A common part of life of an expat is the dreaded visa run. A visa run is basically a journey to another country to renew, extend, or get a new visa. In my case and many other teachers in Thailand, I had to leave the country to change from a tourist visa to a work visa. Most expats head north or south depending on their location; south to Penang, Malaysia, or north to Vientiane, Laos. Due to me being out in the Isan countryside, my visa run was to Vientiane, a place I visited last September (and got left at the border!) This post will give you a rough outline of what to expect and my own experience.
So I set off from my town Chok Chai around 5:30pm and got a bus to Nakhon Ratchasima (Karot). There I hung out at the mall for a couple hours and got some food. Then I headed off to the Save One market. This market is open air for the most part and simply HUGE and it is possible to buy just about anything. After another couple hours in the cold (did I mention that during the days of my visa run it was crazy cold for Thailand, like 10-12c) I waited for my bus at the meeting point. Eventually my bus arrived sometime after 10pm, late, after seeing many buses just stop and leave without me, I finally got out of the cold and crawled over the other passengers to find a place at the back of the bus next to a lovely French-Japanese saleswoman. We talked on and off about our love of Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, and other great shows before both deciding to at least try get some sleep.
Along the way to the border you will stop several times for bathroom breaks (and in our case a chance to hide in the warmth of 711s). The stops will also give you a chance to meet your other visa runners. Ours was mostly Filipinos, South Africans, the French-Japanese lady, and a pair of British guys. Depending on the people in your group, it will make or break the time spent on your visa run.
Depending on how many stops you make, the quality of your driver, where your journey starts (typically Bangkok), how many additional stops you make to pick up other visa runners (like my situation), and other factors, you will probably get to the Thai border town of Nhong Kai an hour or 2 before the border actually opens. We just used that opportunity to buy more snacks and try awkwardly sleep in uncomfortable positions crammed in next to everyone else.
Around 6am you will see a massive crowd of people beginning to mill around the closed barrier. You will then be given a tag which has the name of your visa run company so you won’t get lost in the growing horde. When your group goes through the barrier you will get to the immigration check point building. If you have overstayed your Thai visa you will go to a room on the left to pay and go through the border that way to link up with everyone else who go past the regular windows.
Once on the other side you will be driven directly to the Thai consulate, only a 30 minute drive thankfully, and there you will give over your passport and visa documents. After that you head back to the hotel, solidifying friendships made during the night over breakfast, then you’ll sleep. A lot of people tend to just sleep all day and come alive at night. Not my group. After only arriving at the hotel around 10am or so I went to sleep but was then woken by my new friends around 1:30pm to grab lunch.
As you can see, the weather was a bit cold and drab but it didn’t dampen our spirits. Our group consisted of 2 South Africans, A Swede, the French-Japanese lady, a Brit, and myself. Only myself and the Brit had been to Vientiane before but we insisted on taking us into the center of town to find a restaurant but in the end I convinced the group we head to the river front where I knew for certain there were restaurants from my time here back in September.
We settled upon a place called Little Hanoi, the food might not have been the greatest but the big Beer Laos certainly helped foster the budding sense of camaraderie in our group. I should also say that the Lao kip currency is near worthless outside of Laos and it is hard to find somewhere to exchange it. Thai baht and US dollars are widely accepted in Laos and you can even get most of our change back in Thai baht.
Feeling better after lunch and beer in our bellies we headed off to the night market which was setting up by that point in the afternoon. We wandered around looking for warmer clothes to buy mostly but the fact it was cold and we were foreigners only meant their prices were even higher than usual. I came close to buying a couple different sweaters and coats but ultimately I thought they were too small or overpriced. Becoming thirsty again, we took a tuk tuk to a bar that the British guy insisted upon.
For dinner we then headed out out to an Indian restaurant (trust foreigners to go to another country and not eat the local cuisine ha!), had more beers, then headed back to the hotel. The ride back to the hotel was fun in and of itself; we were feeling merry and singing and humming the Game of Thrones theme song, Star Wars, and our national anthems much to the bemusement of everyone within earshot as we passed by in our little tuk tuk. You’d think that after being cooped up in a van all night we’d be exhausted, we were but the night was only just beginning.
Back at the hotel the dinning hall had turned into a karaoke party. The Filipinos were unquestionably the best singers of the night. Our group took turns singing solo or sharing a song but mostly we kept to the craic and downed bottles of Beer Lao and Hong Thong Thai whiskey. One by one we slowly crawled up to our rooms to pass out in preparation for the long journey back to Thailand.
The next morning was rough…I was late to breakfast and hate to eat the cold leftovers….then I went downstairs to find the rest of my group and chat with them at a cafe before returning to the hotel for lunch; lukewarm pad Thai and spaghetti with coca cola to wash it down.
From there we climbed into a mini bus and hung out at the duty free shop at the Lao-Thai border. I was still exhausted and prompted found a quiet corner and slept for a couple hours before we had to go through Lao customs on our way out. A another bus took us across the Mekong river where we waited to get our passports back before entering Thailand.
At the Thailand customs we just filled out a Thai entry form, answered a couple questions at the front of the line to an official, went through, had our bags go through an x-ray then wait for the rest of our group to get through. After that we got on ANOTHER bus, this one taking us Nhong Kai where we waited on the first day. At Nhong Kai we loaded up on snacks, found our van, said our goodbyes, and headed home.
So if you have to do a visa run I HIGHLY suggest you do it through a visa agency as it is much less painful and infuriating if you do it that way. Mine cost 6,800 baht which included 3 meals, a hotel room, the buses, and the cost of the Thai and Lao visas. Mine was actually 300 baht more than the regular cost because I’m a Canadian citizen. Go with Meesuk Travel if you need to do a visa run, they know what they are doing and I have no complaints whatsoever and highly recommend them as did everyone on my trip. I met great people who I hope to stay in touch with and meet again, possibly on another visa run (!), had some great times, and I’m thankful I now have my work visa!!!
Ever been on a visa run? What was it like? Where did you go? What company do you suggest? Drop a comment and let me know!