Ignorance is bliss

Before living in Laos I had never owned a car. So I was more or less aware of the benefits of having one but at the same time blissfully ignorant about most hassles related to owning a car. My first six weeks as a car owner certainly qualify as a crash course into car ownership. Those of you who own cars may find the following stories petty, which they probably are but they have a tendency to become such with hindsight. In time they might even become amusing.

Getting a Lao licence. This was the easy part. I merely handed in my European driving licence along with 80,000 kip and a passport photo and in a matter of days I had a mint green licence in my hands. The only recognisable words on it are my name and it looks like anyone with access to a smudgy stamp and a laminator machine could make one, but it is a valid Lao driving licence.

Buying a car. Even this was relatively painless. Should possibly have done something differently here to avoid myself some headaches later on, but buying a second-hand car is always a gamble so I won’t beat myself up about it too much. Yes the previous owner agreed to change the windscreen wipers and clean the car inside out before handing it over and did neither, but both of these are manageable. I should have called him on it when I accepted the car keys. I wish he’d been honest about the CD player malfunctioning though as it’s turning downright impossible to get it fixed or replaced. I will try in Thailand once I get the permission to take my car across the border.

Sorting out the paperwork. This is the reason I’m currently not allowed to take my car over to Thailand. Transferring car ownership and registration to a new person is a serious mission in this country. Especially if you are a lucky development worker in a position not to pay tax on the vehicle. Required paperwork includes four documents from previous and new owner each (copies of passport, visa, residence permit and confirmation letter from employer), car papers (registration and a yellow book with technical details) and the sales documentation. I handed the entire set of documents for processing the day after I bought the car. The process should take about one month so after three or four weeks I enquired about the progress, only to find out that all the papers were still sitting on our secretaries’ desk. As per usual, it was the other person who was in charge of taking care of them. Ok, tomorrow. And tomorrow of course means next week. Next week came and there was a problem with the papers, the employer confirmation letter of the previous owner was missing from the documentation. The previous owner had by this time left the country weeks ago so it was not like we could call them and ask for a new document. Then there was an issue with my documents, as some ‘supporting documentation’ was missing. When both of these issues were resolved the pile of papers finally entered the process. In total the papers need to go through five different ministries and departments and from what I heard today they are at their third stop in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Once they clear all five windows a second process can be started to issue my car a pink book which allows me to drive it across the border to Thailand. I pray it will not take as long but in all likelihood it’s an equally tedious process. I’m keeping my fingers crossed for a smooth paper trail from now on.

Driving. This ought to be an easy part as well, after all I have been driving for almost a decade by now. But thanks to prevailing road conditions and the general chaos in traffic driving can be a tricky business here. The rainy season has created massive potholes around town, and not least so on my home street which has been turned into a one-way street for all practical purposes as vehicles operate in zigzag mode in an attempt to dodge the asphalt craters that appear to multiply overnight. The general chaos means that whatever you know of traffic rules is secondary to driving extremely alert. The fact is that most other people on the roads either do not know the rules or point-blank refuse to follow them. There is very little respect for red lights or lane markings and the right-of-way generally lies with the one in the bigger vehicle. The number of accidents correlates with the lack of order in traffic. Unfortunately it is quite normal to see broken glass on the streets and spray markings from when the police mark an accident site (often when the victims are still lying on the streets as items cannot be moved before the police have finished marking the site). Occasionally one also comes across pools of dried blood and fresh tree branches which have been laid on the street to warn other drivers of trouble ahead. Last weekend I witnessed two of these locations.

Car trouble. Buying an old car normally comes with a set of surprises and my little town car has been no exception. There was a morning when I couldn’t open the car with the remote on the key and ended up spending half the day getting a new battery. The new battery was not a perfect fit for its assigned little compartment so the guy who fixed it in place resorted to supporting it with an empty Milo drink carton. Hardly reassuring but I decided not to fight it, it will work until it decides not to. Then there was a lunchtime after which our secretary announced that she had noticed my car has a flat tyre. Great, how do you fix that in the office car park was the first thing that ran through my mind. Luckily a colleague of mine had a small pump in his trunk that powers itself from the lighter and I was able to drive home that day. There was also the afternoon when I locked the car with the keys still inside when visiting a friend’s house. I wish I could blame someone on that one but no, this one was all me. Lesson learned. My friend gave me a lift on her motorbike to pick up the spare key from my house and there was a happy ending to that day too.

I’m hoping the paperwork will be sorted soon and there are not too many surprises coming my way in the near future. It’s time to enjoy the benefits of having a car which after all are many. Every scorching hot afternoon that I get to enjoy air-con, every heavy monsoon shower that I get to keep dry and every late evening do that I don’t have to miss because I don’t feel safe on a bicycle on the dark streets.

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