Border trip to Mukdaharn/Savannakhet (Laos): 5-7th March 2007
• Zhong Gong Plaza Hotel
• Dong Fang Hotel Beijing
• Shen Neng Wan Shou Gong Hotel
• Westin Financial Street Hotel
The time had come round once again for me to make a border run. Having visited the greater majority of Thailand’s land crossing points over the years and flying to Jakarta, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur for the three previous border trips I decided this time to go somewhere different, especially since air travel has of late become more expensive what with additional taxation, fuel surcharges, etc.
So, this time I decide to venture to a part of Thailand not previously visited by me and where a new crossing to Laos for foreign nationals and tourists has been opened – the second Thai-Laos Friendship Bridge across the mighty Mekhong river near to the towns of Mukdaharn (Thailand) and Savannakhet (Laos), which are opposite each other along the banks of this massive river which forms the natural border between the two countries for much of its considerable length.
To visit Laos, or to be correct, the Laos People’s Democratic Republic, British citizens need visas. Most other nationalities of ‘farang’ require likewise. Tourist visas are available at either the Lao Embassy in Bangkok or at authorized border crossing points. I opted to get my visa here in Bangkok as my home is not far from the Laotian Embassy, costing Bt.1,400 (about £20) and available for collection the following day. It costs a few hundred baht more at the border crossing points for instant visas to be provided on arrival.
Getting to Mukdaharn is simple by means of Thailand’s superb network of up-country bus services. I chose to go overnight by VIP bus (24 seats only) on Monday night, 5th March. The journey takes nine (9) hours including a stop near Nakhon Ratchasima for comfort and refreshments. A VIP ticket costs Bt.760 one way (approx. £11.). I took my trusty mountain bike with me.
On arrival at Mukdaharn I booked into an inexpensive hotel near the bus station (Bt.400/night; less than £6.). After breakfast I rode to the Friendship Bridge on the Thai side, about 7 km away, north of Mukdaharn, upstream. I had wanted to ride my bike across the bridge but when I attempted to do so was refused permission by a Thai border official close to the bridge proper, advising that pedestrians and two-wheeled transports were not allowed to cross by themselves. I had to get a lift from a passing lorry or pick-up truck – there were none – or take the authorized bus provided for this purpose. OK, then, it had to be the bus.
Nearly two hours later my bicycle and I were crammed on to this overcrowded bus but, boy, what a performance – it was the nearest thing to organized chaos I believe it is possible to get. When people say the Thais cannot organize anything, they are correct. This bus crossing exercise was a complete shambles made worse by the fact that you had to pay as well! Had the Thais really applied their minds to it, it could hardly have been worse. For example, instead of the bus taking two comfortable loads of passengers over in quick succession, which would have been easy, all the people and their luggage (including my bike) were forced on to one bus crossing. Completely ridiculous and totally unnecessary.
On the Thai side where we (some 35 – 40 persons) had all been waiting about like lemons for ages, there were no Laotian landing cards which could have been filled in during that time. Having arrived at the Laotian side cards were being ‘given’ out for Bt.20 each. I managed to get hold of one which somebody had dropped, then completed it. When I presented that and my passport to the surly Immigration official he demanded Bt.40. “For what?” I enquired “I’ve already paid for a visa at your embassy in Bangkok, why do I have to pay again?” The passport was duly stamped and handed back; no money changed hands – I realize it is only B.40 but I dislike that open, flagrant corruption / exploitation. If you pay, the next time it becomes Bt.100, and where does it all stop? The very reason I now refuse to go to any Cambodian border crossing point is for that odious practice alone.
Following these formalities, I was on the way, cycling the seven (7) km into Savannakhet except it is such a small town I nearly missed it! I would estimate it is about one tenth the size of its Thai neighbour opposite, if that. For Thai and Lao citizens there is a frequent boat service operating across the Mekhong – very wide at this point. Distances across water are always difficult to judge but I would have said the width of the river including an uninhabited sand island in the centre, was anything between 1 to 1.5 km, maybe more. Foreigners are not, I understand, allowed to board these cross-river ferries from either side.
As the town is so small it took about fifteen (15) to ride around most of the principal, central area of Savannakhet, so having done that I decided to avail myself of a beautiful Beer Lao and some food for an early ‘lunch’. A large bottle of delicious Beer Lao cost Kip.8,000 in a bar / restaurant, too, which equates to about Bt.29. (about 42p STG). This was most welcome in the increasing heat of the day. After lunch and having decided there was nothing worth hanging around for, I went back to the bridge. To conserve energy (a way of saying I felt completely knackered) I took a ‘tuk-tuk’ conveyance back to the bridge, Lao immigration side.
My passport was stamped and I (as an oddity riding a bicycle) was ushered through by this time, more friendly Lao immigration staff who even allowed me to ride my own bike across the bridge, no problems at all as far as they were concerned. So, why couldn’t the Thais have afforded me the same courtesy when coming over? Doesn’t make sense, but no matter. The trip back took about ten minutes with my riding slowly in view of the gradient, the heat and for me to take in the spectacular views from the centre of the mighty river, with the diffused sun at its highest shimmering on the glassy expanse of practically motionless water below.
On arrival at the Thai side I was stamped back in by an incredulous Immigration official wanting to know where my ‘car’ was. He could hardly believe I had ridden over on a bicycle. From there I cycled back to my hotel, showered and slept until later.
In the late afternoon I cycled round the large town of Mukdaharn before finding a splendid open-air restaurant overlooking the river with Savannakhet in the distance. When the sun went down one could see about three lights the other side!! The next day was utilized traveling by bus back to Bangkok.
An interesting experience but I wouldn’t go this way again. The border crossings with Myanmar at both Mae Sai and Mae Sot are much easier to navigate and hassle free, my preferring Mae Sai.
8th March 2007
An interesting report. I wonder why Thai officials always have to make things so difficult? What is the point in having a bridge if you can't cycle over it? Seems rather silly to me. One can only speculate that they get a cut from the minivan that you were crammed into.
Should you wish to do a border run up at Nongkhai / Vientiane, I am sure you will be impressed. Both cities are very pleasant. But then, I bet there is not a chance at all that you would be able to cycle over that bridge either!