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Lao Enchantment

VIENTIANE, LAOS – I’m sure some of you have met someone that just strikes you as so extraordinary, so beautiful and gentle, that within five minutes of meeting them you know your heart is at risk of being stolen. You might even think to yourself, “Hang on, this is a bit quick, maybe I should ease off a bit, take my time and see if this is real.” But you look, and listen, and the attraction becomes stronger.

This has happened to me quite recently with someone so amazing, and it happened to me again this afternoon when I crossed the border into Laos. I can’t even describe what it is about this place that makes it so beautiful. But I just walked from me guesthouse with a smile on my face, my darker mood of the last day or so gone.

The crossing was a mini-adventure. I’d heard that you can get a visa on arrival, so I fronted at the checkpoint in Nong Khai with naught but my travel gear. Gave my passport to the bloke at Departures, who removed my Thailand departure slip. At that moment, I truly felt in limbo. Officially, I was not anywhere. The Thai govt. now had me on record as having left, but I still didn’t have any documentation for my destination.

I spotted a building labelled Immigration, and inquired there. It was staffed by some very harrassed-looking officials who told me, “Visa you get there, sign, Vientiane.”

Hmmm… having never actually arranged this sort of thing on my own, I was a little skeptical. I thought a visa had to be arranged before actually setting foot in the country you were going to.

So I asked at the office labelled Customs, only to be told to talk to Immigration.

The same Immigration official was a little less patient this time. “Lao visa there! You sign in Laos!”

I thanked numerous deities he wasn’t armed.

I spent about 10 anxious minutes looking for a Westerner who might know what was going on. The only signs in English were ones warning about likely penalties imposed if you were dumb enough to get caught taking drugs into Laos (“1. Prison. 2. Execution. 3. Goods confiscated.” I’ll take what’s behind door number 3 thank you.) Anyway, by that point I’d decided that my first night in the first Communist country I’d ever been to would be in a basement room somewhere in a Lao government building with a weary Australian embassy oficial shaking his head sadly over having to bail another clueless farang out on a matter that should be uncomplicated.

A tiny minibus arrived and about 7 people too many squeezed into it. I was last on board, the only Westerner. A little old Thai lady grabbed my 12 kilo pack and dropped it on her lap. She smiled and nodded at me, a silent “Mai pen rai” (no worries) passed between us.

I was starting to feel better.

It took 5 minutes to cross the Friendship Bridge, many people standing with nothing to hang on to. Fortunately we were stuck behind a lumbering fuel tanker, it was not possible to go faster than about 5 km/h.

I was relieved to see “VISA ON ARRIVAL” displayed prominently over a set of darkly-tinted windows in the side of a concrete bunker near where the bus stopped. I hopped out, my feet touching Lao soil, but I’d not be fully “there” without a visa and entry stamp.

I presented myself at the window, and a little slide-door opened to reveal an absolutely stunning young Lao girl wearing what seemed to be an old Russian army uniform. She smiled and took my travel documents, the slide door slamming closed quickly.

I filled out my arrival and departure forms and struck up a conversation with a Dutch lady who was backpacking through the region with her husband and two young daughters (both somewhere between 7 and 10 years old). They were heading to Sydney soon, so I did my bit for Australian tourism and told them to visit Manly. Might hit the council up for a commission when I get home.

My paperwork was processed in less than 10 minutes. I was disappointed to discover that the Lao beauty who took my credentials (as it were) had been magically replaced by a man who was probably ancient 500 years ago.

Waiting in line to get the entry stamp, the Dutch husband was standing in front of me. He glanced into the entry stamping booth thingy, stifled a laugh, then softly told me that the official doing the visa stamping was actually playing a snooker game on his computer. I sneaked a peek and he was right. We both had a good laugh over that. Fortunately, his offsider behind him seemed to be actually doing some work.

And wallop! I was in the Laos People’s Democratic Republic.

The Dutch couple offered to share a cab ride into Vientiane, and I agreed. I was feeling better but still very Twilight Zone. One of the cab touts hailed what allegedly passes for a taxi, but in Australia wouldn’t even pass for registration. It was an old Toyota Corona, no seatbelts, none of the instruments worked. But it beats walking 22 kms.

The Dutch family checked into the most expensive hotel in town (with a pool, etc., for the young ones). I continued on to slightly cheaper digs. 15 Us dollars, 600 Thai baht, 20 Aussie dollars, or 162,525 Lao kip for some very civilised accommodation near the Vientiane town centre. Beds with sheets! Air conditioning! Hot water! Western-style toilet! And a TV and phone, but that don’t impress me much.

Much of the signs are in Lao and French, and while my comprehension of French is tres petit (but better than my spoken or written Lao), I think I might be able to get by. The French influence is very strong here. Kind of more like what I’d imagined Southeast Asia to be like.

So yeah, that’s my story in Laos so far. It’s been real. :)

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