My favorite place in Savannakhet - a lookout point facing the Mekong and has a view of the city of Mukdahan from across the pond.
BRITISH GENTLEMAN CROSSING
I took my seat beside an old British gentleman. The rest of the commuters were locals. My seatmate was in a long sleeved shirt and a beige fedora. He spoke with verve and an unusual heartful chuckle that’s infectious. And he earnestly gazes to you when he speaks. He was a bundle of stories. Must be in his seventies, British Guy is in one of his border-crossing formalities from the Thai town of Khon Kaen. He has been living with a Thai girlfriend for a couple of years now. Since non-resident aliens are only allowed 3 months in the country, he has to exit the border every 3 months and then re-enter any Thai border. For an old guy like him, this seems like a daunting, tedious practice. The alternative – of processing a permanent resident status – is both expensive (needs to pay 50,000 british pounds -$89,000 - to start with, plus a dole out to some immigration officer). Red tape for immigrant status is a glaring practice, much like the Philippines. Bribe is the norm, and not the exception.
PINOY TRAGEDY AND THE SECOND FRIENDSHIP BRIDGE
The Second Thai–Lao Friendship Bridge over the Mekong connects Mukdahan Province in Thailand with Savannakhet in Laos. The bridge is 1600 meters long and 12 meters wide, with two traffic lanes. Traffic on the bridge drives on the right, as in Laos, while traffic in Thailand drives on the left; the change-over is on the Thai side. This bridge is, like its predecessor, funded by Japanese money. It had its soft opening in April of 2006 and officially opened to the general commuters December that year. Construction of this bridge is not without incidents.
On 22 July 2005, at about 4.45pm a crane being used to airlift concrete slabs for installation suddenly snapped. It dropped one span into the river, instantly killing Hiroshi Tanaka, 49, the Japanese chief engineer; as well as two other Japanese engineers. Several other workers were reported as fatal casualties – some Thai and Lao workers, and a 38 year old Filipino engineer named Frederick “Tom” Napasa, who were all swept by the strong current of the Mekong. This ambitious project cost $70 million dollars, really just pittance compared to the gazillion dollar Philippine infrastructure projects that are as less intricate as an ordinary overland thoroughfare like the Macapagal Boulevard – a 5.1 kilometer asphalt road that cost PhP1.1 billion peso to construct – and overpriced by PhP600 million.
I hardly noticed much of the crossing coz Mr. Brit was on full throttle with his amusing anecdotes. In less than 20 minutes, we were at the other side! Our bus conductor gathered our passports including the white departure card and had our passports stamped. That was easy. As we headed near the Thai Immigration post, we were instructed to get off the bus. We had to personally carry our baggage for scanning and baggage check. After I filled up my entry form, I pushed my baggage towards the scanner.
This is where the change of traffic direction takes place (for those who drive through). Right hand side to left hand side (as you head towards Thailand) and vice versa .
This photo (above) is borrowed from Flickr's Ms. Ratri.
At the Thai border post...
LAST MAN IS ATTENTION HOUND!
Gosh! Little did I realize I was the last one – and the bus was already waiting for me at the other side. It was a bit of an embarrassment when you see that all eyes are on you! “What could take him so long?!” “Can’t he write? Is he illiterate?” Jesus, I didn’t know! Haha! I could swear I am not slow! The thing is, these people already have their Thai Immigration forms way before they boarded the bus – so they were able to fill it up before they had to present their passports at the counter! I scampered and awkwardly boarded my bus. I reclaimed my seat beside Mr. British. And he resumed retelling his well-appreciated wisdom on me!
BOTCHED UP PLAN – AND BANGKOK FRENZY
Five kilometers from the Thai Border Post, our bus turns left towards a major highway. It would take us 35 minutes to reach the Mukdahan Bus Station. My plan was to deposit my baggage into a left luggage facility and take the roam Mukdahan until the early evenings. I might as well sleep on the bus on my 10-hour journey to Bangkok. And though I have been to Bangkok for countless times, this will be my first arrival by bus! And after weeks in Laos, I badly needed the city vibe! I couldn’t wait for the crazy chaos of Siam, my nerves were abuzz with some prostaglandin rush, I was waiting to bleed with excitement! I wanted to watch a movie! I wanted to get shoved in the flurry of manual congestion! Buy DVD’s. Listen to bad top ten covers from bands performing in malls! Get lost in MBK and the Siam Shopping conglomerate! Look absolutely poor in the midst of posh Bangkok! LOL.
Unfortunately, some plans aren’t meant to prosper. Mr. Brit started giving instructions, on where the ticket counter is, on where to turn, etc. We reached the bus station. I bade my farewell and wished him good luck. Before he leaves, he grabs my arm and asks me: "Do you know what the PDR in Laos PDR really stands for?" In fact I do, but I allowed him to make his punchline: "Please Don't Rush!" And I could hear him chuckling as he slowly faded into the crowd. I had to laugh inspite of myself. I was grateful for his gracious company and friendship. You see, some friendships don’t need years to thrive. Some friendships are borne out of fleeting encounters.
I went straight to the ticket counter. To my surprise, they were already boarding! This will be the last Bangkok-bound bus for the day! And I was in perfect timing! Unfortunately, I don’t have an overnight to spare as I have other connections to consider. I bought my ticket – 530 baht ($15.50 or Php730) and took my seat! We left the station at 9:15 AM. I planned to make the most of this bus ride. I might as well see the countryside and take in everything that this bus would traverse until my expected arrival at 8PM.
Here are a few of the places that caught my attention, the few that I was able to list down as we headed southwest towards “civilization”.
11 AM – Saimun
11:15 AM – Tap Tao
11:30 AM – Yasothon – where the bus stopped for 15 minutes, I dunno why. There was a huge school nearby – the Yasothon Pitayakum School.
12:15 PM – Suwannaphum (Bangkok’s major airport is pronounced like this)
2:00PM – Nakhon Rachasima
3:30PM – Khorat - The bus stopped at a sprawling Food Court. I had to ask several people to tell me how long we were to stay there. There were no english signs nor english speakers anywhere. I grabbed something to eat, half worried they were going to leave me. LOL. We stopped for 20 minutes.
We're headed towards more urban landscapes. On the road, we passed by the inviting Tao Suranee Park, located beside the serene Chao Phraya River. A few minutes later, I saw an imposing huge white buddha beckoning from up the hills! It was amazing! Too bad I couldn’t take a photo from inside a fast-moving bus. By 5:45PM, we reached the city limits of Saraburi – hectic and impersonal. Not long thereafter, it rained gently. I reached Bangkok at 8PM amidst a gentle, soothing trickle of a drizzle. We were seemingly moving in slow motion fashion, as my window glass started to mist. I have arrived safely, and I said a silent prayer to whoever kept me safe. Arrivals are always such a joy – and I am just grateful.
A road within Mukdahan city limits.
At a bus stopover... a smile that bursts with frivolity.
Change of hands...
Bus Fare and Schedule from Savannakhet to Mukdahan –
14,000 kip or 50 baht overtime
Trip Schedule: there are 12 official trips in a day
- departure starts 8:15, 9:00, 9:45, 10:30, 11:15, 12:30, 13:30, 14:30, 15:30, 16:30, 17:30, 19:00
Buses from Savannakhet to Hue Vietnam - MWF at 10AM by VIP bus, local buses to Hue daily at 22:00H (10PM)
Buses from Savannakhet to Danang Vietnam - leaves daily at 22:00 except Thursdays (no bus service)
Buses from Savannakhet to Hanoi - leaves Saturdays at 18:00H (6PM), and leaves Sundays at 18:00H (6PM)
Though I wasn’t able to get the rates of these Vietnam-bound buses, it would be safe to say that they would be around $14-20 if aircon buses (which will be turned off 80% of the time – they are saving gas/petrol by compromising the comfort of the passengers who CANNOT complain).
Mukdahan is a district within the Nakhon Phanom Province; an ancient city in northeastern Thailand. The historical evidence told that Chankinnaree, Prince of Phonsim on the left side of the Mekong, had moved his people across the river to build a new city on the month of Huay Muk in the fourth mouth of B.E. 2312 or1770. He named the new city after the stream as "Mukdahan". Mukdahan has an epithet calling itself the "beautiful city on the bank of Mekong's” – rich with sweet tamarind, splendid mountains, valuable ancient drums, eight-tribe cultures, picturesque Manorom Mount, and beautiful Kra Bao Islet. Its attractions include Wat Si Mongkon Tai, Luang Pho Yai, Phu Mu Forest Park and the Mukdahan National Bark.
VIP bus from Mukdahan to Bangkok – there’s a single trip daily and leaves between 8:30-9AM. The ticket is worth 590 baht. Travel takes 10 hours, but in reality it’s about 11 hours. There will be several stopovers. The driver would stop and buy some coconut juice on whim. Then a few kilometers ahead, the lady conductor would alight and buy her packed lunch, and so on. It’s a very comfortable aircon ride with onboard toiler! And the tv set onboard was hardly used, thank heavens!
· Breakfast – baguette: $ or 5,000 kip or PhP
· Border crossing bus ticket from Savannakhet to Mukdahan – $1.63 or 13,000 kip or PhP76
· VIP bus ticket one-way from Mukdahan to Bangkok - $15.50 or 530 baht or PhP730