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PAK OU CAVES BUDDHA RETIREMENT HOME

MEKONG RIVER

I walk to the Slowboat Landing, purchase a ticket for a ride up the Mekong River to the Pak Ou Caves, and check my watch: I’ve time to kill until our 8:30 departure so I grab a latte from the nearby Saffron Cafe. I realize drinking a diuretic before taking a two-hour boat ride up the river isn’t the brightest thing to do, but the alternative is suffering a caffeine headache.

Mekong River Longboat

Two Australian couples (unknown to each other, both in their early fifties, one with a son) are assigned to my boat. I’ve never met an Australian I didn’t like and this gregarious group is no exception. Yelling to be heard above the din of the motor, we talk the entire way to the caves: about where I should travel in Australia (Sydney, Tasmania, and Great Barrier Reef, they tell me), Americans’ xenophobia (it’s true, I confirm), “football”/soccer (I tune out), religion and pop culture.

“Do you like Friends?” one of the women asks me.

There can be a bit of lag before American pop culture reaches other parts of the world. I remember traveling to Spain in 1998 and answering questions about J.R. Ewing.

View from Mekong Longboat

PAK OU CAVES

The Pak Ou Caves, as I understand/misunderstand it, are where people discard their unwanted Buddha statues. I’ve never thought about it before, but I can see how disposing of The Enlightened One could pose a problem. You can’t just toss him into the trash with the coffee grounds. The caves, a sort of divine retirement home, offer a nice solution for discarding of a deity.

Although the Pak Ou Caves are interesting enough to justify the trip, I had expected a greater density of idols: only a few hundred Buddhas line the walls.

Pak Ou Caves

Mothers and their children hover along the paths between the caves, thrusting birds trapped in tiny cages at us. For a dollar donation we can save the bird.

Back on the boat, the six of us agree that although a buck is nothing, paying to free the birds (which are probably recaptured and caged again) only enables the bad behavior. Still… I started my voyage to the Pak Ou Caves happy; I finish it feeling a little down.

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NO SMILES AT THE BANGKOK AIRPORT

LAO AIRLINES JET

Nervous. I’m nervous.

We lift-up precisely at 8:00 (right on time), which has me arriving into the Bangkok airport (self-branded as The Airport of Smiles) at 9:40 according to my Lao Airlines itinerary. But it’s incorrect. I know from my outbound flight that the trip duration is two hours and no amount of my fidgeting, squeeming, swearing or sighing seems to be getting us there any more quickly.

BANGKOK AIRPORT

We land at the Bangkok airport. I have 40 minutes to ride a bus to the gate, pick-up Bagzillo, drop him off and make it to my departure gate before my flight to Denpasar-Bali departs.

I jump from the bus, run to Baggage, grab ‘Zillo and wait. And wait. And wait. I break from the queue for rechecking luggage, sprint to the Information Desk (dragging 40 pounds of necessities behind me) where an agent directs me to the Malaysia Airlines counter at least a football field’s length down the Bangkok airport terminal.

Winded and sweating, I stop just short of the Malaysia Airlines counter, nearly hurtling headfirst over it. Mustering-up my last ounce of energy, I toss my passport to the agent and blurt out my dilemma. The lady listens calmly, regards me stoically and flips through my passport pages, unfazed. I relax a little. It’s going to be ok.

The agent turns my passport over to her supervisor and they speak briefly. The supervisor sizes me up over the top of her glasses.

“You’re not going on this flight,” she says.

“I have to get on this flight!”

“You’re not going on this flight.” She’s enjoying this.

Fuck. Fuck!

I’m not smiling at the Bangkok airport.

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HELL IS THE U.S. EMBASSY IN BANGKOK

play:

THE BANGKOK AIRPORT

The issue, I learn, is that all but one of the remaining pages of my passport has been covered in stamps and visas. Rookie mistake! Two passport pages are required to enter Indonesia.

Passport with no pages

I flip through my passport, helpfully pointing-out to Agent Ratched all of the half-filled pages at the front of the booklet that they can use.

Entry denied. 

THE U.S. EMBASSY IN BANGKOK

I arrive at the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok drenched in my own sweat, having baked in the AC-free cab the long, traffic-addled ride from the airport.

The U.S. Embassy in Bangkok. There to aid Americans in distress. A trusted friend. A lighthouse of hope to guide me through my Thailand travails. So glad I’m here.

No one Is answering the gate phone. It’s so, so hot.

The guards laugh at my obvious frustration. Not that Thais are cruel people — they tend to be very sweet — they just don’t display their anger and impatience like us farangs. Their mirth frustrates me further, fueling their amusement. I ask them what’s the deal with the embassy, but they speak only Thai  — which makes sense, since I’m in Thailand — but c’mon it’s the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok. U.S.! 

I ring again, a man answers. Yay!

“This is Dave.”

“Hi Dave.”

“…”

“Are you there, Dave?”

“Yes.”

I explain the situation to Dave. He tells me that I should be glad that I’m not the poor schmuck with visa issues that they let onto the plane yesterday, who is now resting in a cell in Indonesia Passport Control. Dave explains that the embassy is closed for Christmas. But the country is Buddhist?…?

I ask Dave what time the embassy opens tomorrow.

It doesn’t. Boxing Day. Since when do we celebrate Boxing Day?

I ask Dave about the following day.

Weekend. Closed. Oh for fuck’s sake.

THE INDONESIAN EMBASSY IN BANGKOK

Dragging Bagzillo and my two carry-ons behind me down the torn-up sidewalks of this crowded, polluted, stinking town, there’s not an available cab in sight. I hail a tuk-tuk. It’s either that or spontaneously combusting, right now, right here on the corner.

“Indonesian Embassy? Indonesian Embassy? You know it? Embassy Indonesia?” I implore of the tuk tuk driver. It’s a long shot, but possibly, possibly the Indonesian Embassy could help me.

“Yes.”

“Really?”

“Yes.”

“Promise?” I hop on, he piles my crap behind me.

And….he has no clue where the Indonesian Embassy is located, but when has not knowing the location of a destination every stopped a Bangkok driver? We circle, stop, ask. Circle, stop, ask.

And we’re here.

The Indonesian Embassy is also closed in observation of Christmas. Since when do Muslims…? Why ask why?

I kick Bagzillo. Dumb bag, dumb!

AMERICAN CITIZEN SERVICES OF THE U.S. EMBASSY IN BANGKOK

Hours of Operation: Monday through Friday, 7:30 a.m. – 11:00 a.m.; 1:00 p.m. – 2:00 p.m. (I know Spanish bankers who work longer hours)

Address: U.S. Embassy Bangkok 95 Wireless Road Bangkok 10330

Contact: +66-02-205-4049 (T);  +66-02-205-4103 (F); Email: acsbkk@state.gov; @acsbkk

After Hours Emergencies: In the event of an emergency outside business hours, American citizens may dial (011)(66) 02-205-4000 and ask to speak to the duty officer.

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