After a few days in our new home we realised that our visas were about to expire and we’d have to sort a trip out pretty quickly.
If you come to Thailand without any sort of visa, you’ll get a 30-day stamp, which can be extended by a certain time if you visit your local immigration office. Somehow we’d managed to get an extra two months, but this would run out in three days from now.
I suggested to Jum that we travel up to Vientiane, the capital of Laos, to get a 60-day tourist visa. (Even though Jum was a Thai national, with as yet no ID card she had to rely on her UK passport and therefore must have a visa.)
We’d never been to Laos and it would be a welcome break from the rubbish that we’d endured recently. Our funds were being eaten into, and even the money we’d clawed back from the house sale and machete attack wasn’t going to last long. The problem was that we had no means of income yet, with three bored people and a little white dog tending to spend money for amusement.
We’d bought a small red motorbike and had started to explore the city of Kalasin in depth, Although the little house was okay, it had only a tiny courtyard at the front, and Jum yearned for a house with a garden. We decided that once we returned from Laos, we’d look into renting a more suitable place. Jum still had no ID card and the only way forward, as far as we could see, was to find some old documents that were hopefully back home in Roy Bridge.
I’d left some suitcases with our photographs and other memorabilia in Mum and Dad’s loft. Amongst these were various official Thai papers that we’d kept; perhaps one of them would be sufficient for my wife to be reissued her ID card.
She needed an official birth certificate, because the copy that had been stored at her folks’ house in Ban Mai Chai had mysteriously ‘disappeared’. I had called Mum a few days earlier and the conversation had been difficult, to say the least. ‘I’m not sure we can get in the loft any more, dear,’ Mum explained earnestly.
Of course, the young sprightly mum that I had looked up to during my childhood was long since gone, replaced with an old lady who no longer went for long walks with her husband (and whatever dog was then part of the family). I cursed my bad preparation and started to see that the only real way to get anything back from that loft would involve an airplane and lots of money. But I was being selfish once more! I changed tack and asked a question that I really didn’t want to hear the answer to: ‘Mum, how is Dad, are you coping okay?’
She let out a sigh and explained that things were not easy, not easy at all.
I asked if she had thought about getting some help in to ease the burden, but she would have none of that. Mum had always been fiercely private and to admit that she was unable to look after her sick husband just wasn’t part of her make up. I was frustrated, but not in the least surprised.
She did brighten up when she told me Norman was going to visit and possibly, he could help to find our things. She asked if I would like to speak to Dad but when I did, he had absolutely no idea who I was. This broke my heart even more.
I said goodbye to Mum and she promised to try and send the envelope full of Thai documents over. She’d also found my wedding band and would pop that in too. At the end of that particular phone call I felt pretty isolated. Both of our families were either away with the fairies or were hell bent on making our lives hell. What could we do? I’d given up on revenge – what was the point?
The only way I could see of moving forward was to do our best to be happy and forget that these people, with the exception of my parents, had ever existed. I had spent a lot of time hating these people, and even more wondering why they had treated us so shabbily. So a little trip to the People’s Democratic Country of Laos could be just what the family doctor ordered.
The very next day, outside of the Kalasin terminal, we caught a minibus which took us to the city of Udon Thani. Here we stopped for noodles and some refreshing mango juice. Megan was being looked after by the vets, a kind pair of sisters who seemed to actually like dogs – something of a rarity in these parts. Megan hadn’t really enjoyed Thailand so far; compared to life back home it was pretty restrictive for the poor little Westie. It was near impossible to walk her due to the lack of open spaces and the concentration of stray dogs that seemed to plague every Thai city. So instead of the traditional walk, we had taken to setting off on the little motorbike.
I’d be steering us whilst Jum would be at the back, with Megan squeezed in between us. She absolutely loved this little routine. We’d drive around the city centre and past the street food stalls, where she’d sniff like mad as the heady aromas passed over our heads. Every evening at precisely 6 p.m., Megan would be waiting by the motorcycle, and if we were just a minute late she’d come looking for us. We soon understood that she’d not be messed about!
Now, as we left Udon Thani, I was starting to realise that most Thai cities looked pretty much alike. This place had a population of around 400,000 and was very similar to Kalasin. Nong Khai was our next stop, and at least this border town really had something about it. We had decided to stay here for the night and do the border crossing the next day.
The whole visa process typically took about 24 hours, and as we kicked back for the evening I asked Jum how she was feeling about our trip so far. Of course I meant the whole shebang, not this little excursion.
Our son's education
‘Phil, I worry, I worry a lot.’
Jum’s concern was, as usual, not for her own well-being but for our son. Tom seemed to be having a good time, but his education was starting to suffer. Okay, he could speak basic Thai and could even read and write a little of it, but that wasn’t really enough.
A week earlier we had visited all of the schools in Kalasin and had eventually picked Kalasin Pittayasan as the place for Tom to continue his schooling. KPS was a huge school, over 5000 students and 300 teachers – more like a little city than an educational establishment. They had a decent-looking MEP – Mini English Program – where English is taught as a second language, plus maths, IT, science were also in our mother tongue. This part of the school had air conditioned classrooms, and there were no more than 30 students in each one.
In contrast, the rest of the school had anything up to 60 per class, no air conditioning and probably way less discipline. I mean, how could a single teacher control such a huge amount of students?
Little was I to know, but I would be finding out in the not too distant future!
Unlike most of the rest of KPS, the students in MEP had to pay around 20,000 Thai Baht per term. Although this only equated to just over £1000 per year, it was a hefty enough sum to dissuade all except the more wealthy Thai families from placing their little darlings into the MEP experience.
Tom was due to start his own KPS adventure a few weeks after we returned from Laos. For myself, well – I still didn’t have a teaching job, and my aborted TEFL course certainly didn’t help matters. Little wonder that my wife worried.
So, back to Nong Khai…
The town itself was nestled on the banks of the Mekhong River, one of the most famous waterways in the whole of Asia. Some 4,350 kilometres long and way over a mile wide, the Mekong supports literally millions – if not billions – of life forms, including plenty of Thais and Laotians. It also provided a very handy border for the two countries. Laos and Thailand had many similarities, but in terms of technology and other modern nuances there were at least forty or fifty years between them.
The region where we lived, Isaan, was connected to Laos inextricably because of the border and the language.
Although Nong Khai was part of Thailand, it was clear that Laos was the main flavour here and the contrast to places like Udon Thani, and even Kalasin, were refreshing. There were practically no high-rise buildings here, and even the traffic was more chilled out. The three of us travelled around the town in a three wheeled tuk-tuk. We stopped off at a few markets as we acted like tourists for the first time since we’d arrived in Thailand. The guest house was very groovy, and listed as the only Boutique hotel in Nong Khai. We weren’t overly sure if the ‘B word’ was apt, but the place was certainly cute and the owner, a local artist, insisted on hosting us for the evening meal.
As we munched on fresh line-caught catfish and baked mussels, we looked across the river to Laos, and the amazing sunset was all that was needed to wrap up one of the most relaxing evenings the Hall family had experienced for years. In fact, I was starting to warm to the idea of upping sticks and coming up here to live! But I also knew that after a while, Nong Khai would probably become run of the mill and just too small to pique our collective interests for too long.
Laos visa hassles
We rose early and by 8 a.m. we were at the border, queuing up for entry into Laos. We’d get a one-week visa stamp in our passports, which was more than enough time to sort out the Thai visa process. Whilst Jum and Tom sat and waited for our numbers to be called, I found a currency exchange booth to swap my Thai baht for Laotian kip. It was a tiny little currency and a single baht was worth over 200 kip. This would make the bargaining a little tricky, as I was still thinking in pounds sterling when buying products in Thai baht. There was no queue at the booth. I handed over 10,000 Thai baht to the teller and asked for the equivalent in Laotian kip.
At this point, something very strange happened. He explained that they had run out of currency – whilst folding up my 10,000 Thai baht and slipping it into his shirt pocket. I had heard stories of a dodgy exchange booth on the Thai side of the Friendship Bridge before, and this must be the culprit. Just my luck! He then tried to pull the wooden shutter down and just before he managed to do so, I grabbed the bottom and used all of my strength to lift it back up. The little bugger started shouting, and before I knew it there was a small crowd of people around us.
He then decided to be brave; he exited the booth and started pushing me for all he was worth. I suppose that this tactic had worked once, somewhere, but the fact that I had handed over a decent wedge of money made me pissed off enough to retaliate in kind. Usually, if you got into a fight in Thailand with a Thai, the chances were that you would be outnumbered within seconds, but I had sucked up enough crap from Thailand by way of Jum’s family to abandon any kind of concern for my own safety.
As he came towards me with flailing arms, somewhat like a crazed amphibious octopus, I side-stepped and grabbed him firmly around the neck. God knows what my next move was going to be but before I could do any more damage I heard a familiar voice ringing through my ears.
Indeed, Jum had heard some commotion, and had guessed that I was probably the root cause!
I stopped in my tracks, mid-strangle, and released the thieving little toe rag. After explaining to Jum what had gone on, she demanded that the man remove the cash from his shirt pocket. To my surprise, he was more scared of her than me, and within seconds he had handed it over, not to me but to my Boss.
The assembled throng soon lost interest and within twenty minutes we were over the border and heading towards our Laotian lodgings. As we drove through Vientiane I noticed a distinct difference in the architecture, and once I’d noted at least two shops with signs depicting them as boulangeries,I remembered that Laos was once a French colony. This trip was nothing if not eye opening, if occasionally for the wrong reasons!
I’d booked us into a riverside hotel, and even this looked more like something from a Marcel Carne movie than an Asian flop house. The staff were more than polite, and I was amazed to note that our room actually looked even better than the photos depicted on the Agoda website. The view over the Mekong River was amazing; even though the tide was out, the vibrant mid-morning sun was reflecting from the glistening sands. The effect was breathtaking. Our itinerary was fairly tight because we needed to be queuing outside the gates before 8 a.m. and I’d heard there was always a mad dash once they opened. We needed photocopies of our passport main pages and three colour photographs, plus plenty of supporting evidence. For this visa, we just needed to show that we had an address and even though we’d managed to wrangle the rental agreement without Jum having an ID card, I was a little worried that the immigration people would probe deeper.
Tom and Jum crashed out on the balcony sun loungers while I popped down to the reception to see if they had a photocopier I could use. Historically, I’d almost always run into problems when trying to get something simple, yet important, carried out successfully in this type of scenario. However, today was an exception and less than five minutes later I was back in our room with all the photocopies I needed, plus a few more besides.
I got my head down for an hour or two, and after our synchronised snoring session ended we arose. Because the weather was fairly cool, we decided to take a stroll along the banks of the Mekong and possibly take in a few sights. So far, Laos was comparing favourably to its larger brother and I was struck by the serenity of the place, as well as the large number of saffron-robed monks who seemed to be everywhere we looked.
Although I’ve never been remotely interested in photography, I wished that I’d had both the skills and equipment to take full advantage of this beautiful city and the surrounding scenery. For now, my camera phone would have to suffice and I sat down on the steps leading to the riverside whilst Jum and Tom walked across the river-bed towards the Thai border.
There were plenty of people doing exactly the same, so I left them to it and simply relaxed whilst drinking in the sheer serenity of Vientiane. It wasn’t long before my peace was interrupted. I looked up as I heard a soft male voice aimed in my direction; ‘Hi Mista, are you alone? Do you want a friend?’
The twenty-something Laotian man was smiling, his hand outstretched. I replied in the negative for both requests and he eventually got the message. I’d long since been able to spot a scammer, and even though there was a chance that this fellow was simply a student wishing to practice his English, I really could not be bothered to indulge him. By the time Jum and Tom had returned I had been approached at least a dozen times –mainly by young men or women; each time they had received the famous Phil Hall cold shoulder.
We walked on and eventually found a French restaurant, where I declared we’d take a late lunch. The food was amazing; even Jum was impressed by the bouillabaisse and freshly baked French bread that was served up. The bill was reasonable and I decided to splash out by leaving a tip. Although the Laotian Kip wasn’t easy to fathom, I was pretty sure that they’d be delighted with their bonus. I left the pile of notes on the tip plate and we were on our way.
Less than a minute later I could hear footsteps and turned around to see an exasperated waiter chasing us up the side street.
‘Mister! Mister! Your bill!’
As I started to explain that he could keep the change it dawned on me that I had royally screwed up. Instead of leaving what I thought was about £15 in Kip, I’d actually left closer to £1.50! No wonder he was doing his best Usain Bolt impression! Red-faced I handed over the correct amount and all was well in sleepy Vientiane once more. We spent the rest of the day lazing around the swimming pool and when it was approaching 7 p.m. I noticed hundreds of people gravitating towards the riverside. We joined them, to witness one of the most beautiful sunsets imaginable. For now, life was good for the Hall family, and I hoped that we had finally turned a corner.
After a decent night’s sleep, we ate a surprisingly authentic English breakfast and made our way to the embassy for our visa application.
As the taxi turned the corner of Avenue Kaysone Phomvihane, I groaned as I took in the massive queue that had already formed outside the Thai embassy. It must have been a good 400 metres long! As we trudged to the end of this human gridlock I noticed the sheer variety of visa applicants who made up the queue. Backpackers were probably the majority, usually twenty-somethings with the obligatory tie-dyed shirts and sandals. There were plenty of well-dressed European men too, who I guessed were teachers looking for their non-immigration B stamps. I’d probably be joining them soon and wondered how stressful that particular process would prove to be. After an hour or so we heard the gates open and the queue started to lurch forward slowly but surely.
After a few minutes we halted, and I realised that we were being let into the embassy in waves.
After another 30 minutes and about five waves later we had reached the Holy Grail; just as they opened once more, a huge man in tight shorts and a Singha beer singlet appeared out of nowhere and shoved his way in front of us. I really despise queue jumpers, but by now I just wanted to get my family in and out of this place and back in the hotel in time for some lunch without further ado.
Jum had other ideas, and as the man-mountain wobbled passed us she literally threw herself in front of him. It was similar to a Shetland pony trying to stop a Shire horse with a draft wagon behind it. I shouted in vain but it was too late; both went crashing to the ground. Herr Giant Haystacks was non-plussed, but before he could get a word of German (or perhaps Dutch) out, Jum was back on her feet and had read him the riot act. He looked at me sheepishly and I just smiled as we circumnavigated his prone body and made our way to the main building.
I wondered if Jum’s knack of standing up for herself and for the greater good was the reason her family held her in such low esteem? God only knows, but I for one was glad to be on her side!
Phil Hall was lucky enough to teach at a government school in Isaan from 2012 to 2013 and thoroughly enjoyed this experience. He also has a book published called Bangkok to Ben Nevis Backwards.
It takes the reader on a journey from the UK to India and finally Thailand. Debts, Dementia, poorly planned emigration, self discovery, family bonding and attempted murder are all part of the highs and lows of this 18-month true tale. This is an excerpt from the same book with a few alterations.