Monday, January 25, 2010
A Visa Run To Laos
Step-by-Step Instructions for Those of Us Who Find Border Crossings Make Us Neurotic Wrecks
Kip, the Laotian Wonder Dog, photo by Jana Haentjes
30 tips, 30 hours, three currencies and an excellent meal.
What you'll need: a passport, a pen, a notebook, an overnight bag, a laptop, (not necessary, but there's a bit of wifi to be had) a couple thousand baht, (depending on your eating, shopping and party needs,) and a place to crash because you will spend the night in Vientiane whether you want to or not.
Yeah, it was time again, time for another Visa Run. So I made one to Vientiane, Laos, without a doubt one of the more pleasant capital cities in southeast Asia.
But that wasn't why I made the trip to that particular place. Rumor had it across Thailand that Vientiane was the place to obtain a double-entry visa. A double-entry means 90 days times two - for a total of 180 days to hang out in Thailand. For more information on what that means, visit Thaivisa.com.
Caveat: Lots of great info in the forums on ThaiVisa.com - however, posting can be a bit of a bear. People are not terribly kind there. Post delicately.
Here are the basics of making said Visa Run:
1) Get your ass to Nong Khai. There's a night-train from Bangkok that costs less than 600 baht.
2) If you're smart, you'll get a tuk-tuk from the train station to Mut Mee Guest House and hang out for a day or two. Even if they don't have rooms, there are CHEAP guest houses nearby. Try 150 baht a night for a fan and hot water bungalow, which is super-cheap if you're coming from the south. Nong Khai is a pleasant little "proper Thai" border town (meaning its cheap and it don't really cater to farang.) There's a famous Buddhist-Hindu sculpture garden there that you can ride a bike to and you'll find out all about it if you go there. If you want tubing or discos, don't bother with Nong Khai.
3) The Visa Run itself is appromixately a 30 hour process. You need: a small bag with a change of clothes, toiletries, a pen, a notebook, $36 in US cash (available at Mut Mee or any exchange place) two passport photos and enough dough to drink, eat and crash in Ventiane. (budgets will vary, I will reveal mine along the way.)
4) Get a tuk-tuk to Friendship Bridge. Just say it to the tuk-tuk driver. "Friendship Bridge." He knows what you want and where you want to go and he'll take you there. From Mut Mee, it cost 50 baht (and it's a long ass drive, in all honesty.) It may be less from the train station...get off the tuk-tuk, walk past the uniformed Thai Immigration guy and get in line, but don't forget....
5) Inside your passport is a Thai DEPARTURE CARD. Fill it out before you get in line, perhaps in the slumber-land of the Mut Mee or perhaps in haste on the bus on the way over. (This is where the pen comes in handy, but it will come in handy later, so bring three of them, since others will no doubt have forgotten to bring one, and its fun to share.)
6) At Thai Immigration, stand in line. Prepare to pay 500 baht for each day of Overstay. (ps: Overstay is name of a super-cool guest house in Bangkok that you should stay at if Burroughs and P'Orridge flip your wig. Otherwise...) (They'll make you pay it, up to 20,000 baht ($600) and they might arrest you if you've really OVERSTAYED. So don't. Get to a border before Overstay.
7) Once you've cleared Thai Immigration, it's time to cross Friendship Bridge. 15 baht will get you a ticket on a bus (walking across is not an option, so just pay and get on the bus) that will take you across the bridge. A hush descends all over the world when you enter Laos. It's a new country. A new language, though the food is similar - but better. Eat the laab. It kicks ass, but that comes later...
8) Get off the bus before it stops and RUSH to Window #2 and get an application. There will be 10,000 farangs who think, (like you) that hanging out in southeast Asia is better than being in the West. They are both comrades and competitors. You are aiming for the same goal - a visa that will allow you to keep kicking around Thailand.
9) Fill out the application AS YOU STAND IN LINE AT WINDOW #1. Use your passsport as backing to write that app. Just fill it in, whatever you don't know, leave blank. This is, as are many things in SE Asia, a total shill. They just want your $35 and some kind of effort on your part to show that you want to enter their country. It's $36 if you need photos, so dress neatly - a torn t-shirt and a ratty pair of shorts is not the best way to ask for entry to another country, but they'll probably let you in anyway - after a bit of a WAIT. They know you want to get the damn visa in time to GET TO THE THAI EMBASSY BY NOON, but they'll torture you anyway. Meditate on the pain of their existence and remain calm.
10) Wait like a nervous teenager waiting for concert tickets at Window #3. Efficiency is not the Laotian aim - they have business to do, and it will take at least an hour to get your passport back with your new Laos visa. Talk to the other drop-outs and learn their cover stories - you will see them again in 90 or 180 days somewhere else, and they might have valuable travel information - this is where the notebook comes in handy.
11) Fuck the local bus (number 14) - I would presume its cheap, but it probably takes forever. Bargain for a tuk-tuk - I arranged for the travel of two - myself and an elderly gent from Denmark - for 150 baht from the border to the Embassy - the ride was so freakin' long and so much like a car chase that I gave the guy 200 baht for effort. A 50 baht tip may be too rich for your blood, but remember, these people live on dirt when you're not around.
12) Important points: Get to the Embassy before noon or they'll shut the gates and tell you to come back tomorrow, meaning an extra day in Laos, which really is lovely, but frankly, you're on business.
13) Arrive at the Embassy - the ABSOLUTE FIRST THING YOU DO is GET A FREAKIN' NUMBER. Walk up to the main window and there's a door on your left. Knock gently and someone will open the door and hand you a number. If you've forgot your passport photos, you can buy them across the street for 120 baht for eight, (you only need two, keep the other for later runs or give to people you like) a photocopy of your passport is available for 15 baht upstairs at the Embassy, but again, you could do this in advance, but you might not bother. They take your picture, print the photos, cut them up and glue two to the application for you and give you the rest to take home. Just beneath the photos is a slot for entering your request of 2 entries. Writea BIG 2 and pray for rain and that double-entry visa, because you don't want to do this again for at least six months.
14) My number was 486 - 4+8=12+6=18. 1+8 =9. I was very excited because 9 is the luckiest number in Thai numerological and lottery systems. (it has to do with the sum of the number 108, which is a sacred number in Buddhist and Hindu systems.) Sit and wait for your number to be called. You can smoke in the corner of the Embassy grounds. There are seats under shade but there's also a lovely patch of grass to sit on. Wait. Smoke. Pray. Meditate. Wonder what you'll do next if they deny your visa app, (people do a lot of this in Laos - some more than others, certainly.)
15) When your number is called, stand in line (they call lots of numbers at once) and when you reach the front, hand in the application. There is no fee for a Thai tourist visa until March, 2010, but there's a rumor that will be extended. There are also rumors that they will eliminate the double-entry visa entirely or that farangs will be thrown out of the country. Ignore all these rumors and listen to the last person who did it him/herself - or head to ThaiVisa.com if you really want to see all of them. They wil give you a receipt consisting of a piece of wax paper with a number written on it. Fold it up carefully and stick it somewhere in your wallet. DO NOT LOSE IT. I didn't meet anyone who did, but I was very careful with mine.
16) FREEDOM! Until 1pm the following day, you are a tourist in Laos. Welcome to this fine country. Ventiane is small, but here's the route we took:
17) In more or less the center of town, there's a fountain. Laos word for fountain is "Namphu." Bargain for a tuk-tuk there - ours was 100 baht for three people and an absurd amount of luggage. (some people carry their whole lives on a visa run - find a place to stash the majority of your crap before you cross the border and travel light, IMHO.) Guest houses can be found all over the place. We stayed at a place called Phone Paseuth for $21 US a night for three and got a big bed (for the two women I was with) and a small one for me. There was a tv we never turned on, so perhaps it worked. Next time, I might ask for a tuk-tuk to the Orchid Guest House - it's right on the river and it was about the same price. Ultimately, you don't care - you want a place to stash your stuff & lay your head. This isn't an extended holiday.
18) Ventiane highlights:
* Around the fountain is the famous Scandinavian Bakery. They serve smela, which I must be spelling incorrectly but it was described as a pastry stuffed with marzipan with whipped cream on top and a "hat" of more pastry. Sadly, they've only got it on Saturdays, so I didn't have one. They have wifi for 6000 kip per hour (less than a dollar.) You pay in advance and they hand you a card with login and password. Coffee includes a REFILL, (otherwise totally unheard of in SE Asia.)
* Riverside: Go there. Proper restaurants along the street-side - street stall restaurants by the river. opt for the latter for some of the best damn laab, som tam, morning glory, noodles and anything else Laos people eat. We went to the one across from the second riverside Wat, (there are two and they sort of mark the beginning and end of the main strip.) A ladyboy served us Beer Lao (the best lager in SE Asia without a doubt - Thai beers are mostly horrific) and we ate like pigs for less than 600 baht.
* The Wats. Pretty. If you've been to Chiang Mai, you've seen them already, but go have a contemplative moment anyway - you've crossed a border after all. Give yourself a moment to collect yourself.
* The Market - happens as the sun goes down and until around ten o'clock. Chock-a-block handmade goods, mostly textiles, dolls, bags, etc. The usual. I bought two beautiful handbags (one blue for a friend, one hot pink for myself) for around 200 baht (50,000 kip, to be precise.) A cool t-shirt with the Laos alphabet for 40,000 kip. A stuffed dog for a new friend (whom we've named Kip in honor of the Laos currency) for around 30,000 kip, I think.
* Ventiane does party, but we never found it - there's a rooftop bar somewhere and we got into an absurd tuk-tuk rally with about 25 Westerners and three tuk-tuks looking for it. It was the most fun I had all night (other than dinner, which was really stellar. Laab Moo is wondrous in Laos. Kow Niou (sticky rice) is perfect. The som tam was a little off - too sour for my taste, but the Morning Glory was the best I've had ever.
19) Day Two: Get up and go have coffee and check your email (if you brought a computer) at the Scandinavian Bakery.
20) Loll around until noon. Yes, there will be more lines, but you'll stand in the sun regardless, so why rush?
21) Bargain for a tuk-tuk back to the Thai Embassy. Three for 150 this time. Your mileage may vary.
22) Stand in line to the right of the entrance. Get a water from the street stall and wait. They open the doors at 1pm and you enter the Embassy in single file.
23) You'd think it would be an Orwellian nightmare - men in camo with submachine guns - but it's just like queueing up at the bank. There's an INCREDIBLE picture of the King and Queen behind the counter, with an ornate silver frame featuring an image of Garuda. Kicks ass, this portrait. Look for it. I want it for my bungalow. ;-)
24) Did you remember your receipt? The one you got when you turned in your passport yesterday. DO NOT LOSE IT. Got it? Right. Hand it over to the persons behind the counter and glance at the hundreds of passports from dozens of nations arranged on the counter. Yours is in their somewhere.
25) Get the passport - and open it up. It's kinda like Xmas and a trip to the dentist - you just don't know if it will be happiness or pain. MINE WAS DOUBLE-ENTRY! I wanted to scream with joy, but I just smiled brightly and we all left the Embassy.
26) Out front, bargain for a tuk-tuk to Friendship Bridge. Again, inside your passport now is a DEPARTURE CARD from Laos. Fill it in before you arrive at Friendship Bridge. 150 baht for three again, I think.
27) Laos Immigration is, again, slow. Slow to enter, slow to go. More torture than coming in because you've got what you want and you just want out. Practice patience and breathing slowly. Don't feel grumpy. It's really almost done. When you reach the front of the line, hand in your passport and Departure Card. Get them back and walk away. Congratulations! You've left Laos. Now - you must enter Thailand. Again.
28) Pick up the shuttle bus over the bridge - 15 baht for a ticket - or 4000 kip. Change your money before you get on the bus. Kip is lovely, but useless in Thailand. (Note: Laos will take any currency - kip, baht or dollars. Probably Euros as well, I didn't have any.)
29) By now you're really knackered, honestly, and it's hard not to be grumpy. Cheer up. Your almost there. Step off the bus before it stops and race to Window #2 and get an Arrival Card. Fill it out while waiting in line at Window #1. Hand it in, get it stamped and bingo! YOU ARE IN THAILAND.
30) Bargain for a tuk-tuk back to the Mut-Mee. 40 baht each for three. Wait patiently as the driver hustles for other passengers. Hold your breath while the tuk-tuk stops for a dog who is napping in the street. Arrive home, step out, grab your bags, pay the man. Tip him. You are done.
Posted by by gregoryp(tm) aka Gregory Pleshaw at 9:50 AM