Last Sunday, I made pilgrimage to a supermarket carpark in Bangkok. My mission: to book myself onto a mini bus bound for Laos, so that I could re-enter Thailand on a new visa. We had been directed to meet under the big Tesco sign, just off the On Nut BTS station. There was a group of men sat around and several white vans parked up near by. I approached a fellow who looked friendly enough. Most people in Thailand, it must be said, look, and are, exceedingly friendly.
“Visa run to Laos?”
He took our passports and we dumped our bags on the back seats – once a back seat bad boy, always a back seat bad boy. It all seemed very casual, very non-official. Anyone with a van could park up there and collect passports and cash from foreigners and then drive off. That can be my backup career.
We handed over a little under six thousand baht. The bus started to fill up. A Russian woman took the seat between me and Chloe. Poor dear. In front, a bald-headed German man with no eyebrows, who had just finished a month-long stint as a monk. Then, a rather weasel-y looking, but ultimately friendly, British man, a student beside him, Middle Eastern, and then, right by the driver, two of the largest gentlemen I’ve ever seen in my life. They were also Russian, and wore tiny vests and shorts stretched tight over their ridiculously huge muscles.
We set off and I immediately downed a sleeping tablet that had been recommended to me by a more experienced runner. Soon enough, I was completely knocked out.
Around two hours later and the lights came on. We pulled into a service station and our friendly driver opened the door. “Twenty minutes”. I didn’t want to get off but he seemed quite insistent, and so I stood outside, feeling a little chilly for probably the first time ever in Thailand. The two Russian men popped open the back of the van and retrieved protein shakes, which they would proceed to knock back at every stop we made along the way. They also ate a prodigious number of bananas. It was a wonder they could hold them without smushing them to bits with their giant sausage fingers.
I didn’t really know anything about Laos before my trip. My main source of knowledge was King of the Hill and the Souphanousinphone family. I know next to nothing still, except that it’s Communist, the language is very similar to Thai, and they seemingly don’t have 7-Elevens there.
After the ten-hour journey, we arrived at the border to Vientiane. The crossing itself involved nothing more than remaining in a permanent state of semi-confusion, and being pushed around by bored and exasperated Thai people, who just wanted you to get your act together and sort yourself out. They did a great job I must say. Everything went smoothly, and I would recommend the service to anyone, because I can’t imagine where you’d even begin the process alone. There was a lot of waiting. A lot of boredom. Stamping of forms and general bureaucracy. In time, everything was done, and we were taken to a hotel.
I couldn’t tell you what it was called if I wanted to. I was so tired, confused, and done in. They featured this photo of Laotian Barry Chuckle a lot around the place. That could be a clue.
We had been promised a swimming pool, not that I’d brought my costume, but we found that to be empty. I was given a room key, 103, and I sloped off to go and collapse on my bed. I fell asleep and awoke an undetermined amount of time later.
“Great,” I thought, “It must be about five PM by now, I can go and have tea and then it’ll almost be bedtime.”
I checked my phone. It was 9 AM. I’ve never felt so lost in my life, time wise. Two days on an aeroplane didn’t do that to me.
The room itself was grim and smelled badly of damp. In the photo below, you can observe what I presume to be ancient Moorish architecture above the bathroom door. Surely not just some fancy cinder blocks. The TV played only loud Laotian static. A knock on the door. It was Chloe. The Wi-Fi didn’t reach her second story room. She took my spare bed.
I’m not sure what we did that day. I know how I looked though. It’s how I always look in such greasy, desperate situations. There is a requirement, not always enforced, to dress “respectfully” when dealing with border officers. I can appreciate the rule. I wouldn’t want to be dealing with Russian muscle men in tiny vests either. Personally, I wouldn’t have let them in. Anyway, knowing this, I tried to look a little smart on my trip. I wouldn’t want a stained T-shirt to stop me getting back to Chach. Knowing I was to travel, I had also worn my comfiest underwear. So the ingredients to the recipe – greasy hair, big underpants, failed attempt to look smart, happy, and incredibly compliant.
I’d said to Chloe that I had no intentions of making any friends on this trip. I’ve been socialised out, and I have enough friends now (three, at least). I couldn’t be arsed with chitter-chatter. Unfortunately, it’s rife on these runs. Everybody is bored and alone and has nothing to do. Chloe said she felt the same, but she can’t help herself. She loves socialising. “Where are you from?” and all that. I disengaged. I could not be moithered. I am the unmoitherable man. Time progressed. Rice for tea. Rice for breakfast.
We crossed back to Thailand without a hitch, travelling across the beautifully named Friendship Bridge. I even managed to pick up a Mars Bar from the duty free at the border. It’s sat in my fridge now. I can’t bring myself to open it because once it’s gone, it’s gone. The Russian girl sitting next to me on the bus offered me a clementine. I don’t know for sure if it was a clementine, because I’m in the habit of calling all round orange fruits oranges, because I don’t know the fucking difference, but I’m going to say clementine, anyhow. I accepted the friendly gesture with smiles and gratitude, and I ate it. I then became incredibly paranoid that it had been drugged. I grew up watching Cold War media. In my adult life, I’ve met perfectly nice Russians, but for a large part of my existence, I’ve had the nagging feeling that all Russians are spies who are out to nuke me and will do anything to achieve that goal. I imagined that she’d injected it with something whilst hidden inside a squat toilet cubicle, and would wait for me to pass out back at the Tesco car park, before dragging me off to harvest my organs or sell me into slavery. Evidently, as you’re reading this, none of that happened. Yet more proof that the Russians might be OK.
I’d booked a hotel to stay in the night we returned in Thailand as I knew we’d arrive back at On Nut late. We tried to walk to this place, and were making a very good job of it, before we were chased away by wild dogs. I walked off, as steadily and calmly as possible, as they nipped and growled mere paces behind. Once we were back to the main road, I rang the hotel.
“Sa wat de ka. Do you speak English?”
“I have booked a room at your hotel but I cannot get to you because of the dogs,”
“… Is OK. Dogs OK,”
“No, they are barking, and they chase me. I cannot get to the hotel,”
“Dogs not scary,”
Now, at home, I would agree with him. I love dogs. I just don’t love the rabid kind that chase you up back alleys.
“Dogs are scary. Do you have a car you could send?”
“No. No scary,”
“…OK… one moment,”
He put the phone down. He never called back. I tried to explain the predicament to a taxi driver, who only smiled and nodded, as they always do when they have no idea what you’re talking about. I could have been saying “I’m a big heroin monkey, take me to Narnia so I can cover Mr Tumnus in rich creamery butter,” and I’d have had the same response. To be fair, it’s what I do when I can’t tell what Thai people are saying to me.
We give up and get another taxi to take us to soi 11, because it’s a place we sort of know. Obviously, we don’t know it too well because we arrive to find it thick with prostitutes. You couldn’t move for them. We wandered between them, and their pimps, and the creepy men pushing them into cars. After failing to find a room, we returned to what we had previously dubbed Bates Motel, and passed out there.
I awake around three AM and jumped out of bed.
“CHLOE, WE NEED TO MOVE,”
Chloe bolted up and switched on the light.
“WE NEED TO GET OUT OF THIS PUDDLE,”
I had awoken from a dream in which we two, and another teacher from our school, were sleeping rough in Bangkok. Chloe went along with the whole thing because she also does weird things in her sleep. Two people both fully believing the same delusion. I stopped and looked around.
“Wait. I think we’re OK. We’re in a hotel room.”
“Oh right,” said Chloe, “OK.”
“Sorry about that.”
We both got back in bed and immediately fell back asleep. Perhaps there was something weird in that clementine.