had them in advance or not. So really, don’t bother getting shot for nothing.

** Many people I met in those high danger areas weren’t taking anything, and they were just fine. In Cambodia, not far from where we stayed, cases of malaria still occurred under the poorest, but not everyone in my group took pills and no one fell ill.
In hindsight I wouldn’t have spend the €157. In Asia you could buy those same pills for a 10th of the price, so should you want to, get them there.