The guard shook his head and pointed to the sign. Document drop off 10 – 12:30pm. It was 3:30pm. We looked at each other - defeated, exhausted, and lost. Our cheap and easy trip to Laos just crumbled beneath us.
20 hours prior to that disappointing moment we were boarding an overnight bus to take us from Chon Buri to Nong Kai, Thailand. There we would cross the Friendship Bridge and make our way to the capital of Laos, Vientiane.
Laura, Matt, and I were sent on a trip to get our work Visas for our school. We planned to take an overnight bus to Laos on Wednesday and arrive at the border at 7am. Then we would head to the capital to drop off our documents early Thursday morning. After spending one night in Laos, we would pick up our documents on Friday and take a bus back to Chon Buri that evening. It was supposed to be a quick trip. With the documents in hand, guidance from a fellow Philippine teacher, and enough cash to last us a few days, we set off to a new country for us all.
Overnight bus trips are far from glamorous but extremely necessary to travel cheap. I thought nothing could top the absurdity of my overnight train to Serbia while backpacking with friends two summers ago – but I hadn’t experienced travel in Asia yet. The bus was meant to take 10 hours and ended up being drawn out to 18. The demise all began when we hit unbelievable traffic outside of Bangkok. It was around midnight so rush hour was out of the question. Whatever it was kept us at a standstill for over four hours. Cars were parked on the highway and drivers were socializing amongst themselves, chain smoking cigarettes and listening to music. As I dozed in and out of a faint sleep I would peek out my window just to see the party continue until the early rays of dawn approached. Magically, the traffic began to disperse and drivers returned to their vehicles. The bus galloped on throughout the early morning; however, our driver liked to take pit stops – for cigarette breaks, to let random people on, or to pick up the newspaper. It was 7am when we veered off to another rest stop and I checked the map on my phone – we weren't even half way to Nong Kai. There was no way we would make it to the Thai Embassy in time to drop off the papers. Yet, we agreed on a plan to still go to the Embassy and attempt to turn in our paperwork after the drop-off hours. The weak flame of our hope burned throughout the rest of the bus ride while the daunting truth in the back of our minds kept us from sleeping.
After departing the ice box we hopped on a tuk tuk to take us to the border. This cheeky Thai man brought us instead to an agency that claimed we needed to pay 2,000 Baht for a Visa to enter Laos. Our bosses and fellow teachers did not inform us about an entrance Visa so we simply called him out for trying to scam us and made him bring us to the border, unbeknownst to us that the conman told some truth. Our passports were stamped as we exited Thailand and crossed the Friendship Bridge by another over air conditioned bus. Now in Laos, we walked straight into a wall of brutal reality. Americans must pay 1,500 Baht to enter the country – cash only. We only budgeted enough cash for 2-3 days in Laos, not including the hefty price of an entry Visa. With limited funds and Matt’s empty pockets we knew we’ll be scrounging for change. We had no other option though, we needed to get our Visas, so we handed the guard a third of our money and carried on our way.
20 hours after leaving our bustling Thai city we arrived at the Embassy’s gate to hear our fate. Getting stuck in a foreign country was not the problem. Getting stuck in a foreign country without cash was. The food stalls and hostels do not take credit cards and our cash supply was put aside for our Thai work visa. We walked around the neighborhood looking for a hostel we were recommended only to find that it no longer exists. We checked out a few places but none of them took credit cards. Eventually our tired bodies found a cheap hotel. Seeing the desperation in our eyes, the kind concierge gave us a deal on a room and free breakfast coupons.
We ended the night in better spirits. Finally having wifi, we messaged our bosses to inform them of our terrible luck and to reach out for a lifeline in this new part of the world. Somehow we fooled ourselves into thinking that we could rush process the paperwork the following day and that we would be wired a salary advance so we could afford to get home. We fell asleep in the lush blankets, grateful the day was over and praying that tomorrow things would work in our favor.
I awoke to the best news. My eldest sister and her husband are having a baby boy! Audrey revealed the news on the eve of our Nana’s funeral service and since then we have all been anxiously waiting to find out the sex of the baby. With death comes life - and our family knows that Nana may have left this Earth, but she blessed us with a baby before she went. My heart was so full of love for Audrey, Josh and Baby Boy McBride that I knew nothing could ruin this day. I was going to turn this Laos trip around.
After filling up on a Laos breakfast of noodles and vegetables, we waited in line to enter the Embassy. Our nerves were running wild as we feared the looming truth. Similar to what you do at the DMV, we sat and people watched until our numbers were called. An eclectic group of people surrounded us – backpackers, workers, elderly couples, extremely religious families, and solo travelers. My mind wandered off to imagining their stories, curious of their path and why they were traveling. Unfortunately my day dream abruptly ended as soon as the embassy worker laughed in my face for asking if our Visas could be processed in the same day. It was final. We would be in Laos until Monday evening with little to no cash left.
We took the scenic route to get a glimpse of what Vientiane had to offer. The sun shone upon us and our burdened souls were freed. I had a bounce in my step knowing I will be an Aunt to a beloved baby boy and that I could enjoy a long weekend in a new country. I entered my first temple and was amazed by the serenity and vivid colors. Visiting Vat Phonexay gave me the perfect dose of zen that I needed. We carried on in the sweltering heat and walked through the Patuxai arch that reveals Vientiane’s French influence. We passed the impressive Presidential Palace and succumbed to the demanding presence of the Chao Anouvong Statue.
Tired and thirsty we stumbled upon a Belgian Beer Bar. It was fate and a beer never tasted so good. We toasted to turning our weekend around and making the most of Laos. After a long lunch of tall beers and very mini burgers we decided to check out a place that Hostelworld.com raved about.
Once we accepted the reality that Laos wanted us to stay, the universe started working in our favor. We arrived at Sihome Backpackers Hostel and explained our situation of no cash and no clothes. They agreed to let us use credit and brought us over to their sister hostel, Sihome Backpackers Garden. Immediately we were welcomed by an outgoing and helpful staff. They set us up in a room and told us not to worry; everything will work out alright, as it always does.
Having not eaten since our hotel breakfast we strolled the streets until we found a place that took credit card – a very difficult task in South East Asia. The city lit up at night and had just as much energy as it did during the day. Over the next four days Laos revealed a beautiful and unique life. Being a French colony from 1887 to 1945 planted strong Europeans roots into this country. Vientiane feels like a mini Europe in South East Asia. The city is a mix of French cafes, German pubs, and traditional food markets. It is cleaner than expected and with less pollution, traffic, and clutter. It is small enough to walk but filled with rich architecture, ornate temples, and lively shops.
The manager, Steve, pulled up in a bright blue Songtaew to take ten of us to the Tad Xai Waterfalls. The city disappeared behind us as we traveled two hours out into the rural streets of Bolikhamxay province. We turned off the main road to mosey up dirt streets to reach the falls. There was a 5 kilometer trek between us and the water. It was part hike and part ride since the Blue Beast Songtaew didn't have the juice to make it up the hills with all of us in the back. Once parked, we had to follow a narrow path through the jungle for about 10 minutes to reach the waterfalls.
Turning the corner and seeing the falls made the long trip worth it. They are so different from any falls I have seen. The colors are earthy and less tropical. The rocks are piled up like a Japanese Zen garden. The water cascades gently down the falls and pools in a welcoming lagoon. We climbed and jumped off the waterfalls enjoying our beautiful earth’s natural playground. It was a perfect afternoon of swimming and relaxing while surrounded by en eclectic group of traveling souls.
As we traveled back to Vientiane, sunset was gracing the country side. It was a quiet ride home as we all gazed out into the open fields and houses. As we drove through villages and towns we were given quick snapshots in their lives. Farmers were harvesting under the scorching sun in the fields and transporting their cattle on a pickup truck. A little girl played with a neighborhood dog and mothers prepared their meals in their homes. Cattle, chickens, and dogs roamed freely, grazing on whatever food they could find. We stopped at a small market in a quiet town to buy water and snacks. Those simple purchases made up their usual month’s profit. To see such poverty and simple living was overwhelming. Their homes are made of thatched walls and tin roofs. They may not have a lot, but they all had a smile on their face. Happiness does not come from possession of goods, but rather from the goodness you possess in your heart.
This incredible day came to a close after dinner in an open air four story restaurant and later with a few beers and new acquaintances at the hostel. Sunday continued with our tour of Vientiane. We visited Vat Sisaket and Hor Phakeo where we were treated as celebrities and asked to be taken pictures of. The temples are so intricate and delicate in design, bearing reference to how the French rebuilt them after attacks from the Siamese armies. The architecture simply complements the holy artifacts rather than competes with them.
We enjoyed a long, lazy last meal on our final night in Laos. We sat on a rooftop and indulged in a tasteful mix of cuisines. After surviving the first tumultuous days in Laos, we knew we could do anything. I am so thankful we had each other. We were hit with a few curve balls but we recovered quickly. So we toasted to new friendships, positive attitudes, and wonderfully surprising Laos.
Monday morning came around and it was time to leave our lovely home for the weekend. Sihome Backpackers Garden housed, clothed, and fed us when we needed help. Their kindness will always be remembered. Hostels like Sihome are havens for travelers. They create a sense of community and welcome you into their family when you are so far away from your own. They are new to Vientiane but I know they will thrive based on the values of the owner and staff.
On our way to the Embassy to pick up our Visas we stopped by Pha That Luang – a giant golden stupa and symbol of Laos. We put on traditional Lao skirts and walked around the temple grounds. Monks were lounging in the shade, sitting among colorful decorations for Buddha Day. Outside the temple, the landscaping was extremely Parisian with manicured lawns and grand paths. It was a wonderful way to say goodbye to our golden city.
Ironically, our travels home were seamless. We easily picked up our visas, scored deals on tuk tuk rides, passed through the borders quickly, and hopped on an earlier bus. This overnight bus did not stop and we arrived back to Chonburi at 3am that morning. The stress-free return trip was just another way to drive home the lesson that once you surrender to the universe, it will reward you.
When life gives you Laos….you let go and enjoy it.