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  • Writer's pictureJoanna

Biding My Time | Vying to Leave Laos | Laos

Updated: Feb 7

Biding my time and vying to finally leave Laos...


When I finally left Muang Ngoy, I caught the 9 am public river boat back to Nong Khiaw.


I'd depleted my time here and was delighted to be leaving this time. Beside myself, if we're being honest.


I was cautious this time not to have spent all my money, knowing there was no ATM in town. I had to consider the riverboat fee and the tuk-tuk cost to take me to the bus station AND the bus to Luang Prabang. Running out of money came demonstrably close, but I managed to pull through with a few kip to my name and make it back down the river. These modes of transportation (river boat, tuk-tuk, and bus) operate on cash only. There were no debit or credit card options... and I wasn't prepared to be left in the lurch.


As I said goodbye, I promised Penny I would write them an exemplary review… despite the leaky shower and overload of invasive ants that had recently moved into my bungalow. She was reasonably confident that it would only take my one review to bump their ratings back up. Considering all the horrendous reviews I'd read, I had serious doubts that would be the case, but still, I promised.


I felt I'd formed a friendship connection with Penny, and she seemed genuinely sad to see me go, but as I was making my exit, my burdensome pack managed to knock over one of her precious cactus plants. The vase hit the tile flooring and shattered all over the restaurant entranceway. Shit. I felt awful and was as apologetic as possible, but her sadness immediately shifted from me leaving to the plant, so I ended up going on a low note.


The boat reached Nong Khiaw just after 10 am, and there was a tuk-tuk truck there, waiting to haul a bunch of us off to the bus station for immediate departure. Three buses leave daily for Luang Prabang, and I was hell-bent and determined to be on one of them. I guess spending one more night in Nong Khiaw wouldn't have killed me, but I was set just to go.  


I’d spent too much time in this town. 


It was time to rip the bandaid off and not drag my northern Laos experience out further.

To put it bluntly… I also didn't want to risk running into Tea. I couldn't even imagine having to endure that encounter. I figured that would be more than uncomfortable. More than awkward.


The 10:30 am bus was already beginning to load passengers when our tuk-tuk pulled into the parking lot. This bus van was nicer than the ones I'd become accustomed to... perhaps.

I didn't know what it was, but it seemed more posh. 

Was it newer?

Cleaner?

More spacious?

When I say posh, I don't mean posh at all. The word I'm looking for is plush. The seats were more plush...


Of course, true to Lao form, the men running around trying to figure out the logistics of each bus ride did their utmost to jam as many of us as they could inside. What I had initially considered as spacious quickly turned into 'stuffed.' Laotians push the boundaries on maximum capacity and excel in the process. We were set to go once the van was void of open seat cracks, aisles, or legroom.


Or at least, that's what we thought.


Each time we were all in, semi-comfortable... and just about to depart… the driver would suddenly turn the engine off, step out of the vehicle and open the side door. Then some seemingly important, short, stocky, dirty little man with rancid smoke breath, sporting a sneering smile with quite a few missing teeth, would almost climb in, demanding to see our tickets. 


This happened a few times.


He would count us.

He would mutter things under his breath.

He would yell at his colleagues.

He would laugh at us.

He would point and say things we couldn't possibly even begin to understand.

He would stare at his clipboard, shaking his head.

He would scratch his face.

Then, he would close the sliding door and walk away.


Ok... cool. Onwards and outwards, please...


Then he'd be back.


This happened 5 or 6 times.

Like I've said before. Zero organization.

Let's go already.


None of us knew what was going on. At all. We figured another passenger needed to get on, and they probably were trying to find the necessary room. I may never know. A few times, he would insist that random passengers scribble their names down on a piece of paper, but how that helped the situation baffles me.


Each time the side door opened, someone would open the back latch and rearrange the luggage. It provoked an uneasy feeling, not knowing if our packs were being removed. I couldn't even fathom the thought of my luggage being abandoned.


Finally, we drove away…


I wasn't thrilled to be going back to Luang Prabang.  

I'd already spent enough time there as well. 


But on the other hand, Luang Prabang represented a certain degree of civilization I hadn't experienced in a long time. Over three weeks, to be precise. I would have a hotel with an actual toilet and a genuine warm shower. There would be massage parlors, night markets, shops, and so many different restaurants to choose from. 


I was thrilled.


I spent my two days hanging out in Luang Prabang, lazing about, not doing much except wandering. Yes, I indulged in a couple of foot massages and even treated myself to sushi one evening. I made a few silly purchases from the night market, making my pack even heavier and more massive.


It was time to downsize.


On my second day there, I made a valiant effort to make the trek to the city Post Office to send a package of unwantables home. My luck... it was closed for renovations. 


For an entire MONTH. 


Seriously. My luck... always. 


A security guard was standing where the front entrance of the Post Office should rightfully have been, and I approached her to inquire where the temporary location could be found.


She just kept shaking her head. 

"Close," she repeated incessantly. "No post."


So.... there's no post office for a month? Nowhere????

No alternative? No makeshift station to suffice during the construction?

The answer was a harsh no.

Closed. One month. 


Does no one in this city need to collect mail or send a package for a month?  I didn't get it.  I couldn't get it. But… I guess life doesn't always want me to be able to figure everything out. My luck.


Guess I was forced to haul my crap around for a little bit longer. 


Laos kills me. 


I had booked the train from Luang Prabang to Vientiane. I probably preferred to fly, but the train was a cheaper option, and I convinced myself that it was less hassle, despite the horror stories I'd heard from fellow travelers and read online. People talked about their luggage being trifled through, things taken away, interrogations, arguments… 


Second thought... perhaps more hassle??


Well… it was. 


Reserving a spot on the train proved more tricky than it should have been. I had to upload my passport, which I've never even had to do booking international flights. I had to include where I was currently staying and where I was planning on going. The form demanded dates, contacts, and complete addresses. I felt like I was preparing to board a space shuttle. The entire process was arduous.


Getting to the train station was a feat, as it was about 25 minutes outside of Luang Prabang. I find it curious how all the train stations, boat piers, and bus stations are situated so far out of town. I think they specifically designed them to give more work to the taxis and tuk-tuk drivers. It must be it. There can be no other explanation.


The train station was behemothic... and in the middle of nowhere, making it appear even bigger and more powerful. The long stretch of people waiting in a queue to get inside was berserk. So much so that I hardly paid it any attention, thinking it was merely a group of large tour groups bundled together for the journey.


I skipped past the line and went up to the front doors. A guard inside saw me coming and immediately rose to lock the door before I could open it and step inside. She made a meager gesture with her left hand, almost motioning me to the lineup.


What?


No. Shit. 


Really???  There must have been 500 people standing in the line.  Maybe more.


I had no other choice. I did what I was instructed and took my spot at the end of the line. It was better than I'd initially figured. The line moved quickly, and security wasn't half as strict as those at the airports. We were all allowed to keep our shoes on, and I didn't have to take my computer out.


The train went quickly, and I arrived in Vientiane within a few hours. 


Now... Most people I’d spoken to about traveling to Vientiane either told me not to bother going... or not to bother going for too long.


I was not expecting much. 

At. All.


Even the hotel I had booked had the most horrendous reviews online; I tried not to let it worry me too much. It was cheap, cheerful, and in a great location. As soon as I exited the train station terminal, the hoards of tuk-tuk and taxi drivers were ready to pounce and take our money. I opted for the public bus... though I had yet to determine which would take me to where I needed to go. There were quite a few of them, and they were filling up, so I jumped on the one that looked like it might end up where I needed to go.


I was right. 

Funny that. 

I’m not usually right about anything related to travel. 



The pub took me directly to the central bus station.... about a 15-minute walk from my hotel. My pack seemed to be getting heavier with every step, and I was surprised I made it, having that amount of dead weight on my shoulders. But I did.


I was desperate to get rid of half of it.


Hopefully, they wouldn’t be renovating the Vientiane Post Office.


I loved Vientiane.


There were so many unique restaurants and pubs, charming cafés, decorative alleyways overgrown with flowers and foliage... so many hidden gems in the downtown core that one couldn't help but be captivated by its youthful yet historic appeal.


Every step seemed fun.


You had to be very careful to avoid misjudging your step, as downtown Vientiane was full of hazards, ranging from uneven pavement and potholes to broken asphalt and various other dangerous obstructions.


Tuk-tuk drivers hung around on the side of the road, awaiting their next fare... gossiping, picking at their teeth or else fast asleep in hammocks, strung up in the back of their colourful wagons.


Road sweepers wandered back and forth on the sidewalk, endlessly sweeping the dirt for no apparent reason. Shop owners sat, perched on the concrete curbs, watching the day creep by and anxiously seeking out customers.


It wasn't all fun and games, though. I had some serious work to be done, and important things needed to be done.


  • I took my laundry to the front desk. I wanted to do my final Laos pack with nothing but clean clothes. I needed a fresh start in Thailand.


  • I found a post office and rid myself of half the weight I’d been hauling around. Shoulder misery over.


  • I found an optical place and had my glasses straightened, tightened, and realigned. I had scratched them up fairly severely while on the moped in Vang Vieng, and they were no longer in prime condition. The scratches matched my current hobo attire.



I felt disgusting. Really repulsive.


I know that's an awful thing to say about oneself... but for the first time in my travels, I felt old, unapproachable, and unattractive in every sense. Blame it on the lack of sleep, the cold (or absent) showers, the stress, the hard mattresses, the lumpy pillows, the squat toilets, the collapse of interest in my current location, or the toxic environment I'd tolerated. Take the combination of the lot, and there I was... roly-poly old me. 


My hair was getting more and more grey.

The bags under my eyes were puffier.

My skin was sagging, and my wrinkles were becoming more and more defined.

It didn't matter how much I ate or didn't eat, I felt bloated and chunky.


Everything about me was drab and tired and uninspiring.


I hit a real low. 


Now... do NOT get me wrong. I'm ok with aging. I embrace my grey, and I see my wrinkles as evidence that I laughed and smiled a lot. I was in need of some tender loving care, and I knew I had to let the negative fall by the wayside. I had to focus on the positives and what I could control.


And do you know what I was able to control?


A spa day.


It was time to treat myself with some kindness, boost my spirits and kick myself in the ass. So that's exactly what I did...



I booked the spa.


  • I got a manicure.

  • I got a pedicure.

  • I got my hair highlighted and cut.

  • I got a neck massage.

  • I got a body scrub.

  • I got waxed.


$147.50 ~ Boom! Steal of a deal.


I felt like a million bucks! I walked out of there like I'd been smacked in the face with confidence. Gone was the haggard old witch that had hobbled in... out came someone who stood a little taller, walked with a bit of spring in her step, and smiled at everyone she passed. 


It was a new, rejuvenated me!


I needed to celebrate and do something monumental and worthy of my new image… but what?


So… I got on a bus and ventured 40 minutes outside of town to Buddha Park. 


What's Buddha Park?


Ya... I didn't know either.


I'd seen pictures on social media and it looked worthy of a visit, though I hadn't really done my reserach.


Was it worth it?


I don't know. I guess so. I don't know what I anticipated, so I don't know how to describe my reaction. Buddha Park was a big, open-air garden with giant Hindu and Buddha sculptures. It was a park with Buddhas. Lots of them. I don't know how I missed out on the interpretation bit... but I did.


I suppose I was expecting something more genuine and historically significant and less... touristy.


It was interesting and worthy of a few photos.



I must have waited on the bus back into the city for an eternity. That's what it felt like, anyway. Many people joined me on the road… and subsequently left because that's how long it took. Just when I was about to completely lose my shit right there in the middle of the dusty road, the bus appeared.


Once back at my hotel, I stopped at the front desk to pick up my clean laundry. No one was at the desk, so I dinged the little bell on the counter.


Ding… Ding... Ding Ding...


No one.


"Sabaide?" Hello????


Nothing.


Finally, I wandered into the back area and found the housekeeper sitting on the floor, brushing her hair. I recognized her immediately, as I'd only been there for a couple of nights, and already, she'd made herself known as a bit odd and overbearingly invasive. My room was directly off the hotel balcony, and I often hung out with my door wide open. A couple of times, she just walked in and looked around like she was casing the joint. She was always full of giggles and conversation, but as I don't speak a stitch of Lao, I had no idea what she was on about. I did my best to humour her with smiles and kindness, but mostly, she made me slightly uncomfortable.


"Sabaide?" 


As soon as she saw me, she rose up to get my laundry.


My laundry bill came to 40,000 kip and I only had 100,000. I needed 60,000 kip back in change. With little to no words, many nods, points, and hand gestures, she told me she would get my change and bring it up to me.


No problem. Off I went to my room.

Change eventually arrived… but not so much in the form I'd expected.

She showed up with two beers!

Oh... ok... I was completely caught off guard. Instead of bringing me my change, she spent it on two beers and then pocketed the remainder as a tip. I'd been thoroughly Shanghai'd.


This girl was something else.



It was awkward. 


We sat out on the balcony in front of my room and when she wasn’t taking photos of herself, she was giggling or chugging back her Beer Lao. From what I could gather by her broken attempts at conversation and her Facebook translations, she was set to go out to the disco.


Our entire conversation (for lack of a better word) was her laughing and sending me random messages on each of my social media platforms.


Hi.

Goog. 

Why you go.

Hi.

Goog.


Goog was her favourite word. I think she meant Good… but I can’t say for sure.


The whole thing was bizarre.


I didn't care about the money. That wasn't it. I probably would've just given her all the change had she asked for it… but… I guess I should be grateful I got a beer out of it... and some strange company as well.


Once I'd had enough pretending I liked beer and was having fun, I started to fight back the fake yawns while getting closer and closer to closing my door and retreating back into my room. 


Early flight. 

Very tired. 


Bye-bye, weirdo... you're welcome for the beer.


That was it... my time in Laos had officially come to an end.


The next morning I got up and headed to the airport.


As I prepare to leave northern Laos, I must reflect on a few things... and look back fondly...


  • I will not miss the money. It’s sooo confusing.  Although it’s different colours, all the colours look identical, if that makes any sense. There are so many zeros involved that it's dizzying. I can hardly wrap my head around 50000 and 5000.  Trying to add up simple numbers in your head quickly can be grueling when there is pressure.

  • I will not miss the slow shuffling of feet.  Why is this a thing? Especially amongst the younger generation? Pick up your feet. Move faster!

  • I will not miss the complete lack of organization. In everything. I. Just. Can’t.

  • I will not miss the toothpaste. I’ve been desperate to find a toothpaste that doesn’t taste like rancid ass mint. Help!

  • I will not miss the foul treatment of the street dogs.

  • I will not miss the squat toilets. Those are out of my life forever. Yes… I’m sure they’re better for you. But they are not better for me.


  • I will not miss the hacking up of phlegm. I've even caught Westerners doing it. Is it contagious?  I was out for lunch with Georgia in Nong Khiaw, and the Swedish guy at the next table kept clearing his throat... throughout our entire meal. Copious amounts of plghelm. It was atrocious. GO TO THE BATHROOM!!! Or outside. Seriously. 

  • I will not miss the horrifying sounds of cats fighting in the night.

  • I will not miss the excessive garbage and plastic waste... although I have to admit that I did my share of contributing to the problem while I was there. 

  • I'm tired of saying sabaidi and khob chai. It's my fault. I'm the one who should have learned more phrases. Most of the time, I couldn't keep those two things straight, which is embarrassing considering how much time I spent in this country. Atrocious, actually.


But... there is always a flip side.


  • I will miss the Suzy. What's that?  Only available in northern Laos, it's a stew-like dish of potatoes, carrots, onions, and beans in a delicious coconut curry sauce. 

  • I will miss Khao Jee... the rice cakes. They are salty and delicious.  If I could package these rice cakes... 

  • I will miss the landscape.

  • I will miss the wonderful people.

  • I will miss my new friends, the street dogs.

  • I will miss the familiarity.

  • I will miss my new favourite chocolate bar, the Beng Beng.

Good Days Start Here
Good Days Start Here

I am positive there is so much more I will miss... but I need to end this blog and move on to Thailand...


Of course, that is IF I were actually to get out of Laos.

WHAT????


So… try to keep up...


I entered the country on December 19th. I had to pay USD 40 upon entry, and I received a 4-week traveler visa. It was set to expire on January 17th. Knowing I had committed to volunteer for January, I needed to extend my visa. Also, I had already booked my flight out of Laos for February 6th.


I paid 650,000 kip and extended my visa until February 16th. Stamped. Signed. Sealed... done.


Then, I was foolish and took off to Bangkok for a week, rendering my visa extension null and void. I didn't know, and it didn't even cross my mind... but it should have. As an experienced traveler, I should have known better.


As I entered Laos again, they disregarded my previous extension and made me pay another USD 40. They stamped me a valid for another month... until February 4th.


Uh oh...


My flight was the 6th... TODAY.


They refused.

Seriously. Refused.


They kept telling me I could go to a government building and extend it. It seemed rather odd, considering I was at the airport where they were stamping my passport.


So, I have been stressing for the past 3-4 weeks. Big time.


Having a tough time with visa in Laos
Trying to get out of Laos

Would they let me go? Would they charge me?

Would I get jail time?

All were possibilities I'd read about.


I just wanted out.


But... jail would make a good blog, right?


So… I practiced my 'confused' face. A LOT. My "I have no idea what's going on" face. I planned to smile a lot and play dumb. When I reached the immigration desk, I handed the officer my passport and opened to the page that clearly showed my extension date... 


I smiled.


He was kind, and with a few flips through my passport, he stamped it, smiled back at me, handed me my passport, and waved me through...


Boom!

I’m out of Laos.


Bye BYE!

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