Tuesday, November 27, 2012

How I almost didn't make it to Chiang Mai...

Day 24 (Mon)

Yesterday I arranged and bought my bus ticket from Vientiane, Laos to Chiang Mai, Thailand. It's a long 17 hour ride that involves riding an international bus from Vientiane over the border then about 2 hours to Udon Thani, Thailand where I transfer buses to get to Chiang Mai. The bus ticket cost me around 1200 Baht ($40) but I was excited that it was going to be so easy to get there.
Or so I thought.....

The guesthouse I stayed at is the one who arranged my trip for me but they use a tour company. I was told I would be picked up at the guesthouse around 3pm and taken to the bus terminal, and my bus would leave around 5pm. So I waited in the guesthouse lobby for my pick-up. My ride to the bus terminal was a little late, not arriving to get me until after 3:30 but I wasn't worried since I knew that my bus wasn't leaving until 5. On the way to the bus terminal we also picked up 4 Chinese people at a different guesthouse. Only one of them spoke much English but I found out from her that they were also going to Chiang Mai. The driver took us to the town bus terminal, but he didn't make a move to let us out or direct us anywhere. So we tried to ask him where we should go. Turns out our driver didn't speak much English either so he brought a woman who I suspect works for the tour company I booked through to explain to us that we would wait there until the bus arrived.

While we were waiting my driver left and came back with a very delicious looking Lao baguette. I tried to ask him where he got the sandwich, though he didn't understand at first and tried to give me his. After a few more hand gestures he understood that I wanted to also buy a sandwich like his. He went over to his motorbike and motioned for me to get on. I was a bit confused because I thought the sandwich place must be close but the bus hadn't arrived yet so I hopped on the back of his bike. He drove me literally to the other side of the bus terminal, where he ordered me the same sandwich he had. It was so yummy (tho I am not even sure what was in it except lots of chili sauce!) Then he drove me back to the other side of the terminal.

Around 4:30 the bus arrived. We watched as it unloaded its passengers and then people started to board again. My Chinese travel companions and I tried to ask our driver if we should get on the bus (our bags were still in the back of the van he picked us up in)  but he only motioned that we should wait for a bit. So we waited and waited. I didn't think anything of it really, because I figured that he knew what he was doing and would make sure we got on the bus.... until it looked like it was about ready to leave. Then he started to frantically motion for us to get our bags and get on the bus. Oh boy.

So we got our bags from the back of the van, shoved them under the bus and boarded. ...Only to find there were no more seats left on the bus. At this point I have not started to panic really, but worry has definitely set in.

The woman from the travel company came on the bus and apparently tried to buy back some of the seats from the other passengers so we could have seats, but no one seemed to want to give up their seat to Udon Thani, Thailand. Eventually the bus driver said it was time to go. Things started to get a little chaotic as the bus driver was trying to kick off the travel company woman, while she was trying to tell us she was sorry but we might have to stand for the ride to Udon Thani. At one point the driver was yelling "bus full, you get off" and "time to go", a western man sitting in the back was complaining about the bus not leaving on time (jerk), and the woman is yelling at us to stay on the bus and yelling something in Thai to the driver. It was all very confusing but I was determined to stay on that bus and make it to Chiang Mai!

So finally we started to move and the woman stepped off the bus. I went and sat at the back of the bus on the step that is above the engine....

Not too much later we arrived at the Laos border. So we all got off to go through exit immigration, which was pretty easy. While I was getting through immigration, I talked to two other western guys who were also going to Chiang Mai (though they had seats). I found out they had paid the same amount and was explaining my situation (as best I could, since I really didn't understand what was going on).

After we boarded back on the bus, the bus conductor was waiting at the back of the bus for me and the Chinese people. He tried to tell me that I needed to pay 500 baht (about $15) to ride the bus going to Udon Thani. I told him that I would not pay that since I already paid 1200 Baht for the whole trip. Of course he also didn't speak hardly any English. He kept repeating to me that I only paid for Udon Thani to Chiang Mai until I showed him my receipt that said from Vientiane to Chiang Mai. After that he left me alone, for a bit.

Next we came to the Thailand border. At this point I was pretty worried. I remembered reading in my guidebook that sometimes the international bus is in a hurry to get through immigration. To get into Thailand we had to take our bags from the bus storage and take it through immigration as well. So I started to worry that if I took too long through immigration that since both me and my bag were off the bus they might try to leave me. So I quickly got my bag and ran ahead to immigration where I jumped in front of people to get an immigration form, filled it out and got through. I headed back to put my bag back on the bus when the conductor again was waiting for me..

He told me I had to pay 100 Baht this time and tried to motion for me to take another vehicle. Now I was not about to pay any more for this trip and I was certainly not going to get on another vehicle not knowing how I was getting to Chiang Mai. So I had to make a decision, one that was probably the key decision I made that night. I told the conductor 'no, I am riding this bus' and despite his yelling, I threw my bag inside the bus and quickly boarded. He was gonna have to carry me off that bus if he wanted me out.

After the other passengers were on the bus I saw my Chinese companions outside looking very confused. They saw me on the bus and started to try to get on as well. Turns out the bus conductor was able to get 100 additional Baht from each of them so he came looking for me next. I told him I was not going to pay 100 Baht (a little over $3, but still..) to sit on the floor for 2 hours. I motioned to the seat next to me, "do you have a seat for me then?" He understood so he started motioning for me to follow him to the front and sat me down in his bucket seat next to the driver.

Now at this point the driver has already started the bus up again and we are on our way to Udon Thani. So the way I figure, I am getting there. So why pay more? I ask the conductor who will get the 100 Baht he is still asking me for. I motion to my pocket and then his, asking "is it going into your pocket only?" At this point he laughs and says yes, motioning it will go into his pocket. Now I was not about to let this guy make some money off of my misery. So I said no. Then he told me "you stand, you stand". Since he wasn't getting any money from me, he wanted his seat back. But I was tired of his game. So I just sat in his seat a little longer and stared quietly up at him and smiled until he was quite frustrated with me. Then I pointed to the step behind the driver and said "I will sit there." I think he was so happy to have me out of his seat that after that he didn't bother me any more for money or a seat.

As I sat there on the floor I was feeling much better. I made it past the border and would at least make it to Udon Thani. Then the very kind Thai woman who was sitting in the front row started to ask me questions about my trip. I explained to here how I had bought my ticket and she tried to explain everything to the driver and conductor so they could understand and she told me what they had said earlier. She also told me what the woman who I assumed worked for the travel company had been saying to the driver earlier. She had been begging the driver to let us stay on the bus. The Thai woman told me she thought what had probably happened was the tour company had cheated me and that when I arrived to Udon Thani I was probably going to have to buy another ticket to get to Chiang Mai. So I settled into thinking that that was the way it was going to be. At least I would make it there.

When we arrived to the bus terminal in Udon Thani, the Thai woman explained to me that this was the old bus station and that I needed to get to the new bus station for a bus to Chiang Mai. So she took me by the hand and told me should would talk to a tuk-tuk driver for me to make sure I got there OK. But wouldn't you know, when we got off the bus a man approached us in a red vest, saying he was with our tour company and would be not only getting us to the new bus terminal but also getting us our bus tickets! So it wasn't a scam afterall! WOOHOO! I rounded up the other passengers going to Chiang Mai and explained to the Chinese people what was happening. The Thai woman made sure we were all ok and then I thanked her in the traditional Thai way of putting my hands together, as if praying, and bowing my head while telling her "kab-kun-ka". She reciprocated the gesture and wished us good luck.

So we all followed the guy in the red vest and piled into the back of his pick-up truck. He took us to the new bus terminal, gave us our Chiang Mai tickets, and took us to the bus. And oh what a glorious bus it was! After the tortuous ride I had from Luang Prabang and the chaotic time getting to Udon Thani, this bus was like heaven. It had nice seats that reclined all the way, comfy blankets, working aircon, a bathroom on board, and they even gave us snacks along the way.

I sat with the other travelers that had been on my bus and we talked about the crazy time making it there, speculating on what had caused all the confusion. It could have been the bus workers, who, wanting to make some extra cash, sold our seats and then tried to charge us more too. Or it could have been a simple miss-communication between the tour company and the bus company to reserve us our seats. We will never know. So we just toasted our success, with cans of BeerLao, on making it on the right bus and to how things always work out. Because they really do. They may not work out the way you expected or hoped for, but as long as you persevere, they will work out. Everything always does.

So now I am in Chiang Mai, and have reunited with some of my volunteer friends. The hostel I am staying at is really awesome (it's called DeeJai Backpackers and I highly recommend it). I have already met a lot of fellow travelers and we are all excited about participating in the festival activities!

to be continued!

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