There we were in Vientiane, Laos two days before Christmas with no passports, no money and no plan.
The goal of the trip was to apply for new work visas which can only be done at a Thai consulate outside of the country. The closest and most affordable place to do this is Vientiane, Laos and we had heard that this particular consulate had a one day turn around time. So we planned to take a bus from our home in Chiang Rai to Udon Thani, which is the closest Thai city to Vientiane, Laos. Then cross the border and apply Monday morning. Finally, we would pick up our passports on Tuesday afternoon and return home. If executed well, it was the perfect plan. Easy, right?
We took a small bus from Udon Thani to the Thai/Laos border at Nong Kai. It was a smooth ride and we got to the border in just over an hour.
In order to cross into Laos, you must apply for a Laos tourist visa on arrival. This means standing in line to get an application form, crouching down wherever you can find room to fill out the form, standing in another line to hand in the form and standing in a third line while they process your visa. After all this, you get to …you guessed it, stand in another line to cross into the country. This whole process took over an hour.
By now we were running much later than anticipated and we still had a 35 minute drive between us and the consulate. To our relief a taxi driver approached us and asked if we needed a ride to the Thai consulate. This is quite common as most people crossing the border are heading that way. He said he could take us for 400 baht (200/person). We accepted his offer on the condition that he could get us to the consulate by 11:30, which was when application submissions ended for the day. If we didn’t make it to the consulate and apply by 11:30, we would have to extend our trip by an entire day and would not return home until Christmas morning.
The consulate was chaotic – solicitors open your taxi’s door and try to convince you to let them handle your paperwork and others ask if you need passport photos taken or copies of your paperwork. We paid our taxi and pushed through the throng of people to made our way inside the consulate’s gates. There was a line of about 50 people waiting to receive a queue number and another 150 sitting in various spots on the consulate lawn. We promptly got into the queue line and continued the waiting game.
We had moved up considerably and I started to get our paperwork out of my backpack and ready to hand to the official at the front of the line. I reached for my purse to grab our passports, instead my hand felt my sweater – I patted around for the purse – then I patted around for my purse some more – there was no purse. I looked around franticly and exclaimed to Matt, “I don’t have my purse!” I dropped my backpack into his hands and sprinted towards the gate where our taxi had dropped us off. I desperately looked at each of the 15-or-so grey taxi vans clogging the road outside the gate. None of them were ours and more were constantly coming and going as I continued to look. There was no way our taxi was still around.
I made my way back to the line as my head swirled with the many (and all completely terrible) outcomes of what had just happened. I got back to Matt and we established that I hadn’t dropped it anywhere. I usually had it over my shoulder and under my backpack straps, but had certainly left it in the taxi. I still have no recollection of taking it off my shoulder in the van. Unfortunately, the purse contained: both passports, my phone and all our cash.
Matt went out to search for the taxi as well and told me to stay in line and try to at least get a queue number – might as well keep trying in case we found the purse in record time.
I went back outside the consulate and made my way to a small tent where a few taxi drivers were gathered. I explained our situation the best I could and fortunately the group understood Thai. Soon the drivers were on their cell phones asking other drivers if they’d recently driven two “fallangs” (white people) to the Thai Consulate for 400 baht. Unfortunately, this process did not produce the results I had hoped for.
I was nearing the front of the line and watched as each person handed the consulate official their paperwork and passport, which was then glanced over and they were handed a queue number. I got to the front of the line and let a family go in front of me. I worked up some courage and figured I’d just go for it. So I stepped up to the desk and handed over our (impressively thick) stack of paperwork – sans passports. The consulate official looked at the documents, reached for a ticket and scribbled down our number. I clutched the paper and the queue number. Success!
I found Matt among his new taxi driver friends. They kept asking us if we knew the drivers name, his license plate number, his ID number – anything that could help narrow down the search – we didn’t have a clue. All we knew was: it was a grey van, he was about 30, had slicked back hair and spoke pretty impressive English. We tried calling my phone, which was in my purse, but it was on silent and there was no answer.
Once our friends had exhausted their contacts, one of them suggested taking Matt back to the border where there was a book containing the photos and contact information of each registered taxi driver. If he could recognize our driver in the registration book, then they could contact him. This seemed like the best option as retrieving the bag had become our main priority. Rachel stayed at the consulate (under the taxi tent) and Matt rode with a driver back to the border.
I arrived back at the border and was taken to the area where all the taxi drivers congregated. One of the men, who seemed to be in charge of the taxi operations, handed me the book containing all the driver photos and I started looking at the sea of faces. Southeast Asia has this trend of airbrushing ID photos and the end result is a whiter, smoother, glowing version of the subject. Unfortunately, this makes it very difficult to tell the difference between people. I pointed out a few pictures that could have been our driver, but I wasn’t sure. Each potential driver was called, but we were coming up empty. Finally, I reached the last page of the book and we still had not located the driver.
As I stood there, more and more taxi drivers began to gather and ask me questions about the driver and his vehicle. We didn’t seem to be getting anywhere. At one point, while everyone was talking to each other trying to solve the mystery, I had a moment to look around and counted 40 taxi drivers in the crowd around me.
Eventually a lady in a shawl appeared within the group. I don’t remember seeing where she came from, but she was eating a bowl of soup and had become interested in the commotion. It turns out she spoke decent English began translating between the drivers and myself.
At one point, a man pointed to his shirt and asked if the driver was wearing a similar blue polo. I told my soup-eating translator friend, “No, he was wearing a black, fleece jacket.”
After hearing those words she perked up and said, “I think I remember you! You were standing in line with your wife and he came up to you and said ‘Go to consulate, 400 baht, 200 baht per person.’!”
I couldn’t believe my ears – that’s exactly what he said! I confirmed it with her, and she whipped out her phone and called him (yeah, she had his number). There’s a brief exchange and after she hangs up, she announces that he will be there in five minutes. I couldn’t believe it!
It was then established that our driver was an undocumented taxi driver. He had scalped us ahead of the area where the other drivers wait and managed to allude the group during our exit. Basically, we cheated the system without having any idea what was happening. Needless to say, the sizable rabble of drivers assisting me were not thrilled about this news.
Our mystery man arrived back at the border and the group of drivers swarmed his van – each of them full of righteous indignation and protectiveness for our lost bag. The man hopped out van and said, “I don’t know if there is anything back there… but you can check.” This made me nervous that he had found it, taken the cash then ditched the rest. He slid the door open and I looked in at the seat. There was the bag! It looked untouched and I opened it to see both passports.
Immediately, the rest of the taxi drivers were shouting for me to make sure everything was there. “Was the phone in there? How about your money? Count it! Make sure it’s all there!” I became concerned that if anything was out of order this poor guy’s van would have been tipped and he’d be dragged off by a mob of enraged taxi drivers. Everything seemed to be in order and I did my best to communicate to the crowd that it wasn’t this man’s fault that we forgot our bag.
My other taxi driver friend gave the guys back at the consulate a call to tell them and Rachel that we had found our passports. I then thanked the group for their help and we headed back to the consulate.
I had been sitting under the taxi tent contemplating how absolutely impossible finding these passports would be. I talked to God most of the time, knowing he was in full control and that he could help us find our passports. I had complete faith He was in control but at the same time, I was trying to find meaning in why He would let everything go so wrong! I knew he could have given my memory a jolt as we were exiting the van and I could have just not lost the purse in the first place. I knew he could have kept that taxi outside waiting, ensuring we find our passports before 11:30. But as I sat under the taxi tent watching the clock tick further and further past 11:30, I couldn’t see the purpose in all of this. I had ruined Christmas, God had let me ruin Christmas. Our passports were driving around Laos in the back of some van and I wasn’t sure if we’d even get them back. Even if we got them back, I didn’t see a possible scenario where our trip would continue as planned and get us home before Christmas.
My taxi-driver friend got a phone call from Matt’s taxi-driver friend informing us that they were on their way back to the consulate and had found the purse and passports. This was absolutely amazing news to me!
I was overjoyed to hear that they had found our passports – nothing else mattered to me in that moment! Christmas?! What’s Christmas!? All I know is we’re not undocumented Americans running around trying to get new passports in communist Laos anymore! After expressing my excitement, I looked at the taxi-man and said that I’d see him tomorrow when we could apply for our visas.
He looked at me funny and asked if I’d gotten a queue number. I was a little confused and said yes I had, but it didn’t matter as I’d watched the consulate turn people away at 11:32am. It was now almost 2:00pm, there was no way we could apply. “No,” he said. “If you have your ticket, you can apply anytime today – ticket by 11:30am – apply all day.” I didn’t believe him as I was certain something was getting lost in translation. I confirmed with him a few times and the other drivers piped up and said it was true. I pulled the queue number out of my pocket, thanking God that I hadn’t tossed it in frustration while sitting under this tent for 3 hours.
Matt arrived back and I told him the good news. Then the two of us strolled into the consulate only half believing we would walk out successful. The crowd of about 200 people had thinned to the single digits. There were a few people scattered about the lawn and seating areas. There were just 3 or 4 people standing up at the counter submitting their paperwork. We walked up to the line, half expecting some consulate guard to come and usher us away for being so ridiculously late, but no one did. In fact, as we stood in line I recognized the people just in front of us – it was the family I had let go before me in the ticket queue. It was as if we had lost no time at all. The entire thing felt like a dream.
We stepped up to the counter and handed in our paperwork. The consulate official highlighted a few things, asked some clarification questions and then told us it was all set – come back the next day for pickup at 1:30pm.
Together we turned and walked out of the consulate. Or maybe we floated out of the consulate, pinching each other to see if it was real. Our visas were going to be processed and ready as if nothing had gone wrong. We were going to make it home on time. Our passports had gone on a 3 hour adventure without us – they had been located and retrieved from an unregistered taxi drivers vehicle, and then we had still been able to apply that day and not delay our trip in the least bit. It was as if nothing had happened. We both just kept shaking our heads. (Rachel) I recounted my feelings of “Why God!” to Matt. This experience taught us both that in anyway He sees fit, God can and will demonstrate that He is in complete control and cares about us deeply. Even when we can’t see a way out or a feasible solution – there are no obstacles to Him. He can take the most unraveled, torn up, or shredded plans and weave them back together, leaving no trace of the chaos or destruction that we once thought was impossible to recover from. Oh, how He loves us.
We are finally back in Thailand after a crazy couple of months! As we were preparing to leave Chiang Rai, Thailand for a short visit to the US, we learned of some previously unforeseen difficulties in obtaining the necessary paperwork to remain in the country for a second year. We continued on as planned and left at the beginning of July. Since then we have been on an epic journey around the world. To be honest – we are both exhausted, but we have greatly enjoyed the excitement. We are so grateful for the amazing times that we were able to share with friends and family.
Our trip started with a four day visit to Paris, where we had a chance to unwind a little before arriving in the United States. From there, we flew into Boston Logan airport where both the Ladew and Litzinger families were waiting to greet us. After spending one day in New England, we travelled on to Pennsylvania to visit with family. Then we set out on a one week tour through Indiana and Michigan, hitting several important stops along the way. After that, it was on to Word of Life Family Campground in Schroon Lake, NY where again both of our families met up for a relaxing week in the Adirondacks. Finally, we travelled on to New Hampshire where we spent time with family and friends. The craziest part is, we did all that in 7 weeks!
Now we are back in Thailand but the journey isn’t over yet. In a few weeks we are traveling to Cambodia to take care of some paperwork for our visas. Once the visas come through we can apply for a work permit and based on its outcome, we will have a better idea of how long we can stay here in Thailand.
The past few months have been filled with a lot of uncertainty concerning our future here but we are confident that God will reveal the next steps to us in His timing. Until then, we would greatly appreciate your prayers as we navigate the legal requirements to stay in Thailand for the coming year.