Day 132: Securing motorcycle TIP in Luang Prabang
The dates on the Temporary Import Permit (TIP) and Temporary Export Permit (TEP) did not match. Image: UN
LOOKING sharp, well as sharp as I can look as a biker on a year-long journey, I kick a leg over Rocinante, my motorcycle, and head down the road toward the Customs Office in Luang Prabang to extend my Temporary Import Permit (TIP).
Greg, still in his white dress shirt from this morning, is sitting at little table in the shade of a tree outside his guesthouse. He's chugging a bottle of Fanta Red – let's not get caught up in the supposed flavors of Fanta – Fanta comes in colors.
He shoots me a dirty look, tapping his head, as I drive of f in my white button down, slacks and dress shoes.
“Where's your fucking helmet you idiot?” he's non-verbally asking.
Of course, he's right. He seems to almost always be right. It's just that I've gotten into the habit of popping around town without a helmet.
Sighing, I turn the bike onto Khem Khong Road, which runs abreast the Mekong River. I park next to a little tuk-tuk in the shade of the wide boulevard, before getting off the bike and walk back to the guesthouse to get my helmet.
“Yeah, I know. I know. You're right,” I say to Greg as I pass him on foot.
“You want to give the right image mate, right? That's why you're wearing those clothes,” Greg says, yet another good point.
I arrive at the Customs Office at about lunch time, which explains why the large nondescript building on Phou Vao Road, right before it Ts into Phothisarath Road, is empty. I should have taken care of the TIP first thing in the morning, as tomorrow is the last day on the permit. However, when you're drunk and arrive home with the sun chasing you into bed, a slow start to the “next day” is reasonable.
When I return a couple hours later, officers are there to assist. The building is a warehouse-sized room that has been partitioned off with large glass walls and low ceilings to allow for the paper pushers to work with the modern convenience of air conditioning.
A middle-aged woman behind a sliding window points me down the wide hallway to a room on the right, where I'll be helped.
Inside, two interns, or who I presume are interns in their crisp uniforms, sit behind a desk, giggling and looking at a phone.
A pleasant looking woman about my age is in a navy blue uniform standing as she types something into a computer that looks like it was designed in the 90s.
“I have a Thai-registered motorcycle; I'd like to extend my temporary import permit. Is that possible,” I ask the woman.
“Let me see documents.”
I hand my documents over to her as she reviews them. I've not committed to getting the the extension done here, as it's expensive, while it would be completely free if I do a border run.
Earlier this morning, Greg and I reviewed what I needed to bring and the possible costs of the process. Basically, we outlined two possible plans: one was coughing up the cash and getting the TIP extended; the other was asking the officer to make a call to the closest international border crossing with Thailand and confirm that it's possible for me to get everything sorted out there for free. When Greg first extend the permit for his bike it cost him 40,000 or 80,000 Kip per day plus a flat 50,000 Kip fee. It was either 40,000 Kip for the TIP or the visa extension, he couldn't remember which one – either way, we're talking about a couple hundred dollars to stay in Laos for another 14 days.
“The guy there is very nice. He was really helpful. Just have him call the border and double-check for you. Then, make sure you get his name and his personal telephone number, this way you can contact him if there are any issues,” Greg said. “At any given border there is always at least one or two people who know how to make things happen.”
The woman, flips through the stack of papers that I handed her. Admittedly, I'm just wanting for her to let me see her boss, so I can ask him some questions. It's sexiest, but true.
“You're permit expires today,” she points out.
“Oh, no. Really?”
Well, looks like I'll be paying a fine if I do the border run, which is the primary plan given that the TIP extension is so expensive..
However, before I have a chance to ask any questions, she says she needs to see the bike.
Her modest, round-toed black heels clack on the tiles as we walk out to the bike.
“Do you want a job in Laos?” she asks.
“What? I don't know, I've just gotten into Laos. So, I really don't know.”
“We're looking for a manager.”
“Oh, yeah... I really don't know. What's your name?”
“My nick name is Nikku, like Japanese,” she says.
Nikku is also looking for someone to help design brochures for the resort that's hiring a manager.
Back inside, Nikku starts drawing up the paperwork for the TIP without confirming that I actually want it. Nervously, I ask how much it's going to cost.
“50,000 Kip,” she says. “You have to pay at the bank, but it's already 4:30, so I think you'll have to pay tomorrow. I'll make it so you can just pay tomorrow.”
And just like that, the everything was stamped and signed off on. I will receive the TIP and my passport back tomorrow when I returned with the bank receipt confirming that I paid the 50,000 Kip fee, which is roughly six dollars.
“Thank you so much! I'll see you tomorrow,” I tell Nikku.
Ecstatic from the implausible success at the Customs Office, I'm excited to get back and gloat to Greg. Not only was it incredibly efficient and easy, it was dirt cheap. The only thing that I could guess was the reason behind the massive difference in costs between Gren and I is that I'm far better looking than him. Just kidding, it most likely had to do with the fact that Rocinante is a Thai-register bike, while Greg's beast is registered in Australia.
However, when I return to the guesthouse, Greg's already taken off to see if the battery for his 650 KTM that's supposedly been charging at the only big bike shop in town is going to hold up. It's a bit optimistic, but it's the first step in trouble shooting the electrical system on the bike.
Without being able to do my look-how-lucky-I-am dance in front of Greg, I drop Markus a message on Facebook.
We agree to meet up for dinner. As I suspected, given that he's living out in the jungle with his Laos wife, Markus is in the mood for falang food – basically anything that's not local.
I sit in a large smoking chair opposite L'Elephant, where we decided to meet. The colonial-style, high-end restaurant specializes in French, Laos and fusion food. One glance at the menu was enough to scare me into mentally settling on a pumpkin soup, which was the only thing that I could reasonably afford.
“Oh, we're not eating here. It was only a place to meet,” Markus informs me, much to my relief, after he comes striding up the road from his guesthouse.
“Okay, where do you want to eat?”
“Not sure. There's this place that does amazing avocado and bacon sandwiches, but I can't remember where. Let's walk around and see. Maybe a pizza?”
I search online for the avocado-bacon baguette sandwiches, but only find blogs that are describing street food near the town's night market.
“Sure, let's do pizza.”
TripAdivsor recommends Pizza Phan Luang, which is across the street from us, much to Markus's surprise, as it he thinks the pizza there is rubbish.
“Sorry, I'm a bit brain dead at the moment,” he says, waffling about with indecision.
“What about Secret Pizza?” I ask.
“Where is it? Okay, can we take your bike?”
Markus looks at the map on my phone.
“That's really far away. I don't know,” he says.
This, of course, is the perfect time to utilize the dice. However, I have a feeling that Markus might not play along with some outlandish option chosen by the die, which would create an uncomfortable situation, as I'd have to ditch him to follow the Will of the Die.
“What's Greg up to?” he asks.
Eventually, we decided that we'll chill on the steps of my guesthouse, waiting for Greg to get back.
The city is a lovely blue with the sun tucked away behind the jungle hills on the far side of the Mekong River as we sit back on the tile steps and watch the world.
I run up to a little store past Kinnely Guesthouse to buy a beer for Markus and a water and juice for myself – I've no desire to be drinking tonight.
“I'd tried to have kids with several woman before,” Markus explains as the conversation turns toward his son. “I went to get myself tested, to see if I could have a children.”
His swimmers were a bit slow, but the doctor said it was possible.
“He said I could either go through that expensive medical procedure that everyone does or I could try with a younger woman, as her eggs will be fresher,” he explains. “We slept together one time, and then three weeks later, she calls me: she missed her period, she was pregnant. I thanked God for this gift.”
Markus isn't religious, but it was one of those moments that it's hard not to feel like there was divine intervention. The girl, who had previously been a prostitute, was 17 at the time, Markus told me.
“Her father wanted more money for her, but I made it clear: I wouldn't be an ATM to the family. My money was going to go toward providing a life for her,” Markus said. “His wife said, 'No, no, no, we want this one.' She understood that this was best for her daughter and them, that I was good.”
The dowry was arranged at about 500 dollars, plus the traditional gold necklace for the woman and some home improvements for the family house.
“I made two contracts. One for getting her and one for if she needed to go back,” he explains.
As it did the night before, talking about Markus's son brought an extraordinary light to his face, despite the weight of a hangover, which is currently being cured with a few more beers.
Greg arrives, as does Lukas, joining us on the steps. Lukas, who apparently tends to be a serious tight ass when it comes to finances – how else do you manage to travel the world on your motorcycle for two years straight – rattles Greg by buying ten beers for the fridge.
The three of them sip beers. I stick to my water. Greg pulls out a small, heavy speaker and puts on some music for us.
“I assume this means none of you is going to have actual food?” I ask.
“Now that I'm started on beer, I'm fine,” they all say in one form or another. I pop out for a quick bowl of noodles, returning to find them in the same place, happily talking shit.
Shortly after I return to my place on the steps, a small group of young Chinese women walk by. There's a subtle commotion as they look at us and appear to be on the verge of doing something.
“Can I take a picture with you,” one of the girls asks,walking up to us. She's stunningly beautiful, in the classical Asian way, and wearing a light blue floral patterned sundress.
“Of course,” the guys say. I make room to one side of me for the girl, while one of her friends joins the picture on the other side.
There is a bit of gasp when they find out that Markus is Swedish, which he gloats about later.
“Here, we'll add you on Facebook,” Markus, forever trying to pick up women, says to the girls.
“In China, we don't have Facebook,” the girls say with a smile.
The girls are exactly the opposite of the sort of Main Land Chinese tourists who are getting a bad rap in Thailand and much of the rest of the world. As fairly new, often package-based, tourists, budget Chinese travelers often fail to respect or understand cultural norms of where they are going and instead act as if they are back in China. It's the same problem that once lead to Americans being labeled as obnoxious travelers. Basically, there is a learning curve for tourists as they figure out how to be tourists. These girls, however, are on a different level, which kind of melts my heart – or perhaps it's simply the one girl's absolute beauty that's making me all mushy inside.
The girls start to stroll away. The beautiful one moves with perhaps a little extra sway in her hips as the four of us, like Meerkats, attentively watch them disappear down the street.
“We should have invited them to go out with us,” one of the guys says.
“Oh, I'd eat that little 22-year-old pussy for hours,” Greg says, giving a quick demonstration of what it might look like. “Lick that ass hole. They don't eat pussy in Asia like we do. The guys won't do it.”
“I don't know. Her knees were a bit weird,” Lukas, who was the least interested in the girls, notes.
I hadn't noticed her knees. To be honest, I'd not noticed much below her neck. She reminded me of a stunning girl I'd nearly fallen for in Yangoon.
“I bet they're going out. I'm sure we'll find them at Utopia if we go,” I chime in.
It's like the girl was a hacker who dropped in some code that was simply overriding everything else in my system. There goes getting some work done. There goes an early night. There goes not drinking. The idea of possibly tracking the girl and her friends down at Utopia – it's their last night in town – was momentarily the only thing that piqued my curiosity in life.
Dimly lit, the main area of Utopia, not far from the little tables among the bombs and chairs in the garden along the Khan River and the beach volleyball setup, is a tangle of young backpackers lounging on cushions on the floor. Hanging from the teak pillars of an enormous open-aired structure that seemed to be inspired by an African hut designed for giants hang antique scooters and motorbikes.
The Chinese girls aren't here. At least not that we can see.
Lukas walks off to find some German girls that he met on a bus earlier, while Greg, Markus and I attempt to find some room on the cushions after grabbing our drinks.
Greg feels his age in the crowd, saying something about it to Markus, who simply denies even understanding what Greg's talking about, though they are both 45-year-old men in a crowd of 22 year-old girls and boys.
One of the bikes on the wall is the Honda Super Cub – the most produced motor vehicle in the world. With a certain amount of relish and awe, Greg starts to recount the history of the the Super Cub, which has been in continuous production since 1958.
“So Fujusawa wanted to design a bike that could be driven with one hand while carrying a bowl of noodles with the other,” Greg is explaining. Eventually, we move on to talking about a few of the other classic bikes on display. I say talk, but in fact, I'm just listening and trying to soak it all up.
Sometime after 11pm, Utopia starts turning on the lights and kicking everyone out. Markus, who has a long drive to Vang Vieng, where he'll stop for a mini-drug binge, before returning home, needs to get a real night's rest.
I offer to drive him back to the guesthouse, as we drove to Utopia together, and then promise to meet up with Lukas and Greg at the Luang Prabang Bowling Alley.
“Is there food anywhere?” Markus wants to know as we drive along the Khan River.
“Yeah, I think I know somewhere.” He ends up buying us both avocado-bacon baguettes from a street vendor. We laugh and wave to Lukas and Greg as they come zipping past us on an old Honda Wind motorcycle.
I give Markus a hug goodbye at the gate to his guesthouse, before climbing back on the motorcycle and heading to the bowling alley to school Greg is a bit of boyish bowling rivalry – because bowling is what you do after midnight in Luang Prabang.