Serpent Across the Mekong: Morning of the Water Producted by Honey Industries

Nong Khai to Vientiane

Roused from an uneasy slumber around 7 AM by a preordered, plastic-wrapped, garlicky and tepid yet rather tasty bowl of khao tom muu (rice porridge with pork), plus an even more welcome piping hot cup of tea. I perform my morning ablutions at a stunningly unfilthy toilet (even my precaution of stealing toilet paper from the Paragon’s loo proved unnecessary) and start scanning the Isaan countryside for clues of our whereabouts.

It was fairly obvious by now that it would be way past 8:30 by the time we reached Nong Khai, and doubling the previous day’s delay, I guesstimate that around 10 might be right. There is no sign of Udon Thani, 55 km from the border though, but around 10 AM, we finally stop at a larger station, and I check my cellphone to see if we’ve finally reached at least this waypoint. But nay, the cell indicator proclaims BigC-KhonKaen — a town we were supposed to have reached around 5 AM. Oei laew

Three hours of monotony later, choo-chooing across the heat-blasted plains of Isaan half a year into the dry season, I spot a giant Thai tricolor limply attempting to flap in the distance and the train pulls into Nong Khai station, 5.5 hours behind schedule. An unmanned immigration booth sits in the middle of the platform, separating it into two halves. The notional 10 AM shuttle to have been operated by this very train is obviously out of question, but perhaps there is still hope for the 2 PM train? We join the thronging queue of hopefuls, but my stammering Thai enquiries produce a swift and crushing reply in English: “No train to Lao today. Or tomorrow.”

Only a week later did I find out what had happened. Earlier on FT, old Thai hands had questioned whether the service would really start on time, and I’d answered that yes, it would, since not only had the inauguration date been set, but the Thai princess would be attending as well. Turns out we were both right: the inauguration was held as scheduled with HRH Sirindhorn and the press in attendance, and one train ceremoniously crossed the bridge and back. But the very next day, the Thai and Lao customs authorities promptly resumed their squabble over splitting up duties, and service was immediately halted. At time of writing, the shuttle is back in operation, but the underlying squabble over the more lucrative cargo operations remains unresolved and visa on arrival is not available on the Lao side.

Baw pen nyang (“Not is problem”), as they say in Lao, so we join the hordes hopping on tuktuks for the short haul to the border, laughing at the few deluded backpackers humping their bags the 3 km to the border in the midday heat to save US$0.50. B747-437B covered the Thai-Lao border crossing experience admirably in his Laos-y trip report, so I won’t flog that dead water buffalo again — but I will note for posterity, though, that hanging around the station for a while before heading down was not the smartest of moves, as this translates to crowds out the wazoo on both sides, meaning plenty of comradely socialist solidarity with fellow border-crossers, an upstanding group of hirsute backpackers and sketchy visa-running English teachers with a shared aversion to deodorant. In one token concession to sanity, though, the fine folks on the Lao side have merged the “apply for on-arrival visa” and “get it stamped” steps, so in exchange for your US$35 you can now bypass the longest line of them all and just walk past the stamping counters.

On the other side, ladies with 1950s haircuts and uniforms colored that offputting shade of moldy green exclusive to Communist military personnel signify that we’ve left the royally capitalist Kingdom of Thailand and entered the notionally Communist People’s Democratic Republic. In the spirit of Marxist-Leninism, tuk-tuk drivers selflessly offer their ability of mobility to fulfill our need of mobility, asking only for a few green pieces of paper with dead American presidents in exchange. We select one and gun down the highway.

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