The day after we moved into our apartment, we unfortunately had to leave to go on a “visa run.” This is where you need to go to another country to visit a Thai Consulate to apply for different types of visas. I was applying for a non-immigrant B (for a work visa) and Keith was applying for a non-immigrant O (volunteer visa.) Both of our respective organizations prepared documents for us to take on our journey, and my school told us the tried and true way to do it was to go to Vientiane, Laos.
We were lucky enough to be traveling with Jen, a new friend of mine from work. Before starting the journey we went to Subway, getting sandwiches for the overnight bus ride from Chiang Mai to Udon Thani, Thailand. This overnight bus ride was not for the faint of heart, we whipped around corners on mountain roads. We decided it was better to not watch what was going on, and were able to get some sleep. From Udon Thani we took another bus to Nong Khai right near the border of Thailand and Laos. We then got off the bus and took a songthew (red truck that you sit in the back of) to the friendship bridge border. Here we got on another bus to take us across the boarder to immigration. After immigration, we took the worst taxi of my life…an early 80s Toyota corolla, in which we most likely have brain damage from the fumes. He dropped us straight off at the Thai consulate, after all the above forms of transportation we were pretty exhausted.
We waited at the consulate for our number to be called. The consulate is an anxiety filled place because so many people’s futures rest in the hands of the consulate workers. We were watching people crying and running around to get things they forgot. It made me wonder about the US immigration system and how scared people going through that must be.
Then it was our turn….
Keith got through fine with all of his documents, but Jen and I were both denied because of missing paperwork. The whole Thai visa process actually takes two days; drop off your stuff the first day, then go pick up your visa and passport the next day. We were there on a Monday and it happened to be that Wednesday was a holiday-so very quickly our 3 day visa run turned into 5 days. Jen and I were pretty upset at first because is was the week before school started and were worried about not being prepared-missing Monday-Thursday of prep week.
We were in an interesting situation, but we decided to make the most of it. From what we saw, most people visiting Vientiane were there on a visa run. There are not very many attractions in the city, but the few that we saw were enjoyable.
We stayed in a 6 person room at a hostel called Sihome Hostel. It was a backpacker type place with young people from around the world hanging out each night sharing stories. We met some really nice people including a great group from a new clothing company called Sergentee. The hostel has a big cookout every Wednesday night which was fun and we went out a few nights with some of our new friends. One of the guys, Zac, actually ended up coming to Chiang Mai to visit us for Loy Krathong.
One of the most interesting things we did while in Vientiane was visit a place called the COPE center. When we first arrived we watched a documentary telling about the background of bombing in Laos during the Vietnam War, the effects of the bombing still happening, and what people are trying to do to clean up the horrific leftover bombs from the war.
Laos is the most heavily bombed country per capita in the world, and they are still suffering the effects of all of these bombs. The US went on approximately 580,000 bombing missions in Laos. Dropping a plane full of bombs every 8 minutes for 9 years!
The reason Laotians are still suffering from these bombs is because only 2/3 of these bombs exploded. The other 1/3 are waiting for someone or something to come and set it off. Sadly, many times it is children that find them and unknowingly set them off, other times a cooking fire in someones home will heat a bomb below the surface and blow up whole houses. Keith and I read heartbreaking stories of children finding “bombies” (little ball looking bombs) and playing with them, which sets the bombies off and kill the children or leave them without limbs. We heard other stories of people finding bombs and either knowing or not knowing they were bombs decided that the scrap metal could feed their family for months and lost their lives or body parts in the attempt. We watched a young boy begging the reporter to just take the bombs back to where they came from because he didn’t want to lose any more friends 😦
Currently, in Laos, they have new special training camps in which they are teaching local people how to deactivate, remove, or set off the bombs. These Laotians travel around Laos helping to remove the thousands of leftover bombs. This trip to the COPE center made us very sad that our country had this dark history that was still causing so much pain for innocent people today.
The COPE center works with the Center for Medical Rehabilitation, and is the only provider of prosthetic and orthotics in Laos. As a result, surviving children and adults who lose limbs and body parts to bombs come to the COPE center for rehabilitation.
We spent the rest of our time in Laos riding bicycles around town, seeing temples and other sights like Victory Monument. We also saw a sunset on the Mekong River with new friends from the hostel and had a lot of fun going out to eat and to bars in Vientiane.
We left Laos with Visas, but the ride home proved to be a little more challenging then the way there (if you could imagine that.) We decided to use a private bus service on the way back that was going to take us all the way there instead of all the bus changes we did getting to Vientiene. However ran into some problems on the boarder, making us really crunched for time. We told a cab driver (just a guy with a truck) we needed to quick get to this bus service office and unfortunately, even though we were there 15 minutes early, the van was already gone. So, the man said we could pay him to take us an hour to Udon Thani so we could catch a bus to Chiang Mai. We decided really quickly to just do it and and when we got to the bus station, the first three buses overnight buses to Chiang Mai were full. We got the last 3 seats on the fourth, and final, bus. Jen and I sat together and Keith sat in the back with the monks. We all agreed that Vientiane was a place that even though we had fun while we were there and met some nice people, we didn’t need to go back to anytime soon.