Visa Run to Vientienne, Laos

It's Tuesday morning here. I've been sitting in the lobby waiting for them to put the buffet out but it just wasn't happening. I tried to ask about it, but not sure I was getting across, so I just sat down and asked for an omelette  One came and no charge yet, so I'm guessing I did it right. 

My visa expired Sunday and I had to go on a "visa run" to Vientienne, Laos. We left Sunday night around 8:30 PM and drove all night to arrive at the Laos border crossing at 4:00 AM. I was seated next to a big Japanese guy with very pointy knees who slept with them utterly splayed out. It didn't help my attempts at sleep. At one point took my belt off and tied it around my thighs to keep them together so I wouldn't have the guy poking me with his damn knees. I guess I couldn't really blame him, the Russian girl in front of him had her seat reclined almost into his lap. She must have been very comfortable. I've written about my distaste of these 12 passenger vans elsewhere in this log so I won't rant again. This is what the service uses, so be it. I managed to nap a little.

Thailand's archaic visa laws say you have to leave the country to apply for another visa. It takes at least a couple days. I chose a visa run service with the lowest price that handles everything and asked for a double entry tourist visa, just in case I need the time, and even with their help it took several hours more than two days. If you want to get a visa renewed you often have to leave the country just to get it stamped, then turn around and you can immediately enter again. It apparently does not matter where you do this, as long as it's out of the country. But it's way more hassle to get a new visa. You must leave and apply at another country's embassy, and it matters a lot where. Some countries "are not helpful at this time", as the visa run service guy put it. There is actually no guarantee they will issue the kind of visa you want/need. Don't ask me why they do it this way, welcome to Thailand. The price was 6,900 baht which gets me the double entry tourist and included everything. Also, the room they arrange is a shared room. That didn't set well when the time came to check in, so I paid 200 baht more for a private room. I just wanted to strip down and flop into bed for a nap, a roommate didn't sound good at the time. Looking back on it, a visa run service is worth every penny: they handle all paperwork, transportation, hotel accommodation and help to avoid the lines. Since this is their business and they do it regularly they (apparently) have some sort of working relationship with the authorities. Most people who had come on their own had to cue up for what seemed to be half a day, and we avoided all that. It was handled efficiently and I felt taken-care-of with few worries. 

I spent most of the morning yesterday standing in line at immigration because of an overstay fine for one day (12 hours actually) - it's a hassle, avoid it if you can. The embassy was not a long wait at all since the service handled it all very efficiently, and then we were off to check into the Sisavath hotel. I'm not sure where that is, did not get out or about at all, too tired. Last night I drank a few beers in the hotel lobby, got to try the much-lauded Beer Lao. It was good, more flavor than Leo beer, but not the best beer I've ever had. Frankly, not that much better than Leo. I haven't found an IPA yet, maybe they just don't like the extra hoppy styles in this part of the world. I know my beer loving friends in the Pacific Northwest U.S. would gag at the mere idea of putting ice in your beer, which more than half the population here does. I could have gone out and done some sightseeing of Vientiane but was just feeling blah due to my sleep cycle messed up. I've been hanging around the hotel to avoid spending money. $1 = 7,800 Laos Kip. The service should come get us some time today and distribute everyone's passports with the new visas stamped, not sure when. One guy I spoke with seems to think we won't get back to Bangkok until quite late, perhaps 10 or 11 PM. A lot of people do this process every day, it's a routine in Thailand. [edit: got home at 11:00 PM]

I met an interesting young guy doing a run as well. He grew up in New York City, USA, but he's of Laotian-Thai descent and now lives in northern Thailand on the border with Laos with his new bride. Don't know why he's doing a run when he could get a marriage visa, but everyone has their reasons and strategies concerning these things. He speaks Thai and Laotian as well as the New York variety of English (the kind with attitude and bling). When I showed him my recent post of this blog about Korat and my interest in the people and rural life of Isan, he invited me up to where he lives in Nan. It's not in Isan, but it's way up there, and very interesting to me. You think I'm the sort of guy who takes people up on offers like that? We'll see. He's been very helpful in translating things and explaining how I should be and act in Thailand to fit in. Always good to meet somebody like that, even if he's into hip-hop. 

No pics today, other than those map links, since I didn't get out and see anything. The air is clean here, and life seems slower. Some day soon I'd like to take an extended tour of Laos and Burma. Maybe on a bicycle.

Weekend in Korat - Sunday

These rooms are open to the air pretty much. I'm still amazed it was so comfortable to sleep without a/c or even a fan. I like it out here. Everybody was up way, way earlier than I was. I stumbled downstairs looking for my mug, and I made a cup of instant coffee. I brought some that tastes like espresso. David had to have his bacon, and I sampled some too. Mama and Papa and everybody else had a Thai dish featuring tree ants.

Mmmm.....bacon: the candy of meats

Everybody else ate Thai style. I don't know the name of this dish, but it's sour.
The sour taste is from tree ants.
It was actually pretty tasty, and I must have eaten a rounded teaspoon of these ants. 

I asked Tung where they get these ants and she told me they get them from trees. I don't know what kind of tree, but they definitely have a sour taste, like lemon or vinegar.

After breakfast and some more sitting around, I felt very groggy. Never could quite wake up it seemed. Tung and David got their hats on and took me for a walk to see the family farm. This was very relaxing and felt good to get out in the beautiful countryside, walking along the rice paddies. They have not had much luck with rice this year because of lack of rain.

Having left the house compound, we took a winding path
along fields towards the family plots, worked for generations.

Here's a view of how the paddies are laid out. We walked raised paths
with the sunken paddies on either side. The paths were about 36" high,
to stay out of the water when the paddies are flooded and the rice is planted.
This little structure is a resting place to get out of the sun, eat
your lunch, take a nap, whatever. We stopped for a break. 

This is how they used to harvest the rice. It was stuck up in
the rafters of the little house. Nowadays they use machinery.

Mama showing the front of the
tractor they use now to harvest rice
And the rear part. I bet it saves a lot of work.

I saw these bottles laying around. David said he began to pick
them up, but was told to leave them lying there. Harvesters
use them to put tasty looking bugs and frogs in for
a snack later. I'm not kidding.

Tar, (short for Guitar) accompanied us most of the way. Pretty good
for a little kid. David carried him home part of the way when we were
finished looking around the land.
On the way home saw these on a tree. It's a tree fruit. Tung calls it ma furang (sp?) and the taste is very sour
 and a little sweet. I've since had them as part of a salad
 in food I've had in Bangkok, pretty good.

When we made it back to the house it was a pretty lazy scene. Papa was nowhere to be found, all the kids were listening to music or playing video games and the adults were hanging out where it was cool. Tung used her newly-acquired hair cutting skills to cut the neighbor lady's hair.

She asked me if I wanted a haircut, but I decided to see how
this one turned out. I've since had a haircut from her
 and it wasn't half bad.
Still feeling very listless and tired. Just sitting around with
my feet in the dirt.

Mama dusting everything down

Cooking some nice looking little fish for lunch
Miss Tung showed me this papaya tree in the back yard
and said she would make me a fresh papaya salad. 

She picked it off the tree and peeled it with a knife

Then there's a special tool, sort of like a cheese slicer,
that carves up the papaya into these things.

Couple weeks later I bought one in a market for 10 baht.
I'm never gonna use it, you need to many
ingredients to make this dish correctly.

You shred off as much off as you can until the seeds start
to show, then you throw it out for the chickens to peck at.

One processed papaya, set aside.

Mama has a really big ceramic mortar and a heavy wooden
pestle. Toss a little of the papaya in there along with
peppers and garlic. Those peppers are hotter than jalapenos,
but not near as hot as habaneros.

Muddle it a bit. She didn't chop anything as I remember. 

You hear this "pok, pok, pok" sound as she works. There's a
popular Thai restaurant back in Portland called PokPok.

This is sugar, looks like raw sugar.

Add some cherry tomatoes

I think this is lemon juice...

Nam pla, or fish sauce. Man I love this stuff. I don't even
bother cooking chicken anymore unless I've marinated
it in this stuff

The nam pla above wasn't fishy enough I guess,
so she adds a few tablespoons of this extra fishy sauce called pa ra.
Mama buys it and keeps it in a jug, unrefrigerated for months, and it's gruesome.
I don't even like to think that I ate this stuff. But I did.

For that extra umami-boost

Keep muddling it, moving it around with the spoon

This is the way we mash it up....

....mash it up, mash it up...

That's about right. Throw in the shredded papaya and toss.

Serve on a platter. Man, this is one spicy dish.

We at it with these Thai vegetables called gem nan. Tung said she only sees them in Korat.

Everybody loves this stuff, even the little kids eat it
like candy. Did I mention it's spicy? Really spicy. 
I got tired of sitting around with my feet in the dirt, as relaxing as it was. So I took my camera and walked off down the road. A long row of reeds lying on the road drying needed investigating.

After lunch I took a walk down the road and saw these reeds
laid out on the side of the road. 
Turned around and saw some sort of operation going
on behind this screen.
They were making mats!

I'd stumbled across some mat makers, three ladies working away in the middle of the day. They seemed to think I was very interesting. I asked them to take their picture, and they were a little embarrassed but they didn't say no.

The weaver is named Ruan. 

Sun had a razor and was stripping them somehow, getting ready for the weaver to use.
I don't know how they were dyed. 

I really should have bought one or two. But by this time
I'd started to consider my finances a little more.

Walking down the road a bit further I found a group of
men playing, of all things, bocce ball. 

They had the court marked out with string, and it was played on a
plain old uneven dirt surface.

They were really good. Two in particular were the best
players I've ever seen and the others seemed to be betting.

I was just walking along and they beckoned me over,
so I sat down for about half hour and watched. No English.

Continuing along, I see a community rice processing facility,
the village water supply to the right there in a big pond,
and the water tower in the back to the left. 

Back home again and everybody's chilling,
wondering where I had wandered off to.
When I returned it was more of the same, everybody hanging out. I think I had time for a quick beer, then Mama told us to follow her. No idea what she was up to. We followed her up the road the way I came back, through a side yard and into the backyard of a house where we found a crowd of cricket wranglers. There must have been 10,000 crickets, and they were about to be harvested. Mama said to take some pics, but I didn't know I'd need my camera. Tung's daughter ran off to the house and came back with Tung's camera, so I have a few pics of roundup. After I tried to always keep my camera in my pocket.

Here it was with everything intact. The egg cartons stacked up, cricket feed set out,
everything pretty well taken care of I guess, in the sort way one does cricket
husbandry. Enclosures were built of concrete blocks. 

I liked those ponds in the middle on the floor, with bamboo planks so the crickets could get to the plastic tubs
which served as watering holes. They were filled with smooth stones. It seemed like a pretty nice place for a cricket
to be live, like cricket condos. I wonder what cricket feed is made of.

First step was to remove all the egg cartons condos and shake the crickets out so you could
get at them. Then several people just scooped them up and put them into plastic tubs,
walking on bamboo poles so as to not squish too much of the product.

A look into one of the collection tubs.

This was after hundreds of egg cartons were removed. 

Showing the slick tiles around the edges which kept them from climbing up.

The entire affair was screened in with mosquito netting, not sure what for.

They were divided up and weighed

Then water was poured on them, not sure why...maybe drowning them a bit makes
them more manageable. Then it's into plastic bags they go, ready to be cooked up.

It was fascinating, and I'm really impressed Mama timed it so we could be there for it. The whole process seemed to take less than two hours and then there were no more crickets, just people brishing off and stacking up paper egg cartons for use with the next batch of cricket condos.

We got a bag and walked back to the house, heated up a wok and in they went.

Put a little fish sauce on them and keep 'em moving...

...don't want to let them burn...nothing worse than
burned crickets.

Mama takes over after a little while.

They really like these things. I ate several when they  were done and, while tasty,
I just couldn't take the idea of chewing up a bug. The last one she gave me I acted
like I was going to eat it, then when she looked away I threw it in the bushes. I discovered Papa
was watching and caught me when he laughed at my disposal. Man, that guy misses nothing.
Along with the crickets, we had a pork stew with boiled eggs in it. There
was a lot of sugar in this stew, and the hard-boiled eggs were boiled
for a long time after they were thrown in there. I think I'd leave out the
sugar and make it spicy.

Eaten with rice and crickets.
After lunch I don't remember what we did. I wasn't feeling quite so listless, probably had a beer or two. It's easy to just relax around there, trying to talk with Mama. She and I formed a nice connection when we were there, not sure how, just sign language and facial expressions. It was really something.

We stopped by a neighbor's house who had a little business making furniture out of palm stalks. I didn't think that was a use for those things. Not really good to put a cup on, but maybe could put some glass on the top to create a better surface.

I think David's gonna buy one of these table sets. There were tables, chairs and recliners, all out of the same material.

Taking it all in.

Got his Aussie hat on there. Made me wish I had my cowboy hat.

The lounges were pretty comfortable.

When the cricket show was over with, evening was rolling around and the sun was going down, we made our way back down the road towards the house. Some teenage boys who had been making themselves scarce all day came walking out to show us all the paper and wire contraption they had been working on.

We were there for a 3 day weekend for some reason or other. Oh yeah
the Buddhist holiday which made the 3 day weekend possible.

What is it?

Dousing a wadded up ball in what looks like flammable liquid

Held in there with wire...this is a hot air balloon!

Get the thing over the fire somehow. It's pretty big.

There we go, it's starting to fill now.

Now we're talkin'.

Whoopsie daisy!


There we go...

Up, up and away!

It really took off.

Remarkably stable, and that fire will last.

I think it's halfway to Cambodia by now.

Well, that was rather exciting! Everybody stood around and had a pop or a beer talking about it. Time to start snapping some pics. It's getting on to evening.

Really had a good time.
I was going to write some about Monday, but I really don't remember what we did. I know David has some other pics on his phone, I'll see if I can get those, maybe jog my memory. I think just spent the morning getting ready to go, packing it up in the pickup truck we came in, and headed off on the hour long ride to the bus.

This is the approximate location of their home. We sat down with Tung after we got back to Bangkok, but we really couldn't determine exactly where the place was. Best we could figure is that it is close to the village Nong Manao (doesn't show on this map). You can see Nakhon Ratchasima there, that is the closest bus station, about 4 hours from Bangkok. The blue line represents the hour or so truck ride northwards to the homestead, way out in the middle of nowhere.

They told me I'm welcome back anytime, but I'm not quite sure how I'd find it again unless I went with Tung. It was a fine experience, great way to relax and get exposure to rural Thai life. I think I could get used to it. I don't think I need the excitement of a big city, but that's what I got at the moment. Maybe I'll look into some other places some day, where the air is clean and temperature is not so hot, where people smile and really mean it and it's possible to live on quite a bit less than Bangkok. For now, it's nose to the grindstone and try to get some experience under my belt.

If you're interested in a nice Thailand home stay vacation maybe Tung can fix you up somehow. Not sure I could label this experience "bed and breakfast" really, but it's definitely a few steps above camping. Might have to have some creative sleeping arrangements. Contact Tung <> and see what she has to say about it.


Finally done there more than a month late with the second day of this trip. I'm going to leave it here for a while, and end up with some pics of me in one of my classes dated Nov. 14, 2012. The kids are great, I like this age group better than high-school, but I think that's just my own shortcomings in classroom management. I must admit most of the highschool kids were amazing and only about a fourth of them made my life a living hell. I am a beginning teacher after all, and they really ate me alive. I learned never let them know you're angry: they win and you lose. Sister-in-law has some years of teaching experience on me, she had some really good advice concerning classroom management, and I must get a handle on that.

My visa expires today, Sunday Nov. 25. I have to go to Laos tonight, packing into one of the dreaded mini-vans for an all night trip to Vientienne. Monday have to just hang out and wait for new double-entry tourist visa paperwork to be processed there at the embassy, then spend the night and head out on the 9 hour drive back to Bangkok Tuesday morning, back home Tuesday evening, then back at work on Wednesday morning. What a hassle. Costs about 6,000 baht ($195), and then I'm good for another 180 days. Anyway, looking forward to getting a taste of Laos. Duty free shop. [edit: everything I saw in Laos seemed exactly the same as Thailand. Of course, I didn't get out to see much of anything.]

Signing off for now, hoping you all are well and had a great Thanksgiving. Here's some shots of me in a classroom with some kids. I know, hard to believe.

What's up with the socks you ask? Hey, this is Asia. Everybody takes off their shoes.

Here I am, faking it. I'm not a teacher, I just play one on television.

P.S. Everybody takes their shoes off when you go inside here, just about everywhere. Here's a pic of me at the dentist's office.