1. Its afternoon (Day 8, 4 May) here in Vientiane, Laos, and we had checked into Day Inn Hotel. Located next to Laos Plaza Hotel, its location is excellent, within easy walking to Nam Phu square and many F&B outlets. At US$42 a night (inclusive of internet), it is great value for money, especially when Laos Plaza is charging more than US$200 a night (according to Lonely Planet). Room is painted orange, which gives it a warm and cozy atmosphere (can you see Sunny working very hard on his laptop?). Before we checked in, we had lunch at the French restaurant at charming Nam Phu square. After 7 days of wonderful Thai food, we decided to try something different instead. We ordered steak. Ladies there were very nice and helpful but steak was a little tough.
2. I was last here in Vientiane in Jan 2004, to attend the annual Asean Tourism Forum (ATF) meetings. Lao Plaza, which was where I stayed, looks just as good and was in the midst of laying new tiles outside. Had dinner with STB officers at Nam Phu square then. I recall there was much less traffic then and traffic could still go round the circle. The area has now been turned into a square, not accessible to traffic. Overall, I could see that there is more traffic in Vientiane and more construction works going on.
3. Day 8 was a day with mixed outcomes. The first good outcome was we managed to get the Pajero's back door repaired at Nong Khai Mitsubishi workshop in the morning before we crossed over to Laos. Staff there was impressively friendly and responsive. Mr Somchai, who heads the workshop, immediately mobilised a number of his workers to work on the door. In half an hour, they had the door repaired. The technician commented that the Pajero back door was heavy (as it also carried the spare tyre) and he was not surprised that this problem had occurred. To show our gratitude we presented the STB souvenirs to Mr Somchai and his staff (caps and merlion key chains), and on the spot Sunny printed the photo of the group with Pajero and presented (looking very much like a VIP) it to Mr Somchai.
4. Second good outcome was we managed to clear the Thai/Laos immigration and customs in less than 2 hrs, from 10 to about 12. Thai side was relatively smooth sailing. Passport stamped by Immigration and handed over the computer printed import/export form for the car to the Customs (vehicle was not checked), and we were off driving towards the Friendship Bridge; one lane each way with a railway line in the middle, opened in 1994.
5. There was more running around at the Laos side but this was not unexpected as we were unfamiliar with the procedures and doing this for the first time. After leaving the car in the nearby car park, we proceeded to have our passports stamped by Immigration. A very friendly elderly Customs officer, after seeing our support letter from the Lao Embassy in Singapore, led us to an office upstairs. The lady official checked my passport and car log card, filled up the details in her hard cover book, and then completed a form (all in Lao language) to give us a 10 days driving permit in Laos (Doc 1). Documentation fee was 30, 000 kips (about US$4). With the form, we went downstairs to see what looked like a senior Customs officer who then signed at the bottom giving his endorsement. We were then directed to 2 Customs booths, where the first booth keyed in the car information and produced a computer printed "Customs Declaration for Temporary Imported Passenger Vehicle" form (Doc 2); and at the 2nd booth we paid 40 000 kips and strangely another Customs official again keyed in information into his computer. With Doc 1 and 2, we proceeded to drive the car out of the Immigration/Customs area. At the nearby building, we bought car insurance for 7 days costing 210 bahts and in a jubilant mood we drove on the "wrong" side of the road to Vientiane.
6. However, our jubilation was short lived, and now the bad news. Along Route 13 on the way to Vientiane, we were stopped by traffic police. After leading us to the Police post at the junction, the 2 policemen asserted that I should have used the right filter lane when I made the right turn. It was true that I hesitated a little at the junction before I executed the right turn. Fine for the offence was 100 000-150 000 kips depending whether receipt was required. Recognising that we were driving for the first time in Laos, they were sympathetic enough to compound the fine to 30 000 Kips, gave us a warning and let us off. We were happy that we were let off lightly this time and between us pledged that we ought to be more careful in future especially at junctions.
7. The night before, Day 7, 3 May (Sunday), we stayed at Nong Khai, a laid back border town of 60 000 or so. As it was Sunday, we decided to stay for the night here and have the Pajero back door checked on Monday morning before crossing over to Laos. Stayed at Prajak Bungalow (picture on the right), a clean but very basic facility, at 400 bahts a night. Unfortunately no internet. In the sleepy town of Nong Khai, shops were mostly closed by 9 pm and we could not run to an internet cafe; thus no update yesterday. Saw a couple of durian stalls in the day and after dinner went searching for them but no luck. We had wanted to stay at Mut Mee Garden Guest House, a 20 rooms facility sensitively integrated into the environment next to the Mekong River, run by a falang. But, unfortunately, it was fully booked. Here's one picture of it.
6. Day 6, Saturday, was largely about driving from Cha-am to Korat, 435 km away. Driving up Highway 4 along the Kra of Isthmus, we then skirted Bangkok along ring road Highway 9 before branching to Highway 1 and 2. We stopped along Highway 9 for a late lunch at a road side stall. The stall ladies were pleasantly happy to have 2 foreigners who could not speak Thai stopping over for lunch. Having paid for the 2 bowls of noodles, they refused to charge us for the stewed pork dish. In return, Sunny took a picture of them, printed it on the spot, and presented to them. You could see Sunny at work here.
7. We were also quite mindful about how the car looked. After a few days, the car sure looked dusty. While topping up petrol along Highway 9, Sunny decided to give the car a cleaner look. Here you can see him at work. I can assure you he was not just posing. Unlike Singapore, the petrol stations in Thailand do not provide car washing services. We just did not know where to get the car washed. But, some how Thai cars look clean. Puzzling!
7. At Korat, we stayed at Chao Praya Inn Hotel. We considered this to be one of the best value for money hotels we stayed so far. Its clean, room fairly spacious, with internet and TV, and at a price of 550 bahts a night, it was a real bargain. It has a Japanese restaurant where, based on what we could see, was fairly popular with Japanese working in the area. We had sushi and sake there, after a bowl of wanton noodles each at the nearby street stall.