Day 117: Dancing the bureaucratic dance of Loas border crossing
Rocinante, my CB500X, just wants to dig into some foreign soil. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli
GETTING bounced at the Laos border once is part of an adventure, but if I get bounced a second time, it's a failure. That failure is not part of an adventure, but hampering the adventure I'm craving. It's also starting to mess with the Will of the Die, which is a big no-no. It all comes back to my beloved white elephant, Rocinante, the motorcycle, who has once again entangled me in bureaucracy, hindering rather than promoting that extraordinary freedom that comes with exploring a country by motorcycle.
The sky is a flat-gray color when I wake up in the morning. A warm, arid breeze sweeps across the road leading to the Thai-Laos Friendship Bridge. Dressed in full riding gear, I anxiously zip down the well-paved highway. I was originally going to meet up with Pink, a Thai friend of mine, and her sister before crossing. However, they're running late, so I'm make a go of it alone. This way, if I do have any issues, they'll be right behind my and can maybe help clear up any “misunderstandings”.
According to Pink's source – an official at the border – lots of big bikes (motorcycles bigger than 250cc) are making the crossing between Vientiane and Nong Kai. I shouldn't have any issues. Then again, I shouldn't have had any issues at the previous border crossing either. And we all know how that went.
I park the bike at a large complex on the Thai-side of the border. From what I can see, there aren't any other motorcycles making the crossing at the moment. Clutching onto a ziplock bag with all the essential paperwork in it, I head toward an immigration booth.
I hand my passport and greenbook – vehicle registration – to the woman seated behind the tinted glass window. She looks at it, then hands it all back.
I need to go to booth “D”. She points in the direction of booth “D”, which has a awning running out in front of it. However, nobody appears to be working at booth D. Instead, I line up with a handful of vehicle owners carrying yellow books and some paperwork at a different booth.
I looked over the procedures for how to make the crossing Huai Kon, but failed to do so for this one.
A tightness in my chest gets wound up a notch, like a t-shirt being slowly wrung dry, as the line in front of me dissipates.
The process appears to be going so smoothly for everyone.
The man at the booth takes my documents, and flips through them.
“Fill this out,” he says, handing me a Temporary Export Permit (TIP) form.
Standing at a table on the other side of the road, I fill in the form as fast as I can. Between the copy of my passport and the copy of my registration, all the information is already there. However, forms must be filled out.
I return to the booth.
“Sorry, this is for a motorcycle?” the man asks after I work my way to the front of the line.
“Yes,” I say.
My heart skips a beat.
Seriously, it was kind of fun getting turned away at the first border and being forced to race into the night to gain the second. However, I don't know what I'll do if they stop me or Rocinante from entering Laos at this point.
“Sorry, you need to go over there,” he says, pointing toward booth D, where a small line has formed.
Standing behind a young couple with a blue book and two Thai passports, I wonder what kind of vehicle they are bringing into Laos. A grumpy officer who I can barely see through the window hands my paperwork back to me.
“Here,” he says. “Do this.”
The form is labeled “Information of Conveyance”. Throughout the entire document the word “conveyance” keeps popping up. I have no idea what the document is asking for.
“I wish to inform you of the conveyance as follows:
Kind of Conveyance
Name of Conveyance (if any)
Name of Owner of Conveyance
With those kinds of questions, I can't really bullshit my way around not knowing exactly what they mean when they use the word “conveyance”. Google resolves the issues, at least part of it: “Conveyance – the action or process of transporting someone or something from one place to another.”
I dutifully fill out all three copies of the form. However, the section that says I'll be arriving in “xxxx place” with the country listed as “Thailand” has me a bit befuddled. I'm entering Vientienne, Laos, which surely isn't in Thailand despite the Siam's best efforts to commandeer border land as possible.
Back in the shade of the awning of booth D, I'm forced to crouch down and lean in to pass the officer my paperwork.
The windows of the immigration booths are designed to be awkwardly low, even forcing Thais to double over in order to speak to the officer on the other side. It's a wonderful, effective example of unpleasant design, as it's very hard to fight with someone for any length of time in such am awkward position.)
Standing back up, I wait for the thudding sound of a stamp that will free me and Rocinante of Thailand. This, of course, is only the first hurdle – I still need to actually get into Laos.
“Bang, bang”, sounds a stamp inside the booth.
We're clear for export.
The bike needs be back in the country in 30 days. Failure to do so and it will incur penalties of 1,000 baht per day it's late with a cap of 10,000 baht.
Back on the bike, I roll through the immigration checkpoint, waving my TEP at the officer.
Thai and Laos flags run down the sides of the road one after the other every ten meters or so. On the far side of the Thai-Laos Friendship Bridge looms the Laos Immigration checkpoint, which is as big and complex as the one on the Thai side of the bridge.
The flags are now from ASEAN member nations. Then I spot a Japanese flag, as well as the communist hammer and sickle on a red flag and an American flag.
I park the motorcycle in the heat of the noonday sun. There aren't any bikes at the checkpoint, at least not on this side of the border.
One of the booths between me and Laos is marked “Private Car”. At the booth, a young officer flips through my passport. He's clearly confused by what I'm attempting to accomplish.
He steps out of the booth and crosses the street to ask a senior immigration officer, who is dressed in full military attire, stripes and stars on his breast, what's to be done about me.
Bottom line: I don't have a visa.
The men point me toward the far side of the complex, where there is a visas on arrival registration desk.
At the window, I pay 35 dollars, hand them my passport, the necessary form and an unattractive picture of me in a blue tie with a scraggly goatee.
With nowhere to sit while waiting near the pick up window, I uncomfortable stand, preparing for the moment that an official walks up to me and informs me that the bike won't be allowed into Laos. Or, they find the drone and refuse to let the drone into the country. While sifting through forums about making the crossing into Laos, I stumbled across one adventure rider's account of Laos custom officials refusing to allow him to bring his drone into the country. I, of course, am willing to take the risk. It seems unlikely that they'll find the drone or that the quadcopter is really banned in Laos. Though, you never know.
With sweat accumulating on my brow in the furious, dry heat, I pick up my passport and visa. Behind the Private Car booth is a customs booth where fees are paid for foreign vehicles crossing into the country are paid.
I stand in line.
In general, there seems to be a great deal of standing in line while trying to cross borders with a motorcycle.
There is a rhythm to it all. Filled out forms are passed to the fat woman inside the booth, there is the sound of a printer humming away, then a stamp, stamp, stamp.
A fee is paid and little ticket is handed over.
Rocinante is close to being an international traveler.
So close, yet disaster feels eminent. I can feel it in my chest. I can't relax.
The squat woman at the counter takes my paperwork and passes it to another woman. I wait on a little cement island between two lanes of traffic that lead into Laos.
I wait and wait and wait.
A Thai woman in gold heels and a red dress that's too tight on her walks up and gets something taken care of. The male officers who are searching people's bags for contraband and checking their vehicles, watch her as she walks. Though she's not a beautiful woman, she's put a lot of effort into her look today. I, of course, watch her walk away in her high heels.
“Take this over there,” the woman says giving me back the pile of documents I handed her.
On the opposite side of the lanes of immigration booths, there is a row of small shops, most of which sell insurance. Before the insurance companies, there is a government office. Inside three men, all in uniforms, lounge at their desks.
The first one nods me over to the a second one, a gray haired senior officer, who nods me to a desk sitting at the back of the room on a slightly elevated platform. I hesitate, not sure exactly where I'm supposed to go.
He stands and goes to the head desk.
“One month? Is this your first time?”
“We can't do one month for the first time. I can only give you two weeks,” he says.
Because he “can” only give me two weeks and my visa is for a month, I ask if it's possible to come back and get an extension for the TIP. I'd read on the forums that you should always shoot for a one-month TIP, but expect to only get two weeks.
There is a resounding thunk as the gray-haired officer stamps and signs off on my TIP. That should be the last hurtle, but still the tightness in my chest won't loosen, It's like a knot that's held a constant weight so long that it's singed tight, no longer remembering what it's like to be in any other position than this uncomfortably twisted, tied up one.
The bright sun beams down on my black riding gear when I step back outside. The squat woman at the custom's booth takes my paperwork, handing it to a young officer who seems to be getting trained up.
Slowly, he hunts and pecks at a keyboard, putting all the information from the form into the digital world. Then, he hits print.
At this point, I'm clutching a TIP, TEP, receipts and bits of paper that I”m not even sure what they're for. What started as an attempt to look organized with my black folder of documents and a ziplock bag of essential documents as become a chaotic jumble.
“40,000 kip,” the squat woman behind the counter says. I'd been looking at the rates posted above the booth for a good ten minutes now, keenly aware that motorcycles weren't listed, which had done nothing to ease my anxiety.
I'm thinking the fee should be 25,000 kip, no more than a car, but I am not about to argue with the woman. I just want to get on my bike and get across the border. I give her the money, which she tosses into an open wooden desk drawer of unsorted cash.
Looking at the ticket she hands me, I confirmed the obvious, she ripped me off by about 15,000 kip. The receipt is for 25,000 kip. However, with an exchange rate of 10,000 kip to a dollar, I'm not about to let a scam for US$1.50 to ruin my day.
The first insurance place I walk into, one with a big welcoming sign, doesn't sell motorcycle insurance. However, at the far end of the strip mall Allianz does, they tell me.
There are a handful of men sitting around the Allianz office, killing time in the air-conditioned cube. Behind a desk, a man runs the numbers and starts printing out everything for the insurance, failing to even quote the price for me before doing so.
Though I'm in a nonnegotiable situation, the price ends up being insanely reasonable, just over 200 baht for two weeks of mandatory insurance.
“Here you go. This is the sticker for your bike and here is a receipt,” he says, handing the documents to me.
A single long metal bar is now the only thing that stands between me and the freedom I hope to find on the roads of Laos.
I stop the bike right in front of the red and white painted bar, and shuffle through the pile of papers I've been given for the one the officer needs to see as proof that I'm allowed to bring the bike into the country.
Thankfully, they don't ask to search my bag as I hand them a copy of my TIP. The bar is raised and away I go.
Taking an immediate right, I'm headed, well, I don't know where I'm headed. I know I'm supposed to be headed to Vientiane, but there's no sign to indicate that my snap decision to go right was a worthy one.
Driving once again on the right side of the road, I navigate the potholes and the light traffic, before finally pulling into a gas station to ask if I'm headed the right direction. The border crossing is very close to Laos capital, which explains why it was easily sacked and looted by Siam in 1827, yet the quality of the road and the ramshackle businesses along it are a far cry from what I'd imagine a capital city to look like.
“Which way to Vientiane” I ask the gas station attendant. The young man assured me that I'm heading the right direction and gives me a big thumbs up and a “thank you” after I told him I was American. There isn't the slightest trace of irony in his gestures.
Up head, a young woman is grabbing at her hair, lifting it off of her blood splattered neck. She's driving a scooter with one hand, while the other tries to deal with the damp, dark blood seeping across her scalp. She turns off the main road as I pass her. Her legs are also covered with blood, as is her shirt. Looking back, I realize that she's parked her bike.
Though I've been trained in first aid many times even taking a wilderness first responder course, which is a pretty intense training, I've rarely been forced to practice any of it. The lack of practice makes me very uncomfortable when trying to administer any medical aid other than a band-aid. However, Dice Travels theme this week, which I've been failing at because I can barely help myself, is helping people.
I pull over just past the lights, and get out my first aid kit. With a smile, I approach the pretty young woman.
Going through the first aid kit I realize I don't even have plastic gloves, which is a bad sign. I pull out a handful of wet wipes and hand them to here. Like a injured animal, she's nervous around me, pulling away as I try to get a better idea of how bad the cut on her head is.
Two local woman approach us and speak what sounds like Thai, though in fact is Laos, to her.
Do I say I'm a doctor, due to language barriers, and push the point so I can try to take care of her with my limited experience in first aid? She's a conscious person refusing medical assistance though, so do I do nothing? If I could speak to her, maybe I could get her to relax and help her get to a hospital or a real doctor. As is, I'm just standing here, uselessly handing her wet naps that she's barely using to wipe the blood off of her face and legs. She seems to be refusing the advice from the two young local women as well.
It sounds like she was in a motorbike crash, though the scooter she's on seems to be in fine.
Unconfident in my abilities and uncomfortable trying to force the point, I stand with the two women and watch the bloody woman drive away.
Back on the road, I'm hunting down a coffee and a croissant. These are two things I'm especially excited about, as Laos was formally a French colony. Additionally, I'm in need of WiFi to figure out where I'm going to stay tonight or at least come up with some options and let the die decided.
I stop at the Laos chain Parisien Cafe.
Deeply disappointed by the pieces of cheap, white American bread used in a ham and cheese toastie, I guzzle down some water, let Pink know that I made it into Laos successfully and start looking up where to stay.
Travel Fish describes Vientiane, the capital of the forgotten country of Laos, as being “characterized by broad, often leafy boulevards, a riverside promenade, creaking colonial mansions painted in sun-bleached tropical hues and mod 1960’s era villas with large gardens dripping in bougainvillea.”
It makes the dusty, shit-hole of a capital sound charming. Admittedly, Travel Fish also explains that “for many years it was a sleepy backwater capital of an equally backwater state.” Even so, I'm unimpressed as Rocinante and I drive through the streets of hotels, bars and guesthouses.
It is hard to not imagine that the capital would be full of these wonderful French colonial buildings creeping up on the banks of the might Mekong River. Instead, the unimpressive buildings are set pretty far back, and what views are available from the second- and third-storey floors of cafes and hotels are less than inspiring.
After ditching my gear in one of the big dorm rooms of Lucky Backpackers, I stumble over to a stylish, renovated cafe on Quai Fa Ngum Road, which runs along the Mekong. The French-colonial style of the cafe/bar strikes a cord. This is what I'm looking for. There are the black and white photos of people eating at cafes in Paris and a narrow wooden staircase leading up to the big windows on the second floor. Unfortunately, the view from the windows is a rat's nest of electrical wires completely obscuring any possible view of the Mekong River on the other side of the unappealing Chao Anouvong Park.
Nonetheless, a coffee followed by two cocktails, chosen by the dice, and a comfortable leather upholstered chair do the trick.
Pink and her sister have arrived and already checked into their hotel, River Side Palace. The hotel is only a couple minutes away, they're come straight over before dinner.
After dinner, we part ways. The dice shuffle me into a massage parlor in preparation for a big day of driving up to Vang Vieng – the doped up party haven for backpackers in Laos, perhaps all of Southeast Asia.