Ordeal by visa run to Vientiane

Pacino in Vientiane

Serpico was here. Al Pacino looking out from a tuk-tuk stationed outside the Thai embassy, waiting for suckers to fleece.

Thousands of expats make this exact migration yearly. It’s just a little kick in the teeth you have to endure in order to keep grinning in the Land of Smiles. Lots of people blog about it as well, and the only thing that makes mine any different is that, from my perspective, it happened to me, which when you pan back pretty much applies to the whole of life anyway.

First, let’s get business out of the way. The facts. I had to leave the country and come back in. If you don’t know, I “live” in Thailand (and no, I’m not here for ulterior purposes). Now that I’m no longer teaching English, my working visa has expired and I had to go out to get a tourist visa. I had to do this a year ago, so there wasn’t any mystery. I just knew it would be a royal pain in the ass – a time and money sump. Three nights, two days, and $237 to get some stamps in my passport. Seeing Laos may be a golden opportunity for most, but I’ve been from end to end before, and THIS trip was all business and little pleasure. It was also a knock-down punch against me in my fight to stay afloat in Thailand for a year so I can produce a serious body of new art. I hadn’t properly accounted for visa costs. I thought the trip would cost me around $75, not $237. Just did the math now, and for the multiple visa runs and visa extensions it should set me back about $750 for the year. On the positive side it’s possible to do, as long as I can afford it. So, there’s hope, just not a whole lot of it.

Cost to do Lao visa run from Chiangmai Thailand to Vientiane Laos

Cost to do Lao visa run from Chiangmai to Vientiane. Normally I don’t keep track of my expenses at all. This is my all-time most careful reckoning. Rounded the numbers for simplicity.

And NOW, a mini-travelogue of the sometimes grueling mundanity that was my visa run, which I started writing while sitting for hours with nothing to do at the Thai consulate in Vientiane.

Mini-travelogue of grueling mundanity

(Part 1: written while waiting at the Thai consulate in Vientiane to submit my application for a Thai visa)

#220, and they’re on #60. One hour to closing at 11:30 a.m.. Sitting on the grass under a tree. Put contact lenses on without a mirror, and with some difficulty – got grass on my contact-lens-inserting-finger – so I could switch out glasses for sunglasses and lie on my back looking up at the sky.

Thai embassy in Vientiane

The Thai consulate in Vientiane, where I waited a lifetime to submit my visa application. Note that this is an old picture (which I didn’t even take), and there are now large trees to rest under.

I got here as fast as possible, and without a hitch. Yesterday: 8:30 p.m. bus from Chiangmai to Udon Thani, near the Laos border. Arrive 7:00 a.m., eleven hours later. Slept hardly but went through some prolonged quasi-meditative, half-awake states that made me not want the bus ride to end. I had the VIP Extra package, replete with three snacks and three drinks. The snacks were all a combination of bread, sugar, and pork. Eat just one of these ultra-processed goodies, and you’ll be letting fart bubbles escape, intermittently, for the remainder of the ride. I had a second one anyway, realized that was a bit masochistic, and forsook the third and most intriguing, which was molded into the shape of a dumpling.

My seat was directly behind the driver, except there’s a wall in-between, with stairs (that look like they belong outdoors), and a half-height door through which a bus helper goes in and out. The bus looks to have been designed by a student who got the contract out of nepotism, made some grievous mistakes, and then instead of going back to the drawing board, worked around them. This is most apparent in the bathroom, located halfway up the stairs between the first and second level, and which is just big enough to stand in. The tiny sink is tucked in a corner, halfway under a wall panel. The soap has no place to go but inside the cereal-bowl-sized sink. Since I went in there to gargle with Listerine, I had to spit out the Listerine on the soap, then rinse it.

Only after I had finished with a very challenging balancing act of holding the toilet seat up (it wouldn’t stay up on its own) with one hand, propping myself up against a wall with the other, and trying to pee with no hands while being tossed about, did I notice that the sink is a two story number, and the bottom half appeared to be a mini-urinal. It had those deodorizing balls in the drain. Because the sink itself was so low, they probably don’t use the urinal in the intended way, because it would be easier to pee in the sink proper, which I’m guessing they would rather we didn’t do.

I later concluded the WC was for emergencies only, and as likely to make matters worse than better if you weren’t desperate to go. I admit to having had to build up the courage to use it in the first place. I knew there’d be the awkward fumbling with whatever version of a doorknob it had just to enter (I was right). Then there’s the braving of the smells. Better to have gone than not, but I was lucky. It could have gone terrible wrong.

Speaking of which, they are on #123, with five minutes to go. Game’s over. Should be a mass exodus about now.

visa run from Chiangmai to Vientiane, Laos

From where to where. Note that this map is divided by Shan States rather than countries.

Also on the bus I observed a peculiar cultural phenomenon apparently everyone else is aware of but I somehow never encountered. They were playing Thai country music in the bus, and I was kind of getting into it (I’ll take it over the generic Asian pop any day), and then I noticed it was on the video screen. The screen in question was immediately in front of the pair of seats on the other side of the aisle. My side just had one seat and no screen. And on the screen were girls gyrating their hips and thrusting their pelvises and squatting and doing their very best to make their crotches visible. The singer needed to be the best at this. That was already odd because I didn’t think that kind of go-go bar dancing had anything to do with folk music, but what was even weirder was when the camera panned to the audience. Instead of seeing drunken middle aged guys looking like dogs when you put their bowl of food on the floor, there were mostly grandmas and children.

Below is just one example of such music and dancing (Miley Cyrus take notes).

This is apparently normal.

You know you’re getting old when one bright day, you hear yourself saying, “why don’t they leave anything up to the imagination?” Call me a prude, but, I don’t think musicians need to give an up-skirt show in order to expect to hold an audience’s attention. I felt a little sorry for the couple who had the screen within arm’s reach of their noses. The boy felt guilty looking at it, and the girl seemed to have had enough crotches thrust in her face already. She pointed at one girl’s underwear, and touched the screen with her nail, to direct her boyfriend’s attention to what looked like an opening in break-away-for-convenience split-knickers.

I like some of the more traditional Thai country/pop enough that the idea of the singer having to strut her privates on stage is about as insulting as having to mix lots of sugar and pork into bread to make it appetizing (see above about Thai bus snacks).

Thai-singer

I love this country song by Suphap Daoduangden. It’s right up there among my top rated songs in ITunes. From the album cover you can be sure this recording is from decades ago, and a time when she didn’t have to dance in her underwear to keep an audience’s attention.

Have a listen to Suphap’s awesome Thai country music as you read on. The intro is the bomb.

Ten minutes later and they’re still open, despite posted hours of 8:30 a.m. – 11:30 a.m..

#140. 80 to go.

Following the VIP Extra (expensive) bus to Udon Thani, and the public (cheap) bus to Nongkai, I took a tuk-tuk to the “Friendship Bridge” which spans the Mekong River, separating Thailand and Laos. Show your passport and pay 15 baht to hop on a bus to cross the bridge. Then the painless process to get my Laos visa (now 1,500 baht, up from 1,000 a year ago). Finally, take a mini-truck to the Thai Consulate in Vientiane to apply for the Thai visa. I paid 100 baht, after refusing attempts to charge me 300 and 200 baht.

Laos tuk-tuk

The typical Laos tuk-tuk is much more photogenic, rustic, and cool than the big-city versions we have in Chiangmai and Bangkok. Also doesn’t belch out as noxious a concoction of exhaust.

I shared the mini-truck with a guy, maybe my age, who has been living in the sticks of Thailand somewhere in Isaan for so long that he communicates with about 30% Thai, 30% English, and 40% gestures. He couldn’t be brought back from the brink to speaking any single language anywhere near fluently. At first I thought his Thai must be excellent, but soon realized he didn’t know common words that I knew, and that he was really only speaking a lot of basic Thai. Here’s a man who communicates with his Thai family in this manner. It was all rather interesting to someone who’s taught English for over six years. Here’s a guy who has picked up the basics of a new language, and temporarily lost the ability to speak his own language.

When he wasn’t trying to flirt with the young Lao women who climbed aboard the back of the truck, he was telling me about the Thai obsession with money. They don’t fill the tank at the pump. On a long trip they just put in a bit of money at a time, and make a bunch of pit stops. This revelation was inspired by our mini-truck stooping to put 100 baht of gas in the tank ($3.5).

Then there was the story about his “baby” not putting gas in their motorbike and “papa” enforcing a rule of “look” (points to his eye and to gas meter) before driving off and running out of gas. He was very difficult to understand, and I found my face getting tired from smiling as if I understood. My guess is he was the only one who refilled the motorbike.

# 165. Will look for a restroom now.

(Section originally written on paper ends here).

tuk-tuk sign Vientiane

Hire a tuk-tuk here. Better go to the ATM first.

(Part 2: I’m about to type this now.)

The Thai consulate never stopped processing our applications, and I finally got mine in after 1:00 p.m., then waited in another line to pay my non-refundable fee (even if you don’t get your visa), and was finally finished at 1:30. Three hours to submit an application. Dang. That’s what I call efficiency.

Got a tuk-tuk into town for 50 baht and walked around looking for a cheap hotel until I happened across the one I stayed at a year ago. They must have the cheapest rooms. 300 baht for a windowless beige room which was perfectly adequate for crashing in.

fan in hotel room Vientiane

Staring up at the fan in my room was a welcome bit of doing nothing after all the unavoidable and uncomfortable waiting due to the demands of bureaucracy. And despite the day being ferociously hot, the fan easily chilled the room. Thinking it had to do with the high ceilings.

Slept for a few hours then rented a bike and rode along the waterfront of the Mekong. The road adjacent to the river is closed off for vehicles so people can run, cycle, walk, dance, and do whatever. I practiced navigating through people who were mostly completely oblivious to what anyone else was doing, or what direction traffic might be coming from. There were three bicycle accidents in about 45 minutes. Whole families transect the street without bothering to look in either direction. The children are overwhelmed by a compulsion to run ahead. Meanwhile a squadron of kids ride their bikes in circles, trying to do tricks. Then there are the tourists that stand in the middle squinting at the river, looking for anything like a memorable photo. The mighty Mekong at dusk on an average day isn’t much to look at really.

Returned the bike and went for a slice of amazing pizza, and a large Beer Lao. The pizza is “Cote d’Azure” if you happen to be in Vientiane and want a slice. They have a separate bottle of spicy oil that you drip on the pizza, as desired, through the corked top. Spicy oil! You can’t go wrong.

Cote d'Azure pizza Vientiane

Cote d’Azur pizza from the Cote d’Azure Pizzeria, facing the Mekong. I’ve been wanting to partake of that pie since I had one a year ago. Finally the prophecy was fulfilled.

After a difficult night of not being able to sleep, went in search of breakfast and happened across a Boulangerie which served “croque monsieur”. Haven’t had a croque monsieur since I went to Paris, so some of the charms of Vientiane started to glimmer. A “croque monsieur” is a very special food for me, because when I was learning French in college – back when it was still the universal language, and anyone who didn’t want to be a Philistine had to learn it – it was in one of the lessons. I think it was the ONLY french food mentioned, so quite naturally, I wanted to try it, and never forgot it. After I got my croque, with salad, a fruit shake, and a large iced coffee, my eyes started to well up with the joy of it. Later I’d pay the price for enjoying such luxury, though indirectly.

Croque Monseur at the Boulangerie - Patisserie - Viennoisserie

Croque Monseur at the Boulangerie – Patisserie – Viennoisserie. Niceerie! That’s not me eating on the right. I don’t know who that is. Some other poor slob on a visa run, most likely.

I’d like to say that the next part was just retracing my steps, but it wasn’t so simple. Just getting a tuk-tuk back to the consulate without getting ripped off proved difficult, and I finally settled on being moderately overcharged by the forth driver I tried to get a ride from. More waiting in lines, public transportation, filling out forms, waiting in lines… and the whole while trying to not make some small mistake, like a misplaced card in a card castle, that would ruin everything.

When I finally got to the Thai side and handed my passport to the official in his kiosk, he informed me I had to go back to Laos because I didn’t have my exit stamp. It would be an understatement to say he was a dick about it. The guy in front of me didn’t have his stamp either, which I know because we’d teamed up a couple hours before to share transport and cut costs, and he’d figured out minutes before that the reason we still had our departure cards was that we hadn’t got our exit stamps. He got through, but I didn’t. I consider this a mixed blessing, because there’s the chance if I got through I’d get bit on the ass later. So, I had to take the bus back over the friendship bridge, get my stamp, come back, wait in line again, and get a spattering of new stamps, and then I was finally on my way.

Hours later I was on the bus back to Chiangmai. I got the cheap one this time because that’s all that was left. The expensive one is worth every extra baht. I had a sleepless ten hours of looking up at the sporadically lit ceiling; listening to the door to the level one front section repeatedly open and slam shut as we made turns (which I was the only person who had the gumption to go close); and should I happen to ever doze get awoken again by the sound of the brackets of the absent TV rattling loudly in the empty TV housing whenever we went over gravelly surfaces. I’ve been on worse bus rides that were more cramped, and even had livestock in them, but this being my second all-nighter in 3 days, it was punishing.

As most who have done this trip say when it’s over, “I hope I never have to do that again”.

morning walk along the Mekong

Morning walk along the Mekong.

If you want a more practical guide to doing the CM to Vientiane visa run, check out these two posts from a friend of mine: Vientiane visa (marathon) run from Chiang Mai Part 1, and Part 2.

Lastly, if you liked this post, you might like this one: Splashdown in Sukhothai for Songkran


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21 thoughts on “Ordeal by visa run to Vientiane

  1. That pizza picture is almost enticing enough to book a flight … or just stare longingly in the hopes it jumps out of the screen. Having to go through a multi-day trip to serve the bureaucratic gods probably would squeeze out a good bit of the pleasure.

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  2. Have to agree w/ David. I keep thinking of the pizza hoping it will jump out and land on my lap pipping hot. When I made my notes on this trip, I wasn’t joking when I said bring earplugs, warm clothing, and a sleeping mask! Ordeal it is. Glad you survived.

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  3. Just did my own Thai visa run in Vientiane, starting from Khon Kaen… If anyone’s curious, I wrote about it here:

    http://www.thewayofslowtravel.com/2013/10/06/khon-kaen-vientiane-visa-run/

    I wasn’t (too) strapped for cash, so I took 4 days total to do it. The parts where I have to deal with the Thai consulate are so frustrating, I find it’s better for my sanity to spend more time than absolutely necessary in Vientiane lest I just come to hate the place… But it’s true that things are more expensive in Vientiane in general, and there’s nowhere near the food selection from Thailand…

    One thing I like to do is get my Lao visa in advance in Khon Kaen. The major advantage is you can catch the Khon Kaen-Vientiane direct AC bus for 180B. You could arrive in Khon Kaen early morning, go straight to the Lao consulate, then leave in the evening for Vientiane, stay there one night, and apply the next day. It adds one night to the length of your stay in Vientiane, though, so it’s not ideal from a budget standpoint.

    Anyway, that was a great read, especially since I just went through the pain of waiting at the consulate… The wait to pay the fee is the worst… You can tell they make it go as slow as possible on purpose…

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    1. Yeah, the wait to put in the application is the pits, especially when you think they aren’t going to get to you and you’re going to have to do the whole thing over the next day.

      Next time I have to do this, which should be in 6 months, I think I will pad the trip with some stops. Also will probable choose Savannakhet to get the visa in. I like Savannakhet better than Vientiane. It’s probably much more pleasant if one makes a short trip out of it.

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      1. Oh, thanks! 🙂

        And, I wasn’t aware that visa runs were possible at Savannakhet! That sounds like a good option. One American guy doing his visa run when I was in Vientiane told me that it was a good idea to get visas at different border crossings from time to time, as you could get red-stamped if you always went to Vientiane… That sounds like a good way to avoid that, too.

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    1. Yeah, it’s just weird how overtly sexual, and even trashy the girls are expected to be when they are on stage singing. You inspired me to update my post with a recording and pic of a Thai country Singer who I really like, from back when they didn’t have to strut their stuff on stage to be liked.

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      1. Again, so so glad I don’t have a girl! Was hard enough teaching my two boys that they need to be true to themselves instead of buying into whatever it is that society says a man should or should not be — artificial constructs like what the girls in your video exhibit are truly sad, not because they are wrong, but because this is what they think/know is expected of them as females. Where are their own thoughts on who they should be???

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  4. How committed to Chiang Mai are you?

    It’s a nice place (and Vientiane is even nicer) but Trang, Yala and Pattani are cheaper places to stay (or at least they were in the 80s) and they put you in range of visa runs to Kota Bahru (which is cheaper than Vientiane – cheaper accommodation, no visa cost for Malaysia and the Thai consulate is easy walking distance from the centre of town). Songkhla was also fairly cheap and is quite a nice city.

    Of course if you are settled in and have several local friends you are probably living cheaper in Chiang Mai than I could have as a blow in, blow out tourist.

    BTW, are you sure the guy in the mini-truck was speaking Thai to you at all? Isaani/Laotian has a lot of overlap of course but it’s the common words that seem to vary the most.
    Khao jai baw?

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  5. Next time I have to do this, which should be in 6 months

    Only just spotted this.
    When I was traveling Thailand in the 80s and 90s on an Australian passport tourist visas were only good for two months, so the visa run was a more significant hassle.
    If you’re only doing it twice a year it probably doesn’t make much sense to relocate just to make it a bit cheaper.

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    1. All good advice and thoughts. I may relocate in a few months. Chiangmai can be cheap though. Just have to get off the main tourist paths. The main expense is my hotel, which even at $250 a month including utilities and internet is pricey. I used to stay here because it’s so close to the school I worked at that I could walk there in 5 minutes. Now there’s no reason for me to stay other than the inconvenience of moving.

      A lot of stuff is up in the air. I’m not even committed to Thailand. I could get a one-year “business” visa in Cambodia for @$400. What keeps me here though is I can speak the language and even read and write, though I’m nowhere near fluent. It would take many months to get as proficient at another language.

      Also, I’m going to look at getting a 1-year “education” visa. Then you don’t have to leave the country, but you still have to do 90-day checkups and pay 1,900 baht each time. I’ll have to weight the costs.

      Also, I got a 2bl entry visa. So, it’s good for 2 months, then I can extend it for 30 days, for three months. Then I need to leave and come back in to get the next two months. And finally I can extend that for another 30 days. That’s how one milks it for 6 months.

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      1. It would take many months to get as proficient at another language.

        Southern Thai is practically another language. I thought I was getting comprehensible at Thai – having picked it up in the south – but no-one could understand me in the north until I learned to slow down and stop clipping my syllables.

        And in Yala and Pattani they mostly speak a dialect of Bahasa called Yawi.

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        1. I think they can all understand standard Thai though, because they all watch television. Even in Laos they can understand me if I can speak the Thai passably. In China it was worse. I couldn’t understand a lot of the people in Sichuan, though they still spoke something like Mandarin. But other parts speak Cantonese or Haka. Thailand is comparatively uniform. But, if you are speaking regional dialect, it may not be understood elsewhere at all.

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  6. Your life is a veritable comic strip. The dancers remind me of the Eurovision Song Contest, only without the stage direction, oh, and costumes.

    Seeing what you’re doing in Thailand at your age has me wondering what I’m doing in the UK at mine. My partner’s job is at risk again. Maybe it’s the house full of shit that stops us from thinking radical?

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  7. Finally have the time to look over your blog. Some very nice and interesting work you have posted. Anyway, this is John; the one who got stamped back in to Thailand and had to sit and wait long enough that we were able to give you a ride to Udon. Sorry it was the wrong bus station. Hopefully, I will never have to do Laos again. Can’t stand the place; I will probably be picked up for overstay if I go back. lol.

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