Tag Archives: Laos

Our tuk-tuk scam in Vientiane, Laos – visiting Buddha Park

I like Vientiane. It’s like a modern village, but it’s also a proper capital. I’ve only been there on visa-related trips, but a day and a half is more than enough there. At the end of October the weather is just perfect – sunny yet not too hot, with scattered clouds. We thought we’ll have a relaxing time there to explore their vegetarian cuisine. while waiting for a non-B visa (yaay!).

We avoid tuktuks like the plague, but in Vientiane you don’t have many options; not just to get around cheaply, but in general. Our destination was the Buddha park, situated right next to the Lao-Thai border crossing. In the city centre one tuktuk offered us a 500 baht trip to Buddha park, which we found extortionate, given that there were hardly any tourists. Yet another did the same for 100 baht (20,000 kip), which seemed an adequate fare for a rusty old construction.

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The second tuk tuk

Here’s where it all starts:

He took us to a tuk-tuk area and we were shuffled to a bigger one with a new driver. My first thought was “this ain’t gonna go well..” Having read many tuktuk scam stories, in my head I was like, “if he starts acting up, the most Imma offer is gon be 200 baht”. After a 30-min freezing journey through some villages (it’s chilly in the morning, and really windy once you’re out of the city), we reached the Buddha park. We get off, I hand a 100 baht bill, and sure enough, the guy gives me a surprised look as if I was giving him an apple or something instead of cash.

He started his rant in Laotian, and I thought maybe he didn’t take baht (100 baht is 25,000 kip, and the fare was 20,000). Then I hand him 20k, and he’s still not taking the money and keeps swearing in Laotian in an angry manner. Then Auste and I didn’t even question why it had to be us or anything, we just gave each other a look like “I hate this scam sh*t, I don’t need this stress”. He didn’t speak English, but we’re used to that, so using a lot of gestures and facial expressions, we explained that his friend showed us 20,000 on his phone, and so on – he knew all this, he was just trying to pull this scam! Then we were like, if you don’t want the money, we’ll just go to the park. So we bought 3 tickets: one for me, one for Auste, and one for our camera. Yep, a ticket for a camera. 1 person 5,000 kip, 1 camera 3,000.

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One of the weird Buddha Park statues

The driver still stood next to us ranting in angry Laotian the whole time, showing us to get back to the tuktuk. Why did he want us to get back in? We do not know. We tried giving him the 20k a few times, but he refused to take it, so we turned towards the park entrance. Then he tried to grab Auste’s arm, and we both flipped – she started shouting at him, and I seriously thought, “you…creature, just dare do that again!”.

The lady who worked at the park entrance came out and she listened to us for a second, then used the calculator to show numbers to the driver and stuff. But he stayed with his opinion as firm as tofu, and kept pointing to the engine, I can only guess suggesting it costs 20k to fill the tank. We may look like tourists sir, but we ain’t retarded. He wanted to explain that he wanted 200,000k for a smelly 30-min ride!

Wowza. 1000 baht.

That’s the cost of our flights to Bangkok! He still refused taking the money and kept his acting face on. “Where is this going..”, we thought. Then the lady took our 20k and gave him two crisp 100,000 bills, which he took. SO dodgy! We just asked the lady why she did it, (who was surprisingly calm) she said don’t worry, don’t worry, and we walked into the park.

OF COURSE we couldn’t enjoy the park, because this angry driver caused us so much stress, so we were talking about this the whole time we were there. Knowing Thailand, we knew that no person would give away 200,000 kip just to avoid confrontation between two tourists and a tuktuk driver! Money is super important in Asia, even in their culture, so if the ridiculous fare he was trying to charge was correct, the driver would have fought for the money! We’ve read and heard stories about scams, and it was time to experience one I guess – it’s been a year in Asia after all.

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Those feels after a tuk-tuk scam.

We didn’t think it was a scam when we flagged down the tuktuk, because the price wasn’t ridiculously low to think it was a scam. It seemed just right, because the day before together with another couple we paid 300 baht for a smooth ride in a clean new private car for the same journey – that’s 75baht per person. So there was no way we could give in to pay 1,000 baht for a tuk tuk ride.

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Size of the park.

The park itself is tiny but peaceful. And by saying tiny I really do mean it. The area is only a few hundred square metres and it’s not really a park as you would imagine. It’s pretty much a patch of grass where the sculptures have been dragged to and arranged in no particular order. The sculptures themselves are quite bizarre, too. If you haven’t been to any ancient temple sites in Asia, then I guess it’s quite interesting, but definitely not worth a 1,000 baht trip, haha!

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Inside the big pumpkin in the park.

The worst and weirdest part was that as we walked out of the park an hour later, the same generous dispute-resolving ‘Ombudsman’ lady showed us to the same tuktuk (he was waiting for us!) and said ‘no kip’. Wow, I’ll leave this one to your own interpretation. That was pure teamwork right there.

One Europan-sounding tourist offered us two seats in the van (earlier while we were in the park we asked them if they had any space), but since the Thai embassy was out of their way, their driver told us to get the bus and that it only takes 30 minutes. So just across the road from the park we caught bus #14, which took us straight into town. From the Buddha Park it took 15 minutes to go to the Friendship Bridge, then there was a 15 minute wait, and then 40 minutes to Talat Sao / central bus station. Voila!

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Lurking around the bus station for tourist fare

I am very grateful for people sharing their experiences online, both good and bad. Otherwise we probably would have fell for this scam, as the driver was angry; but now we weren’t scared because we had read similar stories before. Another thing to note is that some people have little patience with foreign tourists, and can actually be dangerous, especially in remote places. So I hope this article helps!

Visa run to Laos – Our detailed itinerary

**2016 update:

You can no longer apply for a double-entry visa at the embassy, you can only apply for a single-entry, or the new multiple-entry 6-month visa, (or use a visa exemption) more details here.

Once you use up all of your entries, extensions and you’re out of days in Thailand, you go to any country in the world that has a Thai embassy or a consulate and apply for another double entry visa. You can go back to your home country if you wish, but if you’re time-strapped, you need to make this process as quick as possible. Hence, most travellers go to Laos, as it only takes 2 working days. We both used the same company on different occasions and the service was efficient and reliable – just what we were looking for. If you haven’t done it before and want to know how it works, you may find this detailed itinerary useful. I will write about my own trip and include Auste’s experience from her trip the month before in brackets.

OVERVIEW:

The company is called Sawasdee (SWD) and their website is thaivisaservice.com (check it out first!). They have grey vans in the Tesco Lotus car park next to On Nut BTS station, just under the big Tesco sign. Details and departure times are listed on their up-to-date website. You don’t need to book a seat as they ALWAYS have vans there, just make sure that you have the documents you need (the website has a list), 6 months passport validity, etc, as it’s all your responsibility. I saw one English guy getting off the bus at the Laos border just to be told to get back on and sent back to Thailand as he only had 4 or 5 months left on his passport. Also, remember to pack a jumper as once the air con is full on you might freeze in the van, and it gets quite chilly in the mornings up north so it’s best to be prepared.

DAY 1

19:30 Meeting at the Tesco car park, I saw one lady with a bunch of passports and a stack of forms, then gave one guy my passport and hung around the van with other travellers for about an hour. Make sure to put your bag in the van straight away to reserve the seat you prefer.

[I came a bit early, they took my passport which was followed by a long wait. It felt strange standing in a corner of a parking lot with a Thai guy who spoke no English holding a bunch of passports, surrounded by about 30 people of various nationalities. I felt like an illegal immigrant and I was wondering whether I will get my passport back or whether the guy will insist on keeping it until we reach the border]

20:15 The van filled up, we were all given our passports back and some visa application forms to complete. We were driving out of Bangkok, I was listening to 8.57 FM and the colourful traffic reminded me of driving out of London at night. Cute little random memories.

23:30 First stop at services, followed by another one at 1:50: 7-11, different eateries, toilets, etc. Plenty of time to stretch out. I nearly got onto a different van as they all look the same!

DAY 2

4.20 We reach the border, the driver gives everyone a colour-coded lanyard with the company’s name. Some get their passport photos done for 100 baht just outside. The border opens at 6am so there’s plenty of time to get a hot coffee, read a book, go to the toilet, etc.

[Not like some other passengers I did have 3 passport photos, the right size and everything. The guy just before me was told he’ll need to get the pictures in the morning as his were in a blue background. Mine were white, so I thought they should be ok. Nope. It turns out you need to wear a collared shirt in your passport photo as otherwise the officials won’t accept it (that’s something to bear in mind for girls – formal blouses are not suitable for passport photos, unless they have a collar.) I remembered seeing pictures on a Kodak place window that I laughed at – a white woman wearing a t-shirt in one photo, and a clearly photoshoped white collared shirt in another. Now suddenly that made sense. As if it’s not enough that they photoshop your face to look like a baby, they give you a photoshoped shirt as well! However, at 5am in the morning next to the Laotian border there was no such thing as photoshop. Instead, everyone who needed a photo had to put on some clothes they gave us – I got a man’s shirt of an indescribable colour and size. And the ‘photo booth’ was a plastic chair under a tree. When I got the printed photos I looked like someone had punched me in the face as there was a massive shadow covering one side of my nose – they only had the light on one side. Lovely.]

Laos, Vientiane visa run

5.50 Masses march the Thai border- there was no communication from the visa run company staff so I just followed the guys I met on the van  – already “experienced” in visa runs of this kind. We queue, the officials take your passport and departure card, put the exit stamps and give back your passport. You give your passport to the company staff again and, feeling like nothing else but a passport-less immigrant, go past the border and onto a bus. It’s cold, damp, and you’re an immigrant.

6.20 Many buses cross the Friendship Bridge carrying everyone to the Laos border. The Japanese and the Filipinos were asked to get on first, don’t ask me why.

[Once the photos were printed we had to pick up our bags and walk to the border where we spent another 20 min or so waiting behind a metal fence – yet another point where you get that feeling of being an immigrant. Around 6 am we got stamped out of Thailand, the visa run company collected our passports and we got rushed onto a bus to cross the Friendship Bridge. And even though I felt like a sardine cramped in a tin with someone’s elbow almost stuck between my ribs, the sunrise over the foggy shores looked pretty magical. ]

Laos, Vientiane visa run

6.30 Waiting for our passports at the Laos border, no communication from the company.

[At 7:00 we were still waiting for our Laos visas. I had long trousers and a thick jumper on, but it was still chilly. Did I get used to the high temperatures already..? Around 7:30 they started giving our passports back, but the visa run company staff said they’d hold onto our passports until we reach the embassy.]

8.00 The Laos border staff took our photos and the company kept our passports. Once everyone had taken a photo we walked through with the guide and onto a van. We were taken to the Thai embassy. We drove past natural shrubby landscapes which reminded me of Cambodia.

Laos, Vientiane visa run

 [8:15 after a long ride in a frozen mini van we reached the embassy. 8:30 they opened and the queue started moving inside. The good thing about being at the embassy this early was that the sun was not as incredibly hot as it usually is later in the day.]

8.45 We were dropped off at the embassy, where we queued on the street next to nice looking 40 baht baguettes, slowly moving towards the embassy’s beautiful front yard.

Laos, Vientiane visa run

9.10 The company staff gave back our groups’ passports with Laos visas in, and the Thai visa application forms.
9.30 I got a queue number and waited to be called.
10.00 I submitted my passport and the application to the Embassy staff and went back to the van, passportless again.

[I noticed the visa run company amended my occupation to “Tourist” on the application form. Ha, a dream job, right? If only such occupation existed… 1 hour to get the queue number, then one more hour wait for your number to be called. Once at the window – 2 seconds. The officer looked at my application, looked at my last Thai visa and I was free to go. One poor guy couldn’t submit his application though as first of all his school didn’t give him the right documents and also he didn’t have enough visa pages left in his passport. Apparently the last few pages in some passports don’t count as there’s no sign saying ‘Visas’ on them. That’s also something to look out for if your passport has these random pages!]

10.15 Van moved. Drivers in Vientiane seemed as if they didn’t have driving licenses, it was annoying as many cars couldn’t stay calmly in one lane, went against traffic, etc.
10.30 We arrived at the hotel for cold breakfast leftovers, then checked into the run-down rooms…

[We were then taken to our hotel which reminded me of Cambodia a lot. It seems like the time had stopped in these 2 countries probably a hundred years ago. All the furniture and decor that must have been really posh at some point, but now looked so shabby – with no attempt to modernise anything… We got breakfast on arrival though, which I didn’t expect. It was almost cold, but still – after this many hours in a van it was nice to eat something other than biscuits. Wi-Fi in the hotel worked for about 20 min in total during the 24 hours I was there. After dinner I got a tuk tuk into town and had a couple of glasses of house wine at a rooftop bar, the wine was surprisingly good! There were 2 random aerobics classes on the riverfront too, which were funny to watch…:)]

Laos, Vientiane visa run

I managed to explore Vientiane quite a bit in the 24 hours I had – check out this post for my experience which should give you some ideas of what you can do.

DAY 3

8.00 Breakfast with quite good range, including toast and scrambled eggs.
9.00 At this point I found out that you could use perfectly stable   Wi-Fi at the other end of the hotel.
10.00 Packing and down to lobby at 11.30.
12.00 Vans move to duty free.
12.30 to 2 pm everyone is doing their shopping/ chilling at duty free.

[Next morning we checked out at 12, around 1 pm we were taken to the border and spent an hour in duty free. There were a couple of places to eat at the back and a good choice of wine in the duty free section. Wine is MUCH cheaper than in Thailand. If only I was allowed to take more than 2 bottles…]

14.15 They gave us our passports back just opposite duty free (where you get on a bus upon crossing to Lao)
14.20 Everyone gets on the shuttle bus to be carried across the bridge.
14.25 Masses get off and straight away march towards the dark booths for stamps. The officer throws your passport back to you like a piece of gone-off meat. Then you go to a white building just opposite, no passport check, just a useless unattended ride through the scanner for your bag.
14.30 You’re in Thailand waiting for your new friends to finish the procedure.

[The agency picked the passports for us and we got them back after crossing the friendship bridge, already stamped out of Laos and we just needed to get arrival stamps on the Thai border.  By 3pm I was back in the Land of Smiles getting on a mini van for what turned out to be a nearly 11-hour journey back to BKK.]

15.00 We were all stocked on snacks at 7-11 and ready for the trip back. After unsuccessful negotiations with the driver about changing vans we started the move back home, in same vans, with same people.
16.45 A 30min stop at services, for a complementary coupon meal worth 30 baht.
19.30 Another pit stop, also about 30min, plenty of shops and toilets for everyone.

The 10-person van was pretty comfy, too bad I found out that seats recline Even MORE only towards the end of the trip. There’s good leg room too, but other vans were more crammed (I think the Filipino ones, for whatever reason).

If you are thinking of arranging the visa run yourself, instead of using a visa run company this website and this blog have a pretty detailed description of the whole process. However, we found that using the visa run company is sooo easy and convenient (it saves you lots of hassle by not having to deal with grumpy officials as much as you would if you did everything on your own AND everything’s much quicker) and the price difference (when you add up all transport, accommodation and admin costs) is minimal. We both had to get back to work the next morning after coming back to BKK around 1am, so getting the least tiring option also played a part in our choices.

Before we started working though we did our first “visa run” to Cambodia. We spent several days in Siem Reap (read about our trip here and here) and explored the Angkor Wat and Co (more on this – here). At that time it didn’t feel like a visa run at all, we were just travelling…:) So if you’re not working and are not limited by the number of days you can get off work to do your visa run, this blog has plenty of great ideas how to make the most of your visa runs from Bangkok.

Laos: Exploring Vientiane in a day

Laos is a big country with a small capital of Vientiane. You can quickly feel a different pace of life if you’re travelling from Bangkok: no metro, no skytrain, no tourist-friendly shopping malls or huge western stores. Even though it is a quiet city, it has lots of green spaces, and that is why I liked it so much.

There is also another reason why I may have felt such affection for it. I came to Laos with a sole purpose of extending my Thai visa. Basically I had an expectation of wandering around my hotel for 24 hours until I collect my passport, and I ended up having an amazing time. In those 24 hours I explored nearly the whole city, which oddly left me with a sense of achievement!

Since I came to Laos in a van full of ‘long-term tourists’, we had to cross the Thai border on foot, and wait for a bus to take us across the bridge to the Laotian border. I never thought I’d say this, but sitting on a bus full of immigrants and looking at the sunrise over the Friendship Bridge connecting Thailand and Laos feels somewhat spectacular.

visa run Laos

My first impression of Laos wasn’t the greatest as we drove past lonely gas stations and village-like shrubby landscapes that reminded me of Cambodia – almost a sister country with a relatively sad history. I knew that Laos was under a French rule at some point in history, but there weren’t many things French, as I imagined. I did see, however, a few nice-looking baguette vendors and wine shops. Most of the vendors and shops display prices in kip and Thai baht, and you can pay using either currency. Do note, however, that the vendors may quote you a higher price if you use a foreign currency.

A tuktuk into town should cost about a 100 baht for 2 people. The driving style was even worse than in Thailand, and it seemed as if the drivers didn’t really grasp the concept of a two-way street. I walked my way around town during daytime though, and without breaking much sweat!

Vientiane, Laos
Vientiane, Laos

So I arrived at my hotel at around noon and had about 24 hours to spend…

12.00 – I went to the dentist! I just found one while wandering the streets. It cost me 40 baht (an equivalent of a cost of half a packet of crisps in the UK) for a check-up, removal of stiches, and a salt-water mouthwash. Just so you know, I had some teeth problems at the time, as I wouldn’t normally seek a dental adventure in a foreign country.

13.15 – I walked to town, and noticed that there weren’t many convenience stores, or chocolate to be more precise, like there is in Thailand. In half an hour I was already exploring the temples. Pretty hot walk that was though. Most travellers take tuktuks, but in Vientiane they rip you off like there’s no tomorrow!
[tuk tuks]

14.00 – Sisaket museum – entry 5,000 kip (20 baht). Definitely worth it, especially for a variety of beautiful Buddha sculptures, and the main temple, where you cannot take any photos, but it’s very pretty inside. You can also give a donation and light a candle in front of the Buddha sculpture, perhaps say a prayer or two.

Vientiane Sisaket museum, Laos
Vientiane Sisaket museum, Laos
Vientiane, Laos

14.30 – I went to the city centre, just taking everything in: the pretty architecture, the colourful temples, the greetings from locals, also overhearing the word ‘farang’ here and there – the language sounded similar to Thai. I walked to the Chao Anouvong statue, situated in the park by the river. The park was pretty, clean, and had lots of exercise equipment scattered around. Then I walked west-wards to the hotel and restaurant area – it had lots of construction going on, no street vendors, and not many tourists – it looked like whenever one place shuts down, a new one is built rather than re-established. Also if you walk to the park, you reach the main road, and you can see there’s nothing beyond it…

Vientiane, Laos

15.20 – I felt like a right retard when I wanted to exchange money: as the cashier was counting thousands of dollars, I approached the exchange booth with my important query of exchanging 100 baht (2 GBP) for the day. Then I randomly met a fun Dutch guy at a bar and we talked about our travels. We had some right cheap Namkong beers for 5,000 kip (20 baht) and that was a fancy bar – how is that price even possible? I’ve heard many people say if you want to feel like a millionaire, come to Laos. But you’d have to spend at least a few days to spend 80 quid (120 USD) here, unless you go to the French shops!

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DSC_0327

16.30 – I went to explore the Talat Sao mall but it was closed at around 5 PM, the market next to it was also closing, so I headed back to the hotel. I had some food, chatted to the guys I met on the bus and we decided to go to the night market.

19.30 – A few groups of us went to the night market to check the overpriced goods. Yep, that’s right – most of the stuff for sale was the typical stuff you see everywhere – scarves, belts, perfume, t-shirts – all with ‘special’ prices for tourists. But only you are the lucky one, because they ‘give you best price’! To be fair, there were some original items we regretted we hadn’t bought, such as very pretty and original paintings of monks or elephants, which I haven’t seen in Thailand. I suppose you could find something similar at the Chiang Mai Sunday Walking Street. The market was BIG. It took us two hours to surf through the tents lined by the river, we didn’t stop for a meal or anything!

22.00 – We all got back to the hotel and paid the insistent driver for the ever-increasing travel cost. Basically during the day we offered the hotel staff to pay 20 baht each for a return journey, which only takes 20 minutes on foot – 10 people equals 200 baht. Before we left the price magically doubled. And when we actually got into the van, the driver managed to “bargain up” to 50 baht per person, so the journey totals to 500 baht. OK. Guess what? We get picked up, transferred back to the hotel just to pay 60 baht each. I am not sure if it’s a Laotian thing, or just an individual, but that’s something to bear in mind.

23.00 bed time. I wish I had remembered to visit the sculpture park and the rooftop bar, as both of these should not be missed. I could have easily visited the park in the morning, but I just love to sleep. So hopefully next time! The city had a tranquil ambience and the people were welcoming, there wasn’t much traffic, and everything was cheap. If you like all these things, I recommend you pay a visit to Vientiane.

I have to say, if it wasn’t for the super basic map that Auste printed for herself when she went to Laos, I would have probably wasted the beautiful day at the hotel. Thank you!

P.S. more photos on our Flickr page here.