The Best-Laid Plans…

26 Mar

<a Cake display, Scandinavian Bakery, Vientiane, Laos

Not, actually, a piece of cake, after all

We have hot-footed it — well, night-bused it — back from Luang Prabang to Vientiane, with a sleeper train to Bangkok ahead of us tonight, in quest of the elusive Myanmar visa.

Whether because of Z’s performance in the embassy last time around (unlikely) or a verifiable and undeclared, though undistinguished and utterly apolitical, track record in UK journalism (likely), politically undesirable Facebook friends (possible), trigger-happy blogging (unlikely, but you never know), or the latest junta-unfriendly act of our own dear government (highly likely) our visa applications have been kicked upstairs. Or, rather, back home.

Never the liveliest of capitals, Vientiane is stone-cold dead at 6am. We arrived unpleasantly prior to that, and were outside our cake shop of choice, the Scandinavian Bakery, some time before the staff arrived for work, took pity on us and let us in.

Z was quite insistent he would rather spend time with the doughnuts than his mother, so I arrived at the embassy with a sense of haste, as well as purpose.

While folk at the bakery begin to question Z, the lady at the embassy begins to explain that my papers have been sent to my guesthouse. “Oh,” I say. “Was it this one?” I rummage for the card. “Shall I go there?”

“No,” she says. “Wait a minute.”

I wait.

Our original interviewer appears. “I have a message for you from the Internal Affairs Department of Myanmar,” he says. Even for someone who is not Burmese, this is not a promising start.

“I tried to reach you at your guesthouse, but they said you were inVang Vieng but would be back today.”

“Yes,” I say. “I think I mentioned at the time that we would be out of town in Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang until the end of the week.”

“They would like to review your application, and your son’s, internally, in Myanmar. This will take at least a month.”

“Ah,” I say. “I have a flight to catch on Sunday.”

“So you would like to withdraw your application?” he says.

“No,” I say. “I would very much like to go to Myanmar, but I would also like our passports back as we need to catch a flight. Is it possible for the application to proceed using authorized copies of our passports?”

This concept seems like a new one. He disappears to ring Yangon. A French chap in his 50s arrives.

He has been to Myanmar before, and applied for his visa in Vientiane, which is generally considered a good, safe capital in which to do so. Last time round the process took a couple of hours. He filled in the paperwork in the morning, got a visa the same day.

This time…

We conclude that perhaps things are tightening up in view of the forthcoming elections — the Supreme Court has just ruled itself unqualified to judge on whether Aung San Suu Kyi’s rights have been infringed by barring her from the elections — not to mention the tensions in Thailand.

Things are difficult, we conclude, in la region as a whole.

Our host emerges. “Have you come to apply for a visa or to collect a visa?” he asks.

“To collect my visa,” says the French chap.

“This morning?” he says, with a note of surprise.

“Yes,” says the French chap.

“Not this afternoon?”

“No,” says the French chap, whose anxiety is now reminiscent of the Danish girl who was attempting to pick up a visa on our last visit. “This morning. I have a flight to catch.”

“We did not tell you 1pm?”

“No,” says the French chap. “We said this morning, because I need to be at the airport at noon.”

“When did you put in your application?”

“Err,” says the French guy. “About a week ago.”

“Ah,” he says, and turns to me. “They have told me that they will review your application, and the process will take at least a month.”

Rather nicely, he equips me with his name, direct line and office number.

“It is best that you call me,” he says. “Since after all, we will not know where you will be.”

I cannot help noticing, however, that along with our passports he has also returned our application fee.

Which leaves us — or, rather, me, as the adult of the pair — in a bit of a quandary. Myanmar was going to be the first stop on our itinerary after flying into Bangkok, because the climate is at its kindest in January-February. Then I decided that negotiating illegal money-changing, endless powercuts, and rounds of police interviews in each new town might make it rather a challenging first stop, and we should start somewhere more accessible and build up.

Subsequently we have heard such great things about Myanmar that, until this morning, I was hoping to spend at least a month there. I was also revising our original plan to spend Thai New Year/Songkran/Burmese New Year in Bangkok, with a view to spending it in Mandalay or Yangon.

Anywise, it appears that Myanmar does not want us, so the travel agents of Khao San Road can rest in peace when we hit Bangkok tomorrow.

Or relative peace. The last issue of the Bangkok Post I read reports nigh-on 40,000 armed police and soldiers “maintaining order” in Bangkok, protesters flooding pavements with blood from syringes, Red Shirts conducting gigantic marches, and persistent rumours of another coup.

Songkran, the Thai New Year festival of misrule, where water pistols and water bombs are de rigeur in the city street, should be heaven on earth for Z, as well as an intense insight into an utterly different religious culture, which is why I wanted him to experience it.

However… Last Songkran, when the situation was less tense than it is now, there were major street riots. So it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to infer that a repeat may be coming up.

On the plus side, a friend of a friend with children the same age as Z has offered to put us up. So I think I will take him up on the offer, or at least clarify the political situation as experienced by falang on the ground before making a firm decision.

We discussed our non-Myanmar, post-Bangkok destination over cake (Z) and coffee (me) this morning. We plan to spend a good couple of months in Indonesia, sufficient to get a decent handle on the main language (linguistic difficulties have really held us back), do some serious trekking in Papua, do the Borneo thing, do the Komodo dragons thing and generally explore a decent slice of the archipelago.

This will require a 60-day visa, which of course, we don’t have, because rather than going for a 60-day Indonesia visa in Vientiane, supposedly an easy city for visas, I went for the Myanmar visa, and was refused. Either that, or pull a visa run to Malaysia or Brunei after our first thirty days.

Particularly when it comes to travel, I’m a great believer in going with the flow. You don’t know what you’re going to like and dislike until you’ve been going for a while, and the best experiences tend to come from out of the blue and way off the schedule.

Case in point? Snorkelling and beaches. Z much prefers splashing around in rapids and rivers to the warm, shallow waters around Thailand.

Second case in point? Heat. He copes much better than I’d anticipated, even when trekking.

Third? Museums and temples. He engages much more than I would have anticipated.

I didn’t want to be tied down by timeframes and visas before we left – our two immovable dates are meeting my parents in the Philippines early next week, and meeting Z’s father in Darwin in early July – so didn’t apply for them. And I also didn’t map out our route in detail, because I thought we might end up on some kind of sightseeing route march.

But now I’m feeling less with the flow, more up in the air. How to get to Indonesia. When to get to Indonesia. Which bit of Indonesia to approach first. How to tackle the visa thing.

And, actually, rather pissed off to have missed another day in Luang Prabang in pursuit of a visa which has not appeared. Quite pissed off at my government, in fact, for the way that it invades Iraq illegally, gets on its high horse to charge Burma with war crimes while letting the Saudis torture British citizens (and abuse their own women) without a peep of protest, but that’s by the by.

For the record. Last night’s bus was the worst night bus yet. Leaky roof, through which ashy rain dripped constantly on my lap. Thai pop — to which Z and I are now almost physically allergic — all night long. Long snack-and-pee break at 1:30am with all lights on and pop ramped up. Screaming baby. Pee stops at roadsides with deep ditches and no lighting (memo to ladies: on Lao buses, wear a skirt). Nearly crushed against wall by bus driver while peeing (Z) and smoking (me). I could go on.

We are off for steaks to cheer us, well, me in particular, up. I wonder whether the French chap made his flight?

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