Sandra Dee of Vientiane
Well, we did it. Nate and I checked all of our boxes and then some in Thailand:
- Lounge on a beach
- See a Muay Thai fight
- Take a Muay Thai class
- Purchase Muay Thai shorts
- Take a boat ride through the Venice-like canals of Bangkok
- See a Cabaret show (See photos)
- Stuff our faces with amazing Thai street food
- Ride in a tuk tuk
- Purchase multiple Elephant-motif sarongs and scarfs and one pair of comfy hammer pants
We visited four cities in 21 days moving from Phuket in the South to Chiang Mai in the North, and apart from 20 acutely-maddening-tear-inducing minutes of being separated from Nate by a mob of shoulder-high Thais and tourists all cramming in to see a 90s reunion concert just before the clock struck midnight on New Year’s Eve (Spoiler: We were gratefully reunited right before the countdown, and I got my NYE kiss under romantic fireworks…awwwww), Thailand was perfect. Even big bad Bangkok wasn’t nearly as disorienting and scary as I thought it would be. Chiang Mai was our favorite, filled with clear air and a general chill atmosphere, complemented by remarkably clear sidewalks and one fantastic cabaret show at Ram Bar (see photos above). Alas, the Meister Plan that we concocted back in the cold confines of our Augsburg home dictated that we collect our courage and make our way to Laos.
Crossing borders have probably been the greatest source of anxiety along the trip so far. The land border crossing between Malaysia and Thailand was a three-hour ordeal that had a seedy air of being smuggled across the border, and everything I was reading online about the Thai-Laos border indicated that we were in for the same. Warnings of scams were prominent on every site. One travel site warned that nefarious tuk tuk drivers were known to take unsuspecting tourists to “Fake” immigration stations. Egad! Apart from scam artists, every border crossing contains multiple stages (exit country one, find transportation to border of country two, obtain entrance visa for country two, find transportation to final destination within new country), and sometimes all those steps need to be orchestrated within a certain time frame in order to catch the desired transportation.
In this case, we needed our night train from Ayutthaya to arrive in time (6:15am) so that we could take an express train (departure time: 7am) across the Mekong River that doubles as the Thai-Laos border. There wouldn’t be another train along until 2pm, so if we missed it, we’d be forced to either walk the 2k across the border or risk hiring a nefarious tuk tuk driver with imaginary border stations dancing in his head. All of our hand-wringing turned out to be ill spent, though, because the border crossing was a pleasant ordeal. Despite arriving at 6:45, the express train waited an extra 45 minutes as every last passenger passed through immigration and boarded. We chugged our way across the “Friendship Bridge” watching Thai flags turn to Laotian ones with a few hammer and sickle flags sprinkled in between. On the other end, having been allowed in by the real Laos immigration, we joined a merry band of travelers heading to the same hostel.
This is where the real fun began. First, it appeared as if the road on which our hostel resided was “out.” But, navigating it on foot, we found it passable. This led us to our hostel, which to our all-around surprise, was evidently no longer taking guests, despite each one of us having made reservations months ago.
We re-calibrated and spotted another hostel across the street that luckily had room and came with recommendations of delicious burgers. Normally, we wouldn’t be tempted by western food because it’s often disappointing and because we’d rather save our taste buds for new, Eastern cuisine, but after almost 24 hours of anticipatory anxiety and then some actual anxiety, we decided to treat ourselves. It was as delicious as anticipated, and it was the perfect thing to comfort our stomachs and souls before taking a nap to shake off our traveling exhaustion.
At least that’s what we thought. That evening, while strolling along the Mekong River boardwalk, taking in the sun set and a brand new night market to conquer, the burger had his revenge on Nate. We got him back to the hostel dormitory where he served a two-day sentence of bed and bathroom confinement. Poor guy. I pumped him full of coconut water, probiotics, and juices, periodically reading Harry Potter to him when he wasn’t sleeping.
Being a bit of a Sandra Dee, I wasn’t sorry at all for an excuse to not join the rice-vodka induced merriment of my fellow hostel mates in the lobby below (Free vodka from 8-10!). Hey, I just “was not brought up that way…”
Eavesdropping on other guests during my solitary time spent in the hostel lobby generally revealed loud tales of the various ways people had been cheated out of their money, travel boasts thinly veiled as recommendations, and competitions over whose hangover was worst, so I didn’t have too much FOMO. Ok, ok. I was more worried about opening my mouth and being judged by my lack of hipness and was just hoping to disguise it by being that zen-like, quiet girl in the corner with her book. Really, I was taking in what my brother aptly named “Chicken graffiti for the soul” covering every inch of hostel wall, and allowed my anxiety-prone brain free reign to judge myself against each trite quip and quote.
Luckily, a short walk away from the hostel was a graffiti-free coffee shop with wifi and chocolate lava cake, so I set up station there while Nate slept, and I started my GRE prep. About an hour in, though, the table in front of me became occupied by four American girls who were much more interesting to overhear. They were discussing the merits of various Workaway options in Vietnam. Nate and I had been contemplating Workaway ever since we’d heard about it from Ben, our host in Switzerland. It’s a way to travel where one exchanges work for free accommodation and often food. We were enticed by the idea of gaining some new skills (example Workaway descriptions we saw involved wood carving didgeridoos for a man in Australia and learning Argentine Tango in Argentina in exchange for help with a homestay), and saving a bit of money. Feeling emboldened by having some common ground, I plucked up my courage and interjected myself into their conversation to ask about their Workaway experiences. This led to learning that one of the four was in Laos for two years training English teachers. Now this was a topic I could handle. We compared stories of teaching English in SE Asia, and I felt accomplished having surpassed my normal all-consuming social anxiety to the reward of a nice conversation. I even sent a message to delirious Nate to tell of my triumph: I talked to people! Real People! He was appropriately impressed.
Travel in SE Asia, with all its ups and downs and close proximity to young hostel crowds hasn't transformed me into tight-black-leather-pants-wearing, sexy Sandy (though I did fantasize about being made over by the performers of Ram Bar...). I'm alright with it though. I have my small victories, and besides, my hammer pants are waaaaay more comfortable.