Saturday, 9 August 2008

Savannakhet, Laos and a new Thai visa

My 5 days in Laos or ‘How to get a Thai visa in Savannakhet’

In need of a new Thai visa, and wanting to try something new, I decided to travel to the central Laos town of Savannakhet (hereafter referred to as 'S'). S is a smallish town immediately across the Mekong from the Thai town of Mukdahan (‘Mook-Dar-Harn’—hereafter referred to as 'M'). The attraction of S is the presence of the Thai embassy, which can issue Thai tourist visas. There are also a few interesting attractions which are worth a look.

I had originally planned to travel south from S to see the town of Pakse and the nearby temple of Champasak, but heavy rain in the area rendered the road impassable. I did not know how long this would last so I headed back to Thailand after a few days. Next time.

I arrived in M a day before my Thai visa was to expire. This gave me a day plus to sample the delights of M. My bus was delayed in reaching Surin (my starting point) and delayed in reaching M, by rain. M town had a reputation (imparted to me by the farang and Thai of Surin), as a 'very nice little town'.

I was also told, by the Surin ticket agent, who, admittedly, spoke little English, and who was aided by her ~12 year old daughter, who was far more interested in listening to music on the office computer than worrying about one lone farang, that the trip from Surin to M took 3 hours. In total the trip took 4 1/2 hours, we left at 17.30, not 16.30, so the bus arrived at the M bus station at 22.00, not 19.00 or 21.00, preventing me from sampling the local night life.

The trip and the bus were ok, but a pit stop along the way would have been nice. Thai people must have strong bladders, at one bus station I exited the bus, to the amusement of the stewardess.

Overnight in M I stayed at the Ploy Palace. This was a fairly pricey hotel, 1200b a night (I was told that there were no standard rooms available, ummmm, I had to take a deluxe), however, while pricey it was a good hotel. The view across the Mekong at night from the roof top restaurant was worth a lot all by itself. However, there were cheaper alternatives in town. If you arrive in M without a reservation hop on a tuk-tuk at the bus station and ask the driver to show you a few hotels, and see what takes your fancy.

sidenote: even though there were no standard rooms available, I was told when I went to have my ‘free’ breakfast that there were not enough guests to make a buffet necessary, ummmmmmm.

Around M: in short, not a great deal, there are a few small Wats, a few local sites (ferry terminal, gov offices, etc), and, last, but certainly not least the Ho Kaeo Mukdahan. This is a 65m tower built to commemorate the Thai King's 50 anniversary of his coronation. The structure contains a museum and display of Isan life, plus at lookout 50m high looking over town and the Mekong. Worth a visit. It is about 1km south of the town centre.

M is a quiet town, you can safely stand in the middle of a main street and take a pic. There is also a very nice ‘trendy’ cafe next to the Thai Immigration office near the river ‘Good Mook’. They also have a few souvenirs for sale (a few of which I bought for a few puy-ying in Surin). Outside of town is the Mukdahan National Park, small, but it has a few interesting ‘mushroom shaped’ rock formations, which I did not see. Maybe next time? If you are interested there is a local bus from the local bus station to the park.

After one day I had seen what I wanted to see in M, time for me to go to Laos! This involved me returning to the bus station and getting a ticket to Savannakhet (50b). Bus run fairly frequently (everyone in Muk told me hourly, but this is not quiet true). We drove to the bridge, about 10mins, got off on the Thai side, and had the usual immigration fiddle-faddle. Here the process was reversed, for 1500b I was granted a visa on arrival (which take a full page of one's passport—thanks guys), and then headed into S town, where we exited in the local bus station. This was fairly primitive, bumpy road to the station, bare sand, hot and dusty— very 3rd world. I got off and said the magic words "tuk tuk" and my new friend Mr Hong transported me to the HongTip hotel. Again, all the single rooms were gone, ummmmm! I got a 'double', two single beds, for 800b a night. Quality wise, the Hong was not the best, a bit musty, but it was entirely adequate.

I spent the remainder of the day in Sav looking at a few local sites. The Dinosaur museum is small and a bit pokey, and the info is in Laos or French, so not much help if you know neither! I did meet the curator, who was also one of the guys who dug the fossils out of the ground. He spoke good English. He told me that November–December was the best time to dig, as there was no rain. He also told me that some of the displays, meteorites, gold and copper came from Aust! An Australian company, mining in SEA, Oxiana, provides assistance to the diggers.

I also saw Wats. The largest (and best) in town is the Wat-sain-yaphum with many (dozens) of monks, mostly young. There was a small construction area manufacturing Buddhas, and the place seemed fairly busy. I took a few snaps and then was beset (politely) by these young monks who wanted to practise their English. I spent maybe 30mins at which time I decided to retreat to my waiting tuk-tuk.

I spent an hour or more in the evening walking along the Mekong foreshore. I had dinner at a great restaurant on the Mekong ‘Sun-wan-la-den’, with a fine view of Mukdahan. $8 for my meal. This seems to be were the S ‘high rollers’ go to eat, socialise and relax. Most of the traffic in S was either push-bikes or motorbikes, but parked outside this restaurant were flash looking cars.

At dusk the river side becomes alive with people out to socialise, eat, drink, there are dozens of people cooking food for sale on tiny open air stoves, seats are scattered along the river, young people (boys and girls hehe) ride past of bikes chatting to each other.

The main tourist attraction is That Ing Hang. This is a religious shrine about 15 mins (15kms) from S. To be frank, to my eye, not a fantastic site. It is about 9m high, four sided, with carvings. It looks worn and old. My lonelyplanet told me it was originally constructed in mid-16th century. There were only a handful of other tourists there, I think from Korea. Adjacent was a small monastery, with a few monks sitting, chanting and reading. The tourist shop was bolted shut on a weekday.

I visited this temple in conjunction with a visit to Dong Natad. DN is a forest community with trees, a lake and a village. A pleasant walk, though it can be a bit spooky if you do it by yourself (though of course, I was not spooked).

Thai Visa story
The Thai people reading this (I hope there are a few) will sympathise with what I am about to describe, I hope, while many farang will have experienced this personally— Getting A New Thai Visa. This is a two day process. First, in the morning go to the Thai embassy, take passport, 2x pics, pen, glue, 1000b, 1x copy of passport, wait in line, wait, get form, fill in form, glue pics to form, go back to counter, with passport, with two pictures, with 1000b, 1x copy of passport, get number, wait, wait, when number called hand over passport, paperwork. You are done! Rejoice! Come back tomorrow afternoon, with number, wait, when number called collect your passport and your new visa. Easy!

About 200 people a day use the Thai embassy in S. 95% Laotians. It is a busy place. There is always a certain ‘tenseness’ in the air at an embassy, people’s futures are riding on the decisions of a few faceless bureaucrats. S was no exception. Many of the Laotians were quiet and a little grim, others were talking animatedly. I will admit, as always, I was thinking, what if I cannot get a new visa, would I have to stay in Laos for a few months?

Fortunately, as it never has, this did not happen. The next day I came back at 2pm, waited about 15 mins, my number was called, and I was handed my passport with its new Thai tourist visa. Success!

After four days it was time to move on or to come back to Thailand. I decided to come back. The return trip across the Friendship bridge was easy (though I was ‘patted down’ and my bags x-rayed), and hour plus and I was back in M.

A few random thoughts from my week in Laos

a. Commies !
Amongst the Laotian people I have met there is a strong commercial sense. They bargain well for prices, start small businesses (hair salon, laundry, etc), and are clearly happy with capitalism. Bearing this in mind it surprises me that socialism/communism, as practised in this area in years past ever got a foot hold, and that the west, particularly the Americans, were dumb enough to believe that this was the preferred social system of Asians. The Vietnam war—if the west had had any sense it would have cultivated the capitalist tendencies, and not killed 5 million people in a pointless war.

b. the Media and reality
In the last few years there has been much talk about the 'booming' economy of SEA. There are statements about 'gleaming' towers, 'resurgence', etc. I am not sure exactly why there is this gap, but there is a gap between the reality and the image. No doubt the economies in the region are doing (relatively) well, but they do not seem to be doing as well as the image would indicate. I specifically refer to the Savannakhet region. There is supposed to be an 'economic corridor' from Thailand through Laos to Vietnam. I saw no such sign of a 'book. On my two trips across the bridge my bus was the only vehicle on the bridge!

c. Banks
Always, amongst the best looking buildings in the 3rd world (or at least the SEA section thereof) banks are always top quality. Look at a bank, it is solid, respectable, and expensive. Go inside, it is always airconditioned to chilliness, it is always immaculately clean, the staff wear good clothes, neat and tidy, respectable. Banks = money = respect.

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