I’m at Vientiane. I am very comfortable and well.
I was doing a vipassana meditation retreat at Section 5, Wat Mahadhatu and the date for my Thai visa came up (after 30 days). I didn’t plan much beforehand so on Thursday, 3 Sept, I did some research by Internet and took a taxi to the Thai Dept. Immigration. The tourist visa extension for me is for a maximum of 7 days and would cost 1,900 baht (A$70) which is too expensive for such a short time. I had a 30 day visa granted on arrival. If I had a tourist visa granted at a Thai Embassy outside Thailand I could have extended for 30 days in Bangkok. Because I want to meditate longer than 7 days and don’t want to overstay my visa, I had to leave Thailand and re-enter. The non-immigrant visa option required letters from two different organisations and was too complicated to organise in the short time left before my visa expired.
I worked out that I needed to take a tour bus or train (second class sleeper) from Bangkok to Nong Khai on Mekong River which is the border between Thailand and Laos. Then I needed to cross by taxi, bus, bicycle, boat or whatever I find convenient. I had some help from Thai friends at Wat Mahadhatu but no-one seemed to know the best thing to do or details of how to do it – there was no one with experience. This surprised me since I can’t be the first foreign meditator at Wat Mahadhatu to face this problem. Never mind, I went with the flow and accepted the help and good will that was offered. Pi Yai (my meditation teacher) went with me to Dept. Immigration and later Pi Deng (a 58 yo, Thai man who previously worked with Thai International Air, and is now doing voluntary work at Wat Mahadhatu) went with me to the train station. Pi Deng indicated he was interested in going to Laos so I spontaneously invited him, he demurred and then 20 minutes later accepted even though this meant he had no spare clothes, documents, etc.).
Train Ride from Bangkok to Nong Khai
We had a bumpy ride in second class sleeper overnight, leaving Bangkok around 8:30 pm, Thursday and arriving in Nong Khai around 11 am, Friday – 3 hours late! This was inconvenient since I was hoping to be able to get to the Thai embassy in Vientiane before noon since they only accept visa applications in the morning and do not work on weekends. It was doubly inconvenient since I am still maintaining 8 precepts which means I should eat my main meal before noon. With these two competing priorities, I chose to miss lunch (and dinner while on 8 precepts) and try to get to the Thai embassy across the border. Unfortunately, in the rush to leave Bangkok, Pi Deng didn’t have time to pack a small traveling bag with his passport etc, so as a Thai citizen, he had to first go to the Nong Khai local government office to apply for a temporary boarding pass (possible for Thai citizens entering Laos for a few days without a passport but using bat prachachon – Thai national ID card).
It was noon by the time Pi Deng obtained the pass and 12:30 pm by the time we got to the border crossing entering Laos. Upon arriving, I had to fill out 3 separate forms with almost the same details of name, passport number etc. and wait in a queue. As soon as I came to the head of the queue, they shut the office for 30 minutes lunch break and I had to stand waiting in the heat. Luckily it was shady, and I had the remains of a bottle of water in my day-pack.
Meanwhile Pi Deng, who is only maintaining 5 precepts and with border pass in his pocket was able to find some expensive som tham (unripe papaya salad) for lunch. Expensive because people doing business at the border have little competition and can charge what they like with poor service and low quality products. Eventually, I got through and we hired a Lao tour guide couple (husband and wife – Boonkham and Noy) with a van to drive us into Vientiane and the Thai embassy.
The Thai embassy officials said I would have to return on Monday morning to submit the visa application and then pick up the visa on Tuesday afternoon. By this time, it was 2:30 pm, I was low on energy, very hot, a little hungry and thirsty. I was fortunate in that I’d eaten a large breakfast on the train – pork rice porridge, coffee and some sweet buns, so I was not too hungry. We found somewhere to drink Lao ice coffee and then went around looking for a place to sleep.
Vientiane is not very large even though it is a capital city. It is not well developed but I find it clean and very comfortable. I like the Laos people very much. Lao language is similar to Thai and most Lao people understand spoken Thai even if they don’t speak it themselves. It is a bit like London English compared with Northern Scottish English. It is a similar but different culture to Thailand. The Laos people are quite relaxed. This is a generalisation though. I like it here and will probably return again in the future sometime. I recommend it to everyone.
If I stayed here for a couple of months, I’d pick up spoken Lao and probably be able to read it as well. Many of the Lao language letters are similar to Thai but there are differences too. Their money is called kip and exchanges 250 kip for 1 baht or 1000 kip for 40 baht. The Australian dollar exchanges for about 7,100 kip and the US dollar exchanges for about 8,500 kip. I’m almost expert at making the calculations in my head now.
Temples in Vientiane
Yesterday, Saturday, we went touring Buddhist temples. I was not impressed with most places. The only place that touched me was Wat Si Saket near the centre of Vientiane which is apparently nearly 200 years old and the oldest standing temple in Vientiane. It has some old areas preserved as a museum like many of the other places we visited. However, one area of Wat Si Saket seemed “alive” compared with other temples. I had a “deja vu” experience and remembered an image that appeared during meditation in Myanmar where I saw a similar temple except that it was surrounded by trees – maybe in a forest/jungle hundreds of years ago, maybe a past life experience… Anyway, soon after entering this particular compound at Wat Si Saket, I felt something special as though there were devada (celestial beings) present – not like the other places. It felt sacred and the hairs on my arms rose up – kon luk. It maybe ordinary to others but felt special to me. Other places may seem special to other people but not to me… Over all I have a strong sense of having been in Laos before – must be previous lives. It seems to welcome me back… Maybe I have to spend more time here, not sure yet…
We went to a “Buddha Park” which I didn’t like. There were many larger-than-life kitchy, tacky statues of various scenes from the Jataka (previous lives of the Bodhisatta) and scenes from Brahmanism all set up in a garden next to the Mekong River. Closer to the river, I felt an evil presence and sensed there were probably many asura (demons) and peta (pret) in the area. I speculate that many people were treated badly and murdered at this place in the past (hundreds and thousands of years). We left soon after.
We also found a temple that teaches samatha meditation in the traditional ‘Bud-dho’ style of Isarn (NE Thailand). Foreign tourists were going there to learn to meditate.
Next Three Days
Today, I am resting, doing Internet and meditating. I ate a lot of fruit and muesli for breakfast and had a large crusty salad and chicken bread roll for lunch in the French-Lao style. Food in Laos is excellent. I ate very well yesterday .
Tomorrow, Monday, after submitting the visa application at the Thai embassy, we will go to a Buddhist meditation temple that is out of town a bit. I want to talk with monks and meditators about Laos as a place for Buddhist meditation. Laos is not famous for meditation, but this place teaches vipassana in the Mahasi Saydaw style. I think Thai monks have been there to teach and maybe are still there.
Then on Tuesday afternoon, we will pick up the passport/visa and head back to Thailand, catch a train or tour bus and possibly arrive in Bangkok by 6-7am on Wednesday morning. I aim to apply for a six month visa multiple re-entry for Thailand. They may only give me 3 months or maybe even 1 month. It is not certain yet. Anyway, whatever they give me, I can extend this new visa from in Bangkok for at least another 30 days so I could have a minimum total of 60 days. I expect longer. I really don’t know how long I will stay in Thailand before going on to India/Sri Lanka/Nepal.
I am paying 350 baht (about $12) per night for an en suite air con room. It is very clean and comfortable. Pi Deng has a similar room at the same guest house. It is owned by Vietnamese with a mix of Vietnamese and Lao workers. There are plenty of guest houses and hotels here and many restaurants. It is all quite relaxed and comfortable. Anyone could arrive without any bookings and easily find a good place to stay that suits their budget and tastes.
My concentration and mindfulness are still relatively strong even though I’ve not been meditating much since Thursday. I hope that I can continue full-time meditating again at Wat Mahadhatu from Wednesday. I have some hope that meditation will proceed smoothly. I have strong faith in Pi Yai (my current teacher) and am quite determined. My confidence in my own ability to do vipassana meditation has increased a lot too. Pi Yai has taught me to sit for longer periods to increase my upekkha, aditaana and sacca paramis (perfections for equanimity, resolution/determinations and truth). It has worked quite well so far. I sat for 2.5 hours on three sessions already. I aim to sit for 3 hours at lest and maybe make this a regular practice. I’ll see how it goes. It is painful but good for building paramis. Longer sitting sessions are normal in samatha meditation too. It is easier to sit longer with samatha meditation because once in jhaana, there is no sensation of pain in the body. I’ll see how it goes doing vipassana with Pi Yai for another month or so and then maybe look around for a place to do samatha if I don’t go to India/Sri Lanka first.
I’ve been talking with people we meet and helping them understand the Dhamma. Besides donating to monks, I also help lay people in various ways. I am quite happy and content each day. Meditation, keeping 8 precepts and donating has helped me a lot.
Mobile Phone Sim Cards
My Thai mobile phone sim only gives my mobile a signal when I’m standing on the bank of the Mekong River close to Nong Khai (on the other bank) and that is not convenient for a quick call. I’d need a car/taxi or motorcycle to get there. This afternoon I bought a Laos sim card with ETL (local company) which will enable me to make calls from most places in Laos. I can recharge it (prepaid mode) locally. I’ll probably collect more sim cards for other Asian countries that I visit later including India and Sri Lanka. It seems most sims expire after 12 months if they are not used. This will give me some small incentive to travel once a year to various countries. It is also inexpensive to just buy another sim card. For example the Laos ETL sim cost 50,000 kip which is the same as 200 baht.