This last Sunday my 14-day visa from my visa run was set to expire so I was obliged to make another visa run.  Ross, who I met on my first visa run suggested Nong Khai might be a good place for my next attempt.  A little research on the internet and I learned that Nong Khai was on the border of Laos at the aptly named “Friendship bridge”.  Besides being a relatively efficient border crossing it was only a four hour train ride from Ban Phai allowing me to complete my visa run in a single, if not long, day.

The plan was to catch the 4:30am train from Ban Phai arriving in Nong Khai at 8:30am.  Allowing two hours for the visa run that would put me back in Nong Khai at 10:30 with plenty of time to explore the city before the 6:30pm train back to Ban Phai.  The ticket agent said the train to Nong Khai was often about an hour late so that would still get me back in time for the return trip.  That was the plan.

So at 4:00am I made the 5 minute walk to the train station to wait for the train.  There was only a single family waiting at the station when I arrived which I thought was curious as I was suspecting more.  Not thinking too much of it I sat down and began reading my book.  At 5:00am the family left the train station so I woke up the staff sleeping in the station and asked them when the train to Nong Khai was due to arrive.  I was informed that the train from Bangkok was delayed until 8:00am.

Now I wasn't too worried.  A 3.5 hour delay still means I have about six hours for the visa run once I get there.  That is assuming nothing else goes wrong.  So back to the hotel I go to get some sleep before I have to be back at the station.

It's now 7:30am and I'm back at the station.  There are a lot more people here which makes feel a bit more confident.   Since these people were not at the station at 4:00am I assume there is some hotline or something where people can get the updated arrival times.  I'll have to investigate this for next time.

Right at 8:00am the train arrived and one of the station staff led me to my seat.  After only a few minutes we left the station and I was off to Nong Khai.  I planned to read some more but I kept alternating between napping and watching the Thai countryside go by.  I was surprised at how similar it would be to a train ride through many northern Ontario farming communities except that instead of  potatoes or carrots they were growing rice.

The 2nd class train car I was on was a bit beat up and might have been considered old in the 60's.  The Thai railway is run by the government and clearly modernization is not high on the agenda.  Also, considering a 1st class berth on the 13 hour trip from Bangkok to Nong Khai is about $35 CAD there isn't a lot of profit for upgrades.  And there are only four lines like this in the entire country.

I was pleased the train arrived in Nong Khai the expected four hours later so no further surprises yet.  A quick bathroom break at the station (again, no sit down toilet here for those of you who followed my previous adventure) and I jumped on a tuk-tuk for a quick ride to the Friendship Bridge.  The tuk-tuk already had 6 or 7 people in the back but I was told to sit on the front to the right of the driver.  A very precarious position to say the least.  As we made our way to the bridge we came to main road to make a left hand turn and I thought we were going to tip over on to the side I was sitting on but we somehow managed to remain upright.

The tuk-tuk driver made a stop in front of a shop that claims to sell papers required to cross the border.  My research indicated that this was not, in fact, a requirement but a common tactic of the tuk-tuk drivers to make a bit of money off the farangs such as myself as they get a commission from the shop for each person they bring.  The other people on the tuk-tuk were also aware of this so before I could say anything they told the driver to keep going and once again we headed off to the bridge.

It only took me a few minutes to get through Thailand immigration and after sitting for about 15 seconds I was boarding the shuttle bus for the bridge crossing.  I had only been in Nong Khai for about 15 minutes and I was already at Laos immigration.  This is where things slow down.  The process for Laos immigration is not dissimilar to the way Cambodia handles it so I know Charlie will appreciate this.

First you get the visa application form from the first window.  You return the completed visa form to the first window along with your passport, a passport photo and your $42 US visa application fee (everyone else pays less than $30 US but for some reason Canadians have to pay more).  You then go around the corner to window #3 to wait for your passport.

While waiting at window #3, which was less than 18” square, I chatted with an American originally from Boston who was going to Laos for the day with his girlfriend's family as well as travellers from the UK and Australia. I even met a fellow Canadian but he wasn't very chatty as he was more concerned that his visa was multiple vs single entry.  Every few minutes the window would open and a hand would hold out an opened passport for someone to claim.

This went on for about 15 minutes and then the hand, who I named "Thing", finally presented my passport.  A quick check of my passport by the border guard and I was in Laos.

I wandered around the border area a bit but it was mostly shops targeting unsuspecting tourists and taxis/buses offering transit to the Laos capital Vientiane.  Since there was no hurry to head back to Thailand I wandered around the rather upscale duty free where I came across a bottle of Canadian Club.  Since Juy's brother Chai and his friends had introduced me to Thai whiskey I thought it only fair for me to introduce them to Canadian whiskey.  At the cashier I ran into the American from Boston I had met at window #3 and his girlfriend Mem (I apologize if I have the spelling wrong).

It wasn't long before Mem asked me to join them on their visit to Laos.  Since her family didn't speak English she thought it would be nice for her boyfriend to have someone to talk to in his native language.  Since I had no definite plans and they assured me I would be back in plenty of time to make my train I agreed to join them.

We went over so I could be introduced to Mem's family and I told them my name.  It was at this point I learned that my new friends name was also Greg.  It was quickly determined that this was going to cause no end of confusion so for the day he would be known as Greg 1 and I would be Greg 2 or as the Thais would say Greg noong and Greg song.

Mem's family was from Nong Khai and often made day trips to Laos so they had arranged a minivan.  We piled in to the minivan and after about a 45 – 60 minute drive we arrived at our destination.  I still had no idea what we were doing and neither did Greg 1.  We discussed on the ride that this was just par for the course with Thai families.  You learn very quickly to just relax and it will all be fine.

We walked down the hill from the minivan to a riverside restaurant.  It was here that we finally learned that we would be having a traditional Lao meal while we cruised the river on a sort of covered raft big enough to comfortably seat about 20 people on cushions at a long table.

The meal started off with two types of fish grilled fish served at room temperature both of which were quite good.  The next dish was served on a plate with a slightly smaller plate turned over on top of it.  I had assumed this was to keep the flies off the food but I was soon to discover otherwise.  As Greg 1 removed the covering plate the “food” beneath began to jump around and off the plate.  The dish consisted of live baby shrimp mixed with fresh chilies and other herbs.  After a bit of prodding I gave it a try.  They could be eaten whole (ie. alive) or briefly chewed (ie. dead) and swallowed.  I preferred the dead technique as there was no way I was going to have something swimming around my stomach.  They were surprisingly tasty and quite spicy.

The next dish was a spicy minced duck dish with chopped herbs that could be eaten by taking some sticky rice formed into a flat circle about 1.5-2” across and using it to pinch some of the duck dish and eat it.  This is the same way Thais often eat papaya salad.

Next on the menu was a reappearance of the baby shrimp, this time cooked.  They were dipped in a batter, deep fried in clumps and served with ketchup for dipping.  They were sort of a shrimp flavoured onion ring.

The final two dishes arrived about the same time.  A chicken soup and cooked chicken complete with a rather unusual chicken foot that looked more like it came off a bird of prey such as a hawk or a falcon.  Greg 1 told me that the chicken was not one of our usual grain fed, farmed chickens but a wild chicken.  Consequently, this type of chicken was quite a bit leaner and tasted quite gamey, very much like pheasant.

While all this food was being served our glasses were kept filled with beer by the girl who was serving us.  It wasn't long before I began wondering about the bathroom facilities.  I asked Greg 1 and he told me that there was a toilet behind the covered area where the food was kept.  Not knowing what to expect I headed off.  When I opened the door I was faced, for the first time outside a hotel room, a sit down toilet.  Too bad it didn't have a seat.

After finishing the food we slowly drifted back towards the docks while we finished the beer.  After we docked we headed back to the van.  It was about 4:30 as we headed back to the border and I was slightly concerned that I still had to get through Lao and Thai immigration when we got there.

When we arrived at the Lao border Mem took our passports to take care of immigration while we wandered the duty free again.  When Mem returned with our passports I noticed that I still didn't have an updated Thai visa which was of course was the primary purpose of my trip.  They quickly rushed me to the Thai immigration booth and helped expedite the Thai visa for me.  After I filled out the paper work we ran over to the officer to process but as we were doing so the Thai national anthem started to play so we all stopped while it finished.  After the anthem I then got my passport stamped and we headed over the bridge to Nong Khai.

Once we got to the other side I had them drop me off as Greg 1 and Mem were trying to catch a plane and I could make it to the station on a tuk-tuk just as fast.  I arrived at the train station a mere 10 minutes before the 6:30pm train pulled out, on time.

The trip back was quieter than the trip out.  I had both seats to myself and the only real activity was the porters selling drinks and this little girl travelling with what appeared to be her father and another man.  She talked non-stop from the time she got on until the time I got off in Ban Phai, about 3 hours.  Even though I couldn't understand a word she was saying she was so cute she looked like a Thai version of Cindy Lou Who (the one from the 1966 TV special not that sucky live action version in 2000).

I didn't have the need for the train's washroom facilities on the way out but after the beer I drank afternoon along with the beer I purchased from the porters it wasn't long before nature was calling again.  Now anyone who has been following my adventures will know what I found – yup, no sit down toilet.  But this time there was a twist.  The entire floor, including the toilet, appeared to be stamped from a single sheet of stainless steel.  Now I've never even attempted the squat toilet in all my time in Thailand and I wasn't about to make my first attempt on a slippery, stainless steel platform aboard a 60-year old train car that was bouncing and rocking back and forth like a paint mixer.  Nature would have to wait.

I called Juy when I was at Ban Haet, the stop before Ban Phai to let her know I was almost home.  When the train pulled up to the station the 2nd class car wasn't quite at the platform so I had to walk the last 50 yards or so where I was met by Juy.

My second visa run was now complete.  Only two more left, the first likely to Nong Khai again and the last one to Chong Mek when we go visit Juy's brother Pu at the end of the month.