A few days ago, I made my first visa run to Laos, by bus.
Normally I go to Singapore to get a 60-day tourist visa, but the last time I went, they refused to give me a 60-day visa because I have an open e-ticket back to Canada. They now want a confirmed ticket, and will not accept an open ticket. This is stupid, if you ask me. I told the lady at the front desk that if the violence in Bangkok gets bad, I can phone Air Canada and be on my way next day, so an open ticket is much better than a ticket for a particular date. No dice. So I had to fly back to Bangkok and got the usual 30-day entry at the airport. The entire trip cost me 18,000 baht, counting hotels, flights, meals, taxis, etc. What a waste.
I did a couple of visa runs by bus to Cambodia, and find that a pain in the bum, since you only get 14 days and then have to do it again, and it costs 2000 baht each time.
So this time, I signed up for the bus to Vientiane.
I must say that the service by the visa run company was excellent; the bus (a 40-seater) was full, and it was the same comfortable bus they use for the Cambodia runs, with the same driver. The driver is relatively conservative, seems to be mindful of the fact he’s got 40 farangs on board, and is as careful a driver as you would want.
The bus left PB Tower on Sukhumvit Soi 71 exactly at 8:30PM.
There was a pee break about an hour later at a service centre, and then another 2 hours later, and so on, throughout the night. These gave the driver a chance to relax a bit, which I thought was a good idea.
Unfortunately, I have never been able to sleep on a bus or airplane, and this trip was no exception. While my seat mate happily snored away the night, I sat there bleary eyed, shifting in my seat periodically as my bum got sore. I appreciated the rest breaks as well.
A DVD movie was played at the start of the trip, but after it finished, it was after 11PM, so no more movies were shown.
We arrived at the border early, before 6:30. I watched the sun come up. We had to sit around for a while until the border office opened, and then one of the bus company ladies got all our passports processed. She had previously collected them on the bus.
After being stamped out of Thailand, we took 3 mini-buses (vans) across the bridge (Mekong River) into Laos, where again we waited while the lady got our passports processed by Lao immigration. In less than an hour, we took the mini-buses into Vientiane, and arrived at the street for the Thai Embassy about 7:30 or 7:40 AM. There were already at least 200 people lined up along the sidewalk, and it was hot.
The embassy gates opened about 8:15 AM, and we all filed into the embassy compound. There was a ticket machine at the front, and we joined the queue.
However, our erstwhile visa run lady ushered us up the stairs into an air-conditioned area and handed out low-numbered tickets from the machine. Our numbers started around 95, whereas the people at the ticket machine were getting tickets numbered over 350. So I presume she had some contact in Vientiane who stood at the beginning of the line at the gates at an early hour, and then passed the tickets to her when she arrived an hour or more later.
The ticket numbers were called out over the public address system in both Thai and English, and repeated once: “Ticket number 37, please proceed to counter number 2”.
I soon noticed that there was no pause in the number callout, the announcements came non-stop, and soon reached the 80s. We all rushed downstairs to the counters and were there when our numbers came up. But the numbers just kept on rolling by. Our lady collected our passports and tickets, and lined them all up along the counter, and then told us to go wait in the other building.
Over there, we found there were four more counters, numbered 3 through 6, but only one, counter 4, was active, and there were at least 100 people waiting, sitting on chairs. This waiting room was also air conditioned.
Again, the numbers were called out, but this time there were big gaps between, and there was a substantial pause after each number was called. When a number was called, a person went up to counter 4, received a paper receipt, and then exited stage left.
After every batch of 10 or 12 numbers, there was a 5 or 6 minute delay. That was when I noticed that the Thai lady behind the counter was printing out and then separating the receipts. Clearly, the passports and applications were being processed in the other building, entered into a computer, and then the receipt was printed in this building at counter 4.
After about 30 or 40 minutes, my number was called; I went up to the counter, got my receipt and exited. The guy next to me had a lower number, but his number was not called, so he got a little upset and went up to the counter, where the lady told him to wait.
I went out the exit, and there was my visa run lady collecting the receipts, and then ushering us over to one of the vans. My receipt had shown “60 days double entry tourist visa” and “fee: $0”, so I was happy.
The van took us to a local restaurant where we had a Thai/Lao food breakfast or brunch of fried rice and whatever. This was free, paid for by the visa run company, but soft drinks were 20 baht extra.
In Laos, you can use Lao kip, Thai baht, and US dollars interchangeably. If you pay in Thai baht, you get change in Thai baht. If you pay in US dollars, you get change in Lao kip, which, like Cambodian currency, has very high denominations and no value. A Pepsi was 20 baht, which was reasonable, but no diet drinks were available. By the way, ATM machines in Laos only dispense Lao kip.
After brunch, we were taken by van to the hotel, which turned out to be quite acceptable, maybe 2.5 stars. There was no pool, just a room, but it was a big room, private bathroom, and cable or satellite TV with many Thai, a few Lao, and some movie channels, including HBO and Star Movies.
The bathroom was typical Thai-style, with no shower stall or bath, and a shower head on the wall. There was a flash water heater which worked, and the toilet worked. The towels were large, red, fluffy, and obviously new.
I had paid an extra 200 baht at the front desk for a private room. The visa run fee of 5000 baht includes a shared room (2 per room). The fee will increase to 6000 baht after the free tourist visa promotion ends June 5.
In bed by 1PM in the afternoon, I slept for several hours, got up, showered, watched a movie, then went out in search of dinner. I walked up and down the main street near the hotel, but there was nothing appealing. However, the office complex 20 meters from the hotel had a restaurant, so I went in there and found 5 other farangs from the visa run also there. The food was good, the prices were not expensive, and I was able to pay with Thai baht. The young lady behind the bar was probably the most beautiful girl I have ever laid eyes on, and I have been to Thailand off and on for 20 years. She made me wish I was 25 again.
Next day, I had breakfast at the same restaurant, and then around 1PM, we piled into the vans again and were taken to the border. There are a lot of “duty free” shops at the border. We waited about 45 minutes or so, and then the visa run lady showed up, and we all went through Immigration with the Lao border people just looking at us, not asking to see our passports, which the visa run lady had.
Back across the bridge to Thailand, where we waited another 45 minutes or so, then it was back on the bus for the return trip. Within an hour, we stopped at a restaurant, where we had another Thai meal, again free, soft drinks extra, 20 baht.
The return trip seemed much faster, as several DVD movies were played, which occupies the time and the mind.
We arrived back in Bangkok at 1:30 AM. You can get dropped off anywhere along the route; some exited at Ramkhamhaeng. I waited until the end, which is just beside Ekamai BTS station, where I quickly discovered that the BTS was closed. An 80 baht taxi ride later, I was home again.
Would I do it again? Definitely, yes. The whole process was pretty much automatic. The company took care of everything. You do have to book a seat in advance, though. One farang apparently called to find out the price and time, showed up and was angry that there was no seat for him. But he had not made a reservation, had not left his name or phone number, so was out of luck. Of course, he had left it until the last day of his visa, so he would have to leave the next day somehow and pay the 500 baht overstay fee.
To summarize: you leave at 8:30PM, spend a night on the bus. Then it’s half a day waiting around, with brunch included. Check into the hotel, sleep a bit or, if you have the stamina, explore Vientiane. Not much there, though. Have dinner, sleep one night at the hotel. Next day, wait around for a morning or visit Vientiane, then bus it back to Bangkok, arriving about 1:30 AM.
If you want to do this yourself, the company I used was “Quick Thai Visa Run”, 6th floor, PB Tower, Sukhumvit Soi 71. The contact is Phillip, who speaks perfect English, at 02-713-2498 (office hours) or 09-0245-255 (24 hours). They have a web site at ThaiVisaRun.com, but it hasn’t been updated in a while, and only mentions their Cambodia run, not the Laos run.