Udon Thani Bus Station

Wake up at 5am and be out the door by 5:15 to give yourself plenty of time for the taxi ride to Suvarnabhumi Airport, where your AirAsia flight bound for Udon Thani departs at 7:10. Hail a taxi on Petchaburi Road, where at this early hour traffic is light. “Sah-wah-dee kup, pie soo-wanne-boom airport. Highway okay. Kup khun kup.” Listen to the soothing cadence of Thai-language talk radio. Smell the driver’s peppermint gum. Search for a seat belt that isn’t there; lock the door since that’ll definitely help in the event of an accident.

Pay the taxi fare and wait in line at the domestic departures counter for your boarding pass. Swiftly proceed through security. Contrast the efficiency of this process, the cleanliness and modernity of the airport, and the pleasant nature of the airport staff with the depressing shitshow that is New York-area airports.

Order a greasy coffee from Dunkin Donuts (“You like donuts also, sir? Okay no, thank you sir.”) and an Egg McMuffin from McDonald’s, one of life’s greatest airport guilty pleasures in the morning. Don’t forget the hand sanitizer in your pocket before eating it; you’ve been handling dirty money all morning. Do you have any idea where those bills have been? You don’t want to know.

Board your flight and take your seat in the middle (23B). Fold your long legs in as best as possible and remind yourself it’s only a 50-minute or so flight. Flip through Destinations 360, the in-flight magazine. Flip through the in-flight food, beverages, and AirAsia merchandise booklet. Wonder how an Oakland Raiders-branded toy airplane ended up in there; almost buy a set of AirAsia pens (captain and stewardess, 60 baht each) for your wife.

Arrive in Udon Thani

Get off the plane about an hour later and head directly to the taxi stand at Udon Thani International Airport, brushing off the touts asking you where you’re going and telling you it’s 50 baht to the bus station. Walk outside, and realize that, just like in Ko Samui, there are no public taxi stands. Walk back inside, and purchase a 50 baht ticket to get to the bus station in a shared minivan.

Sit in the front seat because the driver makes the “you are a very big farang” motion and wants you to have more room. Tell him “Thai-Laos International Bus”. Wait for about 15 minutes until the van is nearly full and the driver finally climbs in and pulls away. Take a 30-minute drive through Udon Thani, with four or five stops along the way to let people off. Neither of the first two bus stations he stops at are the one you’re looking for; get back in the van.

While you’re stopped at an intersection near your bus station, watch a rusting, battered old truck with half of its faded yellow paint chipped off scoot by. See that its entire bed is filled with cases of Leo beer, stacked one on top of the other, six cases high and four or five wide, and note that the only thing holding it all down—there’s no door of any kind on the back of the bed—is a Thai sitting on top of this precarious Leaning Tower of Leo.

Yingluck Wins

Wander through the small open-air bus terminal looking for somebody selling tickets for the 9:30am Thai-Laos International. Randomly walk up to one of the numbered stands, #5, and realize you picked the right one. Hand him your passport so he can verify that you arranged your Laos visa ahead of time in Bangkok. (Laos visas are available on arrival at the border, but only those with advance visas can take the Thai-Laos Int’l.) Pay 85 baht and wait around for about 1:15 since the bus actually leaves at 10:30am.

Take a seat in the station. Watch a tout wearing bleached-white tennis shoes, baggy stone-washed jeans, long-sleeve camoflauge jacket, bright green satin vest, and a surgical mask pulled down below his chin chat with a bus driver at stand #7. Watch the bored attendant at #6 rub his eyes, then pick his nose; rub his eyes, then pick his nose again, longer this time, in no hurry, like he was home alone on the couch. Look over the attendant’s shoulder at #4 and note that he’s reading an article about Thaksin Yingluck Shinawatra’s recent win in Thailand’s prime minister election.

Watch worn-down buses painted some combination of orange, yellow, white, blue, green, and red pull in and out, bound for Nakhonphanom, Wang Sam Mo, Nong Khai, Bangkok. Listen to the constant rumble of idling bus engines and the shuffle of flip-flops on the station’s dusty marble floor. Look at the woman in a black-and-red striped soccer jersey selling plastic bags of sliced guava. Try to wipe that smirk off your face when two sweaty, confused, harried farang bumble into the station, overpacked backpacks like camel humps.

Pay 3 baht to use the toilet (surprisingly cleanish), then walk by a row of parked tuk-tuks, where drivers are napping, snacking, or pulling out nose hairs with tweezers in front of rearview mirrors. Picture yourself on the world map and what you’re doing there. Smile.

Board the bus and take your seat (C-6). Watch every seat get taken, as well as every inch of standing room. Be thankful you have a seat for the one-hourish trip, and remember that you’ve endured much, much more uncomfortable bus rides elsewhere in Thailand. Smile to yourself and remember you’re on Thai time when you look at your watch as the bus finally leaves the station: 10:54am.

Zone out for awhile.

Gently shrug your left shoulder when the guy next to you falls asleep on it. Watch the countryside roll by. Put your headphones on and listen to excellent Thai reggae (Job2Do) when the Europeans sitting behind you start announcing everything that pops into their head. Take them back off in 25 minutes so you can hear the Thai karaoke videos that were turned on on a small TV at the front of the bus.

Just before arriving at the Thai-Laos Friendship Bridge, fill out your Laos immigration/arrival card. (“Please complete the card in block lathers.”) Get in line at Thai immigration and get stamped out. Reboard the bus for the short 0.73-mile ride across the bridge, over the Mekong River, and get off again at Laos Immigration. Hand over your passport and arrival card correctly filled out in block lathers, stoop way down so the official at the booth can see you, and take your first-ever steps into Laos.

Walk past the touts offering taxi, minivan, and tuk-tuk rides (“100 baht only, sir, Vientiane. Okay, sir, 50 baht, 50 baht.”) and get back on the bus once more for the 20km or so trip to Talat Sao station in Vientiane.

All photos copyright Brian Spencer

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Brian Spencer

Brian Spencer is a Singapore-based freelance writer. He has written for BBC Travel, CNN Travel, DestinAsian, Fodor's Travel, Lonely Planet, and Travel + Leisure Southeast Asia, among other publications.