Journey to beautiful La....okay, back to Bangkok!

Trip Start Aug 25, 2003
Trip End Jul 23, 2004

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Friday, December 5, 2003

Our flight to Vientiane was smooth, although our lunch wasn't exactly culinary paradise: cold hot dogs wrapped in bread and a generous serving of what I think may once have been mayonnaise. In our original travel plan, we were going to overland from Hanoi to Vientiane, a reputed horror ride of 24-36 hours over atrocious roads in a bus piloted by a speed-crazed bus driver...ok, maybe backpacker stories have to be taken with a grain of skepticism (except, of course, my stories), but it was supposed to be an endurance test for one's abilities to avoid claustrophobia and sleep sitting straight up. Still, being the hardened travelers we are, we were unfazed. Until we heard rumors from a couple of people that there was some kind of political unrest in Laos, and someone had heard that there were some Western tourists killed...The information was hazy, and there is that skepticism of rumor, so we did some checking with on-line news sites and our embassy in Cambodia, and discovered that the rumors were at least partly true. In three incidents from January to March of this year, suspected H'Mong gunman fired on buses travelling the road from Vientiane to Luang Prabang; this is the backpacker "beaten path" through Laos. In one of the attacks, two Swiss bicyclists who happened to be riding near the bus were also killed. It seemed, then, that things quieted down: until August, when a bomb went off in the Vientiane bus station. The government stated that the bomb was unrelated to the bus attacks; a few of the news reports we read seemed to disagree with this "official" view. At this point, Phil and I adopted a "wait and see" attitude about traveling in Laos; when we researched again in the middle of October, we found another bus had been shot at on October 11th, and that buses were now carrying armed guards on the Vientiane-Luang Prabang route. Although everyone we met waxed poetic about Laos, the beauty of the scenery, and the fabulously laid-back attitude of the people, the end goal of this trip has always been to return alive so that I may once again work midnight shift at Bon Secours Hospital. Oh, and bring my husband back in one piece, too. That decided, we flew into Vientiane for four days of total Laotian relaxation, crossed the Thai border (only 17 km south of the capital), and were again back in the Land of Smiles. I can see the draw of Laos; it was the ultimate in no pressure. I can also see why people travelling from Laos to Viet Nam hated the high pressure of the Viet Nam sales approach, and ended up hating Viet Nam. I loved Viet Nam, it is my favorite country so far, but we came from Cambodia, where the hawkers are persistent and even the comparatively well-off kids hit up tourists: I had a cheeky little monster on a full-suspension bike ask if he could have my watch.
We passed back into Thailand across the Mekong River, and into the town of Nong Khai. It was only a few hour stop, waiting for our night train to Bangkok, but I think we found our future retirement spot. Following a tree-lined gravelly road past these neat open floor plan houses and art studios, we ended up at Mut Mee Guesthouse; really, it should be named "Ok, Admit It, You Want To Give It All Up and Move Here". They have lounge chairs and hammocks by the river for relaxing, and a beautiful thatched-roof patio for relaxing, and these cute, bamboo-y bungalows that looked perfect for...relaxing. Plus, they had great food and a smiley French couple running it, and Phil had to pry my fingers off of the patio roof support when it was time to catch the train. Sigh...
Back in Bangkok, just to do the required paperwork stuff of traveling: flight reconfirmations, visas into the next country, getting enough malaria pills to last another 3 months....You know, typical vacation stuff. Adamant we would not pay the $10 commission for a travel agency to procure our visas to Myanmar for us, we found the number to the Myanmar embassy and called to find out the hours. We called 15 times over 3 hours. but no one ever answered. Upon arriving at the embassy, we discovered why: there was actually only one person doing anything, and there was a huge line of people waiting to talk to this one person. We were instructed to come back the next day right when the embassy opened, and we might get to talk to that one in-demand person. To make a long story short, we got to the embassy even before it opened, and we still waited for almost 5 hours. At least it was air-conditioned. And that long visit ended on an amusing note; when the visa guy read my application and saw I was a nurse, he said,"Is it bad to have a liver hemangioma?" This caught me a little off guard, not only because I haven't really thought about nursing stuff for a few months now (except when the German couple asked me about constipation; completely different story), but also because my field is labor and delivery, which isn't a heavy liver hemangioma unit. I dug deep for that part of my brain labelled "Other Stuff I Learned in Nursing School" and said that, if it was small, he would probably just need to get it checked out again, and if it got bigger, then they might do some tests to find out the cause. He seemed pleased and said that I was agreeing with his doctor, I was pleased that my response was fairly noncommittal and probably didn't endanger my license, and we both smiled big smiles at each other. He collected some brochures about Myanmar for us (no one else had left with any brochures, so I felt special) and, still big smiles, said we could get our passports back at 3 pm. After we left, I told Phil that I hoped that his liver hemangioma didn't explode or his doctor call with a terminal diagnosis before 3, or he would probably burn our passports and then shoot us on sight. Instead, when we returned at 3, we found a long line of people waiting for their passports, but my new best friend saw us and waved us to the front of the line because our visas were the only ones done. Three cheers for nurses!
This wait was repeated when we went for our Indian visas, but at least we could leave and eat lunch while we were waiting, so it wasn't so bad. In retrospect, it does seem worth it to pay the commission for one of the Khao San Road shops to get your visa for you; still, it was worth the wait at the Myanmar embassy just to experience my first VIP treatment. I think it bears repeating: three cheers for nurses! And may that man and his liver hemangioma live a long and healthy life...
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