Vive le Visa. The run from Bangkok, Thailand to Vientiane, Laos


1. Two feet in Laos. Leaving Thailand immigration control.

I proof read my new visa to ensure I’d got what I came for – a three-month extension allowing me to remain in Thailand. I was one of many ‘farangs‘ (westerners) who had made their way to Laos to complete the proverbial’ visa run’. Using my trip as an example I’ll explain some of the finer points.

The term originated among expatriates living in Thailand. A visa run can be as quick as a one-day trip to a neighbouring country and re-entering at one of the many border crossings around the land. This is typically done on or before the day of expiration of one’s visa. I decided to make a short holiday of my trip and timed my departure from Thailand so I would arrive in Laos the day my existing visa expired. You may not want to live quite so close to the edge.

Visa runs are commonly undertaken by tourists, travellers and NGOs working in Thailand at approximately 10,000 non-governmental organisations every 60 or 90 days (dependng on visa class).

Exiting the hosting country and instantly returning “resets the clock” on a pre-determined visa length to allow the visitor to extend their stay in the hosting country. Some nations have different laws controlling one’s ability to perform consecutive visa runs, such as shortening the length of the subsequent visa, or limiting how many times within a given number of months one can perform a visa run.

2. Red Friendship Bridge entry stamp (left) and other assorted movements.

My passport is testament to eight years of travel, cluttered with all sorts of heavily inked and multi-shaped entry and exit stamps. I’m down to three usable blank pages.

The ‘run’.
After my first 60 days were close to expiration, I booked a return overnight bus to Vientiane in Laos, a longer, less comfortable option than flying, but it saves those precious Thai baht and gives a sense of life on the road, hassle and hinderance included. Vientiane is a capital city close to the Thai border and one of the easiest overland options.

3. Bangkok to the Thai border town of Nong Khai. Vientiane a further 20 mins bus ride. © Google Maps

As I board the bus I scan the fellow passengers, whose behaviour to some extent, determines the quality of the ride ahead. It’s the same on any mode of transport. I can quite happily travel without a movie to pass the time. On a bus you’re at the mercy of the driver and as it turned out, those passengers.

The three young males travelling at the back of the bus, casually pass a ‘Jackass‘ DVD to the driver, not bothering to ask the rest of us if we’d mind terribly if our peace is shattered. Two hours of debauched chaos later, I manage to find a peaceful sleeping position unhindered by vacant seats in front of me. I’ve not been so lucky on previous excursions. I’ve had monks lean back and restrict my leg movement to involuntary twitches. My tolerance was severely tested at times.

The remainder of the ride passed quietly in relative comfort after sleeping on the bus floor on a blanket to extend my legs fully. This worked for a hour or so before I crept back into my chair and resumed the foetal position.

Our slumber carried us through til dawn. Eyes still closed I registered the lowering of engine revs, signalling an almost certain stop. We had arrived at a restaurant in the border town of Nong Khai in Isan province in north-eastern Thailand. That’s the worst part over.

It was a grisly, grey morning. Here, we filled in our Laos visa applications over breakfast. Unfortunately, my beautifully handwritten form was discarded as the driver requested we use an official half-size Lao Government version, now damp from the air of the Mekong River flowing threateningly past the restaurant that marked the border between Thailand and Laos.

The Nong Khai border crosses the Thai-Lao friendship bridge over the Mekong River, 20 km from Vientiane where the bus drops us at the first business of the day, the Thai border control. Exiting Thailand was straightforward – one customs official quickly thumbed through my well-travelled passport, eventually found and tore out the departure card and stamped my freedom.

Walking a further 100 metres through no-mans land, I pushed my Laos visa application, passport and fee of US$35 in cash through a small window to the customs official. This time it’s only a matter of minutes before my Australian passport is waved in the next window and handed back to me and its back on the bus to Vientiane for the weekend.

Business done, we relax and sip Lao coffee in the Vista cafe in the backpacker centre of town, near Nam Phu fountain. The coffee here beats anything I’ve tried before. Arriving in Vientiane after Bangkok, the pace of life (this was a Friday) is most welcome. Considering the town has suffered successive Vietnamese, Burmese, Siamese, Khmer and French conquerors, Vientiane hasn’t had much opportunity for self-aggrandisement.

It became a French protectorate in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and was founded as the administrative capital and is now the economic centre of Laos. The French also left their baguettes behind which complement the coffee to perfection. 

Vientiane is ideal for these short trips. On the plus side you can visit Wat Sisaket (below), Wat That Luang and the Buddha Park, feast everywhere on the Lao ‘ping’ or bbq and make loop walks photographing the earthen yellow walls of the french architecture that greatly enhances Vientiane. I was lucky enough to overnight in one these heritage listed buildings sheltering a well-established garden including banana trees and frangipani (plumeria lubra – also the national flower of Laos) attracting the resident butterflies.

4. Butterfly from Vientiane garden.

Image specs 3: Olympus E-3, f11, 1/200, ISO 500, 50 (100mm), Zuiko 50mm f2.0 Macro, white balance auto’, vivid mode, hand-held, curves.

5. Butterfly from Vientiane garden.

Image specs 4: Olympus E-3, f11, 1/250, ISO 640, 50 (100mm), Zuiko 50mm f2.0 Macro, white balance auto’, vivid mode, hand-held, curves.

Sadly, the new paved public space alongside the Mekong, funded by the Korean Government, has removed the temporary riverside food stalls I could enjoy on my visit here last year as we watched the sun set. Now, teenagers race their mopeds along the adjacent road, soccer games and remote control aircraft enthusiasts replacing them. Still, first time visitors will find that the setting sun and distant mountains will more than compensate.

6. Wat Sisaket, Vientiane, Laos

Image specs 5: Olympus E-3, f4, 1/40, ISO 250, 7 (14mm), Zuiko Digital 7-14mm f4.0 Ultra-wide Zoom, white balance auto’, vivid mode, hand-held, curves.

Sunday’s visit to Wat That Luang was memorable as much for the searing heat as the glistening golden stupa rising up in the distance.

Monday’s visa pick up from the Thai embassy was quick and painless due to the simple fact I was the first in line and had the thrill of walking out of the embassy first too, the ink hardly dry on my new visa.

Pre-trip Checklist and Tips
1. Get new passport size photos x 4: THB100 (30c). For guys, maybe wear a collared shirt, not something out of ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’. Shave? Looking good may just save some awkward questions.
2. Fill out tourist visa application forms for Thailand and Laos clearly and read three times to check you’ve not missed anything.
3. Sign and physically write the date on the same day you are heading to the Thai embassy (I don’t carry liquid paper with me).
4. Get some mixed denominations of foreign currency: US Dollars and Lao Kip (always cheaper to pay in kip).
5. Pack as little as possible. Most of my luggage is camera equipment. A body, two lenses and a lightweight tripod.
6. Choose your day of arrival into the new country carefully. If you arrive on a Thursday you are able to pick up your new visa on the following day. I arrived on a Friday, submitted my Thai visa application and picked my new one on the following Monday morning. The difference between next-day visa or waiting over the weekend is being able to avoid the huge queue of ‘farang‘ waiting impatiently for their magic visa. I recommend the Friday arrival in Vientiane so you can sight-see in Vientiane and relax into the Monday, crowd free. If you want to apply for your visa the day you arrive, check you don’t coincide with a public holiday.
7. Travelling by bus? Bring a head pillow and stay up late so you’re ‘out of it’ on the bus. Before you know it you’ll be at your destination.

7. Monk alongside Mekong River, Vientiane, Laos

GENERAL INFO 

(II) Border Crossings

Thailand has two types of border crossings — international and local. As you may suspect, international crossings are generally open to all foreign nationalities who are in possession of a valid passport and visa, while local crossings are open only to locals (on each side of the border) who are able to cross back and forth using some form of border pass. The international crossings are the only ones covered in this section.

Thailand has over twenty international overland border crossings. These allow overland travel to Malaysia (via seven crossings), Burma (three crossing, day trips only), Laos (via six crossings) and Cambodia (six crossings). You can also arrive by air at a number of international airports, including Bangkok, Phuket, Ko Samui, Chiang Mai and Hat Yai.

Popular crossings
The most popular overland border crossing to/from Malaysia are the Padang Besar and Sadao crossings. To Cambodia, Aranyprathet Poipet is the most popular, but pleasant place. To Laos the most popular crossing is the Nong Khai/Vientiane and Chiang Khong/Huay Xai border crossings.

Visa info:
Australians arriving in Thailand are granted a free 30-day visa at the customs desk, negating the need to apply for one from home, as normally recommended by the Australian Embassies. However , if you’re planning a longer stay, apply from home and make use of the free multiple entry (double entry) visa granted by the Royal Thai Consulate General in Sydney, with consulates in Adelaide, Brisbane and Perth. This permits two stays of 60 days but you must leave the country after the first 60 days have expired, get an exit stamp in your passport as you leave and re-enter on your second permissible entry stamp.

(III) Your best choice is to obtain a multiple entry non-immigrant visa (details below), valid for 12 months. With this visa type you will need to exit and enter Thailand at least every 90 days to get a new entry stamp allowing you to stay a further 90 days .

(V) One Year Multiple Entry Visa to Thailand
Some nationalities are able to obtain a long-term visa to Thailand for the purpose of business and travel. The visa can be obtained from designated Thai embassies and consulates at the applicant’s home country through an invitation from a Thai company.

Who qualifies?
Nationalities and permanent residents of the below countries are eligible for this visa:

  1. Australia
  2. Canada
  3. Ireland
  4. EU countries and territories
  5. United Kingdom
  6. United States

Specifications of the One Year Visa

  1. It is valid for one year and it’s a multiple entry visa
  2. It is a Non-Immigrant Business Visa
  3. It requires going to the nearest border every 90 days to avail the stamp
  4. It can be extended for 3 months on or before its expiration
  5. It can be applied for by mail or in person

Requirements

  1. Passport with a validity of not less than a year
  2. Invitation and Supporting documents from Thai company
  3. Consular fee

Application Process
The inviting Thai company will provide the applicant the necessary documents for the visa application. The visa can be sent to the Thai embassy or consulate by mail or it can also be lodged in person. You can settle the consular fees in many ways i.e. money order, credit card payment, cashiers cheque etc. The visa processing time usually takes 2 business days.

© Warren Field 2011

Sources:
I. http://www.urbandictionary.com
II.www. travelfish.org
III. Royal Thai Consulate, Sydney: http://www.thaiconsulatesydney.org
IV. NGO’s in the GMS by Gunilla Riskas. Country Report Thailand.
V. www.siam-visas.com

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