Entering Thailand from Cambodia at the small border town of Ban Laem, is normally an administrative breeze. However, experience tells me that even the easiest of border crossings can be unpredictable:
Official: ‘Your Thai visa expired on March 11th, today is March 12th and your visa is invalid’.
Me: ‘Please look at my passport, my Thai visa expires tomorrow, March 13th, my visa is still valid’.
Official: ‘The computer says 11th March. Sorry, entry is denied’
It was like a game of Rock-Paper-Scissors, but for a traveller with very little money, it was slightly more serious. Unfortunately in this particular version of the game, it seemed that ‘Computer’ trumped ‘Passport-Stamp’ every time. I was clearly on an administrative hiding-to-nothing and decided to cut my losses. After much discussion, they finally compromised and allowed me to enter Thailand for just 14 Days. It wasn’t the 60 Days that I’d expected, but it was certainly better than the alternative: ‘Entry Denied’.
It’s always surprising that a task’s appetite for time can ebb and flow according to the amount of time that’s available to complete it. So, after just 12 Days in Bangkok, my tasks were finished and it was time get out of Thailand. At Bangkok’s Mo Chit bus station, I boarded the overnight VIP Coach to Nong Khai and 12 hours later, I crossed the ‘Friendship Bridge’ into Laos.
Welcome to Laos, or to use its fuller name, the Laos People’s Democratic Republic. Any nation that feels the need to include the words ‘People’ and ‘Democratic’ in its name, always makes me slightly suspicious. Such inclusions often reflect a gentle misinterpretation of the facts, like a chocolate bar described as being ‘Fun Size’ or a tent that ‘Sleeps 4’. But, when applied to Nations, such misrepresentations are probably slightly more serious. North Korea is officially called The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. I rest my case.
Democratically speaking, the 6,500,000 citizens of Laos are represented by 132 elected members of the National Assembly. Every five years, National Assembly members are elected via a national ballot, a ballot that seems to include everything but choice. It appears that all electable officials are members of the only legally recognised political party in Laos, The Lao People’s Revolutionary Party. Thus, I suspect that the words ‘People’ and ‘Democratic’ in Laos’ name are as silent as the letter ‘S’ in Laos.So here I am, an Englishman governed by Cameron and Clegg, a man living in a world shaped by Bush and Blair, and I’m questioning the true level of democracy here in SE Asia. Shame on me.
Moving on, in order to travel in Laos, I’ve secured a rental scooter from a Vietnamese food vendor here in downtown Vientiane Capital. It’s a little red Suzuki Smash with a big chrome exhaust pipe and four evenly spaced gears, all of them down. What else can I say? Well, what I should say is that before leaving Thailand I’d pre-booked a rental bike, a 250cc Honda Baja, but when I’d arrived to collect the motorcycle from Jules Classics they’d denied all knowledge of my reservation. I’d shown them the booking request and their subsequent confirmation, but the man from Jules Classics had simply said ‘No’.
Having collected the unfortunately named Suzuki Smash, before leaving Vientiane I stopped to visit a chirpy gentleman who sells handmade wristbands on the pavement outside of Jules Classics. Yesterday I’d left Jules Classics feeling slightly pissed-off with the world, but this man had put everything into perspective. As a youth, he’d lost the use of his lower legs in a landmine incident but had smiled, got over it and got on with it, making the most of what he could do and ignoring what he couldn’t. I chat with him for a few minutes before selecting ten of his beautifully crafted wristbands and handing him a sum of money equal to the cost differential between renting the Honda and Suzuki. It felt good to make someone’s day, but I also introduced him to the wonders of Marmite and that was quite a different story .... a different story for another time.