That about sums up all you need to know buying a bus ticket - if only you could read it!
We have arrived in Pakse, just over the border in Laos from Ubon Ratchathani, in Thailand, though of course the crossing is at Chong Mek on the Thai side and Vang Tao on the Laotian side. Remembering those names is also paramount, just to keep you on your toes.
I think I love the romantic notion of crossing into a country on your own 2 feet but the reality is a lot more anxiety creating than I ever remember until it is happening again. We got the first bus from Ubon at 9.30am. Because they wouldn't sell tickets in advance despite it being labeled an International Bus, we had to get to the bus station by 8am when the booth opened on the day we wanted to travel. We were determined to be early, as I wanted to sit at the front, where it is better in terms of not getting travelsick. We were there by 7.40am having been packed into the public transport (“song tao”) like sardines with all the kids going to school. We felt quite pleased with ourselves for managing to understand enough to negotiate and avail ourselves of that 35-cent ride! At the ticket booth, we ended up second in line and got 2 tickets near the front but not at the front, as the four front seats had mysteriously already been sold before the booth opened.
Much to our surprise the bus left on time and took the exact 1 and a half hours that we were told it would, to reach the border. There were clear signs on the bus that said it would wait just 20 minutes for visas to be processed, so we scooted into immigration knowing we needed to be quick. We were again second in line to be stamped out of Thailand. Next came the walk into the unknown with those going the other way on the opposite side of the mesh barrier separating incoming and outgoing travellers. Why is it that I love this? We were in a concrete tunnel and we were anxious about being in no-mans-land in terms of having been stamped out of one country and not yet stamped into the next.
We grabbed the forms and filled them in with the utmost speed and were the first on our bus to lodge our visa applications in Lao. Feeling lucky as Australia is on the list for a visa on arrival, at the cheapest rate, we paid our US$60 and handed over the photos we knew we would need. The not so smiley official told us to go to window 6 - no receipt for passports, just go. We didn't want to argue and off we went. After waiting for 10 minutes, one of the Thai girls on the bus told us the bus would be leaving in 5 minutes. Thanks for that!! The man behind window 6, which I had to bend in half to be able see through, told me for the millionth time to "Wait a moment," and I refrained from trying to tell him what a moment actually means. A long 10 minutes later we had our visas and were the first of the 6 foreigners on our bus to have survived the processing.
By that time my heart was racing and I was sure that our bags along with our bus had long ago disappeared but no... the sign is just another one of those random acts of bureaucracy that Thailand seems to specialize in and the waiting at the border, well that is just to remind us that Lao is communist I think!!!One couple from our bus hadn't even lodged their paper work when we got our passports back and we had no idea where the bus was once our ordeal was over!! Urrggghh.
Ian finally spotted the bus we had arrived in while I did my best to impersonate someone who is not panicking, and yes it was still waiting for us. He dashed back to tell the other 4 where it was as I boarded and everyone looked very peeved as I got on. We didn't exactly engineer the delay ourselves but now I can see why no-one looked pleased to see us 6 getting onboard in Ubon- least of all the driver. The Thais and Laos were all processed for a mere $3 and stamped straight out and in at the two checkpoints, no waiting no delay!
Another 20 minutes of waiting and the other 4 foreigners appeared clutching their passports and one wandered off to do some shopping!! No way, the bus driver wasn't standing for that and he started the engine, revved it threateningly and she immediately jumped on. Like us, once in the bus, they frantically flipped through the pages of their passports to see that they did in fact have that all-important visa and stamp.
Yes it took more than an hour and a half to process us "farangs" and yes the bus did elect to wait!! I wanted to stroll to the front of the bus and rip those notices with their anxiety creating 20 minute warning, off the wall but I didn’t. By the time we were cruising along the Lao side of the crossing and on the opposite side of the road of course, I was reminiscing about having flown into Luang Prabang in 2012 and having got a free visa on arrival that was processed in about 5 minutes with smiles all round.
Now, why is it that I love to walk into countries I ask myself!!
Any further doubts are certainly clarified by this!