Saturday, February 18, 2012

From Ubon to Pakse - Crossing Chongmek & Vangtao Borders (Travel Log 111911)



As customary, there were monks doing their morning alms around the city. From my hotel, I hopped to a small Chinese restaurant at the corner of Srinarong and Luang, partaking on ham and eggs (40B). This spare breakfast would eventually catch up with me so I walked to the nearby 7-11 for a 24 baht sausage-and cheese bread to takeout. It would be my second day in Ubon Ratchathani (Southern Isaan, Thailand) and though I was leaving it with a few unfinished business in mind, I was contented knowing that I’ll be coming back to further acquaint myself with the Moon River after seeing South Laos. Meanwhile, I had to get to the bus terminal to buy my ticket. Last night, I was advised to come an hour early before the 9:30 AM departure. It’s odd though that they don’t entertain pre-booked tickets since this is, after all, an international journey (In fact, they require your passport when you’re buying your ticket).

I asked my hotel to call a metered taxi for me. Just after 8, I arrived at the Bus Terminal at a measly 62B ($2), I handed 100B. The distance from my hotel to the terminal covers a distance comparatively longer than hotel-to-airport where I paid the hundred-baht flat rate.


A novice doing his morning alms alone.


Ham and egg (above) at a Chinese restaurant (below) near Krungtung Hotel along Srinarong Road.





Fire Station along Srinarong Road on my way back to my hotel.


Taxi to the bus terminal

GETTING MY SEAT
There was a single bus company servicing Pakse (South Laos’ big city) - they call it an International Bus. I headed to their counter, handed my passport and paid my 200B ($6.50) and was assigned seat D2, a confusing assignation as this actually meant 2nd row, seat no.4, a window seat at the right side of the bus. I was pleased with my seat. Coming early has advantages. At 9:30 AM, my bus pulled away from the platform and off we went. The ride would last for 2 hours; and we’re expected to arrive in Pakse at 11:30AM. I had doubts, of course.

A BRITISH CONVERSATION

The passengers were a good mixture of Asians and Caucasians. I was surrounded by British girls who kept passing stuff between themselves. My seatmate was a British girl of Pakistani lineage. Comfortably relaxed, I settled down and began reading a book, oblivious to the girl beside me. Though not stand offish, I am not particularly social either, unless spoken to. An hour into our journey, she asked if she’d need to fill up some forms, probably thinking I was Thai or Lao. I said, yes, because she had to surrender them for her visa-on-arrival (having done a Lao-Thai crossing before). That started a conversation.

She and her friends quit their jobs in England and have barely started a backpacking adventure that would last for 8 months. That’s a long way to go. I never offer suggestions lest I’m asked, but she did so we started skipping through pages of her Southeast Asian Lonely Planet, discussing highlights from several regions they’ve planned of visiting. We were interrupted when we reached Chongmek, Thailand’s border town, where we will be stamped out.


Ubon Ratchathani Bus Terminal. The assigned platforms are located at each side of this hallway.


The lone counter for the international bus to Pakse. Strictly no pre-booked tickets. You have to purchase on the day of the departure.




Chongmek, according to online travel site “Tripwolf”, is an interesting border town east of Ubon with an extraordinary attempt at post-modern architecture in the form of the frontier station – giant purple juxtaposed slabs extend into the sky, thus my kite-like description. There is a large Thai-Lao market selling food (including baguettes), baskets, clothes and basic manufactured goods, as well as some ‘antiques’ and wild animal products from Laos. 

Moreover, there’s a plethora of army surplus stalls here making it a good place to pick up bargain strides and T-shirts. Even those without entry visas for Laos are supposedly allowed to cross the Thai border and mosey around the market, but I wouldn’t try this.

We got off our bus, leaving our baggage still stored in the trunk, then walked to the Immigration Building officially called Chong Mek Boundary Post, beautifully designed like an aircraft, or a geometrically precise kite. Stamping out of Thailand was a breeze, like most border departures. You only have to surrender the departure card given to you from your arrival in the country. Then you walk out of the building and head to the fences and gates towards Vang Tao, Laos’ border town. It’s a 100-meter walk to the Lao's Vangtao Border Post. The hundred-meter walk ushers you to makeshift stalls selling fruits and food stuff. 

There’s a Vang Tao sub-branch of the Lao Development Bank where you could change your dollar to Lao kip. Though conscious of its not so favorable rate (not all that bad, to be honest), I changed $50 (the universally accepted exchange rate is $1 = 8,000 kip). I was conveniently richer by 400,000 kip – and mentally decided to exchange more when I’m in Pakse. I just needed local money just in case.

I walked faster. I still had to get stamped in. I was still in no man’s land, the border “purgatory”.


Chongmek, a Thai border town.


Chongmek Border Post - post-modern design: a space ship? A kite? This photo only courtesy of Panoramio's pr8ngkiet.





At the border, you will get off your bus and proceed to the immigration building to be stamped out of Thailand. You bus, meanwhile, will drive past this border gate. It will wait for you at the other side. Processing of visa will take 10 to 20 minutes. For Filipinos and other visa-free citizens, stamping out won't even take 5 minutes.


Chongmek Custom House. It stands across the border post, but you won't need to get here if you're just a tourist.


Entrance to the Chongmek Border Post.


There are about 3 or 4 immigration counters inside the Chongmek Border Post. Some counters are for locals, others for foreign nationals. Photography is strictly prohibited here (and there are signs everywhere) thus I had to turn the flash off, i.e. blurred photo.



Once you're stamped out of Thailand, you'll get out from this building and proceed to the gates below for your entry to Laos.






From the gate above, you will find this dirt road. It's a 100 meter walk towards Laos' Vangtao Border Post. There are stalls selling fruits like apples, grapes, oranges, etc.


Lao Development Bank will change your dollars to the kip, Laos' local currency.




HUFFING AND PUFFING AMERICAN

Vangtao Border Post (above) is decidedly more modest. I went to the immigration counter and noticed some Caucasians milling around, discussing an issue. An American lady, probably in her late 50’s, was making a fuss after getting asked for a $1 “processing fee”! “I have a visa, I don’t need to pay another fee to enter your country,” she emphatically pointed to the immigration officer. Another elder guy, an Australian, kept egging her to refuse, muttering, “They’re taking advantage of us!

The lady then said, with adequate verve and arrogant candor, “My country does NOT allow me to pay this extra fee!” I laughed in spite of myself. She conveniently forgot that she’s not in HER country, thus has to adhere to the regulations of the country she visits!

WRITTEN MEMO

I handed my passport to the officer beside the lady’s counter. I was asked 50 baht, and I noticed just above the glass window a memorandum declaring that a processing fee was indeed required to get stamped in. This was no imagined and pre-conceived corrupt hocus pocus! $1 was a legitimate collection! And this dingbat of a tourist felt she had to huff and puff and cause a commotion. Immigration officers have the prerogative to deny entry; and they should have! I was tempted to hand her a dollar so she could shut up and masticate on her “principle of the thing”. Incredible!

A CLASS ACT

The officers were curiously unperturbed. Just another day at work, huh, guys? They sometimes forget that theirs was a communist country, thus could run away with a little mean spirit and a dash of notoriety. :) Amazingly, they kept their composure. Lao people are truly among the world’s most good natured creatures, and I salute them for their class act! What is it about America and pedanticism, arrogance and the veneer of false superiority? They tend to forget that they do not own every land that they step on! They do not make the rules all the time!

I actually gave a hundred baht to my immigration officer, twice the amount for my processing fee. He unexpectedly gave me the 50 baht change, but I smiled and offered the change as tip. He smiled back. And I leisurely walked to find my bus. Surely it’s still waiting because there were several other passengers still on queue. I got off easy in both borders because I was Filipino, thus didn’t require visa to visit countries in the Southeast Asian region, except Myanmar! The rest had to secure their visas – and this takes a little longer. My stamping-in didn’t even take 5 minutes!

FEES

Visa fee for entry to Laos costs $30 per person, excluding supplementary processing fees, and requires 2 passport photos. They will give you 30 days. Overland crossing from Laos to Thailand will give you 15 days. But you have to remember that some countries (like Romania) aren't allowed upon-arrival visas (as I'd witness first hand later). Some nationals have to acquire their Thai visas prior to their arrivals. Otherwise, you will be deported.

CHECKING OUT VANGTAO

I found my bus alright. No one was waiting inside so this gave me time to wander off to the nearby market, which wasn’t much. Several makeshift stalls were selling the same stuff that I saw earlier from “no man’s land”.

Vangtao, located approximately 20 to 30 minutes from Pakse. was dusty and arid, with wafts of dust billowing around the commune. There wasn’t any active trade going on, making one wonder how people make a living when there’s hardly anyone buying. Vangtao is a slice of poverty-stricken backroad seemingly unaffected by the fast transit of people passing through. On cursory glance, it doesn’t seem to benefit being a border town. In fact, there doesn’t seem to be anything in Vangtao worth staying for.


Vangtao's immigration counters (above and below)





Walking away from the more modest Vangtao border post.


A market just across the border post in Vangtao, Laos.


Fruits in Vangtao, Laos




Around 12 noon, with every passenger accounted for, we were finally on our way to Pakse via Highway 16. I hardly noticed our traipse into the Lao-Thai Friendship Bridge (which is officially on Lao land, unlike the bridge from Savannakhet to Mukdahan). The British girl kept me busy with her thousand questions. But what’s there to tell, except the places that I’ve been to and the things that I’ve experienced. I didn't mind. It kept my mind off some immediate concerns.

BUS TERMINAL

It was 12:30PM when we arrived at the bus terminal. This was not Pakse’s main bus station, but a smaller one called VIP Bus Terminal. I had no idea where I was exactly. I said my goodbyes to my seatmate and wished her well. I saw a tuktuk and haggled for a price to get me to Imoun Homestay located in Ban Pakhuaydeau (Pakhuaydeau village). It would be my first homestay – as far as I can remember. It’s a bit out of the center of town, but it's a mere block away from the placid Mekong River.

Reviews for Imoun were uneven; guests either loved or hated it. What drew me to the place were references to local gastronomy (Por, the owner’s daughter who also manages the place, cooks for her guests) and the hospitable nature of the owners. You see, the quality of an accommodation doesn’t solely depend on the provided amenities. I realized that it’s way easier and more comfortable when the people running the place are personable and extends help regarding travel queries. Moreover, I could do a lot more when I’m actually able to converse with the locals running the place.

EXORBITANT RIDE

The tuktuk driver said it would cost me 40,000 kip ($5) to get me to Imoun. This was exorbitant considering I was sharing the ride with a Thai couple who was taken to the swanky Champasak Palace Hotel (which I booked for a later date). They’d have to also pay 40,000 kip each, easily earning the avaricious driver $15 (about P1300) for the three of us. You know how much locals pay for a point-to-point tuktuk ride within the city? 20,000 kip – or $2.50! But by then, all I wanted was to get out of there. I still had a full afternoon ahead of me – and I refused to spend my time haggling with time wasters!

My international bus from Ubon. At this time, we were waiting for most Caucasians securing their visas on arrival.


Tuktuk at the VIP Bus Terminal

ARRIVING IN IMOUN
Fifteen minutes later, I arrived at a seemingly deserted guest house. There were tables spread across the lobby, and aphorisms pasted all over the walls. It looked homely. From a distance, I could see the edge of the road, the Mekong lazily drifting beside it. The neighborhood seemed asleep and has embraced Mekong lethargy. It must have taken me 15 minutes to finally find my host. Her name is Por, a Lao lady in her 20’s. Along with her mother, Por manages and operates Imoun which has 3 rooms.

I had to deposit my shoes at a rack before making my way to the 2nd floor. My room was spacious, with glistening wooden floor. In fact, it was really composed of two adjoining rooms - one with a double bed, the other had a single bed. Por handed me a complimentary bottle of mineral water and Kaoman, a local delicacy wrapped in banana leaves. It initially looked hideous, like a violaceous “turd”. When I unwrapped it, I was surprised to see its color. I poked it with my finger, smelled it, then deliberately gathered all my resolve and took a bite. It was sticky, sweet and was later told that it was made of coconut, beans and rice flour. For those few seconds of mastication, I felt heaven in my mouth.
Once consumed, I knew it was time to organize my afternoon. I told Por of my intentions. Could she contact some motorcycle drivers for me?

How about visiting a temple in the middle of an enchanted forest, set in an island in the middle of the Mekong?

This is the Eye in the Sky!

Imoun Homestay and Restaurant at Ban Pakhuaydeau which is practically beside the Mekong.


My bedroom at the 2nd floor. The adjoining room had a smaller bed, and both beds were mine. :) The rooms in Imoun were all fan rooms, but I've earlier thought of the weather. At night, it got so cold I had to turn the fan off when I woke up shivering despite using the two blankets provided.


Complimentary welcome gifts: a mineral water and what Por called Kaoman (although she didn't tell me it was actually food). I was able to ask later.


Taking a bite at my kaoman.


For more complete information, here's my border crossing back to the Vangtao (Laos) - Chongmek (Thailand) boundary posts after my visit in Pakse and the Champasak Province:

-  http://eye-in-the-blue-sky.blogspot.com/2012/06/crossing-back-vangtao-chongmek-border.html 


Map of the Chongmek-Vangtao border



12 comments:

R.Ramakrishnan said...

Very detailed, interesting & informative account & extremely useful tips for a traveler.Loved the hilarious episode of the American lady demanding waiver of $1 processing fee. 'Kaoman' looks delicious.

eye in the sky said...

@ Ramakrishnan:

Agree, the American girl needed some spanking! Haha

I wanted more of the Kaoman because it was bite sized. Turns out my host just bought it from the market. :)

Anonymous said...

i hate police at lao-thai border after stamp passport they said give me money for stamp , sometime i paid them 100-200baht , it is not good , many police mafia !

Anonymous said...

i hate mafia police lao and thai at border!

Anonymous said...

It's true that before they built the beautiful building at the Chong Mek border that you could just walk into Lao without a visa to shop. Sadly those days are over. I can't afford the $30 just to buy $10 worth of things.

eye in the sky said...

That is a valid point I failed to consider simply because I am visa-free (as a Filipino) but it is a pain to be crossing back to the border and handing out $30; that's a huge sum of money to some locals.

I think they are trying to regulate immigration traffic and make money in the process. A certain population will feel the pinch of declining commerce - probably. :(

Alia said...

Thank you for this very detailed info - incredibly helpful as we're travelling from Ubon to Don Det via Pakse tomorrow and needed to know if there was a money exchange at Vang Tao. Good to know there is, as there are no ATMs in Si Phan Don and we won't be going to Pakse centre at all.

eye in the sky said...

Hi Alia,

My pleasure. I read blogs of places I visit so writing about it is like paying it forward. Enjoy Don Det. :)

Dganit-Israel said...

Thank you Eye in the sky!
Thia was verrrrry helpful

eye in the sky said...

You're very welcome, Dganit-Israel. I'm just paying forward by sharing the information online from my travels. Have a safe trip. :)

Liz said...

Wow, very detailed account! I will surely be frequenting your blog as I am planning to do the similar route soon. Thanks a lot! =)

eye in the sky said...

Thanks, Liz. I see you've been to Bagan, one of my all-time favorite trips (because it isn't easy to get there and the temples are a dime a dozen). You will love south Laos. Have fun and be safe. :)