border crossing

A Tale of Two Bus Rides

I have two night bus border crossing stories for you: first crossing from Bangkok, Thailand to Vientiane, Laos; and second from Luang Prabang, Laos to Chiang Mai, Thailand. Both started out seemingly straightforward but turned out to have unpredicted waits and unforetold transfers. It’s because of these experiences that I ended up buying a flight from Chiang Mai to Mandalay. I think I’m done with land crossing for the time being.

Bangkok to Vientiane
I got a bus ticket direct from Bangkok to Vientiane, including transfer from my hostel to the bus station, from a hostel-recommended travel agency near Khao San Road. It sounded nice and easy. It was not.

I was picked up at my hostel at 4:30 like they promised, but oddly in a taxi which was too small to fit all of us for the hour drive to the bus station. Once we got to the “station” we were told to wait on a patch of grass where a group of Westerners had already been deposited. People were going to Phuket, Phi Phi, Chiang Mai, but I was the lone Laos traveler. After about 15 minutes our driver came back and called out “Vientiane!” I had to fill in a flimsy ticket and he gathered me and the Chiang Mai group and pointed in the direction of a building. It just had a bunch of minivans outside and we all knew we were getting on big VIP buses so we went right to the main station. We heard someone yelling something but didn’t knew what it was or who it was directed towards – we were all used to ignoring random yelling around us at this point – so we just kept going. The Chiang Mai people found their gate and I found where mine would be if there was a gate 99; it ended at 98 but there was a random bus along the sidewalk near it that could have been 99. Still, I asked someone, and they told me it would leave from 86 instead. I found that one and sat down to wait. I had 2 hours to kill.

About 45 minutes before my bus was supposed to leave 86 was still empty. I got up to ask some people again. Long story short, I found out I was at the wrong bus station. This is the South Station, no buses go north from here. I’m sorry, WHAT?! I found the Chiang Mai group and they were just as pissed as me to learn that we were at the wrong place. We all ran to the ticket booths to try to change our buses since we were clearly not going to make it to the North Station in time. We finally made the decision to split a taxi to the North Station when we ran into our original driver. He was just as surprised to see us as we were to see him. He ran with us to a minibus and promised to take us straight to the North Station and get us new tickets at no extra cost. At this point we’d figured out that we were supposed to get on one of those minibuses we ignored and it would have taken us to the North Station. That would have been helpful to communicate to us.

The Chiang Mai group got on the next overnight bus no problem, but Vientiane was no longer a simple option for me; I had to get a new ticket to Nong Khai, the border town on the Thailand side. The driver gave me 100 baht in cash to cover the border crossing expenses. Then he made sure we all knew exactly where to go so we would get on the right buses this time. It was after 9 by the time I was finally on the bus.

I was woken up at 8 am in Nong Khai. A Frenchman approached me – Westerners stick together – and we shared a tuktuk to the border. Leaving Thailand was simple enough – the tuktuk dropped us at the immigration building, quick line for the exit stamp, then a bus over the bridge to the next border station – but crossing into Laos took forever thanks to the visa upon entry process. I chatted with a Lithuanian girl on a border run from Southern Thailand while we waited and once we were finally through we split a cab with an Israeli duo into Vientiane. Just a few extra steps thanks to the Bangkok miscommunication. I arrived in Vientiane at 11 am.

Luang Prabang to Chiang Mai
Every travel office in Luang Prabang advertised a bus from LP to Chiang Mai. Pick up from guesthouse included, big bus, some even promised it had a bathroom. So imagine the shock of all 22 travelers when we were led to a minibus for the 12 hour overnight ride to the border. What happened to that big bus with reclining seats? We were packed in like sardines to the 1-by-2 straight-backed seats, with one unlucky passenger stuck in a fold down center aisle seat. To make it even cozier our bags were placed in the small aisle. At least they served as pillows for some people. We looked at each other in minor disbelief at the complete unsafety of our transportation and the fact that we would be stuck this way all night.

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I took a melatonin to try to sleep but the extremely bumpy roads and constant inhalation of dust (I was right behind the driver so I got to breathe in all the dust that was being kicked up through the vents) made it tough. Eventually I curled up into a ball with my feet on a backpack and at least time passed faster.

We arrived at the border at 6 am. It didn’t open till 7:30. We were told to sleep in the minibus so that’s what we did until about 8, when we found out we were waiting for another bus to take us through the border. It arrived at 9. You can imagine how unhappy we all were that we just spent 3 hours in a parking lot. Now we finally got on the big VIP bus that took us to the Laos border for exit stamps and over the bridge to the Thai border for entry stamps. That was the extent of our VIP bus ride.

We were loaded back into minibuses for the ride from the border to Chiang Mai. Someone guessed it was about 6 hours and we’d arrive around 3. No one could have predicted our driver would stop every hour for seemingly no reason, and that he’d take us actually into Chiang Rai for a lunch stop that no one really wanted. We didn’t arrive in Chiang Mai until 5 pm. I had been picked up at my guesthouse in Luang Prabang at 4:30 pm the day before. Over 24 hours on minibuses to get to Chiang Mai.

So there you have it. The hell of land crossing between Thailand and Laos. A quick side note: both of these night buses gave us snacks and blankets. An odd perk in two stressful journeys. The only silver lining I can find is that border crossings like this really bring people together. I am still in touch with Eugenija from Lithuania, and ended up running into the Israeli guys in both Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang, where we happily greeted each other like old friends. I also ran into two guys from the Chiang Mai bus at a temple the next day and proceeded to hang out with them the rest of my time in Chiang Mai. Nothing like trying travel experiences to bond strangers.

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All Modes of Transportation End in Argentina

I’m in Argentina!

I had a few days to kill between Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, and instead of visiting one of the beach towns between the two cities I decided to give nature a few days and go to one of my top locations right away – Iguazu Falls. And man was it a full day of transportation to get here.

This morning I left my hostel in SP at 10 am and got on the Metro. Took the green line, switched to the yellow line, then to the red line. Got out and got on a bus to the airport. 1:45 travel time so far. R$7.50

Then I flew from Sao Paulo to Foz do Iguassu, Brasil. 1:30 flight.

I landed in Foz and jumped on the bus #120 into the center of town, got off and immediately got on the first bus I saw marked ARGENTINA. I got lucky – this bus left immediately after I got on. I would’ve had to wait a while for the next one. 45 min, R$2.85.

Then the ARGENTINA bus took us to the border of Brazil and dropped us off. And drove away. The driver gave us a little receipt saying we had already paid, and we were on our own to go get our passports stamped for exit from Brazil. 20 min, R$4.

The tiny little immigration office was probably the most informal border crossing I’ve ever been through, but no less official. Good thing the immigration officer in the Sao Paulo airport told me to hold onto that customs form; they asked for it when they stamped my passport here to exit. As soon as I got my exit stamp, it was back to the bus stop to wait for the next bus to come pick us up on its way to Argentina.

It came and the 5 of us who had gotten off the previous bus and were now in this crazy border crossing adventure together jumped on. 5 minutes later and we were at the Argentina border. Back off the bus, into immigration, which ran like a quick service ticket counter, and 30 seconds later I have a stamp to get into Argentina. Through the shoddiest security screening I’ve ever seen, and I’m back on the bus. At least this bus waited for all of us. No extra cost.

After a winding tour through Puerto Iguazu, we made it to the main bus station in the center of town. 15 minutes.

Just a short half a block walk and I’m at my hostel Mango Chill. And boy is it chill. There’s a BBQ dinner every night (for extra), and the chef is a bit of a DJ so it sounds like a club out where he’s cooking. There’s a small pool in the backyard and tomorrow at 4 there’s a yoga class, included in the price of the room. I even got a free welcome beer (Budweiser, he knew I’m from the US).

What a crazy day of travel. I’ve never done a border crossing like this before. It took a lot of blind trust and a little comfort in other people with backpacks doing the same thing. The email confirming my hostel had directions so I wrote those down and just set off, assuming I’d know what TTU was when I saw it and that the bus labeled ARGENTINA would actually be that obvious. In the end, it worked out.

The funny thing about doing a crossing like this is that there were 4 other people doing the same thing, but we weren’t all traveling together. It ended up being me, a Brit, two Belgians, and an Argentinian. We didn’t talk while doing it, but we would all look around once in a while to make sure that everyone was still doing the same thing. If one of us had strayed, the rest would have questioned what we were doing. Even without speaking, we knew we were all in this together.

So tonight I enjoy Argentinian BBQ at the hostel, and tomorrow it’s off to explore the falls. 100% chance of thunderstorms. Oh joy.