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Sunday, October 26, 2014

Visa-run from Chiang Mai-Vientiane - taking my time, making it leisurely.....

I am aware that there are many blogs on this topic, however when I was looking, I found none posted after July 2014 - when visa rules changed, and none by Europeans, which I happen to be. Many focus on getting in and out of Laos pretty quickly but I decided (after a really enjoyable time in Luang Prabang at the beginning of 2014) to spend a few days in Vientiane, and also explore the different transport options in doing this particular journey.
Sunset over the Mekong, in Vientiane

I left on a Saturday afternoon from Chiang Mai. I decided to fly to Udon Thani one way as my tourist visa was expiring that night at midnight. I booked the flight about 4 days previously for 2, 000bht (approx. EUR48 right now), you can get them cheaper or you can fly to Vientiane for about 9, 000bht more, if you're feeling flush. The flight was nice and easy, free checked luggage with Nok Air and out of the airport within about fifteen minutes. I had been told to get across Udon Thani to the bus station and get a bus to Nong Khai and then from there to the border, but I was offered a mini-bus directly to the border for 200Bht (EUR4.80) and that seemed far less hassle for a saving of what would amount to 50bht. I met a fellow Chiang Mai dweller on the mini-bus, which proved to make the whole trip easier and more enjoyable.

We were dropped right at the border. It's pretty easy to leave Thailand, but I had a hairy moment as I'd lost my departure card. I cajoled a little (with my absolutely minimal Thai) and the guard gave me another. I don't really understand the departure card - as the stamp for entry is in my passport so they know when I came in? Anyhow, there are many things I don't understand! Once you're through you get the bus across the Thai-Laos Friendship Bridge (20bht/50cents) and arrive at the Laos border.

As it was a Saturday evening, there was no one else around and I had come prepared money-wise. For Europeans, it's usually $35 (approx. EUR27) for a Laos visa, but add $1 for weekends or after 6pm. After 6pm on a weekend seems a great time to do it, and I was happy to pay the $1 extra. Note that you can also pay in Thai baht, but you pay 1500bht (approx. EUR36) so there's a nice little surcharge on there, for whoever it is that prefers the US Dollar. Also, have a couple of passport photos handy. They say one but in SE Asia, laws are apt to change. The forms don't take long and are processed within about five minutes.
Vientiene's version of the ubiquitous signpost

My new friend, John, had forgotten to go to the bank back in Thailand, due to some silly law his bank had (as I said - many things I don't understand) so I said I would wait for him at the Laos border to get to Vientiane together. It also meant I had the time to people-watch, one of my favourite pastimes. I deduced that toilet paper must be cheaper in Thailand, as people seemed to be bringing stacks of it (I mean, hundreds of rolls!) across the border, along with various foam packaging, for restaurants I guess. The border got much more crowded around 8pm and there was a queue of cars when John returned, about an hour later.

We headed into the city by minivan. If you share, expect to pay no more than 200bht per person, but try and get the songtheaws, some have bargained down to 100bht per person. Thai baht is freely accepted here, even preferred to kip, the local currency.

I had chosen as my lodgings, and they were perfectly adequate. The owner and staff were really friendly and helpful, the rooms were really clean (and bed-bug free - bed bugs are a huge problem in Vientiane), as were the bathrooms, and they have a cool courtyard decorated with graffiti for drinks or breakfast. It's also a pretty good location, around the corner from the Mekong. John and I headed around to Via Via, an Italian restaurant, where we stuffed our faces with pide (Turkish pizza), hummus, falafel and salad. I also had a couple of mojitos, as it was Saturday night. We also had a couple of Laos whiskey (more like rum) in the courtyard of the hotel with some fellow travellers.

I didn't sleep well - not the hotels' fault, my usual problems with sleeping - so I rose late and went off exploring the town. It is a sleepy place and there isn't that much to do, but the perks are definitely the food. For breakfast fare, or indeed lunch, try The Scandinavian Bakery. It is substantially cheaper than some of the other French places, and offers a variety of breads and breakfast sets. I paid 27, 000kip for breakfast (about 110bht) compared to 50, 000kip in Le Banneton and I got more bang for my buck too. If you like wine, there are quite a few wine cellars near the American embassy, with a much better selection than Thailand. Also, explore the side streets for great examples of French architecture in the houses, and stop off at Patuxai, Vientiane's nod to the Arc de Triomphe.
A window near the top of Patuxai
Next day, bright and early we headed to the embassy, reaching there at 6.25am. Mel spoke some Thai, so she negotiated that the five of us would be taken by songthaew for approx 40bht each/10, 000kip. There was no one else at the embassy, but people began to arrive about ten minutes after us. By 8.30am, when the gate opened, I was told the queue stretched about 1km down and around the block. Tip: Download the application form free from the night before, or pay 80bht outside the embassy to get one! When we entered, although we were first, we didn't have our forms completed, so we ended up being between 30-60. Not a big deal, as the lines move fast. However, when I reached the guy, he told me my application was incomplete/incorrect but wouldn't tell me why. As I had seen my friends, Lauren and Simon, have theirs accepted two queues over, Mel, Rica and myself simply moved to that queue and had our applications accepted there. There is no point in arguing with the officials - as we found out. If they say no, then arguing the toss is simply un-Thai, they won't give in as it would mean losing face. Then, we entered the main building, paid 2, 000bht and were given a receipt to return the next day. It's all quite confusing, no one tells you what is going on, you can simply go with the flow.
Success! Non-B visas acquired!

After more sightseeing, and a lovely dinner by the Mekong, we returned at a more reasonable hour of 12.30pm the following day, to pick up our visas. The embassy doesn't open until 1.30pm but they started giving out numbers at 1pm. Visas completed, we headed out for some lunch and then the long journey back. I had decided to join my fellow teachers on the overnight bus. We booked one for 1100 bht pps, a songtheaw picked us up at the embassy and brought us to the bus station outside Vientiane, where we boarded a bus to the border. We had to pay another 45bht to exit Laos (again, why?) and got back on the same bus. At the Thai border, they checked our passports, we entered Thailand, returned to our bus again which took us as far as Udon Thani. There, we were met by tuk-tuks which brought us across town to another bus station, to take the overnight bus. We had about half an hour to eat and use the toilets before we boarded our bus to Chiang Mai. Onboard, we were given blankets, a snack and water and about 10pm the air-con was turned on, although it wasn't great. It was a bumpy ride and I slept fitfully, although better than most of my friends. We arrived back at Chiang Mai bus station around 6.40am, exhausted but relieved.
Breakdown below.

Type of Cost
Price (THB)
Price (EUR)/(USD)
2, 231
Approx. EUR58/USD73
Bus to Border
Approx. EUR5/USD 6.35
Bus across F/Bridge
Approx. 50cent/65cent
Laos Visa
1, 500*
EUR 28.40/USD 36
Dinner at Via Via
EUR 9.85/USD 13.50
Vientiane Star – 3n
1, 760
EUR 44/USD 56
Le Banneton
EUR5/USD 6.35
Scandinavian Bakery
EUR2.80/USD 3.55
EUR7/USD 8.90
Songthaews x 3
EUR 3/USD 3.75
Thai Non-B Imm.
2, 000
EUR 50/USD 65
Scandinavian Bakery
EUR2.80/USD 3.55
BBQ on the Mekong
EUR 7/USD 8.90
Bus back to CM
1, 100
EUR 27.50/USD 35
Dinner in Udon Thani
EUR 1/USD 1.25

10, 271
Approx. 252/USD 318

Overall, it was a nice trip and could have been worse. I do recommend not rushing it, as you will be less stressed. Take in the Mekong, get some nice French food (and wine!) and make sure you have all your paperwork. Note that the tourist visa costs the same as the Non-B.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Part 8 - Pub-crawling around the World - Wijaya, Thalpe Beach, Sri Lanka

I stayed in Hikkaduwa for most of the time in Sri Lanka, Volunteering for Manacare, but I definitely had a few social nights out, with a great group of girls who took me under their wing for the duration. Although Wijaya wasn't my most unique Sri Lankan experience, it was definitely the bar in which I spent the most time, and it's suitably off the tourist beaten track enough to warrant comment and recommend that people go there.

Wijaya is a stone's throw from Galle, in Dalawella, Unawatuna - a very short drive from the cluster of busy beach bars in Unawatuna. It's on the main (Matara) road, or can be entered from the beachside. My first afternoon spent there was a Poya Day so I couldn't partake in any alcoholic beverages, I really enjoyed the virgin fruit cocktails (mango...mmmmm) and their wood-fired oven-baked pizza's were definitely tantalising after the steady diet of "rice and curry" I'd been living on.

I was lucky that I was in the expat scene, by virtue of my friends living there, and it's a very popular spot for people that live there to hang out, whether by day or night. It's proximity to the beach (most people actually have a swim and then a bite for lunch/dinner in Wijaya) makes the views simply spectacular, and it's not spoilt by pounding music or loads of holiday makers trashing the beach. In fact, the beach is clean and you'll see many local people swimming in the sea here. Depending on the time of year and the tide, you may be lucky enough to experience the little whirlpools that form in small reefs along the beach, leading to a jacuzzi-like experience! (My camera wasn't waterproof, unfortunately - but I can still remember the sensation).
copyrighted image

If you just want to lie in the sunloungers/deck chairs make sure you get there early, particularly in season and at the weekend and you may just be lucky.

I visited a few times, and although you can definitely eat and drink in cheaper places (it's definitely not remotely expensive if you're holidaying from Europe/The Middle East/Oz or U.S.A) I don't think that you'll find anywhere as clean, with such great cocktails and food and it's definitely affordable on a backpacker budget. The pizzas are pretty renowned but I also ate prawn salad and some more Sri Lankan offerings and everything was fresh, delicious and with generous portions. The cocktails were yummy too, evidence of the amount of fresh fruit on offer.

Sarah, CJ and myself with yummy cocktails

Of course, as with any beach bar in Sri Lanka, if you're going any time past four pm, ensure you are sensibly lathered in citronella or deet as the mossies also like Wijaya, and I woke up with approximately 30 bites on my leg one morning! They must have smelt the sweet cocktails...

Although I didn't stay here, I believe Wijaya also has some boutique style guest rooms, which are romantic, clean and budget-friendly (also creepy-crawly free, according to people who have stayed there). If you need something more private and a little bigger - my friends have a beautiful place right across the road - with an open air shower and chipmunks playing in the trees. 

Ambience: 10/10 - I can't fault this place, from lounging and lunch, beach and beer or a cocktail night with friends, it's chilled but you can still party here.
Price: Rs. 400 alcoholic beverages start very reasonably but steadily rise.... cocktails are from Rs. 750 upwards. You can bring your own wine, corkage is approx. Rs. 1000 (which is quite reasonable). 
Food: The food here is a highlight, Pizza's around Rs. 1200, My prawn salad Rs. 850, and there were plenty of prawns. Yes, It's on the high side but the portions are healthy and the food is tasty and fresh.
Location: Matara Road (you can get a bus to stop outside! I used to get a Matara bus from Hikka or Galle), Dalawella, Unawatuna. From Unawatuna, expect to pay about Rs.400 upwards for a tuk.
Toilets: Very clean and there are outdoor showers to wash the sand from the beach off :D
Overall: I spent quite a few nights here, met so many expats, locals and holiday-makers. I really liked the place and I hope to visit again.

Their own website can be found here