Travelling Is Life

The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page

Travelling Is Beginning

A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step

Travelling Is Involvement

A journey is best measured in friends, rather than miles

Travelling Is Exploring

Tourists don’t know where they have been, travellers don’t know where they are going

Travelling Is Observation

One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Laos Visa-on-Arrival- An Authentic Account

Having travelled a number of countries, some of those even more than thrice, I can safely say that Visa-on-Arrival system of Laos has been the smoothest one I have ever experienced. We had crossed into Laos from Thailand via Friendship Bridge, and came back via same route; although the modes of transportation were different in each instance. It was a shuttle train that took us to Laos, and a shuttle bus that deposited us back in Thailand eight days later. But, both the entry and exit procedures had been a cakewalk for us.

Train from Bangkok to Nong Khai
Nong Khai railway station is small but very neat and clean one with all possible amenities
View of Nong Khai station and the road beyond from the window of international train
It was the last week of September this year. We three friends boarded the train number 69 from Hua Lamphong Station of Bangkok for Nong Khai- the border town of Thailand and one of the most popular gateways to Laos. The tickets for this sleeper train had been booked on internet in advanced, and it too had proved to be a smooth process. The arrival time at Nong Khai of this most-preferred train of foreigners is 8.25 in the morning, but we had been told to expect a delay of around 2 hours as it is a single line and tracks on this route are being re-laid. And our train was actually delayed by almost 3 hours when it reached its final destination.
If you are travelling by train no. 69 and wish to catch the connecting international shuttle train from Nong Khai to Thanaleng station in Laos, but are worried about the delay; then you need not be. The shuttle train will wait for the arrival of this train, as most of the passengers it carries onto the other side of border arrive by train number 69 only.

Shuttle Train Tickets at Nong Khai Station
This two-coach international shuttle train takes you to the other side of Thai-Lao border
Yours truly...just before boarding the shuttle train. It was an amazing experience for me
Train has a total 80 seats. The seats are comfortable, though all of them are rarely occupied
Nong Khai railway station is exactly 2.6 kilometres from the Friendship Bridge, while the border lies somewhere in the middle of the bridge (or for that matter, middle of the river) that is 1.1 kilometres long. Thanaleng, the lone railway station of Laos, lies further 2.3 kilometres away. So, it was a 6 kilometres train journey that took us from one country to another in a matter of just 10 minutes. The second class train journey cost us 20 Baht, and tickets were readily available at the station itself.
No worries! They don’t start until all passengers have bought their tickets, cleared immigration and boarded the train. When we took this journey, there were not more than 40 passengers on board the two-coach shuttle. So, relax and enjoy the moment when train crosses over to Laos from Thailand.

Immigration Procedure at Nong Khai Railway Station
There is just one small booth that controls immigration process at Nong Khai railway station
A single person was manning the booth. They told us it is same daily as there is never a rush
The immigration was also a very smooth process at Nong Khai. They stamped us out in almost no time. There was only one official there who was handling the immigration formalities. We just waited a couple of minutes for our turn, as there was a small queue at the immigration booth. And when we were stamped out, we hopped on to one of the two coaches of the train.
There is no Visa-on-Arrival facility at Nong Khai station. What they have there is an immigration booth where your passport is stamped in or out. So, if you plan to arrive directly at Nong Khai station from Laos on your return journey, then you must possess a valid Thai Visa on your passport. Or else, you must return via shuttle bus that leaves you directly at Nong Khai Immigration where they provide V-O-A if you are eligible for it.

Train Journey and Visa-on-Arrival at Thanaleng
Just after the shuttle train left Nong Khai station. It eventually runs on the Friendship Bridge
And the train passes through the Friendship Bridge. It is still the Thailand side of the border
The Mekong river separates Thailand and Laos. The border is somewhere near the blue flag 
We reach Laos. Flags are the only indicators to tell us that we are now in another country 
Thanaleng station in Laos is not a passenger train station as such; it is just a terminal for the international train where one can avail of Visa-on-Arrival facility. Visa forms and immigration slips were available at Visa-on-Arrival window. The visa fee was different for different countries but the details were not displayed anywhere there. We had to ask about it, and they told us it was 40 USD for Indian nationals. We just submitted our forms with our passports and paid the fee; and within 5 minutes each one of us got our passports back with one-month visa affixed on them.
Thanaleng is the only station in Laos, which receives and flags off just a pair of trains daily 
Visa is issued at the first window in arrival area. It is the busiest window when train arrives
The submission of visa form and fee, and collection of passport are done at the same place
The V-O-A counter is the first one of the four counters in a row, and has two openings. At the first opening, a person collects your passport, filled-in visa form and immigration slip, and requisite fee. After verifying your details, he pushes your passport and fee receipt to his colleague sitting next to him. The second person affixes visa sticker on your passport and also stamp you in. Your name is announced at the second opening and you receive your passport back. You need not go to any of the three immigration windows, as you are already stamped in at V-O-A window. The immigration windows are for those who already have a Lao visa on their passport. 
It was totally hassle-free. And the staff was friendly. They didn’t even check our accommodation reservation. And also, none of the passengers alighted at Thanaleng had to pay any money other than the required visa fee, as it had been mentioned by many travellers in their accounts on internet. No stamping-in fee, no service fee… absolutely nothing. So, relax! Just take your passport back and head towards taxi stand.

From Thanaleng Station to Vientiane City
A make-shift counter for booking your transportation to Vientiane. Rates are displayed there
It was one of the last two taxis available by the time we got our visa. It charged us 400 Baht 
Just outside Thanaleng station, there was a taxi stand to take us to Vientiane. They had a counter in the station premises itself where one could book a vehicle of one’s choice. The non-AC but spacious pick-up van charged 300 Baht for 8 persons while air-conditioned taxi suited for 8 passengers charged 400 Baht for the 20 kms run to the capital city of Vientiane. 
Just before leaving for city. We had three more travellers to divide the fare amongst us
Since people arrive at Thanaleng station from Thailand only, they are quoted fare in Thai Baht. We were little slow in going through visa process, so by the time we got our visas there was no pick-up van left. We had to settle for a taxi. Luckily, there were three more people who agreed to share taxi with us. So, it was around 70 Baht per person, which was not bad.
There is a bus service too for Vientiane. But for that, you have to walk a few hundred metres till you reach the main road, and wait there for the bus that comes from Buddha Park. The bus takes you to Talat Sao (the Morning Market) bus station and a ticket costs just 5000 Kip. If you don’t have Kip, they will ask for 20 Baht, which is okay as far as the conversion rate is concerned. At an exchange counter, 20 Thai Baht will fetch you around 5200 Kip. But, keep in mind that pick-up van or taxi will drop you at your hotel or guesthouse, while bus leaves you at Talat Sao. From Talat Sao, you end up paying around 10000 Kip (roughly 40 Baht) per person to your choice of destination. So, if you could form a group of 7-8 people before leaving the station, then a taxi or a pick-up van is cheaper and more convenient option.

From Vientiane to Friendship Bridge
The air-conditioned bus from Talat Sao bus station of Vientiane to the Friendship Bridge
On our journey back to Thailand, we chose another mode of transportation across the border- the shuttle bus. As expected, tuk-tuk charged 10000 Kip per person from our guesthouse to Talat Sao bus station. This bus station is right in the middle of city. From there, you can hop onto a public bus or hire a tuk-tuk for Friendship Bridge border. We preferred bus, which leaves for border every 30 minutes or so. It was a very modern air-conditioned bus, and the 20-minute ride till border was very comfortable. The bus left us right in front of Lao immigration offices.
A tuk-tuk would ask for 1,00,000 Kip from Talat Sao to the border, but we had been told that they could settle for 50,000 Kip. But a bus is far better option, which charges just 6000 Kip per person. You can’t get tuk-tuk for the border from just anywhere in Vientiane; you have to come to Talat Sao. Be wise! There is no need to pay huge amount to tuk-tuk when you have a far economical and convenient bus service. The bus conductors don’t understand English, so tell them you have to go to Mittraphap (Thai and Lao word for Friendship).

Lao Immigration at Friendship Bridge
Return journey to Nong Khai. This time it is shuttle bus that takes us from Laos to Thailand 
Near the border on the bridge. Lao flag on the left; a little further Thai flag on the right side
The stamping out process was completed without any problem. There were 4 counters; and since apart from travellers, hundreds of Thai and Lao workers crossed the border bridge every day, the queues at each counter were little longer than what we had experienced at Nong Khai. After been stamped out, we could see a ticket counter just a few paces ahead. The international shuttle bus ticket was 4000 Kip, but as we were not left with any Kip we had to pay in Thai Baht…and they charged 20 Baht per person. 
The rail line separates from road on the bridge. All road transport stops when train passes
The shuttle bus is nearing Thai Immigration. All the visa-on-arrival formalities are done here
In no time, we were on the other side of the bridge, where there were long queues at the immigration counters to stamp you in. The two of us three already had Thai visa, so we were stamped-in easily. Since one of us had to obtain Visa-on-arrival (Indian nationals are entitled to V-O-A in Thailand) it took him some time to fill in the form and deposit fee etc. But still, it was hassle-free and we were again in Nong Khai from where we had our train back to Bangkok in the evening.
The international shuttle bus runs every 10-15 minutes and takes not more than 2-3 minutes to take you to Thai side of the bridge. The conversion rate is very bad for bus ticket. It should be around 16 Baht for a 4000 Kip ticket. So, better keep at least 10,000 Kip per person if you wish to take bus from Talat Sao and then international shuttle bus from the bridge.

Text and Photos by Ajay Garg

Friday, October 26, 2012

A Treacherous Night At 13K Feet

The top of Rohtang pass is situated at an altitude of 13050 Feet above the mean sea level
For a biker, biking all the way to Ladakh is akin to visiting Mecca. An earlier wish to go around the world on a bicycle been nipped in the bud; dream to go biking to Ladakh was well nurtured. In my better-half Bhasha, I had an able partner to support and sustain my adventurous escapades. Months were spent in meticulous planning and preparations. Bikers on that way normally prefer a heavy-duty motorbike like Bullet, but I had a three-year old light bike in Hero Honda Ambition. But then I had numerous examples of lighter bikes and even scooters going through the treacherous mountain route quite successfully.

I got my Ambition refurbished enough to withstand the hardship; accumulated all the accessories, including a double sided luggage carrier- of a kind usually used on a Bullet, but I got it designed for my bike- and an on-road repair kit. Special care was taken as Bhasha was to ride pillion all the way along and back, since all my earlier attempts to give her some biking lessons had fallen flat. Besides, neither we had any dry run nor I had rode so long (or for that matter even half of it) ever before. But I was more than assured of my homework and some thorough feedback from one of my friends Gagan Sethi who, though younger than me, is a veteran of that particular route.
Pandoh Dam on the way. The dam is built over river Beas and presents a very scenic view
But then it was later to have a face-off with the fact that Google based homework doesn’t always work that well. Well, the flag-off was uneventful, so was the ride till Chandigarh, where we had a lunch stopover. Our first day target was to reach Bilaspur in Himachal Pradesh. But it was quite late when we reached there. I had my first experience of riding in the hills and that too in the dark. It was first day of my unique riding expedition. We had covered more than 300 kilometers that day, another first for me. Besides some anxious moments on turns while negotiating with glaring headlights of trucks, we reached Bilaspur safely. But then, riding in the dark was something that we were not prepared well for, something I missed in my homework.

Kullu is famous for processions of gods, which is witnessed by a large number of people
Anyways, Bilaspur was our home for the night. We planned to travel lesser on our second day so as to keep ourselves fitter for ascend to the Lahaul valley. It was a bright morning when we left for Manali situated at a distance of just over 180 kilometres from Bilaspur. It was a beautiful route along the river Beas, covering Mandi, Sundernagar and Pandoh. We had started enjoying the ride by then. We had planned our stay at Youth Hostel at Khakhnal village, just nine kilometers before Manali on the opposite side of the river. Though, now YHAI has given its hostel franchisee to a hotel in Prini village. It was a nice and peaceful place surrounded by apple orchards overlooking the river. We had covered the first leg of our journey. Real ride was to start after this.
This is how the mountains looked from Manali before the weather suddenly turned bad
Once in Manali, weather suddenly started to take a bad turn. Although it is normal to have heavy monsoon rains in that part of India during first week of July, but  the fact that Lahaul valley was a cold desert and after crossing over the Rohtang Pass into Lahaul there would be hardly any rains had kept us encouraged and going. And also, Rohtang was just about fifty kilometers from Manali! But, rain didn’t wait till next day. The moment we were back in the hostel after dinner at a nearby restaurant, it started raining. 

Thunder showers were relentless and seemingly bent upon breaking silence of the valley, and it kept us worried. The morning was no different. With no visible signs of the rain-gods letting up, we decided to push till Rohtang hoping things would be in control after that. Having a specially-designed rain-gears with us, we aimed to reach Khoksar, less than 25 kilometres downhill from Rohtang to be safe and on the track. But oh, we were in for a huge shock! We had barely crossed Manali and started to ascend when realization dawned upon us. Our rough n’ tough raingears were not able to cope with unleashing downpour. We were already wet inside and cold wind was sending chills down the spine. These conditions forced us to purchase a couple of raincoats, and over-clothed we moved ahead. 

The rains had become quite heavier by then and I was finding it tough to ride. My hands were freezing because of ice-cold water seeping inside my gloves; and roads had become slippery. All our clothes and luggage were already wet, and it was a terrible start to a long journey. Having left with no choice, we kept moving and somehow reached Marhi passing through Kothi and Gulaba. Mercifully, the rain had relented a bit by that time. We were wet and hungry and desperately in need of some rest. At a roadside restaurant, we ordered some aloo-paranthas, and while pouncing upon them, we tried to dry ourselves from the heat of tandoor. The warmth we got from within and outside relieved our body and spirit a bit. 
Just below the top of Rohtang Pass, this little shop was our shelter for almost a full day
The ride from Marhi to Rohtang Jot is a tricky one, with many glaciers on the way. It was an hour past noon by the time we reached near Rohtang top. There were still a few small patches of snow remaining in this time of the year, and we could see many tourists having fun there. As we looked out for a food shop with some space to park my bike, we noticed Lucky Fast Food. Oh, thank you, God!! The sky still overcast, a plateful of hot noodles and tea were like a new lease of life. But as if it was not enough for us, it started raining again. It was about 3 in the afternoon, and Khoksar- the Gateway to Lahaul Valley -was another 25 kilometres from there. Though reaching Keylong would have been better, I was ready to settle for Khoksar as we were already too late for Keylong. As per my calculations, it should not have taken more than 45 minutes to reach there from Rohtang Jot. There, we could find a place to stay, and this option seemed better than returning to Manali. We just had to wait for the rains to stop.
One of the three vendors at Lucky Fast Food, who was like a God-sent saviour for us
But, as the destiny would have conspired, rains were unrelenting; rather they went on becoming heavier. Sensing the weather, tourists and vendors started rushing back to Manali, and we were perhaps the only bikers left out there on the top. As we sheepishly waited for that elusive 45-minute window, the Rohtang top quickly became a deserted place. Two hours passed in no time. By 5 pm, we were really very worried. No way could we have ridden in such a heavy downpour. Soon, raindrops turned into hails. It was getting freezing cold, and I could sense where I had put us into. The heavy clouds had eaten away all the daylight. My immediate worry was what happens if our vendor also decides to pack up. It had been our shelter since noon. We talked to the hotel guys, they were three of them; and to our big relief they were staying there for the night.

Rohtang Jot was abuzz with activity. Tourists were having fun in the small patches of snow
Although spending night on the top of Rohtang pass was still the last thought on our mind, yet the reality was looming large on us. Besides five of us, there was practically no other soul on the top, or at least I couldn’t trace anybody else. Seeing the last traces of daylight fading away, we resigned ourselves to fact that we would have to spend the night in the company of three totally strangers, amidst heavy snowfall in a shelter of which we were not sure if it would survive nature’s fury that night.

Despite very little space available in the shop, the vendors allowed us to stay there overnight. For the next twelve hours, we were their guests. First few hours were spent in talking and knowing more about them and their families. They all were from Mandi town of Himachal. This shop was their summer vocation and in winters they used to move back to their hometown. Unlike other vendors, they used to stay at Rohtang for almost the whole summer, barring occasional trips down to Manali to get goods or in case of an emergency. They all seemed very gentle to us- the guys one would rarely find in our ‘cultured’ metros. 

Noodles were again our choice for the dinner. Once it was over, nothing else was left to be done except to slip into the warmth of a blanket. The shop had a partition. The main portion had the kitchen and shop, and in the inner portion there was a makeshift sleeping place. Since, we were not carrying any bedrolls with us, the vendors were generous enough to not only give us their blankets and mattresses, but also arrange for us to sleep in the inner drier and warmer portion. No words can probably justify our gratitude for them. Even after so many years today, the thought that what would have happened had they were not there makes me shiver. 

It snowed the whole night, and it being a high altitude pass, wind was sharp and chilling. It was actually frightening at times. Vendors must have been accustomed to it, but for us it was indeed a bone-chilling experience. The noise of wind against the plastic sheet being used as roof was terrible. Every now and then we had an unnerving feeling as if the wind would blow away the shed. As expected, we couldn’t sleep the whole night, though terrible headache, high altitude dizziness, cold, fatigue and fears of unknown kept us pinned to our beds. It was a very long night.
These are the pictures of next morning. The road to Leh was covered with waist-deep snow
The next morning was bright, but it was all white around us. Thick carpet of fresh snow was all over. Still, the nightmarish twelve hours having failed to dampen our spirits, we decided to move ahead. After some hot tea and breakfast, we were back on our two wheels. Only then we realized that riding a bike in fresh snow was tougher than expected. We somehow managed to reach at the top, which was another kilometer and half from the shop we had stayed in. Peril started once we crossed the top on our way to jigs below. The usually beautiful curvaceous road with many hairpin bends was gone. Not many vehicles had passed since night, so there were no tyre-marks to follow. Bike was skidding every now and then and one of the slips was very severe. There was no choice but to put an end to this insanity. We finally decided to turn back. The skids were so scary that Bhasha decided to walk back instead of riding pillion so that I could handle bike more comfortably. Still we both kept slipping. Once, Bhasha even went waist-deep into snow. We somehow managed to reach back to the Lucky Fast Food and had a breath of relief along with our tea.
We had to come back to Lucky Fast Food as the road to Leh had been blocked with snow
With heavy hearts, we rode back to Manali. As destiny would have written this, just before the bridge on river Beas to cross into Manali town our bike slipped again. Luckily we escaped any major casualty. Nine kilometers away, our Youth Hostel at Khakhnal still had room for us. It was only when we reached to the confines of our room and exposed ourselves to talks around us we came to know that the rainfall last night had been one of heaviest and the most unusual for the region. We were wise to have turned back from Rohtang as there was not just a heavy snowfall on all the major passes till Leh, but also the Pagal nallah just across Khoksar was heavily overflowing. Army had stopped all movements on Manali-Leh highway owing to this weather. It meant, even if we could have managed to reach Khoksar, there would have been no way ahead. 
The temple of Ved Vyas, who wrote epic Mahabharta, is one of many attractions near Manali
Later, we came to know that owing to overflowing Pagal nallah the vehicular movement on the highway had been blocked for almost a week. Even Mandi-Manali highway was breached at many places by the suddenly swollen Beas River and roads back to Delhi were also closed, though weather had improved a lot. We waited for two days in Manali; went to places around; and even had another trip to Rohtang- this time sans any luggage- and met our samaritans at Lucky Fast Food. As soon as the roads back to Delhi were opened, we were off. Our journalism jobs couldn’t afford the luxury of waiting endlessly for Pagal nallah to relent. The dream of riding on bike to Leh still lives with us.

To see the video related to this incident, go to  
Text and Photos by Upendra Swami

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