Long term business visas take a long time to organise here in Laos, so after a month it was time to do a visa run. Around here, that means Thailand. The guy that manages the drivers for MMG also has a sideline in providing drivers and vehicles and he offered me a 6000B all inclusive package to take me to Udon Thani for the weekend.
A bit of basic packing while I watched the footy on Friday night (crazy umpiring) and then up early and on the road over the Friendship Bridge. We got there about 7:30 which is apparently pretty early for the border. Apparently it gets much busier later on, but even so it still took about an hour to get through the various checkpoints and lines. Then it's over the bridge and about an hour down the road to Udon Thani. Thai roads are really good in the area. It's two lanes each way from the border to Udon Thani. Our left hand drive Lao car was now heading driving in the left hand side of the road. I suddenly had a feel for the road again, even if it felt a little weird without a steering wheel in front of me.
I had already booked and paid for a room at the Centara Hotel for the princely sum of 1500B including full breakfast. Checking in, I discovered the room was of excellent quality and this is therefore quite a bargain. The interior is odd though. The rooms surround a very large atrium right up to the top/twelfth floor and so it somewhat resembles the interior of a bee hive. Laughter and children's shouts seemed to echo about the place a lot.
Having not shaved for more than a week and not had a haircut for 6 weeks I was looking scruffy and old, so it seemed like a good idea to get that done as the Central Shopping Plaza I was there to visit doesn't open until 10:00. I wandered around past an abandoned market until I found a barber and got the job done there. He did a pretty good job, although I'm sure I overpaid in comparison to the locals.
Now the shopping centre was open it was time to venture in and good lord this is enormous. I rate it as bigger than Highpoint but not as big as Chadstone or Southland. When the hellmouth opens, it will open under Chadstone.
I had a small, but important, shopping list to fulfil here as it seems there are some things that are just not available in Laos.
As I searched for the camera I found that there were two major events on in the centre. One was a street dancing competition for Thailand 2012 something-to-do-with-dance.co.th and the other was a bank putting one some major display including dancing, singing and lots and lots of pink. There were also a few booth babes hanging around an Isuzu ute of some kind.
The first that hit me was the size of the place. Then the noise. Loud displays with pumped up music. Spruiker with competing microphones. Then the dress code came to my attention.
I have been in Laos for a while now, and there seems to be a clear uniform here. Office wear consists of the Sinh skirt with a blouse. Regular wear is jeans or knee-length shorts and a t-shirt. Younger women might wear their shorts above mid-thigh. (Hussies.) Footwear is universally flat. The most daring girls have, maybe, an inch of heel. Makeup is applied sparingly and is used in a low key manner.
So getting into Thailand and it seems that Jersey Shore is the template. Or maybe the before shots in Snog/Marry/Avoid. Shorter, tighter, higher, brighter. This is not in the seedy part of town, this is girls out shopping. My eyebrows kept bouncing up to my hairline. They really put it out there. I'm not going to say either is good or bad, but they are definitely and markedly different.
I got myself some work pants and a new camera in pretty short order. The modem took a bit of finding but I managed it with some haggling I was proud of to get a price I was very happy with. Then I found a couple of sports stores in the hope of some protein powder but came up blank at both. I couldn't help but check out the golf gear they had there. Even doing some 'maybe' shopping I found it pretty annoying as they had a very limited range and even then I had to get my calculator out on the prices. Hang on, I thought to myself, that doesn't seem very cheap. And it wasn't. Even their special price and some haggling and the best they could come to on Titleist AP1 was 40000B, which is nearly $1400. I jumped online to check my usual prices and even with shipping I could get a set here for under a grand. It was the same when I stumbled on an outlet store on the ring road on Sunday. Not just not cheap, but actually bad pricing. Worse than home pricing. I'll be sniffing around the pro shop at Ozgolf.net when I'm back home next month.
There is a whole level of restaurants in the Centre and one third of them are shabu shabu places, another third are Korean BBQ and the other third a mix of things. I chose the Sante Fe Cafe which offered steaks. I ordered three of them; On one plate. It came with five largish french fries. Almost as many steaks as chips - this is the mark of the fine way to present food.
For dinner, however, I went back to the hotel. On level 2 they have a Chinese restaurant that one of the guys from the office recommended to me as it is being run by someone who had won on Iron Chef at some time in the past. It was pricey and elegant. It. Was. Shit. The menu talked about some super special seafood fried rice which I ordered, and some wonton soup to go with it. The rice had 2 reasonable prawns in it and 2 overcooked mussels that I couldn't even chew. It also tasted like it had some uncooked flour in it or something. I had to take a sip of drink or soup after every mouthful to wash away the coating inside my mouth. 600B!!! For that!! I've had better fried rice out of a bain-marie in a food court. The soup was OK, but the whole experience was a major let down. Oh well.
The market that was deserted early in the day was now buzzing. I should have eaten there as there was all sorts of good looking things being sold, as well as a lot of badly spelled and grammatically horrific clothing. I very nearly bought a knock-off watch but I couldn't decide on a style. I'm sure I didn't even see half of it though. That market was huge.
I wandered home via the 'bad' part of town. I needed to at least see the "girls girls girls" bars from the outside and it only really took a glance to confirm that I did not want to be there. The ugliness is palpable. So I grabbed a few beers from a mini mart and fell asleep watching the golf, the olympics and the footy. Just like home, really.