2010 was the last time I went, so it’s been awhile. But because I changed schools, I had to go back again. Remember anytime you change your visa, Thailand requires you to leave the country. And with the latest government, a lot of new rules, crackdowns and regulations have been implemented, much to the “delight” of travelers and expats.
But let’s focus on the visa run, shall we? First of all, I flew. I don’t have the gumption to throw all my money away, so I didn’t fly into Laos, as it is incredibly expensive. Instead, I flew into Udon Thani which is about an hour away from Nong Khai and the Friendship Bridge.
When I flew, Nok Air was the best option, so I knew I would have to make the border crossing at night. After you land in Udon, there is a “Limousine service” sign to the right of the exit doors. Buy your ticket to Nong Khai here. There are mini-vans for 150 baht that take you directly to the Friendship Bridge (Laos-Thailand border). Brilliant.
I travelled on a Sunday, after a long holiday weekend, so traffic was horrible. But the nice young man who helped me said, “It’s always like this on Sundays.” And since he’s lived in Laos for 10 years, I took his word for it. He also said not to pay anything more than 200 baht to get into town. The van driver dropped us off as close as he could and we walked to the Immigration checkpoint, no problem, bypassing tons of cars.
The border is open until 10pm, but you will have to pay an additional $1 “overtime fee” once you are in Laos to receive your Laos tourist visa. I paid in baht and received my change in baht. I read on Thai visa that a British couple paid in USD and had to pay more anyway. Unfortunately, all of us that do this crossing are at the whim of whoever is working.
Normally, I stay in Vientiane proper, but this time I decided to find a hotel close to the Embassy. For 2 nights I stayed at Douang Pra Seuth Hotel which is opposite and just slightly down the road from the Thai Embassy. The room was about 900 baht and then the next night I was forced to upgrade to the VIP room for 1200 baht.
If you are new to SE Asia, these rooms will seem sub-standard, but since I’ve lived here awhile, they were fine. Hot showers, clean beds, and a good breakfast were included, too. And by good, I mean, there were options like fresh fruit, baguettes, omelets and noodle soup made to order, but I chose the rice porridge which was surprisingly tasty. There were also other restaurant options nearby.
Another selling point for me was the three computers with Internet in the lobby, a free shuttle van into the city and the location to the Embassy which turned out to be a life-saver.
From my hotel window, I could see the cue forming as early as 6.30 Monday morning. I ended up joining the line at 7.30. I couldn’t bring myself to wait any earlier, I mean, either way, you have to wait and it was already hot, so there was no temperature advantage. When I finally got to the end of the cue in the Embassy, a woman briefly looked at my paperwork and handed me a handwritten number on recycled paper. I was 230. There were over 600 that day. And despite the office hours saying 8.30-11.30, the Embassy didn’t stop receiving passports until 3pm.
I had to return to the cue twice that day because they needed a “telex” or transaction number from my school. So, this is the main reason why I love the hotel that I stayed at. I had no signal at the Embassy or the hotel, but I was able to call long-distance to Thailand using the front desk phone, and get the information I needed. Also, they had a fax machine.
After they finally accepted my paperwork, I went to the air-con room and waited for them to call my number again, so I could pay for my visa. There is now an additional 10 baht processing fee. (Of course, there is.)
The following day, I waited until 1.30 to pick up my passport and visa, but the doors actually opened at 1pm, unlike the day before where the doors don’t open until the actual time they say they will, 8.30am. I had to grab another cue number. It’s easy to walk by the guy in the guard shack who isn’t paying attention because I did and then I read the small print out sign that said I needed a number.
Because Monday was insane, they were still putting on visa stickers on passports and processing the paperwork. It was the slowest pickup I had ever experienced despite the smaller numbers. I was 114 and I showed up at 1.25. The changes the Embassy has made has not helped it despite attempts to give numbers to people according to when folks line up. I think part of the problem is the vast numbers of tourists applying for visas.
I overhead someone say, “For 2,000 baht, you’d think we’d get better service.”
Interestingly, I knew from a previous visa runner that you could pay to “jump the cue”, but based on the taxi conversation I was privy to, there had been a clamp down on paid cue jumpers. The price a month or two ago was 500 baht, this time it was 1,000 for someone to stand in line for you.
By the time I had picked up my visa, and jumped through the various hoops at the border, I would have missed my return flight to CM due for takeoff around 5-6pm. But I deliberately chose a flight back the following day for this very reason. Even on a quiet day, you have to not only pick up your passport, but make it back through both the Laos and Thailand checkpoints and navigate transportation. I’ve done the mad dash, but this time I decided I wasn’t going to chance it.
When you do arrive back in Thailand, don’t take any of the tuk tuk drivers hovering around, they overcharge, just keep walking towards the 7-11 and you’ll find someone more reasonable. My travel companion went to Nong Khai bus station for 30 baht. And I went on to my guest house for 70.
I spent a day in Nong Khai, and for those who are delayed for whatever reason, I’d recommend it, too. I’ll write about that later. Now to sum up:
- Holidays. Pay attention to when they are for both Thailand and Laos. And while you are at it, if you can avoid the Embassy around these times, do. I wish I did.
- White background. My friend had a blue background for his pictures and the gatekeeper promptly ripped them off his forms. Both Thailand and Laos require white backgrounds for now, no smiling, etc. See the Embassy site for updates.
- Changing rules. I was somewhat surprised by how much things had changed. I mean, just look at Chiang Mai’s Immigration. Whatever has been posted that is not within a month is already horribly out of date. Do your research and expect the unexpected.
- Don’t fill out form in advance. Well, you could, but the forms everyone was using was not the same as I had gotten online. I had to fill everything out again, but that’s okay because I had all of the info handy.
- Cross reference. It is common to get conflicting information, as is for folks to have different experiences depending on Mercury retrograding or the size of your stool that morning. I met a guy who said, a gatekeeper rejected his school’s paperwork saying it was all wrong. When he called his school, they said, the GK was full of shit and so the next day he went to a different GK and everything was fine.
And anyone who tells you they had a pleasant experience doing this, can you punch them in the face for me? Thanks.