I’d heard a lot of stories about the Huay Xai border, which is the furthest northern crossing between Laos and Thailand. I had done it the opposite way, from Thailand to Laos, a few years ago. I had done it on foot and it was a simple matter of getting stamped out of Thailand, catching a small canoe ferry to the other side, and getting your Laos visa. Back then I caught the slow boat for a two day journey down the Mekong to Luang Prabang. Since I passed through, they have built a friendship bridge over the river, which is the fourth one linking Thailand and Laos.
I had heard from some other riders that the bridge can be a problem and very expensive because they don’t allow motorcycles to drive over. Some said to just go for it, and some recommended going to a different border. It’s tough to find any good info on the internet about riding over it and what you find is different accounts of how it would go down. So without really knowing what lay ahead, I rocked up to the border full of confidence and strolled over to immigration.
After stamping me out they informed me I needed to pay 400 baht (13 bucks) to cross the bridge, which would entail me following the police car over to the other side. I had heard stories of them loading bikes into trucks or boats, but all they wanted was to guide me for a fee. I asked if there was a receipt, but they explained it was for them. I appreciated their honesty. These situations always happen at borders and I’m used to it. It’s not about the money (maybe a little bit), but the principle that they’re trying to scam me, and I play right back into their game. I always keep a really large bill of foreign currency with me, which is my tool. An Australian hundred dollar bill works great since 99% of the time they have no idea what it is and what it’s worth. In my pocket I’ll put this bill along with a couple left over tiny notes from whatever country I’m leaving worth less than fifty cents. When they start asking for their fees, I pull out what I have and seem concerned and show them it’s all I have. At the immigration desk I realized that one of the guys was very familiar and possibly a ghost from my past.
I’ll never forget the immigration officer who came in to interrogate me at the Phonsavan police station. He had a uniform like the rest, but a big bright aqua blue thick rope wrapped around his shoulder and under the armpit. I had asked him what it was and he told me it was for immigration police, and that’s what he was. I’ll also never forget his face. The tight buzz cut with pointed sideburns and shaved way too high around the ears, his skinny little pencil neck, and eyes that flashed between sincere concern to someone capable of anything. He tried intimidating and getting into me with those eyes, but I can give it right back. I was certain that this was the same young man. He had told me he worked at a border. He completely denied it, but seemed to be hiding something. I asked about twin brothers or family, because if it wasn’t him he had an evil twin brother. I could detect some flicker of recognition coming from him, like he wanted to just admit that he knew me and share a handshake, but that never happened. They talked with each other casually for five to ten minutes and then he came up to me and said’ “It’s your lucky day you go for free, just follow the car of Chinese tourists across”. I don’t know if it was my no money scam, the guy doing me a favor after all the grief I was put through in Phonsavan, a combination of both, or they just wanted to get rid of me. Next I had to clear my motorcycle out of customs, which just took a moment. This officer at first demanded 150 baht, but I told him no and this did the trick. He handed the papers back with no argument, no eye contact, and the look of a guilty conscience. After telling me I didn’t have to pay, the immigration officers all became really nice, and even wrote a nice farewell message on my motorcycle, which I think is something good since there are two peace signs with it.
They really wanted a gift from Australia, and if I had anything I would have given it to them. We agreed on next time. After a warm goodbye, I followed the white car with four Chinese tourists through the border. Before the bridge there’s a gate where they had to pay a few dollar toll fee to drive over it. Motorcycles weren’t on the price board so I just followed them on through, and it seemed like this was perfectly ok.
So after all the horror stories and uncertainty of riding my motorcycle over this friendship bridge, I made it over completely free. Didn’t cost a penny. This felt even better the next day when I bumped into a German rider I had met in Laos. They had charged him 1,200 baht ($40) to follow the police car over the bridge. He was an older guy so I’m not sure if maybe they thought he had more money or something. Why would they ask for so much less from me. I’m wondering if I look a little rough and haggard, and they didn’t want to bankrupt my poor hippy ass. Whatever works. The reason that motorcycles aren’t allowed over is completely unknown to me, and if it’s actually even a thing, or if the police just use it as a tool to extort money out of people. The bridge is massive and brand new, and could handle being entirely covered in motorcycles. As I rode across, the sun disappeared into the horizon in front of me leaving an orange sky with pink streaks strewn in random directions. Returning to Thailand, you have to switch back to driving on the left hand side of the road. They do it in a cool way after you come over the bridge. The road weaves in a figure eight and before you know it your driving on the left side. The Thai side was fairly easy, except for a lot of confusion and an old man getting furiously mad at me.
Coming in from Malaysia was ten times easier, required far less paperwork, and was free. Try telling any of this to them and they will call you a liar. Coming in from Malaysia they never wanted to see any insurance, but at this border they require it. I was able to use my Australian insurance and convince them it was international. For the paperwork, they wanted three copies of my passport, registration, and insurance. One set for three different people. All I needed was two copies of the insurance because I had the rest, but the man at the booth made a bunch of copies of everything. I tried explaining this to him and he became irate. He started yelling things at me in Thai and showing me all the copies. It was impossible and communication was broken.
I tried to reason with him as peacefully and calmly as possible and told him that I would just pay for them, but he was in another world of rage at this point and demanded I leave. I was very proud of myself for keeping it together and just calmly telling him to settle down. I’ve had similar experiences in my life where someone was yelling at me in front of other people and I reacted with the same fire right back at them and chewed their head off. It’s a lot easier to not feed into their crap and move on. No need to give yourself a heart attack because someone else is having a bad day or life. Eventually one of the nice officers reasoned with him and I paid a whole sixty cents for all the copies. So many ridiculous situations that come from miscommunication. To get my motorcycle into Thailand at the Malaysian border it was completely free, but at this border they charge 200 baht (six bucks). They were charging everyone, giving receipts, and it seemed official. I asked them about it, and they very authoritatively explained that it’s a law in Thailand at every border. I tried a couple times to explain to them that I didn’t have to from Malaysia, but they treated me like a little kid who was trying to convince an adult of something silly and patronizingly smiled at me. I could care less at this point and the only thing on my mind was finding a bunch of fresh Thai food. It felt so good to be back in Thailand. The vibe and atmosphere is completely different and just feels more alive to me. You would never see one of these in Laos.
Not only did the people warm up on the other side of the river, but I swear it was much warmer at night.The cold nights of northern Laos were gone. I camped on the platform where the boats come and go along the Mekong River in Chiang Khong. After a slow sunset the moon rose up over Laos and lit the river and my tent with a soft glow.