The Jungle Revisited

Its become clear throughout this trip, both to ourselves and probably you all, that we have a different idea of fun than most people. Take, for example, our latest foray into the jungle.

It started, as usual, with our transportation. Most people are perfectly happy taking the ubiquitous tourist minibuses from destination to destination, as was offered to us direct from the Perhentian Island jetty. We, with our strange sense of adventure, rejected this option to take the “Jungle Railway.” Which, you must admit, is a very enticing name for a train, especially with its reputation for beautiful scenery. To see it in the daytime, however, the trains only leave at 4 AM and 6 AM. so we got up at the buttcrack of dawn, headed to the station and hopped on the train. It turned out this particular train wasn’t scheduled to go all the way to our destination, Jerantut, which was a downer, but it never even got as far as it was scheduled to go. We broke down after six hours in Gua Musang, which we should’ve hit after three hours. And we weren’t even impressed with the scenery. After running around Gua Musang trying to find a bus out of town and always being a step behind all our fellow train passengers who knew what they were doing, we gave up and waited out the ten hours at the local KFC (complete with free wifi!) until the next train. This train, scheduled to leave at 10:15 PM, finally arrived at 1 AM. So we finally got to Jerantut at 4 AM, nearly 24 hours after we left. And I think we definitely ended up paying more for our transportation after all was said and done than we would have just taking the minibus. The jungle railway plan certainly backfired on us.

But the next afternoon, after sleeping in until 11, we hopped on the bus up to Taman Negara, the most well preserved virgin jungle rainforest in Peninsular Malaysia, home to all sorts of jungle animals. We started by heading to the canopy walkway, 280 meters of high-walking goodness, complete with – well, no animals, bird or otherwise. But the stroll was pretty exciting, especially when you looked down.

We followed that little warm-up with something quite a bit more intense, and in retrospect, a little crazy. We hiked 11 kilometers to a hide, spent the night hopefully observing nocturnal jungle animals, and returned the next day. Sounds ok? Yeah, we thought so too. Here are the things we underestimated:

—steepness of the trail – the trail wound along the river, but went almost vertically down and back up at every ravine that poured into it. Though we didn’t gain any altitude overall, we sure went up and down a lot.

—jungle heat – we started with eleven liters of water, and I had started to cramp by midday. I simply could not drink water fast enough to balance out what I was sweating out. It was dripping off my clothes all day.

—amount of leeches – although the final tally was 2 successfully bloodthirsty leeches for Theresa, 0 for Jeff, we both spent plenty of time flicking them off our shoes and clothes.

—comfort of hide – we knew it would be spartan, but wooden planks sounds easier to sleep on in theory than when you’re actually trying to do it. But the “toilet” was completely backed up and unusable. On the plus side, no rats.

And here’s what we overestimated:

—amount of interesting animals – we sat in the hide late into the night and early in the morning and never saw a thing. For that matter, on the entire hike including our time at the hide, we saw a few monkeys, a squirrel, and a lizard in addition to a mere handful of birds. On the plus side, we heard a lot of birds (and cicadas!)

—availability of boats to take us back downriver on day two – one day of hiking in the jungle wiped us out, so we used our backup plan and headed to a nearby “town” where we were told we could hire a boat to take us back to the park headquarters. We walked up to find a completely deserted town and an empty jetty. Fortunately, other people who had stayed at the hide with us had arranged a boat and a hour or so later we were able to hitch a ride with them.

So it turned out to be a lot more work and and a lot less reward than we were expecting. Is it weird, then, that thinking back to it now I still think it was fun?

Under the Sea: Getting Our SCUBA Certification

I remember as a child watching programs filmed underwater and being overwhelmed with awe. How amazing it seemed to be meters under the oceans surface hovering over coral reefs and watching marine life dart around you. But growing up in Kentucky, I didn’t have much of an opportunity to do things like snorkel or SCUBA. Sure the YMCA offered courses, but learning to SCUBA in a pool and then doing my open water dives in a lake with about 1 foot of visibility did not have quite the same appeal as learning to dive in the tropics. So mainly I just watched TV programs and thought about how cool it would be.

Later in life I’d visit a fair few tropical destinations with happening underwater scenes. I snorkeled off the beaches of Hawaii, in Egypt’s Red Sea, off the coast of Belize, in the amazing waters of the Galapagos Islands, and in a number of other places. But I never found an opportunity to get certified as a SCUBA diver, and I have to admit that as I got older, I became a bit more timid. I don’t really like confined spaces, and though the ocean is certainly not confined, being tied to an oxygen tank seemed like it might be the ultimate claustrophobic situation. I’m also a worrier, and movies like “Open Water” and episodes of “I Shouldn’t Be Alive” about SCUBA diving give my mind plenty of fodder for worry.

When we started this trip, however, we said that once we got to Asia we’d give SCUBA a try, and now with less than two months left in our trip (really, can that be right?), we found the time and place. From August 15-18, we passed our days squirming into wetsuits, donning weight belts and BCDs, and slipping regulators in our mouth as we worked to become certified PADI Open Water Divers. Our choice of location: The warm, turquoise waters of Pulau Perhentian Kecil in northeast Malaysia. Our choice of dive shop: The excellent (and highly affordable) Turtle Bay Divers.

Becoming a PADI Open Water diver combines theory with practice. Our class, which ran from 9 am until nearly 7 pm each day, involved sessions of reading, watching video, and taking quizzes; multiple confined water dives to learn and practice skills; and four to five open water dives to apply our skills. The theory was, at least for me and Jeff, cake. It all makes sense. (In fact, I aced the final exam and thus got a free t-shirt. Jeff. unfortunately, missed one and is thus shirtless.)

The skills were a mixed bag, though I have to admit Jeff was pretty aces with all of them. For me, removing and replacing the regulator underwater, using an alternate air source, gaining neutral buoyancy, skin diving, and the like were no problem. What I didn’t like was having to fill the mask with water and then clear it or remove it completely and replace it. Though you could still keep breathing just fine through your mouth (the way you breathe when diving), when my nose wasn’t secured in my mask, I felt like I wanted to breathe through it too. Also, because I wear contacts, I had to keep my eyes closed when doing these skills and that was pretty disorienting.

What I disliked the most, however, was the CESA (Controlled Emergency Surface Ascent) in which, at a depth of 6 meters, you pretend you have run out of air, and after taking one final breath you must ascend to the surface at the safe pace of 18 meters/minute while making a continuous “ahhhh” sound. Since you’re at 6 meters, that means the ascent has to take 20 seconds. Doesn’t sound long but feels like an eternity.

In the end, we managed to check off all the skills, accomplishing them with sufficient agility to know that we could, if ever faced with a situation, do them again. Hopefully–and most likely–we won’t have to. I did take one dive longer to accomplish it all then Jeff did, as he breezed through all his requirements in a quick 3 days. But really, let’s be honest. If I wanted to, I could have done it in three days too. But why would I pass up the opportunity for a free bonus dive? On the fourth morning, while Jeff just sat on the beach, I hopped back in the water, checked off two quick skills, and then got to spend an amazing half hour swimming lazily 15 meters below the surface, peeking at black-spotted puffer fish, watching Nemo play in the anemones, avoiding eye contact with the colorful trigger fish, marveling at the size of the grouper, and feeling absolutely free and at peace under the sea. It’s as awesome as I thought it would be back when all I could do was watch on TV and wonder.

We Maybe Fixed It

We’ve been getting a lot of comments lately about the site loading slow. So with a relax day today we took a look and discovered some non-original code sitting in our header – just another way of saying our site got hacked.

It’s still not clear to us what this code was doing there, since it didn’t seem to do anything (except call our site “smelly”), but nevertheless, we removed it and as far as we can tell things load a lot smoother now. So drop a comment in here if our site is loading better or worse for you now. And then continue down below to read about our other big news.

Carolina on Our Minds

When we embarked on our trip last October, we had in hand a return ticket to Seattle but no real idea where we were going from there. We had handed over the keys to our apartment in Bethesda and resigned from our jobs. We weren’t planning to return to D.C. Our belongings were piled into a Ryder van and moved to my parents home in Kentucky. Our final destination, the place we would call home when our year in the world was up, was unknown to us. Anything and everything was a possibility. NYC? Denver? Phoenix? North Carolina? West Coast? East Coast? Europe? Though we couldn’t quite see ourselves in the Deep South or the smack middle of the U.S., we weren’t ruling anything out. We left our futures up to fate.

Some people wondered if we’d just decide to keep on traveling, but I think we both knew that wouldn’t be the case. We love travel. We love this adventure. We will forever be planning or taking a trip, but we both have things we want to accomplish, opportunities we want to pursue that require a commitment to a time and place.

Some people suggested we consider settling overseas, perhaps calling Europe home for a few years, and when we left we thought that was an option solidly on the table. Yet after a year away from family and friends, we are ready to be a bit closer. We want to be able to talk to them more, see them more. I can’t say that a stint in Europe doesn’t have appeal, but it doesn’t fit for us right now.

As with Europe, other options lost their luster over the course of the year. The opportunities there weren’t right. The weather wasn’t good. The flight connections home to Louisville and Seattle were crap. We weren’t really big city people after all.

In the end, I think fate intervened. Jeff found a lab doing exactly the kind of work he wanted to do in an area that we’d talked about with interest for years. The lab, in turn, found Jeff to be an appealing candidate for a position there. A good friend of ours from D.C. took a position at the same place and reported back to us nothing but good things. Multiple friends of ours who had grown up, lived in, or gone to school in the area sang its praises.

Without ever really deciding, we seem to have come to a decision. This fall we will be moving to North Carolina, specifically the research triangle area of Raleigh-Durham- Chapel Hill. It’s a move we’re both excited about, though it’s also a move into the complete unknown. Neither of us have ever been to the area. In fact, we’ve only been to NC once, and it was to Asheville. I guess some people might consider this crazy, but we just consider it an adventure. We’ve spent a whole year going to places we don’t know much about; why not go ahead and live somewhere we’ve never been?

So now that you know where we’re going you’re probably wondering what we’ll do when we get there. Well Jeff has just received full funding to do research on RNA regulation in Dr. Jack Keene’s lab at Duke University. He’s back to the microscopes and centrifuges, a prospect that might make many of us run but which he regards with great anticipation. He’s lucky in that he honestly enjoys what he does, and he’s good at it to boot.

As for me, well I’m going to be a writer. I’ve just agreed to a contract to write the Moon Kentucky guidebook, so I’ll ease back into the real world researching my favorite state. This means that although we’re moving to North Carolina, I’ll actually be splitting time between there and Kentucky. And while I’m very much looking forward to writing this book and perhaps doing a few other travel pieces to have a bit of money flowing in, what I will be doing the rest of the time is writing fiction. Or at least trying to. It’s about time I pursued a dream deferred. I don’t know if I’ll succeed or fail, but I do know that I’ll regret it if I don’t give it a try.

So there it is. Our future, at least the next small snippet of it, laid out. And while we’re very much looking forward to it, now that we’ve thrown it out there for all the world to know, we’re going to lay it aside for a while. We still have six weeks left on this trip, and more than anything knowing what lies ahead gives us a freedom without worry to enjoy every single remaining minute.

More Cookery

I’ve always had an addiction to Pad Thai. It started with my first taste of Thai food, at Sawadty Thai Cuisine on Bainbridge Island and has really only grown since. Which makes being able to eat it on a daily basis a wonderful, wonderful thing (though more than once a day is a little to much for me). Now, at home, we’ve tried all sorts of “pad thai” recipes trying to recreate the deliciousness that comes so easily to asian cooks. Pretty much any recipe we could find, that doesn’t require days of preparation, we’ve tried. All to no avail. We’ve been told the “secret ingredients” range from extra sugar and peanuts to ketchup (more on that later). But alas, nothing ever tastes quite like what you get at a Thai restaurant.

So determined to get to the bottom of this once and for all, we took a cooking class in it’s homeland. Specifically, in the heartland of Thai cooking, Chiang Mai. I started off with my favorite Pad Thai. It’s really very simple, just some oil to start the wok, water to keep things from burning, your meat, vegetables and garlic in, then some fish sauce for salty, some sugar for sweet, and some oyster sauce to give it some body. Add your peanuts and sprouts, and presto!, really good pad thai. Of course, the problem is in the whole finding the right ingredients. Fish sauce is relatively common in the US, but oyster sauce may be a little tricker. Unfortunately for all of you, I gobbled it down to fast for Theresa to get a picture. Theresa started with spring rolls and had it down in no time. Delicious stuff, and definitely one for the recipe book.

Really, I could’ve left then and been happy now that I can make my own pad thai, but we went on to to cook about ten other dishes between the two of us. I worked on hot and spicy soup, cashew chicken, spicy red curry, an asian chicken salad and mango sticky rice. Theresa specialized in hot and creamy soup, sweet and sour chicken (hint: secret ingredient – ketchup!), green papaya salad and mango sticky rice. Besides being ridiculously full as we also ate all of our dishes, we left armed with a whole slew of new meals to make. And I’m sure they won’t be as easy as our teachers made them seem, and finding the right ingredients won’t be particularly simple (shrimp paste, which smells disgusting by the way, and green papaya can be a little more difficult to discover, or even identify) but the food’s just worth it.

As a final test to our readers, in the middle of our day, we learned to carve a leaf and a flower. Can you guess who’s handiwork this is?

Love and Marriage: A World View

On July 30, Jeff and I celebrated our 4th wedding anniversary. Around the world, the fact that we’ve been married for four years has elicited one response: shock and awe. The reasons for this differ, however. If it’s a Westerner we’re talking to, they want to now just how old we are if we’ve been married for four years already. If it’s a local we’re talking to, they want to know just how it is that we don’t have a child (or four children) if we’ve been married for four years already.

The practice of marriage is nearly universal; yet at the same time marriage differs greatly around the world. For those of us in the West, we see marriage as a celebration of love. We marry someone because he/she inspires something inside of us that no one else does, because when we’re with him/her we’re a bit closer to being the person we wish to be, because we can’t imagine a life without him/her. We marry for a completely inexplicable feeling we call love. We’ll pass up someone better looking, someone with more money, someone with a better job, someone with higher social standing to marry the person we love.

It’s a beautiful thing (the 50% of the time that it works out). And it’s a concept that to most people in the world is completely foreign. As our new friend Byoung Jo, an engineer from South Korea, put it to me when he found out we’d been married for four years: “Jeff had no house. Jeff had no job. But you married him anyway. Why?”

Love obviously wasn’t the answer he was looking for, so I just laughed and replied: “He had potential.” Byuong Jo just shook his head. It was incomprehensible to him. No girl in Korea would agree to marry him if he didn’t have a good job and a nice home–and probably a few other assets to boot.

Marriage in most of the world is more of a business deal than anything else. In Africa we’d often hear talk of “bride price” or how much a man had to pay for his wife. In tribes and rural villages, the price was often in heads of cattle. In cities, it was a straight exchange of money, though quaintly enough the price was still discussed in terms of cattle. In other countries, there is talk of dowry–gifts of money, jewels, livestock, or other objects of wealth–from the bride’s family to the groom’s. Parents choose spouses for their children often without even a word of input from the to-be-weds. Being in love prior to the marriage isn’t part of the deal. Maybe it will come later. Maybe it won’t. To much of the world that seems irrelevant.

To them, marriage isn’t about love but is instead a merger that hopefully results in a better situation than if the two individuals stayed separate. It’s also about babies, about creating a family. It seems that pretty much everywhere we go, people expect that you have a baby within the first year of marriage. In some places, the marriage is considered void if a baby isn’t produced within a certain time frame. To many people we meet, being married but not having children makes about as much sense as pigs flying.

At first the constant questioning about whether we had children seemd odd. Now I’ve just learned to anticipate it and answer with a smile. I don’t try to explain the difference in our cultures. Instead I just smile and say “Not yet…” and then accept their offers of prayers or voodoo offerings or whatnot graciously. Later I offer up a silent thank you for the fact that I was born in a place and time where I’m free to marry whom I want at whatever age I want (or to not marry at all) and where the choice to have children, how many to have, and when to have them is all a personal decision (unless you have those pushy parents we’ve heard of, but luckily know nothing about ourselves).

A Different Way of Getting Around

Finally in its full form, our elephant post!

“It’s easy! Just yell ‘song’ so he’ll lift up his leg, step on it, then grab his ear and pull yourself up!” the spry mahout said as he hoisted himself easily up on top of the elephant. Easy for him to say as he may have been a hundred pounds dripping wet.

So began our mahout experience, a one day hands on elephant riding and driving experience at Elephant Village, an elephant rescue project outside Luang Prabang. One by one, we approached the elephant, some more cautiously than others, and tried our hand at scaling the elephant. Theresa, while apprehensive on approach, scaled it easily sat proudly on her elephants head while taking a  loop around the open field.

My turn was next, and I saddled up to the side. I got a leg lift, put my foot on it and felt it sag a little. I grabbed the ear and tugged, half expecting it to give as well, but the elephant held firm. I pulled, hard, enough to get my other arm around the elephant’s neck, but I’d lost my upward momentum, so I just kind of clung there. Eventually, I sort of managed to wrestle my legs up and around, not nearly as gracefully as Theresa had done, and found myself sitting on top of an elephant, looking down its truck to the world below. She didn’t even seem uncomfortable with this huge mass sitting on top of her head. Taking stock of my surroundings, I noticed first how high up I felt, but then more about the elephant. Her skin was very leathery and her hair on the top of her head very prickly. Her ears flapped wildly and slapped against my legs as she tried to cool herself. The “seat” itself was surprisingly comfortable, there was a nice saddle like place to sit along the neck. And before I knew it, she was walking, swaying me from left to right.

I did my best to lead my elephant around the field’s loop using the commands we had learnd for left (sai), right (quay), go (bai) and stop (hau). For emphasis, this went with knee forward on the opposite ear, though in reality, the elephants merely took them as guidelines. Any patch of bamboo or stack of pineapple leaves (their main food at the village) they stopped for or changed course to get to. Any hill was met with a long pause at the bottom as well as at the top. I started to wonder what made people want to use the elephants for work since they certainly didn’t seem very efficient. I guess being able to carry up to 1400 pounds means you’re allowed to go slow. Finishing our elephant driving tour (and putting away a nice buffet lunch), we next had to bathe our elephants. We led them down to the water down some steep hills that gave you the distinct feeling you were about to tumble down the elephant’s trunk. We persuaded them to step into the murky, fast-moving river with loud “bai!” calls and got soaked as the settled in. Some elephants sprayed water with their trunks over their backs but never submurged. Mine, however, was no such wimp. Her favorite thing to do was completely submarine to the extent I was freely floating before lifting back up, making it very difficult for me to stay on the elephant. Repeatedly, I was scrubbing with the brush (seriously, we’re paying to do this hard labor?!) only to find my elephant disappear and myself start to float away. And she could stay down there an impressively long time.

Cleaned and well exercised, our elephants were done with work for the day (they eat up to 16 hours a day!) and it was time to say goodbye with one last tour around the field. We fed them bananas and pineapple grass to reward them and bid adieu to the gentle giants.

Southern Laos by Moto: Part Two

The first four days of our motorbike tour through Laos were smooth riding. No bad weather, no flat tires, no getting lost. Our biggest difficulty was finding somewhere to eat along the way, which wasn’t a problem we had anticipated thanks to the abundance of roadside food stalls. Apparently, however, most of the ones in southern Laos aren’t used to serving white people. We knew there would be a language barrier, but we figured that a little sign language would get us by. Nope. No matter how much we pointed to pots of noodle soup or made eating gestures, on more occasions that not we got blank stares or giggles in response. But eventually we’d find someone who would ladle us up a bowl, and all would be well again.

Unfortunately, part two of the trip, a planned two-day circuit around the Bolaven Plateau was not all sunshine and blue skies…literally. Things actually began to darken at the end of day four as we made our way back to Pakse to overnight before continuing on. A light intermittent drizzle turned into driving rain when we were about 8 km from the hotel. The rain was hard and it stung as we drove carefully and not nearly as quickly as we would have liked. For the rest of the night it would rain in one form or another.

But when we awoke in the morning, there was no precipitation. The skies, however, were grey without even a hint of blue. It wasn’t exactly promising, but we had plans to drive halfway around the loop to see waterfalls and tea and coffee plantations, stopping for the night at a waterfall lodge where we’d celebrate our anniversary. So off we went. For the first 35 kilometers, up until we stopped at the first of the loop’s waterfalls, the heavy clouds hung onto their rain. But then they opened.

And boy did the rain come down. It was enough to make any sane person throw in the towel. We should have just turned the bike back toward Pakse, found a nice hotel in town, and made the best of it. But we’re not sane, or at least we don’t learn our lesson very well. Despite rainy, messy days never turning out well, we still maintain some odd belief that it can’t really be that bad, that just maybe there’s a blue sky just around the corner.

Thus when the rain broke we hopped back on the bike and continued toward kilometer 89, the location of the Tad Lo waterfall. Unfortunately the break was no longer than a TV-timeout. So swathed in ponchos we pushed on. At least there was a lodge in our future.

What’s that they say though? Something about when it rains, it pours? I think they’re on to something. Wet and tired we pulled up at the lodge ready for a hot shower, a hot lunch, and a room with a nice view. On first sight, it looked like we might be in luck. The grounds of the lodge were lovely, though I have to say the waterfall didn’t knock my socks off. Rainy season = muddy season, and the waterfall was just a spewing mess to me. The guidebook had said that you could swim in it; it seemed to me that the best you could do was drown in it. Yet that wasn’t a dealbreaker. What was, however, was the fact that every single room in the resort had twin beds. It boggled my mind, but there was not even one double bed in the entire place. Who builds a lodge with only twin beds?

Anyhow, a double bed wasn’t about to fall from the sky, so we went in look of another accomodation option. Our choices were not great, mainly dingy backpacker digs that looked like they might be washed away if the rains kept up. We found an inbetweener though that wasn’t quite what we had in mind but would do. And so we settled in. There was nothing to do but watch it rain…and rain…and rain. We did manage to sneak out once to go back to the lodge to at least enjoy a decent dinner (the food was good, the service horrible).

In the end it wasn’t the anniversary we imagined, but it was certainly memorable. The next day didn’t prove any better, so instead of completing the loop (a task we deemed impossible after seeing the connector road, which was a mud pit), we just turned the bike around and drove the 89 km back to Pakse as quickly as was safely possible. The Bolaven Plateau, supposedly a beautiful place, might just be best left to the dry season. No matter what you might think, riding a motorbike in driving rain is really not that fun.

Hello Moto

Inspired by our friends at One Year On Earth, we decided to free ourselves from the burden of buses (who in our limited Laos experience, had a nasty habit of deliberately forgetting passengers) and rent a motorbike for a few days to tour southern Laos. To put our parents at ease, by motorbike, I do mean more of a motorscooter; it’s not exactly a Harley.

But we certainly did put some mileage on it. Our first day, we headed south from Pakse to Don Khon, one of the larger islands of the region of the Mekong known as Si Phan Don (4000 islands). There, we parked the bike and caught the ferry (it’s really more like hiring a boat) over to the island. There, we found a bungalow right on the river and relaxed on our balcony. The next day, we rented bikes and explored up and down the length of Don Khon and Don Det, an island connected by a defunct French train line (in fact, the only train track the French ever laid in Laos). We cycled to what was optimistically called “Niagara on the Mekong.” It resembled a rapid. We found a “beach” that was a little too covered in water buffalo feces to properly enjoy. We passed the well known French locomotive that has sat in its place ever since it quit running. So while there was no thrilling site to see, the real joy was cycling through the rice paddies, passing working farmers and their playing children.

On day three, we returned to our motorbike and headed 30 kilometers north to the largest island of Si Phan Don, Don Khong, and really, did more of the same. Having our motorbike made it easier to get around, and it was more of the same on a vaster scale. No big sites to see, but lots of little moments to enjoy and cherish. The monks studying at the Wat. The children playing by the river. The wind blowing through a rice paddy. A really pleasant, relaxing environment.

But alas, adventure compels us forward and we found ourselves the next day pushing on to Champasak, to play Indiana Jones at Wat Phou, an Angkor Era temple. Though not as impressive as its southern neighbor, Wat Phou does boast some dramatic views as you climb the stairs to the main temple.

Failing to find anywhere decent to stay in Champasak, we hightailed it back to Pakse that evening, one of the nice things about having your own transportation – you’re never stuck. Or at least so we thought. We’d know better after our last two days, which we’ll cover in part 2.

Left Behind at the Border

“Hurry up,” the bus driver who would later claim not to speak English yelled at us from behind the wheel of the Sepon Travel “tourist” bus we were taking from Dong Ha, Vietnam to Savannahket, Laos. The six of us Westerners, the only actual tourists on the bus, turned toward the bus, gave the driver a long look, and told him that we were doing the best we could.

Jeff and I, along with four British tourists, were standing at the visa window at the Laos customs and immigrations station at the Lao Bao border. Everyone else was back on the bus and ready to go. As locals, all they had to do was get a quick stamp. They didn’t need to fill out four different forms, submit photos, obtain a visa, and then get the required stamp. But hey, we thought, they’d just have to wait. This was after all the “tourist” bus, the one every agency and guesthouse in Vietnam sold tickets for with promises that the bus would take us to the border, wait while we got our visas, and then carry us on to our destination in Laos. It was easy as cake we were told.

Except that it wasn’t. All six of us were being stonewalled by the one and only visa officer. He was pissed that we had simply asked why the visa fee was $10 more than the $30 we had been told it would be. We had confirmed the price with the Sepon Travel ticket agent just the day before. And we’d confirmed it with a French woman right there at the office who had passed through and paid $30 just two days prior. But at the window, we were told that no, it wasn’t $30 but was instead 350,000 kip for Americans and Brits, and 310,000 kip for Swedes. A very homemade sheet listing these prices was shown to us as proof. Wanting to pay in dollars, we asked what the exchange rate was, and we were told 8.600. None of us had an actual idea what it was but that seemed low. It also seemed extremely suspicious when a group of French people were charged $30 each when the rate sheet he showed us gave their visa fee as 300,000 kip. Wouldn’t that mean the exchange rate was 10,000 kip to $1 or that maybe the fee shit was just plain BS and the fee was a flat $30?

Frustrated but knowing that he held all the power, we very calmly asked him to explain how the fee structure worked. I don’t think he could, so he just didn’t. Instead he closed the window, walked to a desk further back in the room, and left us standing there. The bus driver, who hadn’t yet yelled at us, came over to see what was going on. We asked him to help or to translate or whatever, but he refused. Instead he began rounding up all the other passengers and getting them onboard, despite obviously knowing that we weren’t ready to go anywhere.

The “hurry up” call came just as the officer got up from the desk and reapproached the window. But he again refused to serve us or even speak to us. Instead he took all of our forms, crumbled them up, and threw them in the trash. He then sat and stared at us. Let’s just say that at this point, all six of us were reconsidering why we wanted to enter Laos at all. They weren’t exactly rolling out the welcome mat.

But we remained at the window, waiting for the officer’s power play to come to an end. Alice, one of the British girls, went to the bus to explain things to the driver, who by now was honking at us and slowly rolling the bus forward. It was obnoxious, but we figured he wasn’t actually going anywhere. We certainly weren’t, because now the visa officer had found a tour group that he’d decided to wait on instead. He had 10 visas to issue, and we could do nothing but stand there and curse him under our breath.

And then, as the visa officer moved on to about the 6 out of the 10, our bus pulled off. The young British couple got quite upset (all of our luggage was still on the bus after all), while us and the older British couple figured he was just pulling up near the gate or at most going to the town 1 km down the road to get the other passengers started on lunch. And anyhow, what was I going to do? Without a visa I couldn’t enter Lao.

Oddly enough, as soon as our bus pulled off, the visa officer decided we could after all have visas. Well, we could have them after first listening to a lecture from him about how difficult our countries make it for people like him to visit. What was this? Was our being stonewalled retribution for him not being able to get an American or British or Swedish visa? Anyhow, we listened, and nodded, and smiled, and then grabbed our passports with visas, got our stamps, and headed off to find our bus.

It wasn’t at the gate, but the official there said it had just gone into the town, so we began to walk there. We could see a number of buses pulled over on the side of the road, and we figured one must be ours. Wrong again. It was nowhere to be found in the one-horse border town. Well, we rationalized, it must be coming back for us. Strike three. The bus was gone, with our stuff, and with no intention of coming back. This we learned after phone call after phone call to the bus office, where we got run around after run around about what exactly was going on. Two hours after the bus left, we were finally told that we were on our own as far as getting to Savannahket, where we would be reunited with our luggage.

It was too late in the afternoon to catch another bus, so in the end, the six of us hired a sawngthaew (a converted pickup with two wooden benches down the sides of the truck bed) to take us the rest of the way. It cost us $40. Exhausted and angry, we finally arrived in Savannahket at 7 p.m. ready to let someone have it. But wouldn’t you know, the office was closed. Luckily they had left our luggage with a hotel clerk, and it was all there. We’d have to wait until tomorrow to have it out with Sepon Travel. There was no point in railing on a hapless hotel clerk the company had thoughtlessly left to deal with the mess, and we all just wanted a hot meal, a hot shower, and a bed.

The next morning, not willing to let a company get away with that, Jeff and I returned to the office to try to get compensated for our trouble. It wasn’t going to be easy. The office in Laos was just a ticketing agent. Sepon Travel is a Vietnamese company, and we weren’t in Vietnam. But we got the guy at the Laos office to call up the boss in Vietnam, and Jeff (quite calmly and rationally I must say) began to tell the guy what he owed us. Unfortunately, the guy didn’t think he owed us anything. Getting left at the border was, according to him, our fault. First he claimed that the bus driver didn’t speak English and had no idea what was happening. (Not true, but even if so, still their fault.) He then claimed that we had told the bus driver that we weren’t going to get visas, and so he left. (Oh yeah, we just thought we’d take a trip to the Laos border and live in no-man’s land for a while after stamping out of Vietnam). Then he said we had exceeded the time limit for the bus to wait. (We were not given a time limit. Giving a time limit would make no sense as we aren’t allowed to give ourselves a visa and stamp and thus must wait as long as it takes. And finally, advertising themselves as a tourist bus that helps tourists through the border process, they were, by us paying them, contracted to wait however long it took and then carry us on to Savannahket.)

Unfortunately, our being rational and demanding reasoning from them got us nowhere. Customer service does not exist in Asia, as far as we can tell. And getting anyone to take responsibility or tell the truth (instead of just telling you what they think you want to hear whether it’s true or not) is practically impossible. In the end, the guy offered us $20 total for the six of us. We told him he owed us at minimum $48 or half the price of the bus ticket each. We asked why $20, what reasoning there could be for this, but of course he offered none. And then he hung up on us. And when we called back, he disconnected his phone. Very professional, I tell you. Frustrated but tired, and determined not to let this incident set the tone for our time in Laos, we decided to just take the $20 and go. We’d fought the fight, and we’d lost.

But we’re going to do our best to make sure no one else ends up in the same losing battle. Word of mouth is king in the world of travel, and this is a story we just love to tell. Sepon Travel, you should have just been a responsible company and A) not left every single one of your tourists (the people you claim to cater to) at the border and B) ‘fessed up to your mistake and made it right.

*If you are trying to cross the border from Vietnam to Laos at Lao Bao, I highly suggest that you not take the Sepon Travel bus. They are obviously a recklessly irresponsible company. A Laos company called VIP bus also makes the trip, and I’d recommend trying to get a ticket with them. Or go ahead and just do it yourself. Local buses run to and from the border (though be aware that the last one leaves the immigration office for destinations in Laos in early afternoon).

**Also, just FYI, the exchange rate is, in fact, right around 8,600 kip to $1. What the visa actually costs, I don’t know, but at the Lao Bao border you’ll do no better than whatever rate is listed for your country on the very non-official paper the officer shows you.